SSON Podcast: Katerina Vranovska, Johnson & Johnson

From being purely a financial service center Prague is becoming the center for Europe for other functions



Seth Adler
02/19/2018

"From being purely a financial service center Prague is becoming the center for Europe for other functions."

Katerina Vranovska, Contact Center Director, Johnson & Johnson Global Services

katerina vranovska

The Director of Contact Center for Global Services for Johnson & Johnson, Katerina Vranovska, joins us from Shared Services Eastern Europe in Budapest where she shares that her function was once internally facing and now she services external clients. Based in Prague, the organization is in the process of building a customer service shared service business right there in the Czech Republic. The global services center in Prague is already successful so the business is ready to be built there and Katerina suggests that the city and country itself is a calling card for the business, as nearly 50% of J&J employees are foreign workers.

Listen now - or read the transcript below.

Seth:

From Johnson and Johnson, Katarina [Veranovska] joins us. First some supporters to thank. And thank you for listening.

 

 

 

 

 

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The director of contact center for global services for Johnson and Johnson, Katarina Vernovska joins us from shared services eastern Europe in Budapest where she shares that her function was once internally facing and now she services external clients, based in Prague. The organization is in the process of building a customer service shared service business. Right there in the Czech Republic. The global services center in Prague is already successful so the business is ready to be built there. And Katarina suggests that the city and country itself is a calling card for business as nearly 50% of J and J employees are foreign workers. Welcome to SSON on B2BiQ I'm your host Seth Adler, download episodes on SSONetwork.com or through our app in iTunes within the iTunes podcast app and Google Play or wherever you currently get your podcasts.

 

Katarina Veranovska.

 

Katarina:

So it's a full customer service. So that is we're having people who are here to help to get to the customer to get the products, manage complaints where they're stuck so it's really end ...

 

Seth:

End to end.

 

Katarina:

End to end. Correct.

 

Seth:

Katarina Veranovska. How well did I do?

 

Katarina:

Very well.

 

Seth:

 

Yes? But you're Czech though.

 

Katarina:

I am Czech.

 

Seth:

Because when you were on stage you did a panel with my old friend [Vojtec] from Tesco. I thought to myself she's probably Polish because I have my Polish girlfriend. Because this is it could be considered ...

 

Katarina:

It could be you're right.

 

Seth:

Polish name right?

 

Katarina:

That's right.

 

Seth:

But you are Czech.

 

Katarina:

I'm Czech.

 

Seth:

Through and through. From end to end so to speak.

 

Katarina:

End to end.

 

Seth:

 So we're here at SSOW eastern Europe. You have this new job function with Johnson and Johnson and you're also new to Johnson and Johnson yourself.

 

Katarina:

Correct.

 

Seth:

So it's only been 13 months you said.

 

Katarina:

13 months.

 

Seth:

Okay. So who found who? Did they find you you found them?

 

Katarina:

They found me.

 

Seth:

I see. They said, "Katarina we'd love for you to come in and we need you to do what?"

 

Katarina:

They thought I am very much experienced in call center business. In contact center business and that was true.

 

Seth:

Okay.

 

Katarina:

Because I did call center type of work for four years before. So I said yeah why not.

 

Seth:

Why not. I can do this. And then very quickly they changed it from just the contact center to all of customer service.

 

Katarina:

 

Actually it was the contact center was supposed to be and was for global services which is really for function so the end customer was the employee or manager of Johnson and Johnson. Now the new role I am at is the customer service which is to the end customers of Johnson and Johnson. Which is from hospitals to pharmacies to retailers. It's the business type of contact center.

Seth:

So you've moved from shared services out to the end customer.

 

Katarina:

Correct.

Seth:

Very interesting. And why did we make that decision?

Katarina:

Because this role is to be in Prague, I am based in Prague. We will be basically centralizing the roles which are currently in countries to Prague and building big center there. It's going to be in a way customer service shared service center if you wish.

Seth:

Both.

Katarina:

There will be two. One is the functional one, the global services, and then this will be the customer services now centralized in Prague.

