Lessons Serial CEOs Wish They Knew When They Started

Dr. James Canton, a futurist, stresses that companies must continually change to survive. “Uber-connectivity, high velocity, real time transactions, IoT and data overwhelm the average company struggling with fragmented technology, data and asynchronous transactions,” Canton recently shared with me. Most leaders, of any generation, are ill-equipped to deal with the multitude of challenges in front of them. There is a handful of successful CEOs that have figured it out and know how to blend intuition with technology and when to abandon traditional practices. I asked Sandra Kurtzig, CEO of Kenandy, a SaaS ERP solution; Keith Krach, CEO of DocuSign, a digital transaction management vendor; Andres Reiner, CEO of PROS, big data software; and Sid Banerjee, CEO of Clarabridge, customer experience software, to share the lessons they’ve learned that shape their leadership and companies. What is striking about all four of these serial success stories is how grounded and personable they are.  Each is driven by a passion to solve customer problems first and foremost followed by building a healthy company. They lead from passion and vision, not from ego. And eagerly shared their top five lessons learned. Be Customer Obsessed All four CEOs are obsessive about being “sticky with customers.” Kurtzig shared that “being close to the customer is paramount. Speed and agility are core requirements to responding to customers, on their terms.” Customers, today, have shorter attention spans and products need to support customer behavior just as much as key capabilities. Focusing on what the customer really needs instead of “trying to build everything into the product” was a lesson for Kurtzig. Her fourth company, named for her two sons Ken and Andy, started by accident like all her companies, to address a glaring need she just couldn’t ignore – the lack of a comprehensive cloud-based ERP software solution. Building the first release is a balancing trap many companies fall into, they either hold off market release believing robustness will be the defining differentiator or they release less than a minimum viable product. Her advice is to actively involve target customers as partners early in the product planning process. An engineer, one of Reiner’s hardest lessons was that the product didn’t matter. Enabling customers is crucial, “while products and technology are important, training and change management are the keys to success,” he shares.  “As a company scales, be watchful to not leave your customers behind.” The language and mindset of these CEOs is well beyond today’s popular customer experience rhetoric.  They expect their teams to not only understand customer behaviors along the entire lifecycle, but to build products that effectively engage those behaviors along the way. As the global standard for digital transaction management, DocuSign’s Krach shares, “We measure our success by our customers’ success.” In fact, all employees are aligned around a single, non-financial performance metric indicative of customer success: Successful Transactions.  And by aligning the company around this critical metric with everyone laser focused on ensuring the customer’s ability to successfully transact business on The DocuSign Global Trust Network, the company saw more successful transactions in 2014 than the previous, and its first, 10 years in business. While PROS is in the big data space, Reiner’s focus is no longer on features/functions but on how big data enables customers with recommendations and actions at key moments.  He believes that enablement drives consistent customer experience while increasing agility, for his company as well his customers. It's All About People A common characteristic of these four CEOs is a passion for employees and culture.  Having the right skill mix for each stage of the company’s growth was a key lesson each learned. Kurtzig believes in mixing the generations.  “Millenniums have high expectations of how software should perform. They bring a consumer mindset to enterprise applications. While seasoned employees bring deep experience and adult supervision,” she shares. “You need both.” Banerjee’s lesson is that people can make or break you, “invest heavily in finding and retaining the smartest people to work for you.” Along with building a culture rooted in accountability, “it’s important that team members understand why people succeed or fail. There are weak links and you have to move them into a different role or out of the organization,” shares Banerjee. “A culture of complete transparency, where everyone knows who’s accountable for what and how they are progressing is essential for high-growth companies.” Krach furthers, “The company with the best people wins.” Krach makes a habit of – and encourages his team to – “surround yourself with people who are better than you.” Kill Silos From The Start As companies hit the growth curve, knowing how to manage sales, training and employee onboarding in addition to products and customers is crucial. One of Reiner’s lessons was the dampening effect silos have on growth.  “Silo-prevention has to be part of the culture,” shares Reiner. “And that starts with leadership.”  For him, preventing silos comes down to hiring smart people that leave their egos at the door. “Diversity creates strong organizations where people naturally help each other,” stresses Reiner. “That, along with growing people from within by moving them across departments and roles, builds deep connections and empathy.” His advice is to look for people who measure their success by how well peer teams achieve their goals.  The bottom line is that all employees must model the desired behavior. Keep Life In Balance Krach emphasizes that humor is core to his leadership model. It keeps teams together and motivated through the inevitable bad times as well as the good times.  “Keep the vision in front of everyone,” shares Krach along with “don’t take yourself too seriously and keep a healthy work/life balance.” He’s quick to show you pictures of his children as well as the mementos from team building and company meetings. Kurtzig shares the same principle of keeping one foot solidly in family and life.  Family is priority and she actively seeks the input and advice of her sons. She does readily admit that being an engaged CEO and maintaining balance is hard.  Any C-Suite executive who claims to have ‘nailed balance’ is either not doing their job or delusional. Watch Trends More Than Competitors Keeping a close eye on the market while forging new paths is a lesson all shared.  Before Kurtzig started development of Kenandy’s first ERP application, she looked at Oracle, SAP, Google and Microsoft technology foundations.  Convinced the platforms were not future-ready, she (with some prodding by Mark Benioff of Salesforce) decided on Force.com. Her advice is to “keep a close watch on market trends” and don’t get too attached to your technology. “Take risks. In today’s market, proven methods are not always the best methods,” Kurtzig stresses. “If an emerging trend looks strong and is better than what you’re working with, embrace it.” Competition, viewed the right way, makes your company better because it forces the team to step up.  “At the same time, it’s important to focus a company on its own strengths and its own strategic vision, rather than being overly consumed with what the competition is doing,” stresses Banerjee. “It’s important to closely monitor the competition but not to the extent that it derails your strategy or causes the team to become destructive.” The Net, Net These five lessons are not what most readers might have expected.  Raising capital, hiring the first VP of Sales or Marketing, finding those initial customers, managing a board – none of these topics came up. These lessons were, in retrospect, the things these CEOs wish they knew when they started out. “You’re going to make mistakes,” Kurtzig emphasizes. “Learn from them.”  Banerjee offers six additional pieces of advice:

