Debra Senra, SVP of Revenue at Hireology, gave this presentation at the Chief Revenue Officer Summit in February 2021.
In this article, I’ll share with you a story of how at Hireology we made it through 2020 despite the odds, what we did to not only survive but actually thrive, and why retaining a customer focus mindset is critical to navigating the remaining uncertainty in 2021 and beyond.
My name's Debra Senra, and in this article, I'm going to tell you a story of how Hireology made it through 2020 and why retaining a customer focus mindset is critical to navigating the remaining uncertainty that we have in 2021.
Before I dive too deep into the content, let me start by introducing myself.
I run the revenue organization here at Hireology. For those of you who don't know, the quick headline on Hireology is that we provide hiring software to help our customers build their best teams.
I started at Hireology in early 2018, as the Vice President of Customer Success, and moved into the SVP role in January of 2020, overseeing sales, revenue operations, customer development, and essentially anything that revenue touches now sits in my org.
In January, when I moved into this role I thought my job was going to be focused on building systems and processes to allow our business to scale and to grow our organization over the next 10/15/20 years. I thought my role was going to be focused on both accelerating our net new customer acquisition strategy as well as continuing to drive down our attrition on our customer success side.
Essentially, I thought 2020 was a year where I was going to build and execute an offensive playbook to win in the market in a way we never had before.
Insert laugh here.
Ten weeks into my role, I realized everything I thought was going to happen was not happening in 2020, and 10 weeks into my role, I had to pivot on a dime and go from building and executing an offensive playbook to creating, executing, iterating upon a defensive playbook.
In this article, I want to talk to you about that strategy and about how we didn't just keep our business afloat, but we helped our customers survive the year as well.
Context on Hireology
Context on Hireology is important to this story so let me give you that background. Hireology is a business that was formed in 2010, at the mid-to-tail end of the recession.
The pain point we saw in the market was there was a lot of unemployment, and businesses who were hiring had to find the needle in the haystack of applicants to build their best team.
For small business owners in particular, or medium-sized business owners, this was incredibly difficult because, for a lot of these customers and organizations, the owner of the business was also the chief recruiting officer, the chief sales officer, maybe had a side hat with the CFO title on it. They were jack of all trades, they were expected to do everything.
When you have hundreds of applicants to sort through, you're not a full-time recruiter, yet finding the perfect person is critical for your business's success. That's a daunting task.
At the time, what was in the market was not built for this customer, there were solutions that were designed for large enterprises. Think the Johnson and Johnson's of the world with dozens of people on a recruiting team and entire department dedicated to finding the best talent - there were solutions for those folks.
Then there were solutions for part of the recruiting process. You could post your job on the job board but that didn't help you figure out who is the best person to hire within the stack of applicants you got.
What Hireology saw an opportunity to do was to provide business owners with the technology they needed to build their best teams. So that's what we did.
Who we work with
Over time, what we found was the industries that we work for get a tonne of value from people who speak their language.
For the customers we support, people make or break their success and there are some pretty specific nuances you need to understand if you're going to help them recruit those team members. At the start of 2020, we had three named verticals:
- Retail automotive, which is car dealerships,
- Health care, but not all healthcare specifically, we were nursing homes, home care, home health care, and
- What we call professional services, which is franchise businesses. Think gyms and restaurants and massage parlors, I'm sure you know where I'm going with this.
In 2020, we had these three focused verticals, and our sales team and our customer success team were all specialized in these industries. We lived and breathed healthcare and automotive and franchise professional services so that when we were there to help our customers find their best teams, and run great hiring processes, we knew their language, and we could help them in the right way.
With that context in mind, let me take you to March of 2020, specifically, the morning of March 11. It was a Wednesday and at that point, we had been hearing from our customers about COVID but no one was panicking.
In fact, I would say the most common thing we heard from our customers was, "This is going to be really annoying if we have to shut down for a week".
Within our own walls, we knew that work from home was likely coming and we were sending our employees home with their computers every day. But we still had our offices open. Our business was running. It's painful to say this, but it was almost business as usual. Despite what we were seeing in the world, COVID really hadn't hit us yet.
That evening, our former President got on TV and announced that the WHO had officially named COVID as a global pandemic, suspended travel from Europe, and called for emergency action to help small businesses across the United States.
That next day, we had our first positive case of COVID in our office building, not within Hireology, but in the building. We made the very difficult decision to mandate work from home for our employees.