Seth:

Now I have spoken with contact center executives and you can find them all over the world, I've not heard of building a gargantuan operation in the Czech Republic. I wonder why this choice was taken?

Katarina:

 

 

 

 

 

Interesting question. I think because the global service center is a very successful there. So there is definitely a precedence that you can bring other business, other type of business to Prague. So that's one. Number two definitely Prague is really interesting place to be. Lots of opportunities. Johnson and Johnson is a very good employer and people are attracted on all ages, all educations or experiences. Lots of people there travel, very special people that want to try something new in a new environment so we have nearly 50% of foreigners living in J and J working for J and J.

Seth:

Got it, in that operation.

 

Katarina:

Right.

 

Seth:

We knew that this would be successful because GBS is located there.

 

Katarina:

And is successful.

 

Seth:

For how long and I know that you are new to the organization but you have some sense they've been operating out of there?

 

Katarina:

 

 

The Johnson and Johnson is there at least 16 years so the operation is there. And including finance but finance, normal finance organization change to the financial services I think in 2006. And now it became the multifunctional center and that is happening basically one two years back. So from being purely financial service center it's becoming now like the center for Europe for all the functions. And now nearly the customer [Cialis] organization.

 

Seth:

 

All right. So that's what brings us to today. It also includes maybe the past year as far as you're concerned. It includes the past 15 years as far as J and J is concerned but we need to find out more about you. We know that you're from the Czech Republic. We know that you left and came back. So the ensuing years, where was your first employment after college I wonder?

 

Katarina:

 

My first employment was with the academic place. It was the Microbiological Institution. So I was working in science because my background is biochemist and microbiology. So this was, I did this work during university and after that as well.

 

Seth:

I see. And for what organization? Was it Johnson and Johnson? It could have been right?

 

Katarina:

No.

 

Seth:

But it could have been.

 

Katarina:

It's a pure science, it's a scientific, the basic research if you wish.

 

Seth:

I see.

 

 

Katarina:

And then I was on maternity leave and later on I got, we got to Boston, Massachusetts. And this is where I continued.

Seth:

Okay wait a second so where were you being a scientist? Where on earth?

Katarina:

In Prague. And then in Boston.

Seth:

Yes, what happened there, how did we get to Boston?

Katarina:

Interestingly in 1989 there was a Velvet Revolution in Czech Republic.

Seth:

And we call it a Velvet Revolution why?

Katarina:

Because there was no violence. It was a change from the socialist regime to the new regime.

Seth:

And this before we sat down I said I'm going to want to ask you about the change from Czechoslovakia to the Czech Republic. And then Slovakia of course. I spoke to a friend, I spoke to my friend whose working out of Bratislava. So that's the too.

 

Take us through you did leave of course but take us through as much as you can about how this was a Velvet Revolution as opposed to anything else. What was that change? How did this occur from inside? We saw it from outside.

Katarina:

You mean the Velvet Revolution itself? Or before. Living with before.

Seth:

Yes if you could take us through what it was like and then during the change and then ...

Katarina:

 

Living in the socialist regime was in a way hard because one, we knew there is outside world that we cannot truly travel because it was the regime who was holding us the permit to go outside.

Seth:

How different was living in Boston, Massachusetts from living in Czechoslovakia. All of a sudden it's very different.

Katarina:

 

Totally. I came in March, so mid winter. Just the little things like in Czech Republic that time even after the Velvet Revolution the market wasn't really developed. You went to the store, grocery store and from the fruit point of view you had few basic fruits like apples. Potatoes as a vegetable. But salads or I don't know, bananas you had to queue for, or oranges. It was really big difference.

Seth:

Just walking into ...

Katarina:

 

 

 

 

The stores were amazing, number one, number two the air in Boston it was not polluted. So I came and I felt like being in the mountains. It was so clear compared to Prague that time it was very polluted. So that was the beautiful part, you had all these opportunities, you could take a car and go into the city any time you wish. Great people to meet on one side, on the other side stressful because I thought I understand English and I speak English but I didn't.

Seth:

How so.

