Creating Communication Tools for Developers

Software_developers_working_computer_thumb800Bill Gates said that “[he will] choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it”.  According to Larry Wall and several others, one of the greatest virtues of a developer is their inherent laziness. Since their early days, SoCast Digital has used this to their advantage.  Sanford Liu, Co-Founder, CTO & AceTech Ontario member, explains “I know it sounds terrible, but I think it’s a great way of thinking about it; programmers develop code so they can do less work in the future. One of my goals when I bring new developers onto the team is to make their work easier and less complicated”.

One of the benefits of being a technology company is that if there isn’t a workflow software out there that suits your needs, you can task your programmers with either developing one that does, or adding to an already existing software.  SoCast has taken that opportunity and combined it with internal in-person meetings between teams for seamless communication within the company.  “I think one of the things developers dislike doing the most is having to report on the projects they are working on,” explains Sanford, “as a result, we’ve built custom reports so that there’s transparency to the developers’ productivity and their work.  Only the executive managers can access these reports and they can do it without having to constantly ask developers to do this manually”.  This innovation has not only freed up some of their developers’ time, it has allowed them to scale without making it too cumbersome for their development team and their managers.  This way the company can see what projects are waiting to be worked on, what’s being fast-tracked, what’s completed, etc. for each team.

Without a similar software, many technology companies struggle with inter-team communications, and this is true for others outside the development team as well.  “You might be lucky and have someone who’s technically minded or has a strong technical background in your client services team or your sales team”, explains Sanford, “but even with someone who’s technically savvy, if they’re not a programmer, then they’re not going to understand a lot of the content that’s coming out of the development team and vice versa as well”.  Without communication between teams, developers will often guess at the feedback the company is receiving from clients.  These estimations often end up being the foundation for key enhancements to the company’s software. Customers will also ask client services what they are launching next, and they either make an assumption or are unable to answer the question altogether.  “By setting up some automated work flows and utilizing the suite of software we’ve now integrated, we’ve made it a lot easier for both teams to get what they want,” says Sanford.  The software also assists in making sure that projects A, B and C are completed by teams X and Y before they proceed to the next stage.  This ensures that the various teams are at the same stage of any given project.

However, Sanford reiterates that the software is not enough.  As noted earlier, the teams have regular meetings to discuss the workflow.  These touch point meetings between various teams are structured in such a way where everyone knows what they are supposed to bring to the meeting and what they are supposed to get out of it.  Sanford admits that they do receive occasional pushback regarding these meetings.  Salespeople could argue that they can better use this time towards closing deals or making calls, and developers could be spending this time coding instead of explaining the new plans to develop.  SoCast has ensured a way to address these concerns: “I think the key to making sure that everyone stays involved and stays engaged is making sure that everyone gets something out of the meeting”, explains Sanford, “So for instance on the sales side, this meeting should help our sales team sell; it should give them more things to discuss with clients and help their monthly commission quota.  Then it’s worthwhile for them to be a part of that meeting”.  In addition, developers can go into a meeting thinking that they have to complete tasks X, Y and Z, but upon hearing the feedback from clients, they only have to complete X and Z.

Sanford emphasizes how critical communication and communication structures are, and how many companies – technology especially – struggle to have it flow between teams.  Success in business is greatly impacted by the ways in which we communicate.

Why do we hate (our own) sales people?

Contribution Blog Post by Pete Smith, Managing Partner at the Meaford Group, Friend of AceTech and AceTech Roundtable Leader.

Last week, the Globe and Mail featured an article “Companies struggle with shortage of sales talent” which I believe was suppose to feature a new program at Wilfrid Laurier University. This new program has been created to teach sales training, something not traditionally taught by universities. Unfortunately, the article got derailed and took on a focus of the shortage of sales talent in Canada with Vidyard being displayed as the poster child for the problem. Given the nasty comments the article garnered, I suspect CEO Michael Litt probably wishes he had passed on giving that interview.

That said, the Globe article, along with a recent tweet by Shawna Calderwood of an article I wrote in 2011 entitled: Why do we hate (our own) sales people?, has prompted me to think it would be worth re-posting it today. So, from my 2011 archives, here it is:

Why do we hate (our own) sales people?