Also that next day, the tone we were hearing from our customers changed, it went from them thinking COVID was going to be this minor annoyance to our customers genuinely concerned they were going to be able to keep their business afloat.
By the following week, our first full week of our employees working from home, the calls started to come in. It started with our professional services, our franchise businesses, the gyms, the restaurants, they were being forced to close and they were scared.
At best they were calling us and saying "I'm not recruiting night right now I want you to reduce my price". But candidly, the more common ask was "Please let me cancel my contract, I need as much money as possible. I don't know how long this is going to be and I don't know if I'm going to survive".
A little bit later in the week, we started hearing from our auto customers. It turns out that a prominent vendor in the auto space had announced they were reducing their fees by 50% to help their automotive customers make it through the pandemic.
Within hours, other vendors started to fall in line and so by the middle of the next week our auto customers were calling us saying, "When are you going to do what everybody else is doing? When are you going to cut my price by 50%?"
Last but not least, our healthcare customers were literally dealing with life and death situations. They were not calling us. They weren't calling us because they were trying to figure out how to make hand sanitizer out of vodka, how to get their employees PPE, or for our nursing home customers, how to make sure they keep their patients and their customers safe and alive during the pandemic.
Whereas we knew what our franchise customers needed and what they were asking for and whereas we knew what our auto customers were expecting from us, this was a black hole. We had no idea what to expect from our healthcare prospects.
The impact on frontline employees
The hardest part about all of this was the people who were having these conversations were our frontline employees. Though I did get calls and though our CEO did get calls, the senior leadership team were not the ones picking up the phone, having a customer crying on the other end of the line, worried they're going to lose their family business.
These were our employees who tended to be earlier in their careers, working from home for the first time, in studio apartments all by themselves, and living with six Craigslist roommates. On the older end of the spectrum, they were now living and working and living and working with their kids running in the background. It was just a hard time.
What our frontline employees needed from us was a strategy and they needed it now, yesterday, because they weren't in the strongest place emotionally. None of us were. We were all scared. They were the ones dealing with other people's fears and they didn't have an answer.
Customer needs vary dramatically
What I knew we needed was a strategy. The team needed that guidance on how to move forward and what would have been the easy choice would have been to fall in line with what all the other vendors in automotive were doing, and offer a flat discount of 50% just to stop the bleeding.
But what I knew to be true is these other vendors tended to sell products that helped companies sell their products. That's a very different scenario than Hireology, we helped our customers recruit employees. Some of our customers were not recruiting. In fact, most of them were doing layoffs.
So a one-size-fits-all flat 50% discount just felt like the absolute wrong thing to do not just for Hireology, but for our customers as well. We decided to do something different.
Spectrum of needs
Instead of falling in line, we gathered a group of cross-departmental leaders and frontline employees and we focused on what our customers were dealing with. What are the various scenarios that our customers are up against when they go to work every day?
We found it ranged pretty significantly.
On the one end of the spectrum, we had customers who were actively hiring, in automotive, in healthcare, and in franchise businesses. These companies notoriously have a hard time filling open roles, it is hard to convince top talent to go be a salesperson in an automotive dealership.
So for some of our customers, they saw this as an amazing opportunity to grab top talent. When the hotel down the street is laying off their team and when that front desk worker who's charismatic and salesy, but in the best sort of way, and who doesn't mind working long hours - when that person is suddenly available to you they viewed this as their opportunity to grab that talent and upgrade the skill set they had within their organizations.
For that customer, our product had never been more valuable, because it was 2010 all over again. As layoffs started happening, there was more and more talent in the marketplace and these folks needed to figure out how to find the needle in a haystack when they were also trying to save their business, sell cars, navigate new government regulations, apply for PPP loans, all those things, they needed us more than ever.
On the other end of the spectrum, we had customers who were doing layoffs, and in some states, when you do a layoff, you're not allowed to post for open positions. For that customer, legally, they weren't allowed to use our product.
Those two customers needed very different things from Hireology.
Then we had a series of customers somewhere in between those two extremes that needed very different things. No one size fits all was going to work for us but customizing, concessions and support options for customers at scale in normal times is hard.
When you have a team working from home for the first time alone with their seven-year-old screaming in their ear all day, it becomes nearly impossible.
What we did
Our solution was to build a system that allowed our team to give customers a customized experience but at scale.
