Kathie Johnson
April 3, 2020

How Talkdesk Led the “Business Continuity” Curve

Guest: Kathie Johnson - CMO, Talkdesk

It’s impossible to have business continuity during a crisis if your contact center software is only designed to run on-premises (on-prem for short) and your employees can’t come into the office. This has become a serious issue for many companies in the recent weeks, because if your customers can’t reach your service team, it stops business in its tracks and, ultimately, adversely affects your brand.

That’s why Talkdesk, a cloud-based contact center solution, made it their mission to bring on-prem operations home quickly so that businesses could continue thriving while protecting their employees. Their first of many crisis-centered products launched one week before “business continuity” started trending, and Talkdesk CMO Kathie Johnson joins us this week to talk about how her team’s agility, commitment to goodwill, and holistic view of business put Talkdesk front and center in the conversation.

Pulling together a new, recession-conscious product development team is just one way to retool your growth engine during a downturn. For more examples and tips, check out our recent guide to B2B demand generation.

Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Kathie Johnson

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers. Here we are in the middle of COVID and it’s affecting all businesses in all sorts of ways. One of the things I actually hadn’t thought about is the whole call center industry and the fact that, up until a few weeks ago, 85% of call center employees were actually in a physical location. Well, you can’t do social distancing with those kinds of setups. So suddenly all of these folks that used to provide important customer service can’t go into work? There’s a big issue, a real challenge. How do you redeploy these people and, you know, keep business continuity? I was just having a pre-call conversation with Kathie Johnson, who is the CMO at Talkdesk, and suddenly I realized that this is a really fascinating story on agility, on reacting to a market opportunity. There’s a situation that presents itself, and suddenly there’s a need for your product and service that wasn’t there before. How do you walk that fine line, how do you do it in a way that is graceful? And with that, Kathie, welcome to Renegade Thinkers Unite.

Kathie Johnson: Thanks for having me, Drew.

Drew Neisser: So, this is a challenging time. I wanted to set a couple of frameworks. You’ve been on the job exactly 5 months and, normally I don’t actually date this because the show has been an evergreen over the years, but now we’re urgently in the moment. Three months ago, you had a nice little plan, and then about a month ago or a little bit less, suddenly things go awry. Talk about the moment when you all recognized that business is going to have to change and adapt really quickly.

Kathie Johnson: That’s a great question and you’re right. I’ve been in this role since the middle of November, followed my 90-day plan as best as I could and then, yes, the entire world changed. One of the things that hit us pretty quickly was that this was a moment where our solution could really help companies make a change and get their employees remote. If you remember how this all started, there were a lot of unknowns. It didn’t really come to the US right away as impactfully as it has today, but we started seeing what was happening in other regions. 85 to 88% of all contact centers are on-prem and people are tethered to their workstations. We have a solution that permits companies to actually get their employees remote and this was a way for us to help organizations have business continuity, which is how we launched it back on March 4th. How can we help companies retain or have business continuity during a time of crisis like this?

Drew Neisser: Let me break it down. You launched a campaign on March 4th and at that moment “business continuity” was still a relatively unused term. Then, a week later, it became one of the most searchable terms.

Kathie Johnson: That’s correct.

Drew Neisser: Right. You saw that data. So, sometime before March 4th, you said you went from idea to campaign in 36 hours.

Kathie Johnson: That’s correct, Drew.

Drew Neisser: Okay, so how do you have the agility to respond in such a fast moment? You got to get operations lined up and sales and all sorts of things, how do you do that so quickly?

Kathie Johnson: That’s a great question. Perhaps it helps that we work for a company that’s super agile and our solution itself is highly flexible. I pulled a whole group of folks together, and we rallied around what we needed to do. We pulled in sales ops, implementation, customer success, product, and marketing, and put a package together that we knew A: could help people in this time of need and B: that we could deliver successfully.

Drew Neisser: Let’s talk about that. This balance between opportunity for you, opportunity for your customers, and as you said before, not being a vulture. Talk about that. I mean, that must have been on your mind. How do you walk that balance?

