Lockdown Economy Albania in a Payment Service Provider with Stela Shkodrani

The interview was transcribed by Ersi Disha

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world. This interview was done in collaboration with Epoka University.

In this interview, we meet Stela Shkodrani, the COO of Easy Pay Albania, a payment service provider in Tirana. She shared the struggles that companies in the payment service providing field went through during the lockdown and in addition how EasyPay was able to overcome them. She also spoke about the changes that Easy Pay made during lockdown that turned out to be efficient tactics for them to carry out even after the pandemic.

Watch the video version of the interview.

Kristel: What do you do as a business? How long have you been doing it and where are you based?

Stela: I’m a Chief OperationsOfficer of EasyPay Albania. We are on electronic money institution licensed by the Bank of Albania on fully operating in the territory of Albania. We currently operate on three main pillars. So the company has been running since 2009. In 2015, we expanded further our license to an electronic money institution. And these are the new innovative solutions that are being brought back for online payments. So practically, we operate on the payments side on cash payments with four hundred sixty-two agents all over the Albanian territory, which causes an impact from the pandemic. And we will further discuss. But as will be operating the transfer business, we’re the official partner of RIA money transfer in Albania and as well we are electronic money, Institution said. And we operate with customers who own an electronic money wallet and would like to perform all their payments and their transactions online by using the EasyPAY application. So this is an overall view of the three main activities run by EasyPay Albania. We are stabilized institution. We have around 42employees right now. We have increased a lot in the past two years, affected by the covid situation, but fully coping with it and still stable in this economy.

Kristel: How many employees do you have and also how many clients do you normally have?

Stela: We have around 42 employees and we have increased from around twenty-three, two years ago to forty-two. So we have doubled and as per regards to the customers. We have around 20K customers on the electronic money wallet solution. They prefer to perform online payments, but we have approximately seven hundred key customers that visit daily our shops all over the Albanian territory. And as well there are around 80 key RIA unique customers that prefer to receive the money transfer operations through us.

Esi: Stella, let us know, what did you do on the business front during the lockdown?

Stela: Ok, so during the lockdown, like other businesses in Albania, we actually faced issues as well, primary issues brought unexpected problems. So nobody was expecting that the covid situation would actually cause such an issue to the businesses and to the market. So what was the key to us was preparing for an emergency plan in an unexpected situation.

The stuff actually going on full remote, which meant that on March 13, we had to prepare a backup plan for all the company to move on remote support and situation, but the businesses continued to operate. This was one of the core issues. So we’re planning the entire team and to end on offering the full operations, but not in their normal working hours and their local premises, but actually through the home. This was the key area affected. So how we actually move to operate fully but from home. So there wasn’t a detailed emergency plan that caused all teams to reorganize and try to see what activities we can actually go on and offer remotely where what activities were actually impossible to be offered remotely and for those activities that were impossible to be offered remotely. There was a backup plan on minimizing the capacities at work on the premises. We’re discussing here IT. The core business, which is run by our type of institutions, is the technical side. So if the servers, if the technical capabilities godown, the business and the full operations would actually godown. So there was a core backup. A person was actually assigned to come in emergency solutions in the local premises, whereas the rest of the company was working remote actually to say the hours were even longer.

So if whilst working on the premises, we had a full daily routine of coming to work at 9:00 a.m., leaving around five-thirty at home, we actually work full-time availability. There were times that we were working even up at night, especially the emergency team, and coping with all of the agents that were actually having issues. You know pretty well that during the pandemic’s the situation with the agents and the people working with the small-medium enterprises and small businesses in Albania were actually up before short opened. So it meant that the service was not fully operated even from their side. We coped with that as well. We provided all consultation legally and financially to the agents on how they could actually stay open during operation hours, how they could get the “leave” the “economic leave”, as it was called, to operate during pandemic hours.

And to tell you the truth of what we actually did on the other side was trying to incentivize the customers to move to online. We are an electronic money institution, as has mentioned and we very much like the customer to try and experience the way of paying in their own safety, especially during the Covid times. Stay At home. Stay safe. You take advantage of paying all the needed transactions, bills, electricity bills, water bills, taxation’s, even customers for food orders with the merchants that we currently have in our bucket. So they were actually ordering and receiving their orders at home.

So this was a balancing trying to help our agents in a difficult situation that was created due to COVID. Having our entire team at their service in order for them to make it easier to work with the customers because they needed to survive financially in operating with shorter hours. But on the other side, serving to the customer experience by moving our services online fully. So this was a pretty ecosystem that was worked with the emergency team. And we had a full team as well for girls. And we’re the customer and agents support remotely. So we have people answering calls fulltime during the day in order to support on how they could best get the service and how the agents could best offer the service.

Esi: What about the simulation of the business and attracting the customers? What worked and didn’t work about this step during the lockdown?

Stela: So it definitely worked that we sent the communication, bulk communications through e-mails and mass media communication. Social media was a key trigger to invite people to try the online services, register with us, have a tolerance level that we could actually experience the application and the payments. And then check the possibility.

What really worked with Easypay was the theory of no commissions for people to pay online. So there were no extra commissions to take advantage of in the current situation where we work, but actually, we believe in the increasing of the customer base. So this was a good point that we lowered the commission and invited people to pay through online services. This definitely worked because what we saw at the end of March and what we saw by April was tripled the value of the customers that actually preferred to use online services with Easypay.