Have you ever noticed that in a company there often seems to be jealously, almost bordering on hatred, for the company’s own sales team? Ever noticed the derogatory jokes being told about the sales team; the stereotyping of them as not knowing their product; their lack of attention to detail;  their being motivated only by commissions, or their being shallow and self-centred? In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, they just “don’t get no respect”. Why does that happen, given that this team is the life blood of the company? If they don’t sell, the rest of the company doesn’t work.

There is a great article in the Economist “The Art of Selling” that states that, “Reports of the death of the salesman has been greatly exaggerated”. The article raises the question why isn’t there a Chief Sales Officer (CSO) in most companies, sitting at the executive table next to the CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, and even now the CPO (Chief People Officer). Instead this person is often disguised with titles like EVP of Global Operations, Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Customer Officer, etc. Is it that distasteful or politically incorrect to admit that a company has to sell its products to survive?

I currently am re-reading Lou Gerstner’s book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” and was reminded that at IBM, their sales people were called Marketing Reps up until the 1990’s (I still have my business card from the 1980’s) . Think about the number of sales reps you encounter today whose job function is hidden behind the title Account Executive, Account Manager, or Client Manager. Think about the number of people whose business cards read Regional Sales Manager, Sales Director or even VP Sales, yet don’t have a sales staff working for them. All of these people are sales reps, yet all want to try and hide it from their customers because many seem to be embarrassed by their chosen profession.

What is the impact of this Corporate Inferiority Complex that we have cast on to our sales people?

One of the best sales reps that I have ever met was not confused or embarrassed by his job description. On more than one occasion, I heard him explain to a prospective customer that, “his job was to sell and their job was to buy” and if they weren’t interested or ready to buy, the implied message was “don’t waste my time”. This sounds harsh and plays into the stereotype of the dreaded salesperson but his message was that for interested customers, he would go to the moon and back to educate them, service them and get them value for their purchase; but if you were just tire-kicking or didn’t have the authority or influence to make the decision then he couldn’t afford to spend time with them. In sales jargon, this is called “qualifying the prospect”. Yet I have seen so many “Account Managers”, “Account Executives”, etc waste time doing things in the name of customer satisfaction for people who have no intention or ability to become a customer in the foreseeable future. Did their job title confuse them as to what their job really is?

A myth I see in a lot of companies is that the sales reps are overpaid, underworked and often only a bystander to the sale. They are the ones who take clients to lunch or dinner, often with a technical person dragged along to answer all the customer’s questions. They are the ones who attend the fancy conferences and schmooze with the customer’s executives. Meanwhile, the rest of the team write the proposals, answer all the technical questions, do the demonstrations, and design and deliver the conference room pilots, yet the sales rep gets paid the big commissions.

So what does a sales rep really do?

Well, it seems that they do a lot. Just ask one of those many sales support people  after they have decided to become a sales rep. They are the ones who were often making the derogatory jokes about how easy it is to be in sales, until they became the salesperson. My experience is that two out of three aren’t successful or if they are, they don’t like it and go back to their old job. All of them will tell you it is a harder job than they originally thought but they can’t really tell you why. They will talk about the pressure to perform, the black and white accountability for results, the intensity and the weight of carrying a team of support people on their back. They will talk about the lack of job description or job clarity. Anything the customer needs, whether reasonable or not, which is not part of someone else’s job description, falls to them to solve. They will talk about how hard the travel is, even though it seemed like a bonus when they weren’t doing it. Finally, they will talk about how hard it is to like some customers, even when they are totally unlikeable, because it is your job to like all customers so they will buy more from you.

So if you are a CEO of a startup and designing your organization, here are some suggestions on building your culture:

  • Make sales a proud profession in your culture because if you don’t sell, you are dead.
  • Don’t tolerate the derogatory jokes or snide remarks about your sales reps. Squash the people making them or better yet, make them a sales rep for a while.
  • Don’t confuse people with job titles. Sales people are hired to sell. Call them that. If a person is worried about having sales in their job title, then they probably do not have the right DNA.
  • Train them. There aren’t college or university courses on Sales as there are for Marketing, HR, Finance, Accounting or Engineering. You can’t hire a person with a Bachelor of Science in Sales so the onus is on you to equip them with the skills required – from making their first sales call to negotiating a complex sales contract.
  • Pay them a lot. If they get rich, so does your company. These are your top performers. Don’t begrudge them their BMW’s

Sales is the hardest part of a company. The reasons are subtle, especially for those not in the profession. As a CEO, don’t underestimate the challenges that managing this crucial component of your business will bring.

