“The way I see it, the opportunities outweigh the risks”

#compassionate  #authentic  #open

Susanne Ruoff, CEO of Swiss Post, on digitisation, why the postal service will still have direct contact with customers in the years ahead, why the company has developed a digital signature, and how today’s means of communication are changing management styles and hierarchies.

Text: Sandra Willmeroth | Images: Marc Wetli | Magazin: Trust in the Digital Age – December 2017

Ms Ruoff, Swiss Post is a behemoth with more than 60,000 employees. Which of its business lines are being impacted the most by digitisation?

Virtually all of them, but to varying degrees. The entire company is midst in a transformation, a total makeover..

In 20 years’ time, will we still have post offices with real live people behind the counter? Or just Postomats?

I’m convinced that we’ll always have direct person-to-person contact. The way we go about doing things will of course change, but our customers will forever need and seek out personal interaction with the company. And that’s why we’ll continue to offer it in the most suitable form.

“For us, the responsible handling of data is the greatest commandment.”

Aren’t you concerned that the human dimension goes missing in this omni-digitised world?

No; quite to the contrary: the more we’re digitally on the go, the more our need grows for personal contact. I notice this aura at various events – practically a magnetic field. People have the desire to get together, and they view such gatherings as an enrichment. One needs to strike a clever balance between the digital and the interpersonal dimensions of life.

How does the Post earn the trust of customers in this digital environment?

By making the quality of our services and the satisfaction of our customers the absolute top priorities. Trust is a company’s most valuable asset. It takes a long time to build that trust, and you can lose it in a heartbeat. This presents a tremendous challenge, especially in a digital world where everything is changing so rapidly. We have to earn our customers’ trust each day and with everything we do. We’re fully aware of that.

Susanne Ruoff, born in 1958, has been heading the Swiss Post since 2012. Earlier, she was CEO and Executive Board Member at British Telecom, and also worked at IBM Switzerland, where she was responsible for the Global Technology Services division. She has previously held directorships and foundation mandates from entities such as Geberit, Bedaq, the IBM pension fund and the Industrial Advisory Board of the Department of Informatics at the ETH in Zurich. Susanne Ruoff earned a degree in economics from the University of Freiburg (Switzerland) and later an Executive MBA.

Do you get the feeling that customers have difficulty putting their trust in this brave new world?

To a certain extent. For sure, most people have greater trust in the physical world; but the number of those who really appreciate digital services is on the rise. Our vision is to combine the two worlds – physical and digital.

How does the Post arm itself against cyber risks and hack attacks?

Attacks take place each day, throughout the world, and the frequency is increasing. Our PostFinance subsidiary is the fifth largest bank in Switzerland, so we shepherd a huge amount of confidential customer data. It therefore goes practically without saying that we have a highly robust security mechanism in place. And to get the maximum out of it, we partner with leading-edge institutions like the ETH Zurich, EPF Lausanne and Uni Freiburg in Switzerland. There, our research zeros in on all imagin­able cyber risks and how to defend against them, with the protective measures then being fed into our applications. But in terms of complete, end-to-end security, our customers are also called to action: they need to take preventative measures on their own. And there’s the hitch: customers want to use these services in the easiest and safest way possible. The one criterion is not always easy to combine with the other.

“The limitations of digitisation lie at the point where mankind casts its veto and says: ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

Is digital proof of identity a solution to this dilemma?

We’ve already announced our intention to introduce the digital ID. To that end, we and Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) have initiated a joint venture – SwissSign Ltd. Its goal is to devise a digital signature; in other words, to develop an incontrovertible digital authentication of the user. A variety of services will then be built on that base, each with different security levels and logins.

Speaking of data – what is your stance on the topic of Big Data?

For us, data protection is the greatest commandment and we also adhere to the requirements specified at the European level. The Post has a clearly defined policy which regulates the protection of data as well as the further use of that data. We draw on some of this information for the benefit of customers; for instance, to notify them where their package is at the moment and when it will be delivered. Other data are anonymised and compared to different parameters; for example, to find out if and how online shopping correlates with weather conditions. And then there’s public data, such as transportation schedules and information on disruptions of Postbus operations.

