In this session of Implementation Stories, we spoke to Alex Scholz, who leads Partner Enablement at Freshworks. Alex joined Freshworks after stints in Munich, Moscow, Berlin, Nairobi, Sydney, and Germany. Alex was Freshworks’ first Engagement Manager — in 2016 — when the currently 200-member strong professional services team at Freshworks was just being set up. Freshworks now has an in-house team of professional services and project managers along with technology partners to implement customer projects spanning across geographies.
In this session focused on the role that culture plays in project execution, Alex spoke to us about implementation and customer onboarding success in a multi-geography environment having cultural barriers.
Alex began by stating from his experience that people from different cultures perceive things differently. Working with stakeholders needs an implicit understanding of their culture and background as these are the values that most people fall back on. Drawing from the work of the famous Dutch psychologist, Hofstede, Alex shared five areas you can observe core values within teams.
For instance, he shared that traditionally, Indian companies are more accepting of hierarchy, while German companies have a reputation of being more risk-conscious.
One of the books that came up as recommended reading was Erin Meyers’ Culture Map.
Alex likened the role of a project/engagement manager to that of a quarterback, whose job it is to make sure the team can perform. An engagement manager’s focus must rest on supporting the team to define and reach the end goal by doing whatever it takes to unlock all the resources for the team — from human to organizational.
From his time on the ground, here are a few things that can set up an engagement manager to do his job well.
Trust in one’s team: Know the team, identify blind spots, help fix them, and play to the team’s strengths. Most importantly, trust them, and don’t question them in front of customers.
In cases where he has sensed a team member overcommitting, his strategy has been to question the said colleague indirectly. This way, the conversation is steered in such a way that the person can challenge their thoughts and this buys the team time to go back to the customer later)
Empathy for the customer: Think about who they are, what they need, what they want, what they want to avoid, what they can win or lose, and what’s in it for them personally.
Keep cultural aspects in mind when you do this. Alex shared that you need to take several things into account—their risk appetite, their prioritization for speed, or for the social aspects of the working equation—when you interact and communicate with cross-cultural teams.
Being prepared, transparent, and proactive: Don’t assume anything when you commit to the customer, be sure to communicate good and bad news consistently, and as a rule of thumb, never make a customer follow up with you.
In the last four years, Alex has worked on 200–250 deals, big and small, with 600–700 licenses across the globe. He shared some of his key project management learnings with us.
Alex spoke about the importance of setting clear expectations for POCs while focusing on the system’s ability to deliver.
For prioritization, his rule of thumb has been to sell features that lie only a quarter’s roadmap ahead. If a feature is something that is say, three quarters ahead, he recommends first understanding why they need that feature, what they are solving it, and to see if anything else can solve the same issue. It’s not unusual for customers to expect features just because they were present before. This exercise pushes them too, to critically consider the need for the feature.
If the customer needs just that and doesn't want to accept anything else, then, it comes down to the revenues, how important the customer is, and if the feature can benefit other customers before working on it or simply deciding to let the customer go.
While discussing POCs where deadlines are missed because the customer doesn’t deliver on time, the best way, Alex shared, is to look at the reasons why people don't deliver:
The key is to be tactful while approaching this, for instance, by asking how you can help them deliver that piece.
In terms of best practices to be better prepared for these situations, he suggests:
1. Discuss the procedure for dealing with failed/delayed deliveries in the kickoff, and making it a part of a status report or process so it is not accusatory
2. Draft a detailed SOW that clearly defines:
- The scope of the POC
- The set of tools/features
- The number of licenses
- The metrics and how they will be tracked
- What needs to be delivered by each party to start the POC
- Ensure that the SOW is signed off by executive stakeholders on both sides.
Alex likes to look at customer onboarding as "teaching them to swim, then diving with them for the pearls". It’s important, he states, to remember that most things will be new to customers. The idea should be to set an umbrella understanding first without diving into the details.
Here are some of the key aspects the Freshworks team covers in the kickoff:
1. Project execution framework: Finalize business requirements > Project plan > Configuration +Development > UAT >Go-live
2. Stakeholder mapping: With the roles on each side mapped without any gaps. These include at the very minimum
- On the customer side: Executive Sponsor, Business Owner, Project Manager, Tech Lead, Administrator
- On Freshworks’ side: The Executive Sponsor, Account Manager, Head of Services, Solution Architect, Project Manager, Onboarding Specialist, Customer Success Manager
3. Meeting cadence/frequency, purpose, attendees, and the channel. They walk through the different meetings—the daily standup, monthly meetings, etc.—and define the cadence, purpose, attendees, channel for communication and updates, and general best practices, for example: sticking to dedicated communication channels, not covering multiple topics on one email thread, etc.
4. Escalation framework: Discussing and defining the reasons for escalation, people to be informed, the channel for communication. While people don't like talking about this, Alex shared that this was a critical aspect to be covered in kickoff meetings.
Pulling Off the Ultimate Kickoff Meeting for A Customer Onboarding Project
While discussing assessing the levels of escalations for common issues, Alex shared a simple escalation framework that he relies on:
On your side, when you think about involving product owners or the product team, set up playbooks that help your team decide when the product owner has to be called in. For all other strategic decisions, a project manager should handle them.
A guide to handling escalations during customer onboarding
We love Alex’s focus on culture, people, and self-awareness for people working in customer onboarding and engagement. Here’s what we are taking away from his thoughtful and insightful session.
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