Why Your Company Needs a Customer Success Team

Picture1Believe it or not, the idea of customer success is not a new concept.  The work of Customer Success Managers (CSM) have been around for a long time, but it was never formally named. The concept has really come into fruition with the development of the SaaS model, however people are still struggling with the concept.  So we sat down with Jamie Cappelli, VP Client Success at 360insights to gain a better understanding.

Under the traditional sales model, customers pay a large License and Service fee upfront to own and implement software.  This model usually includes a Support and Maintenance contract for 3-4 years and unfortunately tends to promote a culture that typically only engages with customers when it comes time to discuss renewal.

Under a SaaS model, the customer rents the software paying less upfront, but has higher recurring payments.   With the cost of customer acquisition, a SaaS company will only break even after the first year of a customer contract and turn a profit in the second year. Since contracts with a SaaS company are typically year to year, or even month to month, customer retention is vital in order for the company to cover the cost of sale.  This is where the Customer Success team comes in.

“Customer Success is an attitude and the whole company needs to buy in”, says Jamie.  “In a SaaS environment, if you haven’t planned for a Customer Success program, I can guarantee that one will be imposed on you when customers start churning out.”

A Customer Success team is only one part of a value-focused company.  First, Product and R&D need to develop a solution that creates a value proposition for a customer.  Then Sales department exposes that value proposition to prospects and gets them to take that leap of faith.  Once the prospect becomes a customer, the Services department delivers the value as quickly as possible.  Customer Support assists when the value is interrupted.  The CSM is the value quarterback.  CSMs advocate and facilitate on behalf of the customer to maintain the value as well as look for opportunities to grow.  A CSM’s goal is to make sure that the solution is essential to a customer’s operations.

“Job 1 for a CSM – making sure that your customers stay customers”, says Jamie, “and customer retention is easy if the customer sees value for their money.  Making sure that customers see value is not something a CSM can do on their own.”  A solid Customer Success program has the whole company working together to deliver value, which ultimately results in trust – and trust will lead to new opportunities.

“A common mistake is to look past all of the essential elements of a Customer Success program and target the upsell/cross sell opportunities”, says Jamie.  “If your customer isn’t getting what they paid for, they likely won’t be a customer for long and are certainly not going to be buying more of what you have to offer. ”.

With an effective Customer Success program, the customer feels that they can trust your organization with their investment and that the investment will return a promised value.  As a result, a customer is much more willing to renew and invest in more products and services.  If a CSM is shoring up that trust, then a CSM inevitably becomes an Account Manager’s best friend as well as the best source for leads within existing accounts.

Jamie likes use Netflix as an example of a company that delivers seamless Customer Success.  When you sign up for Netflix, you see the value of your purchase straight away since you have immediate access to content.  While not every implementation can be that fast, it is the time-to-value that every Customer Success program should target.  As you continue to pay for your monthly subscription, your virtual “Customer Success Managers” get to know you better and what you value.  They start to tailor and suggest content to you – this increases use and adoption.  Initiatives like this will improve retention since the experience is personalized without the cost and headaches of being customized.

Another thing that Netflix does is watch their customers’ preferences and takes them into account when developing content, which is what you want to be doing from a product development perspective.  Similar to HBO, Netflix developed its own unique content to drive retention however, unlike HBO, it combined unique content with an understanding of customer usage patterns.  Netflix has capitalized on the phenomenon of binge watching. Netflix shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black release a whole season on one day, allowing their customers to watch as they please.

What is interesting about the Netflix model is that it demonstrates how Customer Success can become a corporate-wide initiative that results in a culture that is focused on customer-perceived-value.  Netflix has managed to deliver value and high retention rates without meeting with customers individually.  “If you are building your Customer Success program, you need to focus on one thing – value.  Customers should be able to easily quantify the ROI without a lot of mental gymnastics.  Everyone in your organization should be able to deliver the elevator pitch,” explains Jamie, “If you want to operate a healthy SaaS company, understanding the impediments to value velocity is paramount.  Time-to-value is a critical KPI.  If it takes a year before the customer can actually see the value of their investment, that’s not very SaaS-y.  If an upgrade or a new release is as painful as a new implementation, that’s not very SaaS-y.  Most organizations struggle with measuring time-to-value because they are not clear on the value proposition so they don’t when they are winning.”.