Kathie Johnson: Well, I’d love to ask other people how they feel we walked that balance, but it was really important to me that we not come across as “vultures.” I’ve used that language consistently inside the company. My whole team would tell you I say that. This is a moment, a true leadership moment, for both leaders and companies, and for the leadership of companies themselves who have solutions that can help in this time of need. I wanted to make sure that we considered the ways that we can help people and not just the things we could do to make money. We talked about current people who are tethered within a contact center: what could we do to help them get their employees out, to get them safe? All these people are sitting maybe three feet apart if they’re lucky. We also talked about, for our own customers, the things that they might need to get their employees safe because we all know as marketers that a company’s brand is their most important thing. If you are standing in a queue for hours for a contact center, and you’re not getting the responses you need on messages, chatbots, etc., you are going to have a very poor perception of that brand. We wanted to help companies have business continuity and retain their brand.

Drew Neisser: And this is a really interesting point. I mean, we’ve all had good customer experiences on the phone, and we’ve all had bad ones. I know I hit that zero button all the time after I’ve been through the phone tree. But then, you know, sometimes you get just a fabulous experience and sometimes you don’t. But the first part of it is you have to get to somebody to answer. If a lot of these companies basically said, “Okay, we can only have half the people in the office,” then suddenly that means only half the calls can be answered. Let’s talk about the importance of call centers contact centers, they feel so antiquated in some ways. I mean, I was thinking about this, let’s talk about the evolution of this service and how you all fit into this mix. We’re physically planted, and we have equipment in a physical place and now suddenly we have to go home.

You and I are talking on Zoom because that’s really easy, we both have computers with cameras in them. Nothing to it, but how do you quickly move that infrastructure that you would need? In the call center, you’d have a computer that was coordinated with all that information, and maybe you had three or four monitors. How do you suddenly bring that home?

Kathie Johnson: You just gave the perfect example with Zoom. Back when I started working, you met in a conference room and if you weren’t all physically in the room, maybe you had a phone call, but even then, you couldn’t see each other. If you look at contact centers, they’ve been around for over 25 years and they were all tethered in these buildings. The company I work, Talkdesk, is a native cloud software, so we started from the very beginning being 100% cloud and now, all of a sudden, you don’t have to be in front of a computer in a building that has on-premises software, you can work anywhere from any laptop. Taking it one step further, you can now do all of that contact center management from your phone through mobile solutions. This world has completely changed the same way it has video conferencing.

Drew Neisser: Yes, so we can do this remotely, but all these companies, including your clients’ companies, weren’t. It seems like you came up with new products on the fly, launched them on the fly in order to address this challenge that your customers and other businesses were facing. Talk about that a little bit.

Kathie Johnson: We looked at what capabilities we had within our own solutions that we could package and bring out to market to help companies. The first package we came out with on March 4th, which was a week before “business continuity” started trending on Google Trends, was Talkdesk Boost for Business Continuity. This really helps organizations who you know don’t want to move off of their on-prem solution because they’re comfortable with it, or perhaps it’s too scary to make a big change when lots of other things are unknown. We’re able, within two weeks, to actually get their employees remote and still using their on-prem solution. That’s what we came out with first, right away.

After that we thought, okay, what do our customers need? We were hearing from some of our customers who already had our cloud-based solution, which means technically their employees could be remote, but they all needed laptops. All of a sudden, companies had an amazing hardware acquisition to make, which obviously has a cost associated with it, so we launched Talkdesk Mobile Agent for our customer base. We could help them get their employees home and working on their phones within 24 hours without buying additional hardware. We’re constantly following the news, listening to what we’re hearing from customers and prospects, and finding the paying points in this day and age because there’s no playbook for this. None of us have lived through anything like this before, especially in the world of technology and the internet. We’re following what’s happening out there, thinking about what else can we do to help the community at large, what else can we do to help our current customers, and how we can help those who aren’t our customers today. As I mentioned in our pre-call, there are a couple of other offers we’re coming out with very shortly to help those industries that are very hard hit by this situation.

Drew Neisser: From a marketing standpoint, what did you think was important, and what was the story behind the product? What were you saying and how did you get that message out there so quickly?

