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.