  1. Conserve cash
  2. Get comfortable with conflict and confrontation
  3. Be highly adaptive and flexible, especially with people
  4. Surround yourself with a support system of seasoned CEOs
  5. Don’t solve problems for your team, let them do it themselves
  6. When you’ve stopped growing personally, it’s time to move on.

Why Sales Just Can’t “Show Me The Money”

The engine of every company is customer acquisition. Customers translate into revenue which fuels job creation, investment and shareholder value. Without customers there is no business. They are the fly wheel of economies and societies. While everyone in an organization has a role in customer relationships, finding and winning customers largely falls on the shoulders of Sales. Even in today’s era of self-service, Sales plays an important role. Somebody needs to follow up on inquiries, build a relationship with the buyer, provide pricing, and close the deal. To that end, Sales’ is always in the CEO’s crosshairs. For the simple reason that despite billions being spent annually on technology, training and recruiting – the percentage of sales reps that meet quota has stubbornly remained at 50 percent for years, if not decades. The culprit lies in Sales hanging on to old habits and inadequate enablement. The combination foretells of a looming crisis that will leave no company untouched. The primary reasons for Sales’ ongoing struggle, according to Qvidian’s Sales Execution Trends 2015 Report, are:

  • Inability to effectively communicate value
  • Slow sales rep ramp up time
  • Inaccurate pipeline forecasts
  • Disconnected systems
The pressure is on. Companies want increased win rates (94 percent of respondents) and improved quota attainment (87 percent). Yet, the study found that over 40 percent of opportunities end in ‘no decision’. That translates into even more pressure on Sales to win new accounts (59%), up-/cross-sell into existing accounts (43%), and improve the win rate of forecasted deals (35%). The root cause of the looming crisis is the growing gap between sales’ behaviors and customer expectations. According to the study, over 55 percent of companies do not clearly understand the customer’s buying process. “The disconnect between what the buyer wants and what the sales rep provides is at the crux of a persistent problem: The strategy and sales execution gap,” shares Christopher Faust, Qvidian’s Chief Marketing Officer. “Increasing lack of sales alignment with buyers and failures to provide real added value to the customer contribute to the cycle of inefficiency.” That forces sales manager to routinely perform unnatural acts in order to generate the expected revenue the organization needs. Leaving little time for real-time coaching and reinforcement (24% of respondents), sales reps are left to figure it out for themselves. That translates into an average ramp up time of 7 to 9 months until they are fully productive. Reducing ramp time is a top objective of sales organizations but that requires more than just better training on customer buying behaviors and expectations. Sales reps face a work environment in which over 70 percent of them are expected to work with multiple systems that are not streamlined or connected. The inability to find the right content or tools and collaborate with successful reps to learn best practices directly impacts Sales’ ability to effectively communicate value (41 percent) which impacts quota attainment. All of these factors contribute to the persistent problem of inaccurate pipeline forecasting. Businesses make key decisions based on pipeline forecasts and when those forecasts are routinely incorrect the dampening effect on the business is real in terms of slower than possible growth. 22 percent of the study’s respondents reported inaccurate pipeline forecast as a top challenge despite having deployed a CRM system to streamline sales complexity and lead tracking. The recent rise of sales analytics hasn’t helped solve the problem either. On average, 42 percent of organizations reported their analytics solutions do not meet their needs, if they even have one. With manual reports and high level dashboards, the level of insight management and the rest of the company needs in order to help Sales just isn’t available. And that leaves the sales rep flying blind. Not knowing what the buyer’s process is, the sales rep isn’t clear on what the most effective next action is, what content the buyer really wants, when the buyer takes an action that requires an immediate response, and how to build a trusted, valued relationship, on the buyer’s terms. There is no silver bullet to fix this situation. Companies first need to face the facts and get real about becoming customer aligned. It’s not a marketing campaign or a HR slogan, it’s a transformation. From there, the steps to improve Sales’ ability to perform include:
  • Integrate, streamline and mobile-enable systems so Sales can work smarter.
  • Spoon feed Sales reps the data they need, dynamically, and in context of the deal at hand.
  • Train Sales on customer journeys and equip them with tools, coaching, and guides.
  • Customize content and deploy sales playbook technology.
  • Implement neuro-linguistic programming-based coaching.
The time is now for Sales leaders to demand their organizations step into the Customer Economy and, as part of that, reinvent their sales strategy and execution to deliver “the money” predictably. First published on Forbes

Tearing Down The Silos That Cloud Apps Create

The Cloud is a wonderful thing.  For companies, departments, teams and employees it means freedom and, to a degree, self-determination. They can quickly find and start using applications that empower them to be more creative, efficient, collaborative, and competitive. Free to tap into virtually any SaaS application without IT involvement, the era of the Cloud has unleashed waves of productivity and innovation.   Read the rest of the Forbes post here.