Katarina:

 

 

 

 

I just couldn't express myself. So you're finding yourself in a new country where you don't know how to take a bus. You don't know where to buy tickets or where is the nearest cinema, and you have small children that can become ill. You don't know anything. You don't have your mom behind, you don't have your friends. So on this side tough but because you go through it you manage, if you like, that's fine. It's really new era because Boston that time and I think still in biotechnology, best place to be. Either Harvard or all the hospitals or the biotech companies, fantastic opportunity.

 

Seth:

And where did you wind up as far as your science or as far as your employment, as far as placement?

Katarina:

I ended up in children's hospital which is Harvard affiliated again in research lab. For three years.

Seth:

And what were you doing there for them?

Katarina:

 

We were studying process of how to inhibit if you wish creation of micro tubes of the blood vessels. Imagine you have blood vessel that look like a donut. In certain condition this donut can turn and create a tube, several donuts which are rounded will create a tube. And these micro tubes, micro vessels can then feed a tumor, cancer tumor.

 

So if you know how to stop that bond of them creating the tube you may find one of the tools how to stop the cancer. So this is what we were studying. The molecules that created the stickiness of the vessels.

Seth:

So this is very interesting. This is essentially what you were doing was curing cancer. Which I don't think many of us have a chance to do usually.

Katarina:

A process which can lead to curing of cancer.

 

Seth:

To the curing of cancer.

 

Katarina:

Even if you find the mechanism it doesn't until you really test it you can say this will cure. It was one of the way if you block that that can be the way to get there.

 

Seth:

We could have an answer here.

 

Katarina:

Correct.

 

Seth:

 

We need to ask more questions now, which is science. So you're doing this for three years which I would imagine would have to be fascinating work. You even just describing it is fascinating. Why would you change, where did you go?

 

Katarina:

 

 

 

 

Children. We went back because that time my children were, one was going to the first grade. And the other one was three, four years. And we really didn't want to stay in US, we want them to go to Czech Republic. We loved it in the US. But the culture was different to Czech Republic and the school system was different, the education system. So we said we want to raise them back to Europe.

 

Seth:

What had changed at home in the Czech Republic? How did that balance out over it seems like not that many years, three or four years.

 

Katarina:

 

 

I think it changed a lot because we came back to a free country. To a country where you could apply for any kind of job. You can travel anytime. Of course we are searching for apartment which was very small. Normal things like a young couple does with small children. But otherwise it was getting very similar to the life in US. From the freedom, from all that, we had all the opportunities so it was extremely exciting.

 

 

It was, we felt extremely lucky that we have a chance to live it through. I never believed that this ...

 

Seth:

This would happen.

 

Katarina:

That will happen.

 

Seth:

And so here you are in the Czech Republic that we know now essentially that was building and it was vibrant and it was brand new and everything was fantastic. So where did you land as far as employment?

 

Katarina:

I decided not to continue in science.

 

Seth:

I see, why? You were helping all of us with curing of cancer, why would you ...

 

Katarina:

I think I wanted to, there were two things. One was really the salaries in research that time in Czech Republic were extremely low. The companies who were newly entering the market, there was not enough of people with a broad experience with English. And with university degrees. There were commercial companies that were really searching for people that were willing to swap.

 

A lot of my friends got employed into a big chemical company so I ended up there too. A little bit of chemistry there but it was really true business, it was customer service that time.

 

Seth:

 

 

 

I see so that's where the switch happened. From being a scientist into being customer service and you understood the nature of the business because you actually had the degree but you didn't necessarily need it. So then you had to depend on this other side of your brain. The words part, the people part. How was that in terms of making that transition as far as your career?

 

Katarina:

 

 

At the beginning maybe I'm lucky but I really like whatever I do. It doesn't matter if it's, I love being in the lap. I love being the customer service associate because there was a great team and I was on steep learning curve. It was completely new to me. Like orders invoices, all these terminology about delivery terms. I just didn't know but I think I learned easily and I loved it. So I get familiar, there was a great team of people my age, same history.

 

Seth:

There was a group of you altogether.

 

Katarina:

We were in it.

 

Seth:

Exploring something new.

