In this interview, we talk to Denis Clifford, Chief Customer Officer at Virto Commerce, about his experience digitally transforming multinational companies. Before joining Virto Commerce, Denis worked with some of the world's biggest beer brands, including Heineken, where he held a senior commerce role for more than 12 years, the last five focusing on eCommerce. During his time in the drinks industry, Denis successfully launched ecommerce platforms in 14 countries and worked with businesses in more than 30 markets globally. Since Denis has helped multiple businesses drive digital adoption and develop digital transformation strategies, we thought he was an ideal person to talk to about digital strategies and the transformation challenges that multinational companies continue to face.
Hello, Denis! Please talk a bit about your professional background and how your experience relates to this interview’s topic of digital transformation in multinational companies.
Denis: My professional background is in two main areas: one is in call center and project management, and the other is in the area of digital transformation and customer centricity. So, I’ve been working in the call center industry for twenty-something years and managing people and teams for probably just as long.
I started in the drinks industry in 2005 as a Call Center Manager and then worked as a Head of Customer Service and Credit for Beamish and Crawford before joining Heineken in 2009.
Around 2015-2016, after having worked as a Head of Customer Service at Heineken for a number of years, I became more interested in ecommerce and the company’s digital strategy. After successfully implementing the ecommerce project in Ireland, I joined Heineken at the head office and started working on the digital transformation with Heineken’s clients, partners, and regional offices around the world.
Could you please tell us more about that time in Heineken when you embarked on a mission to digitally transform the company?
Denis: I was one of only two or three people, pioneers in a sense, working on digitizing fairly traditional routes to market. We were able to demonstrate to the wider business community that if individual markets didn’t engage in the digital transformation, then competitors or digital-native companies would. They could potentially steal market share and, more importantly, value out of the route to market by becoming intermediaries between customers and suppliers or digital intermediaries between wholesalers and customers of Heineken.
So we did a number of things. We traveled to many markets to understand how “digital” was affecting both fairly direct and straightforward supply chains and very fragmented markets. We launched successful pilot projects in Mexico and South Africa, while simultaneously learning about the technology side of things. We soon discovered that large static ecommerce platforms, which can be expensive and slow to develop, albeit powerful and robust, are not always the right fit for every market - especially medium-sized markets with a requirement to transform quickly. So we became interested in flexible, adaptable ecommerce platforms and that’s when we discovered Virto Commerce.
What did your role as a global ecommerce project manager at Heineken involve?
Denis: My role, predominantly, was about working with management teams around the world, talking with them about the risks and opportunities of “digital”, meeting with their customers and sales teams, developing and creating digital projects, and helping them build their digital strategies. By the end of the engagement, the company would have a go-to-market plan with estimations and recommendations regarding new roles, technology, budget, and ecommerce features that customers would most likely want to have. And then after that, I’d support the team on that digital journey while overseeing their business growth and assisting them whenever necessary.
From your experience, how has switching to “digital” transformed the thinking and planning of multinational companies, both short and long term?
Denis: I don’t remember where exactly I heard that expression, but someone said to me that seven years in digital commerce is the equivalent of one year offline – things move so quickly! Indeed, transacting online enables you to do things much more quickly than you could have done offline. Multinationals have come to the understanding that if they don’t embrace digital now, then even smaller challengers can come in at any time and disrupt the way they do business. So, one of the main things that traditional multinational companies are really doing by embarking on digital journeys is that they are preserving, and eventually growing their business. Multinationals are also seeing digital as an opportunity to grow by making strategic alliances with other companies and consolidating their services on digital platforms where customers can access a range of services from virtually anywhere in the world. That’s why I think marketplaces are growing at such an astonishing rate, and I think that’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.