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Shushanik Ghaltakhchian (MPSIA ’03): Advocating for Customer-Oriented Practices in Armenia

7 min read

Shushanik Ghaltakhchian received her Master of Political Science and International Affairs (MPSIA) degree from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) at the American University of Armenia (AUA). A strong advocate for formal education, studying in the MPSIA program was one of the greatest experiences of her life. Shushanik’s extensive background in the sphere of customer experience led her to found Whitebone, the only qualified experience management company in Armenia. Her strong sense of ownership and diligence was developed at AUA and is now reflected in the management of her own company.

What led you to pursue a master’s degree in AUA’s MPSIA program?

It was the late 1990s, early 2000s when I decided to apply for AUA’s MPSIA program. During that period, I was very much concerned about the political situation in Armenia. I was truly inspired to become a politician or a diplomat to make my contribution to the future of my country. That was my main motivation to receive a solid education in political science. When it came to selecting the university, my decision was clear: to become a politician or a diplomat, AUA was the best choice for me. 

What resonated with you most about AUA’s culture and education style?

From the first day I entered the University, I realized that I would be privy to a completely different experience than that of the Armenian reality at the time. I realized that I had to work hard and develop a strong sense of discipline and diligence. The first thing I acquired from AUA was a sense of ownership: if you want something, go get it. AUA makes you believe that you are the owner of your destiny and that if you work hard, you will get your way. 

During the second semester of my studies, I was dealing with some personal and financial issues, so my grades started slipping. I remember receiving a letter from the Registrar’s Office informing me that I would be dismissed if I continued getting such low grades. That was the push I needed to pull myself together. I soon climbed to the top 10% of students with the highest grades and received a 50% academic scholarship from AUA. Nevertheless, it was a challenge for my family to pay the other half of the tuition, so I decided to ask AUA for a student loan. The loan program had just launched that year, and I was among the first students to receive one. I realized that even if you have financial or other issues, as long as you know what you want, AUA is there to support you. 

What skills did you gain in the MPSIA program? How did you utilize these skills in your professional experience following graduation?

At MPSIA, we read a tremendous amount of material, which developed my reading skills. I learned how to read very quickly and analyze large amounts of information during a reading. Now, in my business, there are moments when I need to refresh my knowledge or learn something new in a short amount of time. The skill of reading and extracting information instantly helps me to work more effectively. 

MPSIA was all about analyzing, and I developed strong analytical skills. Our professors taught us to think independently and rely on our cognitive abilities to analyze the information, which very much resonates with my own way of thinking. Moreover, there was a huge amount of information that needed to be analyzed and applied in a very short time. So I learned prioritization, and now, this helps me generate desired results more efficiently.

Tell us about your professional experience following your graduation.

My first job after graduation was at the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). I entered the organization as a translator and worked there for four years, attaining the position of assistant/deputy to the director. Later, I worked at HSBC Bank, and when they opened their customer experience department, I was invited to join that team. At that time, it was a new concept in Armenia, and we were receiving instructions from London. My experience in that department was the first time I realized that working in customer experience is what I want to do throughout my whole life. 

Later, I had a successful experience managing the customer experience departments of two telecommunication companies in Armenia. In 2019, I began considering significant shifts in my career, and the idea of Whitebone was born. In February 2020, I opened the company. Shortly afterward, the COVID-19 pandemic started, and the company’s initial steps were in online mode. We were lucky enough to already have Vodafone Italy as our first customer during these hard times. 

Soon, Whitebone received an offer from Haypost. At that time, they were rebranding. Whitebone was hired to develop the customer experience processes and structure of Haypost from scratch and conduct staff training in customer experience. For one intense year, we worked on this project. In 2021, I decided that it was time to expand, and we transitioned from an online to an office environment, hired more staff, and expanded our number of customers. 

Why “Whitebone?” Tell us about the company and its mission.

Our values are very much connected to the concept of nobility, which in literature, is often symbolized with the expression of “white bone.” It is about treating others with respect and grace. This is how we treat our customers, and this is how we teach them to treat their own customers. Our logo is a triangle that symbolizes our company, our customers, and their customers.