The Swiss Post Ltd (Die Schweizerische Post AG – DSP) is a diversified company comprised of three subsidiaries – Post CH Ltd, PostFinance Ltd and PostBus Ltd – and is active in four markets: communication, logistics, public transport and financial services. The Swiss Confederation is the sole shareholder of DSP. The company employs approximately 60,000 individuals who hail from some 140 countries and are involved in over 100 various lines of work. DSP also trains more than 2000 apprentices in 15 different fields of activity. In 2016, the Post recorded operating income of Swiss francs 8.2 billion and a net profit of Swiss francs 558 million, as well as invested close to Swiss francs 450 million in its further development.


One advantage, or, as it were, disadvantage of the digital world is that people are permanently reachable. How do you personally go about setting the limits of your availability?

If I need some rest and recovery, let’s say in the mountains, I intentionally leave the phone at home.

Has your management style changed along with the move towards digitisation?

Digitisation has transformed hierarchical structures and changed the ways in which people collaborate with each other – and it’s all because of the new means of communication. In the past, one manager got in touch with the next, and the matter was settled. Today, communication flows differently: much faster, on all levels simultaneously, and sometimes virally. This now/today/pronto syndrome has changed the way managers and companies communicate. But my personal management style has basically stayed the same. The way I see it, a manager needs to moderate, animate and at times even dictate. You have to take decisions and state clearly where the company’s journey is heading.

In your opinion, what weighs more: the risks or the opportunities of digitisation?

I’m the type of person who views the glass as being half-full. That’s why I think the chances outweigh the risks in this regard. The world has come closer together. We’re networked, in the now and on top of the latest happenings, even though they might be very far away. New services are cropping up every day to make our life easier, and I, personally, find that positive. Of course there are also downsides involved; for instance, when all of the nasty things in this world are reported instantaneously and the negative headlines and comments dominate the social media. Stuff like that tends to cloud my half-full glass, but each person must figure out on their own how to deal with it.

“Trust has to be earned each day – and with ­everything we do.”

Where do you see the limitations of digitisation?

If I think about what lies ahead of us in terms of artificial intelligence, then I can only conclude that we’ll see a point where mankind casts its veto and says: “Enough is enough – I want to decide that on my own!”

If in fact people are in a position to do so …

This aspect is being overplayed, in my opinion. People are in a position early on to stop such a development. After all, we set the parameters – even for intelligent machines. We have the chance today to do lots of things a lot better. But for that, we need to be agile, keep a watchful eye out, try the new, learn from it, and if necessary toss out the ideas that don’t hold water.

Nevertheless, there exists a certain degree of anxiety about the digital future, wouldn’t you say?

I wouldn’t exactly call it anxiety. It’s more like a case of travel jitters. Changes are neither good nor bad per se, but sometimes they’re perceived as threatening because the ultimate consequences of the new cannot be fathomed yet. In any case, we’re living in very exciting times.

Drones for use in logistics? Swiss Post is considering them for the transport of special consignments. © Schweizerische Post

Susanne Ruoff
Short questions – short answers

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “trust”?
Reliability; certainty; clarity.

Trust is good; control is better – what do you think about that?
There is no such thing as a large enterprise without controls. What’s more, we have laws to abide by, and that requires control mechanisms. But in the everyday interaction between employees and managers, it mainly takes trust.

Which areas of your personal life have been changed the most by digitisation?
The smartphone has changed many dimensions of my life – but not my personal contact with employees, my family and my friends.

Which app is your favourite?
I use a music app as a way of dialling back the noise and simply relaxing now and then. And I especially appreciate the Post app because then I always know the status of my expected deliveries, where the closest letter drop or post office is, when and from where the next Postbus departs, and that I have a fast and easy way of paying my monthly bills!

What kind of wallpaper do you have on your smartphone or laptop?
A photo of the Matterhorn.