What actually didn’t work well was what happened in April. So you definitely must know that Albania is a very cash-based society. So 70 per cent still prefer to get the feeling, the touch with the physical money and are not 100 per cent sure or not 100 per cent financially educated that there are services that could actually use online. They are safer, quicker, real-time. So I wouldn’t say that there were things that didn’t work during the pandemic because the company was pretty much very organized to deal with it. This was due to having all the companies set up in an emergent way to offer full backup.

But I would say that still in Albania, there are issues that don’t work entirely with the cash. Still, people are very loyal to cash. So we’ll see. Again now, EasyPay is still continuing in the market. It’s pretty good at it. But if we take on a balance, online payments versus cash payments, unfortunately, still, cash is king in Albania and still continues to rule. So we’re still working a lot on having the customer believe the alternative solutions on the online payments by having real-time and very quick payments on their side as well. And we believe that they will get the benefit of it in a shorter term.

Tea: So my first question was, how is your business doing right now?

Stela: The business is actually doing pretty good and we have picked up by the causes that we had, the impact that we actually had during COVID. The part on the online payments did a lot of play during the quarter in order to have the company still running up. But as I said, we saw that the customers still continue to be focused post-April in the cash. It’s very surprising, rather, that the money transfer business, the remittances they actually picked up in April. So the company had around 2.6 times higher transactions in the money transfer business. And we just closed the values of the reporting value for 2020. And we have an increase year on year.

It’s very good that the company is stabilized, operating, but actually, we see an increase even if we’re a startup on the electronic money business by having well-managed operations and work with a company even during covid and unexpected times, it means that there are still opportunities that the companies can still survive. There are still key challenges remaining four times because there are many legislations changing right now and taxation’s are changing right now. There is an increase, for example, in the minimum wage increase means there are higher payments for businesses’ side.

So there are a lot of changes happening on the fiscal side as well as on the economy overall, but EasyPay is doing pretty good and we’re happy with that.

Tea: Would you say that you know how your customers are doing right now?

Stela: So right now, by the fact that the customers are increasing the transactions per customer, which is a key indicator of increasing in value. This means that they’re becoming loyal. That means that the customer is happy.

We have a pretty good team dedicated to analyzing all customer claims and all customer inquiries and service to them shows that it’s a pickup that wants to serve to them based on their requirements. It actually works. The customer language is heard and understood in order to get them onto more, for example, incentive schemes, more customers being attracted. And what we see is the customers that we currently had, did actually become ambassadors to other customers that don’t know about it. They want to learn about the product and start using them. This is the key figure for causing a chain reaction. Once you work on a chain reaction, then afterwards the word will not be heard by the company, but they shouldn’t be told by one customer to the other. So definitely we are a customer-focused business at all times and want to hear what the customer is to say in particular.

Tea: What is the outlook for the upcoming months?

So we see an increase, so that is the keyword that I could use. It’s going to be a challenging year. You might have heard that the Albanian parliament passed the PSD two, which is the second payment service directive. It will cause a lot of innovation and a lot of changes to many businesses because we’re talking about increasing opportunities for small payments and more businesses would like to enter this type of business that EasyPay has been working in for years. So there will be a lot of competition increase, but a lot of collaboration between key actors.

So right now we see that the collaborations will increase banks, a non-financial institution like ours, a non-bank-financial institution like ours are actually the key actors that will be present in this communication. By collaboration’s, we mean that there will be joint products which will increase further the gain from the business cases. We see an increase even from the remittance side. Remittances at the moment had a downturn during 2020. But this was during April because the economies abroad, the main triggers and the transactions to Albania, like Germany and Italy, were actually fully closed, which meant that there were no remittances flowing into Albania because the agent locations at their side were closed. So no business being offered. But what do we see by the end of 2020? And in continuation of the year, remittances definitely will increase. And we definitely know that our markets are pretty much dependent on them. So EasyPay has it as a key business and definitely, we’ll see it increase on their side as well.

The payments are increasing too. By payments, we mean utility, tax payments. They will always be present and the business relies on them. So overall, we see a very positive increase that will be caused by 2021 and onwards.

Tea: That’s great to hear and my last question is, what are three things that you need help with?

Stela: It’s very changing, financially, fiscally even innovative ways. The world is changing a lot. Even the business side. So a business will always need IT development capacities. Right now, we have a full team of nine people dedicated and on full develop in-house. But definitely, there is more room for IT developers. Talents that are focused on developing new innovative solutions.

So even easy has a key need to attain more talents or more capacities on innovative solutions, buildups and developments. This is one of the key triggers. Another one that the company needs help with is project management.

We know that in Albania there are many companies that actually survive on the daily routines and there is a key need for strategy and project management, which means that the business has its own rule of prioritizing the key products, key projects that lead to end products, which means that strategy is clear, but there are project governance and project outflow.

So project governance is a key need for markets and startups right now. And another point that I could mention was so, for example, what is a change in legislation? So right now there are four main laws changing. So what companies will need right now is consultation and full interpretation on the legal and fiscal changes. You might have heard of PSD two, as I mentioned before, but as well, the Albanian market is moving on to the fiscalization, which means that the entire players, the small-medium businesses, as well as the very small businesses, will be impacted by fiscality. And what all our businesses, even EayPay needs right now is to understand what is the full impact of all the legal and fiscal changes right now in two thousand twenty-one in Albania? And then after understanding and interpreting well, such changes, cascading that down to the key players, such as the agents in the market.

About the Guest

EasyPay is a payment service provider in Albania that helps customers with online payments and money transfers.

https://easypay.al/

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.