Salesforce Opens The Door To Competitors

When <a href="http://www.salesforce.com/">Salesforce.com</a> was launch in 2000, it revolutionized the software industry and the cloud movement was born.  While the motto was ‘the end of software’, back in those days the company was also all redefining CRM /SFA (sales force automation).  The Salesforce promise was its application was designed for and to help sales people be more effective.  A message that resonated with sales leaders since Clarify and Siebel were basically sales management reporting applications masquerading as CRM platforms. As this $5 Billion company grew, it changed from a SaaS application provider to a platform provider.  For good reason, platforms have stronger staying power in a rapidly evolving market.  As more application vendors build on Force.com, the platform becomes sticker and revenue more predictable.  It’s a nice business to be in. In that transformation to a platform provider, Salesforce opened the door to upstart competitors that could seed its demise.  That door is their SFA/CRM application. The very application that was built for sales people has not kept up with the needs of sales.  Today’s complaints about the application sound haunting familiar to those made about Clarify and Siebel over a decade ago: Cumbersome, not intuitive, problematic reliability, and difficult to customize. Not good considering the state of sales performance. Accenture’s latest report – <a href="http://www.accenture.com/salesspeed">Powering Profitable Sales Growth</a> – points out that in 2014, "just six in 10 (59%) sales representatives are expected to achieve his/her quota, down from 67% in 2013.”  That costs companies, according to Accenture and CSO Insights, 3.2 percent in potential revenue. Contributing to the decline is sales performance is that "only 51 percent of sales organizations use a formal step-by-step selling process, only eight percent have a formal sales methodology implemented, sales teams spend less than 40 percent of their time selling, and less than 20 percent use analytics to spot cross-sell opportunities or at-risk customers. Recapturing this potential revenue requires a combination of training, technology-enabled sales tools and better use of data and analytics.  “The combination of mobility, the cloud, sales analytics and cutting-edge content management has created a new opportunity to enhance the performance of the average sales performer,” said <a href="http://www.accenture.com/us-en/company/people/Pages/robert-wollan.aspx">Robert Wollan</a>, global managing director, <a href="http://www.accenture.com/us-en/strategy/Pages/index.aspx">Accenture Strategy</a>, <a href="http://www.accenture.com/us-en/strategy/sales-customer-services-crm/Pages/sales-customer-services-crm-index.aspx">Sales &amp; Customer Service</a>.  “This opportunity is being missed, and companies need to improve their focus on the right combination of these resources to help improve competitiveness and deliver higher sales and margins.” An opportunity that Salesforce, SAP, Oracle and Microsoft have missed as each diversified, broadly, its focus and mission. Walking through that open door is a handful of upstart competitors like <a href="http://www.pipelinersales.com/">Pipeliner CRM</a> and <a href="https://getbase.com/">Base</a>. Pipeliner CRM has three guiding principles: Flexibility, simplicity, and visualization.  According to <a href="http://www.pipelinersales.com/company/team/eric-quanstrom/">Eric Quanstrom</a>, CMO, “[tweet_quote display="People absorb visual information 60,000 times faster than tired, tabular data"]People absorb visual information 60,000 times faster than tired, tabular data[/tweet_quote] . It is through our highly graphical interface that much of the complexity in sales data is eliminated.”  Unlike the majority of SaaS applications vendors, this new breed of CRM vendors use growth-hacking techniques to rapidly evolve their products to meet their users changing needs and usage behaviors. That doesn’t mean the Cloud application is functionally lightweight. It supports multiple configurable pipelines where users can do things like: set up a sales pipeline for better lead management and nurturing, a business development pipeline for managing partner or channel recruitment, and a “market influencer” pipeline for tracking and managing customer evangelists and advocates.  Managing multiple pipelines more accurately reflects how organization’s value chains work and their linkages to revenue generation. Sales performance is enabled by providing visual analytics and eliminating as much data entry as possible, as Pipeliner CRM does with their Buying Center. New to CRM, this feature pops a visual face onto the organization salespeople sell into. “No salesperson works as an island. Our app has built-in ways for every member of the sales team to be on the same page, which includes being able to quickly spot the budget holders, gatekeepers, influencers, and other roles are in every deal,” said Quanstrom. Baked into the application are robust predictive analytics that provide out-of-the-box intelligence on deals, sales opportunities, lead management, sales time utilization, and automated alerts to help employees, in any department, focus on the right things. Quanstrom calls it the “See it. Zero in. Do it.” model . No full-time administrator is needed since the application is maintained through internal crowd-sourced administration features. By eliminating time-consuming complexity with drag-and-drop ease as well as lots of customer data entry through APIs with over 40 applications like accounting and marketing automation applications, Pipeliner CRM enables companies to set up their system to mirror their actual sales methodology and evolve it to stay in lock step with company change. Another competitor is <a href="https://getbase.com/tour/">Base</a> which positions itself as an intelligent sales productivity platform.  A web and mobile application focused on functionality that understands the context of what a sales person is doing.   The application’s goal is to be ‘one-stop’ and offers functionality Sales need to manage the lifecycle of a lead and do their jobs, from email through analytics and performance coaching. What’s striking about Base is the user-interface; think consumer–grade user experience meets enterprise application.  All functionality is mobile native, from lead scoring, analytics to sales opportunity bottleneck and sales call / territory visit mapping.  <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/in/uzish">Uzi Shmilovici</a>, Base’s CEO and founder, started the company to raise the bar in how sales teams are enabled and managed.   The problem he wants to eliminate is that Sales typically logs into seven systems to get the information they need to do their jobs well. His first rule was that everything must be visual, fast, intuitive and easy to use.  The second rule was it must support a company’s workflow processes while also enabling real-time, in-the-deal coaching to improve each sales person’s productivity based on their unique strengths and weakness. Both companies are young and have raised enough money and paying customers to prove there is a huge unmet need in the marketplace.  With their eyes set on market share and the growing dissatisfaction with Sales Cloud, these and other upstarts could turn Salesforce’s strength in their Achilles heel. That is the price for leaving the door open, Salesforce.   First posted in my Forbes Blog.

