Thursday, August 8, 2013

How I failed at sales and services...and what I learned from it

I haven't posted to my blog since I left Utah and came to Seattle to work for Amazon. It has been a little more than 5 months and I miss writing, but I have been awfully busy. I love my new job, I love the area, and our family is treating this move as a new adventure.

I was lying in bed tonight trying to get to sleep when I realized a truth about myself and my career that had missed until now. I pulled out my computer right away to capture my thoughts before they were washed away by a night of sleep. Hopefully my story will help someone out there who falls into the same profile as I do. I know it may seem to have very little to do with BI, but I think it teaches a lesson that can be applied within any discipline.

I did not get into Professional Services by choice, I was led there by the skills I was blessed with in this life. I studied Computer Science in college and expected to get a job as a typical programmer upon graduation. I figured I would code for my entire life and never work closely with customers. But unlike many programmers, I love talking and have a gift for explaining technical concepts to people without a technical background.

In the final interview for my first job coming out of college, the interviewer decided to recommend me for a position that required direct interaction with customers. I accepted a position writing customized code to exchange data between my company's proprietary system and and other systems used by our clients. This position required me to work very closely with our clients to design exactly how the data would move within their environment so that the solution I built would meet their needs. I spent a great deal of time on-site with customers as well as on the phone.

While I enjoyed the team on which I worked as well as the actual coding, I was not good at customer service. As a programmer, I felt that the customers didn't understand what I did and when things went wrong I often blamed them for my problems. Now, I never did it to their faces, but in hindsight what I did was almost as bad. I wanted new challenges and so I ended up with too much work to be effective and made both myself and my customers miserable. The quality of the code I wrote was good and I worked very hard, so I actually got great evaluations and was considered a valuable asset.

After 5 years, it was time for me to move to a position where I could focus on programming. I moved to a data visualization start-up as a Java developer and was happy to code with no interruptions from customers. However, after less than a year, I was asked to help get a Professional Services team up and running. Clients were having trouble implementing our software and so a team was being created to enable more sales by assisting in that process. Remembering my previous struggles with customers, I cautiously accepted an offer to spend 6 months on this new team. I enjoyed the challenge presented by each new client, but again I found the interaction with them bothersome. They always demanded more than I felt I was able to provide and I struggled to avoid ugly confrontations over unrealistic expectations. Again, hard work and technical ability covered for my poor customer skills and I was viewed as being successful in that role.

Once the 6 months came to an end, I gladly returned to product development. Interestingly enough, my knowledge of what customers expected from our software made me a better engineer and I thrived during this time. But after only 6 months, an opportunity came up that changed the course of my career. Our company was launching a sales initiative in Europe and needed a Sales Engineer to help in the effort. I knew almost nothing about sales, but they offered me the job because I knew the software as well as anyone and could talk to customers without tripping over myself. Little did I know at the time, how closely sales and services were related and that I was headed for my greatest professional failure.

I loved my job. It was exciting and exotic and I was having a great time. The sales team I worked with was awesome and we worked hard and played hard together. I was travelling to Europe every other month and recruiting partners to help us sell and implement our software. The challenge was overwhelming, many people told me that we could never be successful in the short-term. That only made me work harder to prove them wrong and to find success in the new part of my career. Six months in, I was at dinner in Rome with my Sales Director when that world came crashing down.

The home office called to let him know that he was being let go. A few days later, I was back in the office and being told that I would not be able to stay in sales. The European efforts were being scaled back significantly and there were no other positions available. The VP of Sales told me that he had been planning to let me go, but that the Services team had an opening and would take me back. As a young father with 4 children and a wife at home, I accepted the move to Services, but inside I was seething. I thought that the VP must be blind not to see my talents, what he would lose by taking me out of a sales role. I vowed to find a new job as soon as possible. It took 6 months of careful searching, but once I found an alternative I took it without a second thought.

The new job was a poor fit to say the least. I ended up as a BI Engineer in charge of implementing the software of the company that I had just left for one of their largest clients. Instead of looking within to understand why the VP of Sales had not seen me as indispensable, I turned to what I knew was a safe job. I actually enjoyed several aspects of that job, but after two years I needed a change. What came next was a crazy ride that taught me a great deal about who I really am.

My previous employer had been acquired by a very aggressive new start-up that wanted to change the face of BI. I wanted badly to be a part of what they were doing and reached out to my former co-workers looking for a fit. I wanted to get back into Sales, but they were in stealth mode and didn't need Sales Engineers. So, by several twists and turns, I ended up back in Services. The Client Services organization was run by some very smart people and was well-organized, but I still had not learned from my past failures. I took on too many responsibilities and tried to maneuver my way into Sales while I should have been focused on execution of the work in front of me. Once again, my technical abilities and hard work kept me from drowning completely, but I was miserable. I was working 80 or more hours a week and dreading work each morning.

This time, I didn't have to look for an exit. A recruiter from reached out to me when I was at a low point. I wasn't quite sure why, but I responded to her message and before I knew it I was living in Seattle. Once again, I am a BI Engineer, but this time I love it. Amazon is a great place to work and the environment fits me very well. I still have a ton to learn and I make all kinds of mistakes, but I am learning and enjoying myself.