Our mission is to create an empathic, bold, and mutually effective experience aimed at the organic growth of business and the economy. Throughout my 20 years of experience interacting with customers of different companies, I’ve realized that there is no customer loyalty without an empathetic approach from the business. You can’t force anyone to be loyal. Only satisfied and cherished customers ensure loyalty, and it is more cost-effective to make a customer loyal than to acquire a new one. We at Whitebone believe in human-centrism, loyalty, and an empathetic approach. The goal of Whitebone is to make Armenian companies and the economy as a whole more customer-oriented, more empathic and, thus, more profitable.

What were some of the initial challenges when starting the company? How did you overcome them?

Many people think that opening your own business is fun, but in the beginning, it was full of challenges. There was no sense of security and a lot of risk. Also, an agency that deals specifically with customer experience was new in Armenia, so the market was not familiar with our services. The market often knows that it has problems, but it doesn’t know that the solutions to these problems are in customer experience. Being the first one in the sphere is exciting, but it is also a very risky decision. 

What helped me greatly at that time was that I became very skilled in strategic marketing, something more familiar to the public. I started to educate Armenian businesses on what strategic marketing is and the importance of customer experience. My approach to work is to always aim to change the status quo and witness the results of these changes. That’s why I chose this path. Every time I see one more Armenian business become customer-oriented with professional customer experience management systems, I feel more motivated to overcome the challenges.

Whitebone is the only qualified experience management company in Armenia. What have been some of your company’s greatest achievements so far?

I think it is important to mention that when we were opening our office, we didn’t have any customers. The projects with Haypost and Vodafone had already been completed, so we were starting from a white page. But, in the last two-three years, we have gained customers from various spheres such as banking, IT, retail, hospitality, architecture, education, accounting and manufacturing. Our customers include companies from the top 100 taxpayers in Armenia. About 95% of our customers come back for our services after we complete one project with them, even though our services usually encompass one-time projects.

As a qualified consultant, we have partnerships with reputable international organizations such as the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). I am also the vice-chair of the Marketing Committee at the ICC.

For now, we are working exclusively with Armenian companies. It was very tempting for us to go after international customers after working with Vodafone Italy, but the strategy was to establish a visible and profound customer base in our country first and later expand internationally. 

You are also a judge for international customer experience awards. What can you tell us about this experience?

In 2019, I decided to write to influential customer experience specialists internationally and ask them for advice on opening my own customer experience company. Among the ones who responded were major standard-setters in the sphere, including Ian Golding, a UK customer experience professional who is a pioneer in the customer experience industry. He offered to have a call and helped me greatly in my professional development. Later, he told me about the opportunity to become a judge in international customer experience awards. I applied, and I passed. In the second year, I was already offered to be a chair judge. This experience gave me the opportunity to network with international professionals in this sphere. Also, by observing the customer experience projects of major international companies, I understand that we are on the right track in Armenia and becoming part of international trends in customer experience. Sometimes, it is very difficult to try to change something when you are the only player, but this experience motivates me to continue pursuing our goals at Whitebone.

How important do you think formal education is for one’s professional development?

I am currently studying for my fourth master’s degree, so that should tell you how important formal education is for me. What I understood throughout these years is that nothing can replace formal education. After MPSIA, I received a master’s degree in marketing and public relations from Yerevan State University. For the past ten years, I have dreamt of obtaining a degree in psychology for my personal and business needs. I believe psychology is extremely important to understand ourselves, the team and the customers. I was waiting for the right time to pursue this degree, but I eventually realized that there was no need to wait for the “right time.” If I need it, I should go and get it, and now, I am a student again. Throughout the years, I have been a lecturer at Yerevan State University and the Russian-Armenian University, and it feels exciting to be a student again. Only one semester has passed, but I already see the results in my job, and I am more motivated every day to continue studying. It’s not about the degree; it’s about the education and professional knowledge.

What are your bigger plans for the future?

First of all, scaling in Armenia: both enlarging our team and expanding the lines of our services and our customer base. Secondly, internationalization, which means both working with international companies and opening branches in other countries. We are also planning to introduce our signature training line in Armenia on customer-centric management and marketing that has never been done before. The purpose is to educate the public about customer-centric strategies and approaches.

How important do you think it is to give back to your community?

I wear AUA’s name with pride. I try to constantly give back to my alma mater and community both through financial means and professional assistance. Contributing to the community is very important, and this entails not only giving back, but also taking responsibility.