But I’m not in sales..

I’m sure you hear it a lot. “I’m not in sales. I do customer service, IT, operations, HR, etc.”  At the end of the day everyone is in sales.  But I didn’t always understand what that meant.  Are we still holding grudges against the used car salesmen of old or is it the telemarketers who disturb our dinners?  I have come to view sales as the ability to speak authentically about something you believe in.

Each and everyone of us exists to solve someone else’s problem.  It might be as simple as giving a status on an order, or resolving a customer complaint to as complicated as designing or developing a complex product or service.  You still have a customer you are serving and you still desire to do the best job you can (or I hope you do).  Every one of these interactions are a “sale.”  You are talking through a problem and identifying tangible steps to take to resolve it with the best time and resources you have available.

I credit my time at Soundpath for this enlightenment.  This was a business, created by lawyers to service law firms.  The founder knew her market and the pain that conferencing and conference call billing caused for these firms.  Prior to establishing the business she reached out to her connections and asked about their pain points.  Her vision was always to create a business that took the inconveniences of implementation, training and billing away from the law firm administrators.  Sometimes this meant that we had to admit we made a mistake and work with the client to resolve the issue, and rebuild that trust.

The first iteration of what ultimately became our customer portal was simple but not particularly pretty.  But it solved an immediate pain.  We continued to work with law firms and their billing vendors to understand their systems and design our products to better serve our clients.  I can say by the end of it, every feature of that application was attributed to a specific pain of our customers. I know this because they told it to me and my team.  There was a time that I could name the IT administrator would raised the inquiry and led us down the path of finding a solution. I have been away from it for several years and can still recall a few.  How many can say your product was built 100% based on customer feedback?

We layered products and services over core data and processes to solve immediate needs.  I could comfortably and with confidence speak about our what our company had to offer. I had established the relationships to take new ideas to our customers and ask for their input. They valued my opinions and asked for best practices.  To me this is sales.

The On-Demand Workforce

It is true that there is some critical mass at which real problems get solved.  The evolution of causes has proven this.  I find that the constant chatter and conversations about women on boards, women in technology, women in STEM jobs, women in senior positions are all good.  The more we talk about, the more it is seen as a critical issue and the more ideas batted around will result in long term solutions.  While some might argue that some conversations are healthier or more positive than others, even the extreme points of view can drive further conversation and creative thinking around the problem.

One of the more interesting commentary I found has come from Jody Greenstone Miller, Founder of Business Talent group.  She has been promoting her viewpoint that time is the real issue for women.  She promotes moving away from quantity as a deciding factor in “A Team” designation, as well as a critical factor in project workload.  Once you remove minimum time as a requirement for professional or project success, you must think about and plan work accordingly.  This is not to say that professionals would not be available outside the defined times.  It is the requirement of time that is removed.  Ultimately, jobs must be designed around how much someone is willing to work, with a structure so that the job or project can get done in that allotted time while still helping those individuals meet their professional goals.  Ms. Miller has validated her approach in her business model.  She works with top talent to define their constraints and find work that matches their skills and limits.

I’m living this approach right now.  I’m choosing my projects and setting my goals on my terms as a consultant.  I provide my expertise in technology operations, process and project management to a small company that needs those skill sets.  The number of hours I work shift depending on the shift in workload at the company and the lifeload of stuff that happens outside of work.  I make myself more available when my family is at work and school, and less available when they are home.  This does not mean everything ceases.  I will still take calls, and periodically scan and respond to emails, but I’m not sitting in front of my computer actively acting on my task list. I add value to the organization for which I’m consulting.

Wingham Rowan, Founder of Slivers-of-Time, spoke about this new type of job market at a TedSalon Talk in November 2012. His premise is that employers can absolutely use a pool of extremely flexible, talented, skills workers.  While his focus leans toward service oriented businesses, however I think the premise can be expanded to our entire economy.  Business fluctuates and it would be beneficial for organizations to have access to talented, skilled employees to fulfill projects and processes.  The ability to have access to this pool of people on relatively short notice would be incredibly beneficial.  This would allow businesses to stay lean and enhance skills and talents as needed.  This model is being supported by services like Guru and oDesk (I’m sure there are several others, but these are the ones that come to mind).

At the end of the day, does it really matter how or when you complete tasks or accomplish your goals?  It does require that the expectations are clear and goals are aligned.  It’s all about the on-demand workforce to support the on-demand economy.

My Hiring Principles – Intelligence, Quirkiness, Certifications and Situational Testing

The current state of the job market has resulted in tons of articles on the best way to hire.  I read one this morning that said companies are putting people through incredible numbers of interviews before making any decisions.  I have worked as part of a hiring committee in a small business, conducted interviews and made hiring decisions by myself, for my own teams, and have also been in the unique position to hire my replacement in a larger organization.  Of course, I have also seen my fair share of hiring decisions made by others, all with relative levels of success.

