Payments is a profession in its formative years. Look around the world and you’ll find few organizations with a specialist payment team more than ten years old – if they exist at all.
The payment professionals staffing these teams, whether they recognize it or not, are trailblazers. The work they are doing, the skills they are bringing to the table, and their efforts to evangelize the importance of payments are what’s laying the foundation for the future of the profession.
This is certainly true at Wargaming – the video game developer and publisher famed for its signature titles World of Tanks and World of Warships – where Makis Savvides, Director of Global Payments and Elena Emelyanova, Senior Payments Manager are establishing a best-in-class payments operation to support the global growth ambitions of the organization.
Taking a circuitous path into payments
"I never set out to work in payments," admits Savvides. "In fact, most payment professionals I speak with didn’t either. And what’s fascinating is that we all come from different backgrounds and bring different skillsets to the role."
Savvides is a qualified accountant by trade. And before joining Wargaming, he spent over ten years at Deloitte working in its financial advisory service. "Payments wasn’t even on my radar when I joined Wargaming," he adds. "I spent time working in the venture capital arm of the company and in the publishing team. But I reached a point in my career where I knew I wanted to try something new, and a colleague mentioned there was an opportunity opening up to lead the payments team. And, after a little investigation, I realized this was the challenge I was looking for and applied for the role. The rest is history."
Emelyanova is also a graduate of the circuitous path into payments, having begun her career working in the roaming partnerships team at A1 (ex. Velcom) – a mobile carrier based in her native Belarus. Like Savvides, she joined the payments team at Wargaming looking for a new challenge. "Payments was new to me and new to Wargaming," she says. "And that’s what excited me about the opportunity. I knew it would be a steep learning curve but also a chance to make my mark and build something entirely new with the organization."
Emelyanova was right. In the fast-moving world of payments, there’s no let-up. And it’s something that continues to motivate Emelyanova. "If you want to work in payments, you have to be ready to take on new challenges all the time. And it won’t just be one, it will be many. If you're ready for that, you will love the job."
Powering Wargaming’s global development
Emelyanova joined Wargaming in 2012 with four other colleagues. Their brief was clear: to be part of a Wargaming multi-disciplinary team that would build a payment solution to allow the company to accept payments from anywhere in the world.
"We had to build everything from scratch," she recalls. "We were finding and onboarding payment partners, enabling new payment methods, and establishing all the foundational policies and processes that are needed around fraud, risk, foreign exchange, and so forth. It was fun, but it was hard and we were working seven days a week. And looking back, I’m really proud of what we achieved."
Since those formative years, the team has tripled in size, its objectives changed. "Elena and the team did a fantastic job establishing what is a truly global payment operation," says Savvides. "Wargaming today accepts payments in multiple currencies from more than 150 countries."
If you want to work in payments, you have to be ready to take on new challenges all the time.
And with those foundations in place, the team’s focus is now on optimization. "We’re looking to optimize every aspect of our payments operation to reduce costs, drive higher approval and conversion rates, and deliver a better experience for our customers," explains Savvides. "And the overarching goal is ultimately to unlock more value for Wargaming."
While the brief may have changed and the challenges are different, the workload hasn’t eased up. Emelyanova’s portfolio, for example, includes an eye-watering list of responsibilities, including managing the global acquiring team, identifying strategies for the acquiring team which is part of global payments, working on integrated revenue and cost reduction plans with other departments, managing technology partners and their systems, and monitoring fraud.
"Elena can never be bored! There are so many things to do," says Savvides.
And she sees it as a positive. "You’re always constantly developing and learning a lot. You're always challenged...by new technologies, new regulations. Everything is new every year."
Linking payments with business outcomes
Defining those challenges is part of Savvides’ role. As you may expect from a self-proclaimed "numbers guy," he takes a data-driven approach. "We build out KPIs that help us understand our coverage across payment methods and new markets, and performance around fees, approval rates, conversion rates, and fraud and chargeback ratio."
He keeps things under constant review. "It really depends on where the company is in its lifecycle. Five or six years ago, it was all about making sure that payments could support our global expansion. Now we’re focused on optimization. This means we’re beginning to reduce fees and drive higher authorization, which we know leads to higher revenues and better customer satisfaction."
