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Alex Genov ‘Nothing beats being humble’

Alex is an experienced customer research professional who applies his Experimental Social Psychology background and passion for research, design, and innovation to solving important customer and business problems. His professional goal is to help teams create remarkable products and services that’ll make people’s lives easier and more enjoyable.

Douglas Hampton Dowson

4 min read

Equipped with an impressive PhD-level collegiate record, and with retail instincts that were honed through early experiences at cutting edge companies like Intuit, State Farm, and Active Network, Alex now applies his ingenious creative prowess as a leader in Marketing Insights and Customer Research for the Zappos Family of Companies.

Learn how humble beginnings and a deeper understanding of consumer psychology have led to an incredibly successful career in retail for a man with over 25 years ‘in the trenches’ in business.

And you won’t want to miss out on his brilliant insider advice, offered up to young trail-blazers in the field looking to turn heads, shake things up, and follow their own unique paths to success.

What is your background in the industry? Why did you choose this profession and this industry?

Sure. I started many years ago when I came to the United States from Bulgaria to study Psychology.

I came as a foreign student and I had to continue to study Psychology to keep my visa status in the United States. As a result, I got my Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Experimental Social Psychology.

In 2000, at the beginning of the Millennium, I started applying my academic knowledge and training to the real world. Back then my first real job was in the insurance industry with State Farm Insurance. I spent three years there. My journey started in usability and user research and it evolved and broadened through the years.

When I was at the ACTIVE Network in San Diego, after spending seven years at Intuit working on improving the ease of use of TurboTax, I started broadening my horizons with marketing research and web analytics.

And then, as luck would have it, I got a position at Zappos almost nine years ago. I actually chose Zappos. I didn’t choose the retail industry. I chose Zappos as a really remarkable, one-of-a-kind company, and it happened to be in retail, so that’s how I ended up in retail.

What are some of the key challenges that you see facing retail at this point in time?

In retail, I would say the logistics challenges are among the main problems that were introduced by the pandemic. COVID-19 upended everything leading to shipping delays, product shortages, and so on. That’s one area.

Another area has to do with consumer trust in retail specifically and in business in general. Consumer trust in retail has been a serious issue that I’ve been thinking about and researching quite a bit.

Thirdly, I would say, the focus on the consumption of services versus the consumption of products. A lot of retailers are at a kind of a fork in the road, if you will, about that.

One of my biggest lessons is how important it is to be humble and to provide great service. And that is what builds lasting customer loyalty in the end.

From your first day at work to now, what are some of the biggest things you’ve learned?

Working at Zappos has been a very unique and rewarding experience.

When I joined Zappos in 2014, every new employee started by completing four weeks of intense customer service training. What I learned from that was really humility. Humility is one of Zappos’s core values, and nothing beats being humble. When you try to help a customer who is upset over the phone and the technology doesn’t cooperate, and there are a lot of distractions that test the limits of your patience and your customer service DNA.

So, one of my biggest lessons is how important it is to be humble and to provide great service. That is what builds lasting customer loyalty in the end.

What is your vision for the future of our industry?

My vision for the future does not really have as much to do with technology as it has to do with psychology.

To me, there’s hope to take retail and business to the next level by not so much focusing on operations and technology, but focusing on customers as human beings and understanding them as people. That would allow for the creation of, for example, meaningful personalization.

There’s a lot of talk about personalization in retail nowadays, but a lot of that currently is based on numbers, averages, and algorithms. And that is nothing but “best guess recommendations.” I think if you want to create products and services that result in really great emotional customer experiences, you need to understand customers as people and then personalize meaningfulness to them, which should start with asking for their permission to use their data and their answers to tailor the experience to them.

What makes a successful business in this industry?

There are actually two paths to being a successful business.

One is the product-centric path and the other is the customer-centric path, and they’re both equally viable.

Product centricity has to do with product superiority and operational excellence. A lot of companies are really great companies based on having the best products out there that customers love, and having the best logistics and the best operations that guarantee great selection, fast shipping, and great prices.

But then there’s another path which is the so-called customer-centricity. And this is about understanding your customer base, segmenting it in meaningful ways, and then really treating all your customers great, but going over and above only for your very best customers.

What does leadership mean to you and what does creativity mean to you?

These are great questions indeed. Starting with leadership, I would say, I’m a big fan of servant leadership. To me, that’s really leading and inspiring others without having authority over them.

We had great experiences at Zappos where one of Tony’s experiments was in self-organization. In that experiment, managerial titles went away and so did the traditional org chart. That ended up being a great exercise in natural leadership and leading people with inspiration and not so much authority.

On the topic of creativity, the cliché is thinking outside the box. However, to me, creativity is about trying to get out of an established mindset and to see the world in different ways.

Also, creativity is not about lack of boundaries, but has to do with having the right boundaries. Without boundaries, it’s very hard to be creative. Thinking about the right customer problems and the right boundaries will really make you more creative.

Lastly, creativity is usually about being uncomfortable and stepping out of the routine. I think that when you push yourself to do something that makes you uncomfortable, that spurs creativity.

I’m a big fan of servant leadership. To me, that’s really leading and inspiring others without having authority over them.

Do you have any insights or advice for someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

I think the best advice I could give is for people to be flexible because life is all about change, now more than ever.

The only stable thing in life is change and the only thing that you can anticipate for sure is change. So being able to embrace that and to really adapt, is the best advice I can give.

The Convrt Award is about authentic, independent recognition. Why do you think that’s important?

I think this is what all recognition should be – authentic and independent. Unfortunately, people can get really jaded in terms of looking at who succeeds and who doesn’t in the corporate world.

That’s why it’s so important to have independent bodies that judge innovation as objectively as possible. Precisely because of this overarching skepticism nowadays of how you decide what is considered a good idea, for example.

The only stable thing in life is change and the only thing that you can anticipate for sure is change. So being able to embrace that and to really adapt, is the best advice I can give.

What would you like to see from participants entering the awards?

I would want to see really bold, big ideas. Not being afraid to fail, essentially.

Putting something forward, putting yourself out there, not playing it safe. And really trying to innovate on meaning as much as innovating on solutions.

I think innovation on meaning is extremely powerful. It’s very different from innovating on solutions. And innovating on meaning is predicated on a really deep understanding of your customers and their lives and only by doing that can you really offer great solutions that change people’s lives for the better.

Any words of encouragement for entrants?

Absolutely. First of all, my hat off to all the entrants for entering the competition.

This is an act of bravery. It’s very brave to put yourself out there and to open yourself up to be judged and to possibly win or lose.

I think that this is a great act of courage and people who do that and keep doing that will ultimately succeed.

A small image of two Convrt Awards side by side.
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