 

Katarina:

Exactly. We were allowed not to have degree in economics that time. Because there was the socialist degree in economy but that's not what the companies needed. So we were allowed to learn. I think it was a unique opportunity that doesn't happen anymore today if you want to join that company you need to have the right degree.

 

Seth:

It couldn't happen based on just the way that the world is.

 

Katarina:

Exactly. Amazing opportunity.

 

Seth:

All right so when did we realize though that Katarina had some sort of talent in this space? Okay fine she doesn't have the degree. She has no idea what even these terms are. At a certain point the inflection point happens where you say, "I actually do understand what's going on" and they say, "Yes you do."

 

 

When did that occur?

 

Katarina:

Again I was lucky because the company was growing and they needed financial analyst. A team leader in finance and I said this is crazy because I don't know what accounting is about. I don't know what finance is about. There was a French finance manager who said, "Katarina don't worry. You will learn."

 

Seth:

That's a pretty good French accent.

 

Katarina:

And I said, "Jean-Luc please." He said, "Don't worry." So I stopped worrying and I became a team lead.

 

Seth:

In finance.

 

Katarina:

Yeah and I learned on credit and debits, account reconciliation, invoice booking and I started to do that. It was crazy. Plus I started to lead people, I never led before any team. So made a lot of mistakes, being too friendly. But again I really loved it because I was lucky, I enjoyed it.

 

Seth:

 

 

 

 

All right so we have all of these, up until now here, it starts over again and there's a new time and a new place and a new system and a new business and then we are in the business and we change roles completely and we start all over again. And these people seem to continue to have faith in you, how long were you in finance before you switched to, I would imagine back to contact center? What was the next step?

 

Katarina:

Okay. I spent there 11 years. I've been changing jobs so from that analyst job I became finance manager. After that we were implementing travel system, online travel system, and I really loved doing that together. So I was introduced to project management within that company, this amazing new experience.

 

Seth:

Did we say what the name of the company was?

 

Katarina:

No we didn't.

 

Seth:

Okay. Are we saying that, are we not saying that on purpose? It doesn't matter.

 

Katarina:

It was DuPont.

 

Seth:

Oh DuPont yeah sure. Very big company.

 

Katarina:

It is and at that time there were together with Conoco. And then after that Conoco and DuPont split and this is where I became finance manager for DuPont only.

 

Seth:

Gotcha.

 

 

Katarina:

 

So Conoco was then other entity. Then they offered me a job of salesperson. I did that. The good thing is I realized I'm not a good salesperson.

 

Seth:

Oh we finally found a thing that you can't do.

 

Katarina:

And I wasn't good and the market really wasn't ready for our ...

 

Seth:

Product.

 

Katarina:

Our products.

 

Seth:

So wait a second so there's one thing with the market wasn't ready but if the market wasn't ready it doesn't have to do with the fact, it doesn't have to do with you as the salesperson. What about the sales process do you know that you weren't good at?

 

Katarina:

I am not a pusher.

 

Seth:

I see.

 

Katarina:

 

 

 

 

I love work with people in finance as a service. Forecasting is a service. Customer service operation is a service and I love being surrounded by people and working with team. When you are salesperson I felt lonely driving my car five hours to come from Prague to Budapest and forcing somebody here to buy products which I even didn't believe that they offered them.

 

 

I just know that it's not for me.

 

Seth:

You don't push.

 

Katarina:

No.

 

Seth:

So finally we have a failure finally Katarina. I've been waiting. Then from sales where did we go?

 

Katarina:

 

 

 

 

Then I left that company. And the position was just canceled so I found myself free on the market. And that time Accenture was growing like hell in Prague and they were looking exactly for people having this borderline experience. So I was hired, I was interviewed for a role of financial project leader and I didn't really know what is that and I was offered something big called transition lead. Which is basically somebody who manage all the transitions are done in BBO so when you transfer process from the customer to the center.

 

 

I started with six people and after five years I ended up with something like 100 people from not just Prague but also Poland and Slovakia, Romania, UK Italy. It was amazing experience. It was really from managing the projects to managing the people and I loved it. Excellent experience.