Using the situations we outlined in that cross-departmental meeting, we built a decision tree that guided our customer success team to a specific concession they were empowered to offer to customers without involving managers, leadership teams, nothing. They could just make that offer.
What you can see is the actual document we gave our CSMs when this happened, and at the top was our foundational question. Do you want to collect information on potential candidates right now?
If the answer was yes, that took you down a very different path than if the answer was no. The answers to the subsequent questions in this decision tree helped our CSMs land at a concession that made sense for the specific customer they were talking to.
The right solution for the right situation
There were eight concessions possible at the end of this decision tree and they ranged from keeping a customer on at full cost to letting a customer immediately out of their contract, no questions asked.
Having this decision tree and giving this to our customer success managers allowed them to support our customers at scale, and to offer the right solution for the right situation for each and every customer we were talking to.
Now I would love to say this was the end of the strategy and this fixed everything. Of course, that's not it, the decision tree was just a first step.
In addition to providing our CS team with guidance on how to move forward with customers, we needed to redesign pretty much every single system we use to manage the business to accommodate this new normal.
For example, one outcome in the decision tree was a temporary relief in either the form of a temporary price reduction or a temporary cancellation. In order for this strategy to work, we:
- Had to know who was in a temporary concession.
- Had to have the right conversations with them during that temporary timeframe. And,
- We needed to know and communicate when the temporary status was going away so no one was surprised when their bill increased or when they started getting billed from us again.
I'm not joking when I say overnight, our revenue team had to spin up an entire system to support this new strategy.
We needed to be able to know who was in what type of concession, we needed to be able to know when the concession was over, we needed to quantify the volume and the value of customers in each concession so we can forecast to our board and to our employees where we think we're going to land.
That all needed to happen yesterday.
Ultimately, what we needed was a system that ensured we had 100% visibility into the account statuses of all of our customers so we turned people back on at the right time and we turned people off at the right time.
This didn't stop with our ops team, our marketing team had to make some pretty substantial changes overnight as well.
We needed to think beyond the initial panic our customers were facing and think of how we were going to support our customers over the coming months. The customer that needed to be led out of their contract, the conversation they needed to be having with us, was very different than the customer who was actively hiring.
Our marketing team worked tirelessly to come up with engagement campaigns and messaging that was relevant to the customers based on the outcome they landed in, as opposed to what we've historically done, which was based on persona, segment, or industry. That kind of didn't matter.
What mattered was what is this customer facing? And how do we need to talk to them in a way that matters to them to help them navigate the uncertainty of COVID?
The outcome of all of this, I'll be honest, I would be surprised if this isn't the highlight of my career. Our customers were happy and felt supported during a very difficult time and we heard this from them directly.
But we also saw it reflected in our NPS score which raised almost 20 points over the course of 2020.
Additionally, I would be a horrible revenue leader if I didn't talk about revenue, our business not only survived, but I would say it thrived.
Had we fallen in line with the pack and had we offered a flat discount, at best, we would have lost 50% of our business in 2020. We ended down less than 10%.
When you're a company that sells recruitment software to industries that were forced to close for months over the pandemic and over 2020, being down 10% is like multiplying the business by 100.
We could have had a really catastrophic year, but by listening to our customers, and by taking a customer-centric approach to our strategy, it helped us weather the storm and come out stronger than ever.
Up until this point, I've focused my article on our customer success and retention strategy. That's absolutely a critical component of our strategy in 2020. But that's only half the story.
Is the market hesitating to buy or is Hireology hesitating to sell?
We do have a CS team and they were working tirelessly to do right by our customers but we also have the sales team that was trying to sell in the middle of this pandemic.
As many of you probably saw in the spring of 2020, if you went on LinkedIn, if you listened to a podcast, if you opened up any sort of article about what to do in a selling role at the start of the pandemic, you saw the same thing: lead with empathy.
I 100% agree with that sentiment. But the practice of leading with empathy was so much more complicated than the headline. In the beginning, it was obvious our customers weren't in an emotional state to buy, they weren't. So leading with empathy meant not actively selling to them.
But over time, it became really hard to see if the market was hesitating to buy or if we were hesitating to sell.
In the best of times, customers and prospects give you objections to taking meetings and to signing your contracts. If that wasn't true, none of us would have jobs. It became really difficult to figure out are the objections we’re hearing ones we should respond to by pulling back? Or are these objections we should be pushing forward and trying to breakthrough?