As a general rule, I tend to live my life by surrounding myself with interesting and smart people.  I believe that you can teach smart people almost any skills they need to succeed.  Obviously though there are benefits to having an existing connection to the person and having them have some technical skills, but if the person is smart and has a desire to learn new things, you can train them for success.  This worked well for me a small business services company, one with a technical spin.  I oversaw a team of Indian programmers, along with a handful of people who processed all the customer invoices; answered all the billing inquiries; managed all the software development projects, including timelines, mockups and testing; wrote the RFP responses to our customers; on top of managing all the corporate infrastructure (phone system, computers, networking) and technical interface with our wholesale service provider.  Not one of my team was educated in technology.  My most technical resource had degrees in philosophy but had been involved with computers on the side for many years.  The others were mostly employees who came to the organization through the customer service department as a temp, was retained and showed interest in doing more for the organization.  In all cases, these employees continued their technical educations and remain in more technical roles today.

Another trait I look for is that little spot of quirkiness or uniqueness.  I find this tends to make life, and work more interesting.  It is the source of that unique perspective that introduces innovation into the organization and onto my team.  It is the thing that raises the lingering questions and drives  an individual to want to find a solution.  Colleagues and I would ask candidates situational questions, related and unrelated to work.  These ranged from how do you address the cranky customer who is unfamiliar with technology, doesn’t have someone to help him and can’t make it work; to what would you bring to the office potluck on the first day of the job.  We cared less about the exact answer and more about their thought processes and reactions.

This is the same reason we introduced a basic test for our customer service candidates.  It was a basic test of job related excel, powerpoint, and internet search questions.  We told candidates that it was imperative to be able to ask questions to properly support our high touch clientele.  We said that this was a test to gauge a very rough sense of their skill sets, however that was less important than their ability to ask questions.  Any employee was available to answer their question, but the most important component was that they be able to ask it.    I was always amazed by the number of people who gave up before they even started and those people who did very poorly but never asked a single question.  I’m not sure if they thought we were kidding or were afraid.  But ultimately we figured out that passing this test did a really good job of predicting success at our organization. There was one particular candidate who failed the test, but followed up through the temp agency requesting a second chance, did his homework and ultimately was hired.  This candidate ended up being a great asset to the organization and learned a significant amount along the way.  It was the tenacity of this individual that changed our mind.

The last point I’ll make about hiring relates to certifications.  A certification in itself doesn’t predict anything about how well a person does.  It means they received a certification for attending a class. A class is a structured environment with a set curriculum that most likely will not mimic the reality of the situations at your business.  I would rather see a few years of concrete experience in that same skill or technology over a long list of certificates.  I’m not saying there isn’t value in pursuing knowledge and learning new skills, but show me you can leverage those skills to help me solve my problems.  There are ample methods to showcase the skills you have learned even immediately after you completed a certificate program.  Leverage those technology or skill specific networking groups, find a non-profit who could really appreciate some assistance or create a project of your own that demonstrates your expertise.

In Commiseration of the Marissa Mayer WFH Decision

As has everyone else, I’ve been fully inundated with news about Marissa Mayer’s decision to cancel all work from home options at Yahoo.  Part of me really wants to be (and to some extent is) annoyed with the decision.  However the other part of me says that work from home introduces some real challenges, and there is a time and place to require people to come into the office.

I have spent the last year working primarily from home in a consulting role for a small data analytics company, that has office in DC and Arkansas and customers across the nation.  This meant that I could work flexibly around my children’s school schedule.  It also meant that I could get online later in the evening to delve further into issues or respond to inquiries.  Prior to this I managed a team across VA, OH, CO and India with customers in Ireland, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Georgia.  I’m comfortable with managing separate time zones, different priorities and cultural differences.  This does not mean it was easy.  The primary business office was located in Georgia and technical operations was based in Colorado.  I had employees in neither of those places.  This made it increasingly difficult to have those casual conversations and accidental run-ins that are necessary when negotiating priorities and solving issues.

I solved this by travel fairly often to both offices. I often required my team participate in calls late in the evening or early in the morning with our Indian programmers, or our Ireland or Asia-Pacific customers.  When I was in town, in either location, I tried to have lunch or dinners with team members, counterparts or customers.  This established those relationships.  However, I still saw challenges without having that presence.  When one of my employees said he was looking to move out of state, I took the opportunity to introduce some new blood onto our team, and into our ops office.  His work from home status was only a minor element in the decision not to keep him on.

A major initiative of mine was to integrate my team better into the organization, and work collaboratively with other teams.  This was hindered by my teams remote status.  They did not have the connections to other employees, had no desire to make those connections and definitely slowed the progress of this goal.  One might argue that this was a result of the specific people not the policy.  However, it did lead me to the decision that new additions to the team needed to be brought into the office, at least in the initial phases to build those relationships with other teams.  It would considerably smooth the progress of our development efforts and increase the serendipity moments.

I appreciate Marissa Mayer’s courage to make unpopular decisions in her quest to turn around Yahoo. I can understand why this would be good for the organization in the foreseeable future.  That said, if all companies took such drastic measures, it would greatly diminish my own personal well-being, as a mother and contributing member of society.