 

Seth:

So project management we can see that you would be good at that. Managing the people you had learned your mistakes the first time so this time you knew how to do it and that's why we went from six to 100 or whatever it was.

 

Katarina:

Did less mistakes.

 

Seth:

Fewer mistakes of course.

 

Katarina:

Not none but less.

 

Seth:

Of course. And so management consulting is something that you could stay with forever, but you didn't.

 

Katarina:

Yes. I decided to change the fields and to go away from this after five years and I ended up in big financial organization, a bank, because bank in Czech Republic that time. And again in HR but projects. So I was really attracted to the people agenda itself. So I thought HR may be interesting for me.

 

 

It was really interesting coming from very American open minded, very flexible, very people supportive, very well being, strength oriented company to something which was the heritage of the socialist era if you wish, now owned by Austrian.

 

Seth:

So you could still feel it right?

 

Katarina:

Strongly. There was a strong hierarchy, it's the order. So again it was again interesting learning for me and I learned a lot but I know which culture I don't want anymore to be and this is it.

 

Seth:

If we're listening the whole time we knew that you didn't want it anyway. So then how did we get from there to J and J, how many more stops were there, maybe key learnings along the way?

 

Katarina:

After that I was approached by this call center company the Italian company which is called Cumberta.

 

Seth:

And you had done it all the way back when, right?

 

Katarina:

 

 

That is five years, so after the bank immediately that company, for four years. I think the marriage there was because it's a [BPO] business. So they needed somebody who knows how to deal with BPO situation. Where which is took over the Vodafone's call center. Again amazing marriage for me because I knew nothing about call center. They did, but they knew nothing about BPO. And I did.

 

 

I again found amazing talented people that you build a team and we ran the operation and I became country manager. Yeah.

 

Seth:

If there are three keys to running a contact center what might they be, whether internal facing or external facing? Three keys?

 

Katarina:

What do you mean?

 

Seth:

Things that we must do. As far as running a contact center. If you're talking to a colleague or you're talking to somebody that's going to run a contact center for the first time, you would say, "Remember do these three things definitely."

 

Katarina:

 

 

 

 

I would say know your customer, number one. What they want, number one. Know your people because only if your people are okay with what they do and understand what you do and why, then you can deliver to your customer. And learn the specifics because there are technical specifics how you measure your performance, how you communicate your performance, how you plan shifts. You need to learn the basics on it, it's exciting and a lot of people especially in Czech Republic feel this is a really the down side job. But you can change it by changing people's view on it and choosing the right people as well.

 

Seth:

 

You can change their perception and you can also change everyone's perception of the value of the contact centers. Simply by raising everyone's tide essentially.

 

Katarina:

Exactly.

 

Seth:

Interesting. All right so then as you go into 2018 now what are you looking to do? What are your maybe three keys for success as you go. Because now you've got the internal customer, you've got the external customer as you make your way into 2018 and beyond, what are the things that you know you have to do?

 

Katarina:

 

I'm establishing again a new center. In two years we should be nearly 300 people and we have 10.

 

Seth:

Oh my god. You have to do this again, this project management thing.

 

Katarina:

 

 

 

Yes. I do both. Setting this up and running it in the very same moment. So number one, get the right people to help me. Secondly, know my customer. And knowing my customer means really the end users who are buying the products, so knowing the products and everything. But also knowing the people that are doing the work now in country. And their internal customers that are absolutely critical because they trust them now, they don't trust me and my team. So my focus is now really to set up things in order they are at least the same good and later on better.

 

 

 

So building the trust and setting up the up and running operation. My big dream is to have a team of strong individuals but team players. They love to work on this project. So far so good. So far we have them.

 

Seth:

There we go. It's instilling that, it's almost ownership into each person. Is that right?

 

Katarina:

Yeah. At the moment I'm recruiting the agents, so I'm recruiting now everyone until I have people to do their own recruitment.

 

 

Seth:

 

But you're looking for in those people you're looking for almost entrepreneurial type mindsets. Is that fair?