Five or six years ago, our work was all about making sure that payments could support our global expansion. Now we’re focused on optimization.
This link between payment inputs and business outcomes is crucial because "it turns payments into its own fully-fledged product," explains Savvides. "Otherwise it would be much harder to action changes because your payments are wrapped up in other systems and with other teams."
And keeping on top of change is a never-ending story, he says. "Right now, we’re looking at how IBAN discrimination affects payments. Because of how we work, we’re able to quickly set up a dedicated cross-functional team to deal with that."
Taking a data-driven approach to stakeholder education
One challenge that doesn’t change is persuading colleagues about the value of payments. "Wargaming is a gaming business, not a payments business," explains Emelyanova. "And because our games are free-to-play, it’s sometimes not obvious to our colleagues across the business why we’re even talking to them about payments."
Savvides agrees: "It’s my job to educate stakeholders about why payments are important and how they bring value to the organization. It’s not always easy. Payments are complex and often seen as a commodity making it hard for people to understand just how important they are to the overall customer experience, as well as a material contributor to the company’s bottom line."
Again, it’s data that he goes to. "My motto is that data speaks for itself. Everything we say we try to back up with data. And we make sure that the data we share is relevant to that stakeholder. We’re seeing the success of all that work and increasing awareness and understanding of how payments contribute to the company’s successes. But it’s something we must always continue to do."
Building customer-centric payments strategies
With the global expansion of Wargaming has come the challenge of dealing with different currencies and FX processes. The complexity can tie some businesses in knots or catch them under-prepared. Not so for Wargaming, which has a very clear approach.
"We start from the premise of wanting to create the best customer experience, so everything is orientated around that," explains Emelyanova. "For example, players prefer paying in their own currency, so we aim to provide this as much as possible, increasing like-to-like settlement, therefore eliminating the FX conversion. We are well on track on this need, with a handful of currencies accounting for a significant part of total global volume."
This customer-centricity drives every aspect of Savvides and Emelyanova’s thinking. For example, deciding which payment methods to offer comes from having people in the team who are dedicated to specific regions. "We learn a lot about the local specifics of each country," explains Emelyanova. "We know that in the CIS market and in Russia, the main audience is mature, however still young in comparison with other regions. While in North America it is 40 plus. These demographics have very different preferences when it comes to payments that we must cater for."
They also regularly survey their customers to stay on top of their payment preferences. "One of the trends we’ve seen in the past few years is our gamers want to pay with crypto-currencies in. This is a really interesting development, so we’re discussing whether we should start accepting that and all the associated risks," says Savvides.
Playing cat and mouse with fraudsters
More recently, customer-centricity has meant protecting their gamers from fraud. "The main issue isn’t dealing with real fraudsters," explains Emelyanova. "They are quite easy to weed out using enterprise solutions. The biggest issue is friendly fraud."
The answer, she says, is educating gamers about how to behave. Some lessons – like what to do/not to do in order to avoid fraud or become part of it! – are evergreen. But others are about addressing new dangers. "There is a growing trend of fraudsters setting up stores offering discounted tanks...gamers buy the tanks and then find out they cannot activate them in our game."
Fraud is very fluid. So our main goal is to shift it away from our vertical and our business.
Faced with the fraudsters, "you’re always the mouse, never the cat," she admits. But it’s not about trying to defeat them. Rather, it’s about making it as hard as possible for them to win. "Fraud is very fluid. So our main goal is to shift it away from our vertical and our business."
Paving the way for the next generation
For two individuals that never set out to work in payments, Emelyanova and Savvides are leaving their mark. And both are actively involved in various organizations that are shaping the future of the profession.
"I believe that in the future, there'll be fewer people like Elena and myself who find themselves working in payments by chance rather than by choice," says Savvides. "As payments become a more integral function to organizations, it will become a more defined profession with formal education, qualifications and career paths."
But for now, it will continue to be staffed by trailblazers like Emelyanova and Savvides. "It’s true that nobody I know set out to work in payments," says Savvides. "But when you’re here, you find yourself wanting to stay because there’s so much to like."