How I Buy – Holly Tiessen, VP Client Sales & Customer Success, Axonify

 In #HowIBuy

When I first sat down with Holly Tiessen for a #HowIBuy interview, it immediately took an interesting turn.  Holly has just started a new role as VP Client Sales & Customer Success at Axonify, but has tremendous experience leading Customer Success teams in technology companies, so I suspected we’d draw from much of that experience.

However, right at the start, she admitted that in her previous role, as SVP Customer Success at Intelex Technologies, she had purchased very little.  Given that she had joined as a new executive with a lot of historical credibility, and a large mandate to grow the team, this was fascinating.

For anyone selling into an executive where their group is under transition, the lessons from Holly are not to be missed:

 

Let’s start with the new role.  What was your mandate in starting the role?

Historically, working with the existing customer base was within the purview of the account exec organization.  Opportunistically, they might pursue deals, but there was not the focus that a dedicated team could bring to the effort.  My role was to build the customer success team to focus on the growth opportunity within our existing accounts.

As I started, my role was to hire and ramp 18 people in the CS function so that we had 14 fully ramped by the end of the fiscal year (and I started in May).  The organization has been around for 20+ years and has a very large application portfolio and around 1000 customers, so there was a lot to learn for any new hire.  On top of that, I was often hiring folks who did not have a background in the environmental health and safety space.

Within the organization, my team was brand new, so there was change management to be done externally within the organization as well as internally within my team.  

 

What was the state of the technology infrastructure for your team when you arrived?   How did that compare to an “ideal state” of infrastructure that you would envision?

When I came in, I looked at what tools were there.  There was salesforce.com, but no customer success platform.  As a CS team, we also lacked our own marketing capability, something that I strongly believe is needed for a team to be successful.  My view, however, was that I needed to work with what was there because there was so much newness in bringing in that many people.  I didn’t see that there was any tool that was going to be helpful in a way that exceeded the additional risk that the change would entail.

 

Do you think of the disruption of a new platform as something that is merely additive to the disruption of existing changes, or something that creates a disproportionate amount of chaos in that situation?

Given the volume of changes that were happening, adding a new platform would have been a step-change in the level of chaos we saw.  With new people coming into an organization, we needed to be able to teach them the products, the clients, and the process.  The uncertainty that would be added by having a changing process and a transition in the underlying technology, made it very difficult in my mind to justify anything even if there was a fairly clear value proposition.

To lead change, I need 2 or 3 folks on my team who I’m confident in, and are ready and willing to help make that change successful.  

 

What does that individual look like?  What are the markers of a person on the team who you can lean on to help drive a big change through to success?

Do I see in that individual the drive and tenacity to make it happen?  Also, from my own perspective, do I have enough support within the organization to provide the “air cover” if it doesn’t work?  With that many new people coming in, I need a few people to be successful.  If that means that we’re going to be a little bit more cautious, so be it.  All I need is one of those people to get some traction and start delivering, and they and the rest of the team are going to feel better.

A lot of the people coming in were referrals, so I knew what I had coming in, but I needed them to get grounded in our current reality and understand the solutions, customers, and industry.

 

When you join a team, do you tend to tread lightly and get to know the status quo before making changes, or do you move quickly to establish a new approach while you are the newest executive?

I’ve done both.  It’s quite situational.  In one past role, we’d had a distinct change in the type of customers we were serving.  When I started, I knew we needed to make an important set of changes right away to reflect the needs of the enterprise customer base we had moved into serving.  Working with enterprise customers was something that I was very familiar with, so I knew we needed to make those changes.

In this case, the customer set was not changing, and the status quo was functional.  There were opportunities to improve, but no catastrophes were imminent, so I had the time to work within the status quo before making tooling changes.  The task of building an entire team was enough change to focus on and make successful.

 

The success of any technology is two parts; the capabilities of the tool itself, and the implementation of it and people’s use of it.  How do you see that split between those two parts?

It’s 90% on the people and the implementation.

You’ve got to get off to the right start, find early success, replicate that success, and build upon it.  

When we’re evaluating a new tool, I heavily involve the people who are going to be using it.  We drill into questions like “do we have a problem that needs solving?”, “what approach are we going to take?”, “do we need to do something urgently?”.  That’s all before we’ve gotten to the point of vendors and technology.

 

How do you dig in and understand whether a new product or approach will actually be used by a team?  So many things seem tempting, but the reality never quite matches the vision that was communicated.

I push on the individuals a lot to see how something is going to play out in their day-to-day.  Change is quite difficult to fully execute, so we step through what exactly will change in each part of their day.  From there it’s a question of how that changes the experience of our customers.

The team I have is very attuned to the experience of customers, so repeatedly returning to that question of how it will impact that customer experience can help us sort out needed changes from shiny distractions.  

 

How long does it take your team to build that level of trust with you to have that deep and honest conversation?

Sometimes it takes a week, sometimes it takes six months.  It’s not just trust with me that matters, it’s finding the individuals upon whom the rest of the team depends.  There are always those folks within a team who are the ones who the rest of the team turns to, talks to, and expresses concerns to.

I view it as a key role of leadership to be able to identify and grow those people as they are, in many ways, the day-to-day leaders of the team.  

 

Thanks Holly, those were great insights into buying, even in a scenario where nothing gets bought.

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Experienced SaaS CTO. Founded and guided the building of Eloqua to a market leading position in Marketing Automation. Now Co-founder and CTO at Nudge. Author of the book “Digital Body Language" with a passion for innovation, cloud computing and software evolution.
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