 

Katarina:

 

 

 

Correct. When I talk to the people I'm telling them imagine startup, this is what we do here. There is a rigor, there is a project management there are structured but believe me we will need to play by ears. So I'm looking for people who don't worry about their titles. They're able to pull up their sleeves and do the dirty work as well as the strategic. And fun. I think it's important that people really enjoy it.

 

Seth:

Tenacity with a sense of humor essentially.

 

Katarina:

Exactly.

 

Seth:

 

 

 

 

All right I like it. So I've got three final questions I'll tell you what they are and then I'll ask you them in order. What has most surprised you at work along the way? What has most surprised you in life? And on the soundtrack of your life, one track one song that's gotta be on there? First thing's first, along the way we took ourselves through your career here, what's most surprised you at work? As we sit here in Budapest with the sirens going?

 

Katarina:

 

 

What's most surprising me, there are surprises all the time. And discoveries all the time, together, like today. I'm always surprised by the fact that you for example hire somebody or you work with somebody and this person is making big leaps in learning and they can end up by being CFOs of companies. It's surprise and it's one of the things I really enjoy what I'm doing, really discovering the talents and working with them.

 

 

 

And grow them. So this is surprising. The surprise is that I have a skill to find them. Amazingly how you can influence people so they do well. That was one of biggest surprises.

 

Seth:

Because you're one thing for yourself with the fact that you're a scientist who now runs a call center. It's fine because you're you so you know you. This you understand simply because you are the person. But it's your influence on others that's surprising.

 

Katarina:

Yes.

 

Seth:

Okay fair enough. I'm surprised about you, I've not met a scientist turned call center head. It's not something that happens often.

 

Katarina:

In Czech Republic maybe.

 

Seth:

Yeah sure. As you mentioned, there was a team of you. What's most surprised you in life?

 

Katarina:

 

 

What's most surprised me, how much resilient I can be going through great parts, tough parts. I think what's surprised me is that I always had this hunger, I'm so curious, and I think it's one of my, the curiosity, the energy and ability me to set up these little fires in other people. So to be infectious of good mood and this curiosity. So that was surprising for me that, yeah.

 

Seth:

 

 

I think you've hit on something. Curiosity has a key, is this someone who manages people and who has managed people along the way. Is that something that you can teach in any way? Or must this simply be there in the human?

 

Katarina:

I think it must be there. I think there are people, they are curious but maybe with different level, and they're just okay with what they do. I think this hunger, and I'm not sure if it's good or bad because it can be self, you can be still reading and reading and not really thinking. It never ends.

 

Seth:

Thinking and never doing type of thing.

 

Katarina:

Exactly. So it has a traps. But the truth is that I surround myself by similar type of people that are similarly energetic and curious. And lots of people come to me to say you're such a sunshine. So that was another big surprise. I never felt like being a sunshine, like somebody who brings other people to very positive mood. So that was a big surprise recently.

 

Seth:

Really was that a surprise? Because I'm looking at your eyes and that's clearly what is coming out of your mind and heart. There's no way that that's not true.

 

Katarina:

Yeah I know. Maybe I don't know myself ... No, I know. I'm joking.

 

Seth:

Fair enough. I think that as far as us, we are our own worst enemies. So if you want someone to say something bad about you, just ask yourself. Right?

 

 

 

On the soundtrack of your life, one track one song, what's gotta be on there? So this is along the way you started out in Czechoslovakia, you left to Boston, you came back to the Czech Republic. You've been up and down and around. A song that would be on the soundtrack of your life. Doesn't have to be a favorite song, it doesn't have to be the perfect message, but just a song along the way?

 

Katarina:

Nick Cave - Push the Sky Away.

 

Seth:

Oh my goodness. All right. We will look into that. Push the Sky away, is there a key lyric? That you can, that you remember?

 

Katarina:

I think,, no. We need to play it.

 

Seth:

So then that's what we'll do, we'll put it on right now. Katarina, thank you so much.

 

Katarina:

You're very welcome.

 

Seth:

 

 

 

And there you have Katarina Veranovska. Fascinating life with being a scientist in a country that well it necessarily appreciated I guess is one way to think about it. All the way to being a customer contact center person. So very much appreciate Katarina and her time. Very much appreciate you and yours. Stay tuned.