Because what's doing right by our customers and prospects is selling to them. That became really hard to see. We needed a better way to understand market readiness to buy that went beyond our sales reps’ willingness to sell.
I was lucky because at the beginning of 2020, I sat down with our revenue operations team and we created a series of data points to help me better understand what was happening in the business.
I personally believe there are three categories of things that are within my control as a revenue leader to drive successful outcomes. Those categories are:
- Will - how hard does my team work?
- Skill - how good are they at that work? And,
- What I'm calling territory, but you could call it environment or strategy - where do I direct that hard, good work of my team?
The holy drivers of sales
At the beginning of 2020, I created what I call the holy drivers of sales, which are data points that I can measure, either at a top-line or at a segment level to help me understand the will and the skill and the territory strategy of my team.
So moving into COVID, I had some really good baseline data of where my team was operating. There were five key metrics that I look at for holy drivers.
The first is, how many dials does it take to set a demo? In a normal world, this is around 45.
Second, how many demos that are set actually hold? In a normal time, we expect this to be north of 60%.
Third, how many demos that are held result in an opportunity being opened? In a normal time, this is somewhere between 75 and 85%.
Fourth, how many opportunities that are opened result in a closed one deal? In a normal time, this is north of 40%.
Last but not least is how much is the average deal, the ASP, average sales price? This varies depending on your role and your territory and your industry but we had set benchmarks for our AEs and our ARs and our auto team and our healthcare team of what we would have expected to see from an average sales price.
Monitoring these metrics helps me diagnose areas of improvement and it helps me shape my next level of questioning.
For example, if our demo to opportunity conversion rate is low, is that the result of a skill issue, our team not being able to properly position the product?
Or is it a territory issue, are our market messages that we're putting into the market to get the demo interesting to our prospects, but our solution actually isn't a fit?
These metrics really helped me better understand what's happening in sales.
Deploying resources against opportunity
Thank goodness I had them because they were critical to me being able to listen to our customers or our soon-to-be customers on the sales side and make a strategy for our sales team that was in response to what we were seeing in the market.
By monitoring these metrics, I could see which areas of the business were heating up, and I could redeploy reps to those places at the exact time they were hot. I could also pull them back from areas that were slow.
I'll give you an example.
Example: Dial-to-set metric
To me, a dial-to-set metric is a really good measure of an industry or market's willingness to engage in a sales process. As I mentioned earlier, our normal dial-to-set metric is 45.
At our worst, at our COVID bottom, it was way north of 300. Over the summer, I monitored that metric really closely, and take our auto industry as an example, what I was seeing was our dial to set metric was not the same across all of automotive.
- A single rooftop auto dealer, what we call a tier four auto segment, was still very high, north of 200 to get a set. That part of the market was not ready to enter into a sales process.
So we deployed our marketing team to craft awareness messaging and messaging we thought would be beneficial to that segment and we put it into a demand Gen funnel for marketing.
- Our higher-tiered customers, think five to 10 rooftops, were still a high dial-to-set, but we were getting demos. So we're going to take our BDR team and we're going to deploy them on that segment of the market with a volume-based human approach to try to get sets there.
- Finally, our largest customers, think north of 16 dealerships, our dial-to-set metric was back to pre-COVID levels by this summer. That told me that segment of the automotive industry had pain points related to recruiting, they were likely hiring, and they were interested in entering into a sales process.
We pointed our quota-carrying reps directly towards that segment of the market to try to help our prospects as much as possible while they were telling us they needed the help.
By no means have we fully normalized but seeing these metrics and being able to spot where and when acceleration is happening is why I'm confident that over the coming months, as we continue to try to navigate back to normal, we'll be able to win in what is still a pretty difficult market for us to be operating in.
That's our story.
As I mentioned at the start of the article, 2020 could have been devastating for Hireology, we sell hiring software to gyms,auto dealerships, and nursing homes. An outsider looking in could have looked at us and said "COVID is going to kill your business". But it didn't.
2020 was by no means easy but by maintaining a laser focus on doing right by our customer and by letting our customer and prospects needs be the starting point for our retention as well as our sales strategy, we were able to successfully navigate the uncertainty and come into 2021 stronger than ever.
The work is not done, we still have a ways to go and I'm sure there are more challenges in front of us. But I've never been more confident in our team's ability to overcome those challenges.