Training is Sales and Marketing’s BlindSpot

Despite rapid advances in technology like Big Data, behavior based marketing automation, customer engagement platforms and intent data through content consumption marketing; the lament of CEOs and Boards of Directors on the ineffectiveness of marketing is growing.   Their beef with marketing is over a disconnect between budget, priorities, and revenue ROI.   For CEOs the only thing that matters is revenue – driving quality leads, getting sales in front of the prospect, and helping them to close the deal.  While every CEO likes to see his or herself on TV and mentioned in print, in the end their own jobs depend on meeting revenue numbers.  The vagaries of marketing’s metrics around visitors, conversions, likes, etc.  and the black art of attribution doesn’t create a sense of formulaic predictability CEOs are looking for. While much of the conversation is focused on marketing’s challenges, Sales is not immune from the same complaints.  In the era of the customer and social selling, CEOs are baffled by less sales productivity where more is expected.  The battle over lead follow up, forecast accuracy, opportunity aging and understanding the customer’s needs should be won already rather than becoming harder.  Sales methodologies have been changed, predictive technology that helps Sales to respond more effectively to customers based on behavior patterns has been implemented, and coaches employed to work mano-a-mano with sales teams. No one is claiming that the world of B2B marketing and sales has gotten easier and that technology makes these jobs a cake-walk.  Nor is the claim that CEOs and Boards are, more or less, unreasonable or forgiving than in years gone by.  But it does beg the question why Sales and Marketing keep struggling. One reason is training – or the lack thereof. According to ANA and McKinsey’s 2014 Marketing Disruption study, 77% of marketers recognize that they need to deeply understand customer journeys and how to align their programs to them. Yet only 13% “have reached a point where they’re taking action and achieving measurable impact.”   What’s holding marketers back from stepping up is a dogged addition for outdated best practices and marketing models but also an alarming reticence to invest in learning new skills and methods. According to ANA/McKinsey, 89% of marketers admit that training and skills development is critical to being successful in the future.  Yet training investment are anemic and often the first line item to be cut when funds get tight.  No wonder a third of marketers are unable to make data-driven decisions and don’t know what tools to use or how to use them. Sales believes in training but has not evolved their content to meet the needs of front-line sales staff.   Brainshark’s recent State of Sales Training study highlights a startling discrepancy between what needs to get done and what’s actually getting done. For example, 38% of sales training professionals say their organization’s training content needs quarterly updates. However, 42% say that, in reality, their organization’s training content gets updated once a year at best – leaving them open to inconsistent, incorrect and/or outdated messaging, and even potential compliance violations. “Engaging, timely content that is accessible when needed is vital to sales training and overall sales success,” said Brainshark Inc. CEO Joe Gustafson. “The survey results highlight a great opportunity for organizations to meet this need – with stimulating sales content that’s both easy to access and consume. For organizations, this often means taking advantage of rapid content authoring and updating capabilities and ensuring just-in-time training delivery – to make sure that training works and sticks, and help reps be better prepared to close more deals.” Part of the problem is that the most prevalent methods of sales training for organizations today include: Live classroom training (80%), live Web conferencing (65%), on-demand training (67%), video (49%) and social learning (28%).  Struggles related to live training include:

  • Difficulties aligning schedules (61%)
  • Reps easily distracted (45%)
  • Lack of coaching and reinforcement (35% and 36% respectively)
  • Lack of rep engagement (36%)
  The track record for on-demand training isn’t much better.  Organizations face challenges including deadlines not met (25%) and an inability to track completion/progress (23%). Both Marketing and Sales need to get with the times and deliver ongoing training, coaching and onboarding support in order to effectively understand and respond to customer lifecycle engagement expectations, increasing uncertainty and digital transformation.  While in-classroom training will never lose its effectiveness, it needs to be supported with just-in-time, bite sized consumable training units. According to the Brainshark study, the two areas where pace-setters are reversing the skill gap are with video and mobile-based learning.  “Consider providing just-in-time learning content within the context of workflow as a form of performance support,” shares Joan Babinski, VP of Corporate Marketing, Brainshark. “So when reps have to do somewhat tedious or confusing processes, give them content that can pop up on their screen right when they need it – rather than making them wade through materials or try to recall hours of previous training.” For training to be effective, it needs to be viewed as a strategic enabler. While who owns the training problem may vary within any organization, all parts of the organization have to align and work together to improve training content effectiveness.  As long as Sales and marketing don’t address the link between training, performance, and meeting customer engagement expectations, the greater this blindspot will result in a redefinition of their perceived value; one neither function will relish.   First published in my Forbes blog "Outside the Box"