Kathie Johnson: The big story was really around business continuity. The contact center space is an important touchpoint across every phase of the customer journey. If you think of a customer journey as four phases: from awareness to purchase to service to expansion, the contact center sits in the middle of all four of those. If your contact center isn’t operational, meaning it’s not safe for your employees to come into work and you aren’t able to work remote, or if you don’t have enough people, then you’re not able to provide the experience that your customers expect, damaging your business short term and your brand long term. We really wanted to think about how we could help companies in all four of those phases. As an organization, what I did was pull everyone together to figure out what are we packaging, how we’d package it, and how to get it out there. We did all of the marketing tactics that any marketer would do from digital to internal engagement except for events and direct sales.

The other thing that was happening in the world is that marketing had to think differently. I spent time thinking, where am I hurting? Where do I not have enough resources today? Where do I have people whose world has really shifted? The ones in events, field marketing, and things like that. I spent time working through each individual on the team and figuring out what other strengths they had and redeploying them. A lot of them went right into this whole business continuity program we’re running. We have a major business continuity program and we have individual owners now for each stream within that, and that’s how we really rallied and got everything out to market so quickly.

Drew Neisser: So, you went, “those people don’t have anything to do” and rather than just saying, “Hey, go take a couple of weeks off,” you quickly redeployed them to help get this program out the door. As you were talking, I was thinking. It’s one thing to get the hardware in place to redeploy your call center. It’s another thing if you’re trying to hire and train. Remote training has got to be a big part of it too. It’s not just about how they use your service, but how they provide customer service. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why people don’t like remote work, they can’t have training facilities, can’t supervise, you know, there are all sorts of things that happen when we’re in the same space. So, as you’re creating new problems, are you solving those too?

Kathie Johnson: You have definitely hit the nail on the head there. There are a couple of things we also had to consider. One is onboarding and enablement, and actually, our solution is highly flexible, scalable, and so easy to use that people are trained within an hour. We also have Talkdesk Academy and we’re about to push out additional training streams around how to be an agent, how to be a supervisor. How do we help organizations fill this huge need they have for hiring right now? I think about, in my own world, of the people who’ve been impacted. My dog walkers and after school nannies, they lost their jobs. How do you take all of these people in service industries that are no longer being paid and educate and redeploy them in a way that you find new opportunities for them? We’re doing a lot right now as well on our Talkdesk Academy. How do we train new agents, how do we train new supervisors, and how do we make those available for companies to hire? It’s really a holistic look at the whole business. How do we help companies get their own people safe by being remote? How do we help companies find new talent that’s trained and ready to run? And how do we make sure that every marketer, like my team, is doing the right work that helps this all happen. The other thing is that our solution has a lot of built-in training as well, so there’s a lot of predictive prompting and everything like that to help agents be responsive with the right message to the right clients.

Drew Neisser: There’s a lot of talk out there about how so many things have urgently changed, like the fact that you and I are both doing this from our homes. The prognosis for the real estate business isn’t very good if you can get a whole workforce to work from home and people actually like it, so that might be a transition. I’m imagining that in your business. Do you expect that there will be a dramatic change in terms of call center or contact center enablement on a remote basis? Do you think they’ll slow down and if it was 85%, when we’re done and go back to normal, whatever or whenever that is, does it go back to 85%?

Kathie Johnson: It’s something I’m really thinking about a lot in terms of when we entered this phase. Most companies did not have pandemic crisis plans. Let me share a story of one of our customers called Millennial Solutions. They’re located in Puerto Rico and when Hurricane Maria hit they needed to immediately get their people off the island and have them still work. That’s when they moved to Talkdesk. The CEO of Millennial Solutions will say today that it was his pandemic crisis and today he’s so grateful that he’d already moved everybody remote because he didn’t have to go through that rush since they’re already remote and situated. I don’t know what the percentage would be, but I highly believe that a high majority of people who have gone remote will stay remote. If that happens, we’ll be working on questions like, how do we improve all the other pieces around that for companies so that they’re highly efficient, effective, and moving forward?

Drew Neisser: Thinking about the last four weeks and the dramatic change that your organization has gone through, I should ask if this program has worked. Have you got new clients?

