There's no defined roadmap for a career in payments. No set playbook. So when Emina Zahirovic got the call asking her to become Head of Payments for North America at HelloFresh two weeks into her tenure at her company, there was only one thing to do: seize the opportunity with both hands.
"I recall that moment like it happened yesterday," she tells us. "A wave of anxiety hit me. And then excitement.
“I'm fascinated by payments and deploying them as a strategic tool in the business. I knew this opportunity would allow me to do that. Would it be a challenge? Of course. But I was ready."
Unraveling the mysteries of payment processing
Zahirovic admits she never set out to work in payments. "After graduating from Simmons University with a degree in Business and Marketing, I began looking for a data analytics role," she says. "And I took a position with the payments team at Synapse Group — a Time Inc. subsidiary until the acquisition by Meredith Corporation.
"I'll be honest; the chance to work in publishing rather than payments was the reason I took the role. I was super intrigued about how magazines market to consumers and subconsciously get them to buy. The payments side was more of a mystery. But the role aligned with my skillset, so I thought I'd give it a go."
The mystery soon began to unravel as Zahirovic started analyzing the Synapse Group's payments processes. "I'm a big online shopper, but like most people, I'd never really considered what happens when you make a payment online," she explains. "And I was fascinated to learn about all the processes that happen in a few milliseconds."
From that point on, Zahirovic threw herself headfirst into the world of payments. She began learning everything she could about how payments operate and the platforms that process payments at a deeply technical level.
"Having a deep technical understanding of how payments work on the backend is crucial for anybody that's looking to carve out a career in payments," she says. "Not only does it give you the edge to better understand to optimize your payment performance. It also provides the foundation you need to step up and become a strategic payments leader."
Test, optimize, learn, repeat
After four years with Synapse Group, Zahirovic took the opportunity to join HelloFresh, as a Payments Manager in June 2019. Then, two weeks after joining, she received the phone call and became Head of Payments for North America.
With the objectives of optimizing performance and creating a frictionless customer experience, Zahirovic’s role touches everything related to payments across all the HelloFresh brands in the US and Canada. These include EveryPlate and Green Chef in the US, and Chef’s Plate in Canada, alongside the core HelloFresh brand in both markets. Combined, these account for roughly 65% of the company’s global revenue.
"Broadly speaking, we focus on two key areas: payment optimization and customer retention. As a subscription-based business, we must minimize any technical disruption that may stop our customers from making a payment. And drive revenue by working with the business to figure out ways payments can keep customers subscribed to our services for longer."
The way Zahirovic achieves these objectives is by testing everything. She tells us that experimentation and trying new things is deeply ingrained in the culture at HelloFresh. And as somebody bursting with ideas and theories, it's this part of the job she loves.
"In payments, the smallest change can have a huge impact on the company's bottom line," she says. "So we're always tinkering with our payments. Whether that be adding new payment methods, billing on Thursdays instead of Fridays, or even changing where we place icons on our checkout page."
To provide an example of this work's impact, Zahirovic recalls a week not too long into her tenure as Head of Payments for NA when disasters were happening left and right. "Our acceptance rates started to decline, and our risk scores were through the roof," she says. "And we didn't know why."
In payments, the smallest change can have a huge impact on the company's bottom line.
Undeterred by the challenge, Zahirovic applied her knowledge and love for problem-solving to fix the issue. She found the problems stemmed from some changes made regarding how HelloFresh customers restart their subscription after pausing it for a short time.
To find a solution, Zahirovic ran several tests. This included implementing a process to contact customers and ask them to check their payment details before restarting their subscription and verifying the card again before payment. "It turned out the majority of these tests were successful and improved our metrics over where they were before we started to see them drop off," she says. "So we're now rolling these out globally."
Not all tests are as successful, of course. Zahirovic recounts one they ran where they made a particular payment method predominant on the checkout page. At first, it seemed like a good move, and HelloFresh saw an improvement in conversion and acceptance rates.
However, the results weren't so positive when it came to customer retention. Zahirovic noticed the payment method led to an uptick in churn compared to the other payment methods offered but underperformed across other metrics. “We realized this particular payment method wasn't fit for a weekly subscription business,” she says. “So we consider this test to be unsuccessful. But we’ve learned from it and are now applying those lessons to see if we can drive improvements elsewhere.”
With payments, there are always curveballs. It may sound cliché, but I learn something new every day," she adds. "It's what I love about the job. Although it would be nice to have a moment when everything is working perfectly now and again!"
Preventing customers from checking out
Even when you’re ready for curveballs, some break much more than you expect. That was certainly true last year due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on HelloFresh and Zahirovic's role.
With most people across North America stuck at home with fears about visiting supermarkets, HelloFresh witnessed a massive surge in demand. "Our performance rates skyrocketed because all our customers were hyper-aware of the card they have on file and making sure their payment would go through so they could get their food box delivered. That, tied with all the new customers using our service, meant we quickly reached our distribution capacity," says Zahirovic.
There are always curveballs to tackle working in payments. It may sound cliché, but I learn something new every day.
That required the payment team at HelloFresh to make tough calls and do things they never thought they'd do as payments professionals: find ways to stop people checking out. "We knew this would upset people, but we had to make sure we could fulfill the orders of our existing customer base that was loyal to us before the pandemic," she says.
"On reflection, this was a champagne problem given the challenges other businesses have faced," she adds. "But having to decrease our conversion rates or stop people from checking out was not something I'd ever expect to have to do."
Staying ahead of the curve with data and regulation
With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully soon to be in the rear-view mirror, Zahirovic has her eyes firmly set on the future and driving even more meaningful change at HelloFresh. And data sits at the heart of those plans.
"Data is the lifeblood of our operation," she says. "I cannot do my job and drive payment performance without it. And we've recently hired a payment analytics team that’s focused on managing and modeling our payments data. They’re doing amazing things with data science and machine learning to make the data available to us in a meaningful way that gives us the insights we need to make meaningful business decisions. They've had an enormous impact and freed me up to focus my time on developing strategies and working across the business to execute on those."
The payments landscape has changed massively in recent years, especially when it comes to security.
Keeping on top of the changes in the payments space is another central focus area. "The payments landscape has changed massively in recent years, especially when it comes to security," she says. "There used to be a lot more flexibility, and anyone could process payments. Today, with the introduction of regulations like PSD2, there are more rules and structures behind the payments you're processing."
While staying on top of these rules creates challenges for merchants, Zahirovic believes they're a positive change for the industry. "These changes are there to protect our customers — and us as merchants — nobody can argue that's a bad thing. And if looked at as an opportunity, you can use them to drive improvement in your processing payments and the experience you're delivering to customers."
Developing a global outlook
With payments having earned a spot at the top table within HelloFresh, Zahirovic is excited about what comes next. "We've worked hard as a payment team to show the strategic value we can bring to the business," she says. "And we need to keep that momentum and keep driving improvements that have a positive impact on our customers and our bottom-line."
Personally, that means Zahirovic will do what she's always done: take whatever opportunities present themselves and dive right in. "I have the chance to work with our global teams recently. It's something I'm excited to continue, both to make my mark on our business around the world, but also so I keep on learning and round out my skillset."