So what is he point of this story? Only through the lens of what I have experienced could I truly understand what it is like to work for the world's most customer-centric company. To be great at Sales or Services, you must want to serve your customers. They can never be seen an annoyance or an obstacle. What they want and need must be at the center of everything you do. The real challenge for you is to make their problems your problems and partner with them to solve them as equals.

In Sales, prospects who feel you understand their needs will be much more willing to listen. In Services, customers who know that your number one priority is their satisfaction. Clever and talented as you may be, you can never fully succeed with customers unless you care more about them than you do about your own bottom line.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Data About Your Customers is so Valuable

Having spent a good portion of my professional career working directly with clients, I have learned a lot about what their expectations are when they engage a consultant. Simply put, business clients purchase software and services with the expectation that their company will benefit in ways that outweigh the costs. From a sales and marketing perspective, service providers need to assure prospective customers that their offering will provide more return and better value than the offerings of their competitors.

The vast majority of money spent in public-sector businesses ultimately leads back to consumer purchases. In many cases there is a complex hierarchy of solutions and services that support that buying activity, but in the end the trail leads back to a consumer purchase. Whatever part a particular company may play in this process, to be successful they must understand what motivates their customers (businesses or consumers) and leverage that information in a meaningful way.

Many people have written about creating loyalty among customers and how much value that can create over time. A common practice of late is for service providers to create organizations focused on Customer Success whose primary purpose is to ensure that customers are happy and ultimately remain customers. These organizations need data to understand the effectiveness of the methods they employ. Simply looking at the retention rate does not tell the complete story and won’t give a business the information that it really needs to make necessary adjustments quickly enough to gain an advantage over their competitors.

Businesses that target consumers rather than businesses face a more traditional challenge when trying to understand what motivates their customers. While the challenge to develop a loyal customer base for consumer products has been around since man first began to barter, it has changed in fundamental ways. Social media and the increased capacity for direct communication are definitely game-changing technologies that must be taken into account. Consumers have more choice than they have ever had, as the Internet has created a worldwide market for even everyday purchases. In a world where consumers have virtually unlimited options, brands need to create loyalty through extraordinary customer service.

Mobile technology means that consumers are no longer tied to their PCs when shopping online. A few years back I realized the potential impact of mobile when I began doing online price checks while shopping. This allowed me to better understand the actual value of items that I saw in stores. On top of that there are the customer reviews that seemingly go hand-in-hand with e-commerce today. Wondering about a TV on sale in a local store? Jump online and check reviews to make sure your aren’t buying a lemon. While online you can check to see if you can get a better price somewhere else.

Now, I can buy practically anything from anywhere via my mobile phone and its connection to the Internet. The current consumer environment requires that companies create and maintain loyalty in order to maximize profits. Prices are only part of the equation, as service and convenience can often override a slightly lower price. The vast majority of consumers are motivated only by self-interest, wanting the best value for their money. As a result, effective businesses will need to understand how to make their customers feel that shopping with them is in their best interests. The best way to do that is by gathering information about their key customers and using that information to develop a customer experience that maximizes the number of loyal customers.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A New Outlook for the new year

I haven't blogged here in a long time. However I am feeling that I need to spend more time writing. Working at a start-up has made life very busy, and sometimes when you are busy your priorities get out of whack. Writing is therapeutic for me in a number of ways, as it helps me to better organize my thoughts and gain focus. I also enjoy the challenge of producing something that might be of interest to others, the true test of anyone producing content in any forum. I have written a couple of articles for the Domo (my employer) blog and enjoyed the challenge of producing content in a more structured environment. However I love having my own blog where I can feel free to express whatever I am feeling.

January is a new start for everyone, but especially so for me as I celebrate my birthday this month. In a week I will turn 39 and that has me thinking a lot about what I want to accomplish over the next 12 months. Time moves very quickly fo me, too quickly most of the time, and we can never get it back. Often we focus on the big decisions we make in life, the ones that can have a huge impact on how our lives progress. However I would argue that many of the seemingly minor decisions we make are even more important. Big decisions like employment changes or choosing a school for our children often end up being made for us by the little choices we make every day. Deciding to stay at work a few minutes extra to finish one last task can have a huge impact over time. Taking a few minutes each night to read to your children before bed can lead to them developing a love of learning.

We often talk about the fact that some people are "penny wise and pound foolish", to imply that most of the time they make smart financial decisions but then waste large sums of money with rash decisions. But we rarely talk about those who do the opposite, who spend frivolously on small items and therefore never have the money for big ticket purchases. As one who likes to bring a lunch from home, I am surprised by how often co-workers that eat out every day complain that they don't have money to buy the things they want.

In business there are many companies that make good strategic decisions, but are doomed to mediocrity or worse because they fail to execute on a day-to-day basis. One of the greatest values of Business Intelligence is the ability to see how the little choices we make impact our key objectives. You may do a great job of hiring productive employees, but if you don't manage them effectively then it doesn't do you much good. Collecting the right data and knowing how to interpet it can help a manager keep their team efficient on a daily basis and produce great results over time. Little adjustments made at the right time can have a much more powerful effect than big course corrections made after poor performance shows up in the bottom line.