Kathie Johnson: Yes.

Drew Neisser: But you’re not at the point yet where you have to slow down? Because I’ve had a show about how, from an operational standpoint, marketing can be too effective.

Kathie Johnson: One of the things that’s interesting to me, or maybe surprising to me, is that I had identified what I thought would be the industry’s most impacted, as any marketer would do, but, in actuality, it’s effected almost all industries, which I didn’t expect. I’d expected healthcare—with telehealth, we have a company that quickly moved over because they had to be able to get all of their folks remote. There are obviously financial services—Lendmark Financial went with us and was deployed in two days. I get that. Wealth, banking, we had the financial crisis happening at the same time, and I understand the travel and hospitality industry, but I wouldn’t have expected things like consumer services to be affected. They just didn’t pop as high to me, but it’s actually across all industries which is actually surprising.

Drew Neisser: What would you say are the biggest lessons learned? Sometimes crisis creates unique opportunities. I know we’re still early in but, what would you say you’ve learned that you think other CMOs might benefit from learning as a result of the last four weeks?

Kathie Johnson: One of the things I’ve learned is that this can change every day. For example, we have a large office in Salt Lake City. I was already dealing with the pandemic crisis when they had an earthquake, and then they had 30 aftershocks. You have employees that are not only at home, panicked and scared about what’s happening in the world, but then they have this additional factor. It made me realize that you have to take every day and be super careful. We’ve announced that we’re moving our in-person event to a virtual event, and we were going to do some pre-recording then make it look super pretty, but I realized we couldn’t do that. The world changes every day. Right now, I can’t pre-record things a week before because the world could be different by then.

I didn’t necessarily think that way before. I was obviously monitoring things weekly or twice a week, but it’s twice a day now looking at what’s happening in our business in the morning, what’s happening in our business in the evening, and making the determination on what we need to change. I think, to me, that’s my biggest lesson, not having ever been through anything like this before. The second one, and I mean this wholeheartedly, this is a leadership moment. This is when leaders and companies really need to stand up and think of their employees first and recognize the fact that this is hard for them. It’s hard for them with their families and they themselves are scared, but at the same time we’re asking even more of them because the world we’re in right now is so different and our product can help so many companies, so we’re even busier than we were before. It’s about finding that right balance between being there to support your people but also helping them be motivated and keep going and do this extra lift that you’re asking them to do. That’s a balance I’m constantly talking about in my own head.

Drew Neisser: I think one thing you can feel good about is that busy is good right now. The people who have too much time or are just obsessing over whether they got it or not. If you’re busy, you’re not worried about that because you’ve got something else to focus on. It feels like this is so essential to these businesses right now that even though there’s a commerce opportunity for you and a growth opportunity, you’re really, in many ways, helping those companies survive this really epic challenge that everybody is facing.

Kathie Johnson: That’s very true, and that’s why we’re seeing sales cycles being incredibly shortened. Our sales cycle for large accounts might have been 150 days or 30 days for small accounts, and right now our sales cycles are sometimes 3 days long.

Drew Neisser: That’s every salesperson’s dream, that is insane. What’s the first thing that you will do as a marketer when the all-clear sign goes out there? Now what do we do, what’s on your mind?

Kathie Johnson: When the world gets back to normal? I honestly will probably take a really deep breath and do a huge kudos to my team, because this is a really long, hard haul. The second thing, and I hope to do this before it totally turns, but it’s to figure out our next pivot.

Drew Neisser: It’s pivot to pivot. Alright, well, speaking of the world changing, I used to have a two to three month backlog of shows, but now I’m doing them all in almost real-time. This will literally air a week from today and I thank you so much for just jumping in unexpectedly and sharing your experience. In some ways, it’s heartening to know that some companies are not only thriving at this moment but they’re playing a role to help those that are really suffering.

Kathie Johnson: Drew, thank you so much. It was great to meet you!

Drew Neisser: Great to meet you too.

Kathie Johnson: Thanks for having this discussion today.

Drew Neisser: My pleasure. And to all the listeners, thank you. As always, I hope you’re keeping safe and secure wherever you are hunkered down. Until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.

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