Implementation Stories

The impact of culture on customer project execution

In this session, Alex spoke to us about customer onboarding execution and success in a multi-geography environment having cultural barriers.
March 14, 2021
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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. 

The role of culture and values in business communication and collaboration

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. 

  1. How people understand and respond to the hierarchy at work 
  2. How people prioritize their needs versus those of the team
  3. How risk open or risk-averse they are
  4. How they communicate and perceive feedback and criticism 
  5. How they think about the now (the short term) and then (the long term)

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

The role of the project manager 

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. 

Managing global go-lives

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. 

  1. Choose priorities, challenge your customer: Accept that you can’t do everything at the same time. While it is tempting to have many features in the first rollout, ask them what they want to achieve in the first phase. 
  2. Go from small to big: In the case of multi-country rollouts is, plan to go-live from the small geographies to the bigger ones. 
  3. Don't go live with risk-averse teams: In the beginning, build confidence on your side and the customer by picking smaller and less risk-averse teams at the customer end. This way, you can catch issues, course correct, and be in a better place when bigger and risk-averse teams go live. 
  4. Establish clear communication, support, and escalation paths for all agents: Do this before things go wrong, not when under stress. In the case of bad news, document all issues clearly with prioritization. 
  5. Document all issues. Define tracking and prioritization of issues: medium/high/ blockers. Define information needed for tracking issues (description, screenshot, etc) 
  6. Decide how issues influence go-live: For instance, at Freshworks, go-lives happen when there are no blockers and only a few high-priority items while avoiding focus on one-off/one-time issues. 
  7. Overcommunicate, don’t overpromise: In case of bad news, don't wait, don't overpromise while setting expectations. Keep the background and culture of the customer team in mind while framing your responses. Accept issues, have a plan on what to do next, even if you don’t immediately know how to fix them. 

POCs: Expectation-setting, prioritization, dealing with timelines 

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:

  1. They simply don't know what to deliver
  2. They don't have the resources
  3. It is not important enough
  4. Sometimes they just don't know where and how they can get the data 

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. 

Project kickoff and execution

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

Handling escalations 

While discussing assessing the levels of escalations for common issues, Alex shared a simple escalation framework that he relies on:

  1. Involve the Executive Sponsor or Product owner for issues related to deviations that could jeopardize the business or the relationship, for example, data breaches, security issues, etc. 
  2. Involve the Services Lead for deviations in delivery stages and timelines that impact costs, timelines, and processes. The customer Project Manager or Services Leads can then apprise the leadership at their end. 
  3. Speak to the Project Manager for day-to-day risk mitigation and issue resolution involving tasks and team members. 

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

Summary and takeaways

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. 

  1. Be aware of cultural behavior and preferences while working with cross-cultural teams. Some cultures prioritize speed, others risk minimization, and some others, relationships with their partners. Being cognizant of all this will make you better equipped to handle different kinds of clients and situations. 
  2. A project manager’s role is to support and trust their team, resolve bottlenecks, and challenge themselves. While making project plans, follow-ups, documentation, and reporting are part of the job, their primary focus should be on backing their team and unlocking resources for them so they can do their job better. 
  3. Serving customers and internal stakeholders become easy when you walk in their shoes and see with their eyes. Think of all their challenges and how you can help them overcome them. Question them, challenge them, and be transparent and proactive in your communication. Knowing your team's strengths and weaknesses pay a rich dividend. As a leader, you should know their blind spots and always bring transparency in your conduct with clients.
  4. While implementing, weigh the priorities, plan in detail, and execute with confidence. Go from small to big, start with less risk-averse teams, and then proceed with bigger functions and risk-averse teams.
  5. During kickoffs, ensure that you ease your customers into the journey. Discuss broader frameworks, escalation approach, and meeting cadences and channels of communication. An important step is to define the SOW (even for POCs) and ensure that it is signed off by senior members on both sides. 
  6. Define an escalation path for your agents. Document the best practices to de-escalate and suggest communication channels for your agents.
  7. When it comes to handling bad news, the first thing is to accept it. Take some time to articulate the root cause. Over-communicate but don't over-promise and choose the right channels in alignment with the customer's culture.
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Varun Singh
Product Evangelist @ Rocketlane

Marketer and product evangelist peeling different layers of life with constant learning. Follow me on Twitter @VarunKPSingh

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