As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Softley.
Jeff is President of the Direct to Consumer business for Experian Consumer Services. Jeff joined Experian in April 2005 and has led various teams including Corporate Marketing and Global Ecommerce. Before joining Experian, Jeff worked in the consumer-packaged goods and business to business industries leading several ecommerce and lead generation programs. He graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor’s degree in of Advertising and Sociology.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I was in college, I wanted to work in advertising and initially thought that an ad agency would be the best fit for me. When I left college, I started working at a small ad agency where I gained experience with advertising analytics. I then realized I wanted to be in an environment where I could be creative, analytical, and have more control over my work. Experian felt like a great opportunity because I could use data and analytics to drive insights. I’ve been at Experian for over 15 years. My current role is President of our Direct to Consumer business for Experian Consumer Services.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In the world of advertising, some of the mistakes or our crazy ideas can be the catalyst for a great campaign. At one point, someone on my team joked about creating an Experian Boost commercial in which a cow says, “Experian BOOO-st”. We all agreed that would never happen. Flash forward to 2020 and a cow and the line “BOOOO-st” is key part of our latest Experian Boost ad campaign. My takeaway is to speak up and embrace crazy ideas.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are a lot of people who have mentored and provided me with an environment to grow and succeed. One of my first managers saw that analyzing data was a strength of mine before I saw that in myself. My manager’s belief in my abilities enabled me to step outside of my preconceived ideas about what my path should be. I then began to consider other opportunities for myself that fit my skill sets and interests. Eventually, I found a position that intertwines marketing, analytics, and consumer behavior, which are all elements that I find engaging. Sometimes your career may not make sense when you’re in the thick of it, but people will come into your life that nudge you in the right direction.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
At Experian, the products and services we provide to consumers can have a material impact on their lives. We’re passionate about helping consumers take control of their financial health so they can achieve life’s big milestones such as getting a credit card or buying a car. Our business is driven by the belief that we can make an impact on people’s lives, and I feel grateful that we get to play this role.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
At Experian, we really put consumers at the heart of everything we do. A great example of this is Experian Boost, which we launched over two years ago. The product gives consumers an opportunity to instantly improve their FICO® Score for free by giving them credit for on-time utility, telecom, streaming service payments and more. To date, more than 7 million consumers have connected to Experian Boost with over 50 million cumulative points added to FICO® Scores.
With Experian Boost, nearly 70% of users see an uplift in their credit score. Experian Boost users have gained access to more than $1.7 billion in credit as a result of improved credit scores, which has made a significant impact to the industry. This improved financial access can make a huge difference in consumers’ everyday lives and help them make their financial dreams a reality.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
The time we are living in is fascinating and ever changing. Many FinTech companies are creating an innovative and disruptive market. People like me are constantly thinking about how we can harness technology and create better opportunities for consumers. The concept of open banking and consumer permissioned data was disruptive because it’s the first-time consumers have been active participants in helping show a fuller picture of their financial situation to lenders. Our biggest take away from creating Experian Boost is to never let go of a good idea based on the technology of “today.” The market is evolving quickly and the moment to unlock possibilities will come.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
We leaned into open banking and worked with aggregation technology partners to start bringing Experian Boost to life. We also had to re-platform and essentially do a technology overhaul that allowed us to prioritize innovation and offer free and easy-to-use financial products and offerings for consumers.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
There’s always an a-ha moment! Mine came when I was going into an Experian internal forum with a colleague and we realized that we had to put this idea for Experian Boost on the table and figure out a way to bring our business units together to create this game-changing product. Experian Boost is the first product we built that spans multiple business units.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
The direction we took with Experian Boost set the tone for Experian’s “all-hands on deck” philosophy and that mentality transcends through our company today. Now, Experian Boost is a global product and a great example of how a good idea can become scalable and reach new markets in a fast timeframe.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
The moment that made me realize our work truly matters was when I had a meeting with a colleague who had been with Experian for many years. She expressed to me through tears that she felt like Experian, and our work, was truly making a tangible impact for consumers and she was so proud to work for this organization. We also consistently hear stories from consumers about how Experian Boost helped them get a better interest rate for their car loan or a new credit card. The impact Experian Boost can make on peoples’ lives is incredible and motivates me every day.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
I would say that at the end of the day, as a leader, you must get your hands dirty. You have to be in the weeds on the issues and challenges that your team is facing. There were several issues that cropped up along the way with Experian Boost, but our belief in the idea, as well as our commitment to the consumer, is what drove us to problem solve and create the best product.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
When the future seems uncertain, leaders need to promote positive momentum. When looking back on Experian Boost, we created a real time Experian Boost Tracker in our Costa Mesa, California, office. It’s essentially a speedometer that tracks increases in credit scores as a result of consumers using Experian Boost. We wanted to show our team in real-time that the work we do matters and show how many consumers were being positively impacted.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My number one principle would be to know what makes you unique. Experian Boost was successful because we were first to market, best in market, and the only place that consumers could get it.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One of the biggest mistakes I see when businesses are faced with disruptive technology is giving up too early. To be successful in this changing market, companies need to stay agile. Changes are inevitable. It is when you embrace the change and expand your initial ideas that success will come.
I think technology can be great but it can also be a conduit for distraction. Businesses have to be sure that they don’t lose sight of the problems they’re trying to solve for and be creative in what forms of technology can help them get there. Finally, it’s important to know and decide as a cohesive team what features and capabilities are worth fighting for to make sure you create the best product.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Businesses must listen to their customers. Listening can sometimes be tough when it’s feedback that you might not want to hear, however I’ve found that many times your customers will point you in the right direction.
- Businesses must also listen to their teams. If the team does not have a true, fundamental belief in the direction of the company or product, it’ll fail.
- Full commitment and belief in the mission is also imperative to success.
- Businesses must focus on what makes them different. Focusing on consumer needs made Experian Boost special, and it enables us to be different among competitors.
- Finally, road mapping priorities and focusing on the things that the team can do is important and helps provide a clear direction for the team to follow.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite saying is “do something that you love.” If you are not enjoying what you’re doing, you will not have the confidence to succeed. If I had boxed myself in as just an advertising professional, I wouldn’t be happy in my career. Being open to understanding your true wants and needs in life is important and it will pave the way for a successful future.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers can learn more about Experian Boost by visiting: https://www.experian.com/consumer-products/score-boost.html.