Two Tech Leaders On Connecting With Customers During Times Of Crisis

Two executives talked customer-centric strategies during unprecedented times and the advice they have for women in the channel heading into next year at the Women Of The Channel West Leadership Summit 2021.

The Customer Comes First

The past two years have changed the way nearly every business operates. That means that vendors and solution providers alike have had to take a step back, re-evaluate—and possibility recalibrate—their goals, while keeping the customer first in their minds.

At The Channel Company’s Women Of The Channel West Leadership Summit, two tech leaders talked about just that—how they adapted and changed on the fly to put customers at the heart of every decision. Lisa Allen, vice president of field sales at Dynabook, and Jennifer Binet, senior vice president, worldwide enterprise sales at Sectigo, talked about how their business has changed over the past 19 months, the importance of “giving to get,” connecting virtually when there are no other options, and times when things didn’t go so well.

Here’s what the executives had to say about defining customer-centric strategies during unprecedented times and the advice they have for women in the channel heading into 2022.

What has life been like for your customers over the last 19 months?

Allen: Just coming off [a divestiture from Toshiba], I’ve had to tell everyone who Dynabook is. At that point in COVID, we changed our name. We didn’t have the five years we thought we were going to have, going from Toshiba to Dynabook—it happened almost overnight. So, we had heard every day: ’Who is Dynabook?’ So to go out and get new customers and then COVID, it was extremely tough but we got stronger through it. I think we appreciate everything more now because of what we went through.

Binet: A big thing for me was net-new customers. We do a lot of that new customer acquisition from sometimes brick-and-mortar [businesses]—a lot of retail. Unfortunately for us, when [COVID-19] hit, people put the brakes on. I had to take a step back and really figure out sales. It is a little bit black and white; you’re stuck with a number and you have to achieve it somehow, some way. So, for me it was: ’How are we going to get there? What are we going to do?’ That decision was on my shoulders. So, we did a pivot. We have an incredible base of existing customers and I really just had the team focus on the base with everything they’ve got. We had to do a little bit of recalibration with the executive team. I had a five-year growth plan to execute on and I had to readjust that alignment. But we still did, and we were still able to maintain 18 percent growth. It wasn’t in the high 20s that we had expected, but at the end of the day, it’s still pretty good.

Where did you experience tension and what did you learn from that?

Binet: I had a number of customers that were in the airline industry and in the [hospitality segment]. Hotels, they were feeling it, so I had a lot of my team members coming in, saying, ’Hey, they need a discount to make it happen.’ I’m obviously responsible for that P&L, so I have a revenue expectation as well. So, for me, it was balancing the revenue and still trying to maintain that stream. It’s also understanding the difficult position that these customers were in because I knew the impact it was having—we all saw it. The tension was both ways. I was actually managing customers and I was managing my CFO too because he was looking at me to produce on that revenue I am committed to, but it was really trying to balance both—the internal and the external. I came up with some creative ideas. I came up with kind of flexible payment terms, [and] if we were to reduce a certain amount for this year, would [the customer] be willing to lock in for a five-year commitment versus maybe just an annual? So, maybe extending that term and keeping them a longer-term customer. A lot of customers right now because of security and the risks out there, they don’t want to enter into longer-term agreements because they want that flexibility. I was willing to give as long as I got, and the ’give’ part for me was being able to sign them for multiyear agreements and being able to get that commitment from them. It actually worked out, but it was tough. It’s talking and listening to these customers really begging for me to help them in any way possible and it is something I really wanted to do. So, managing it both ways and just making sure that they both came away with something that they needed, collectively, there was a middle ground.

Allen: We were so busy. There wasn’t all this tension because we were so busy, I think, because Toshiba was Dynabook, so we engineer, design and manufacture our own components and products that we were able to deliver when some of our competitors couldn’t. So, we were just extremely busy, but it helped us. So, I think there was less stress than I would I would have had pre-pandemic.

Were there new or unexpected opportunities in terms of products or services for your company?

Allen: Yes, new opportunities opened up for us. In the Orange Unified School District in Orange County, [Calif.], they needed a device for 17,000 students and we were able to deliver in 30 days what would normally have been Chromebooks. But we delivered Windows devices [that] they were able to get into these kids’ hands almost immediately for remote monitoring. We had to work very closely with our manufacturing facility because it was not forecast to be able to deliver that in that short amount of time. It did take teamwork and in pricing we didn’t want to gouge somebody who’s doing trying to do well by children. So, we kind of took a hit and Microsoft took a hit a little bit. But it’s a great partnership and we’ll be able to talk about it for months to come.

What didn’t go so well, and what did you learn?

Binet: I will say that a couple of things happened. We were with one private equity firm and we flipped to another, and that went well. That was exciting. But then we actually did an acquisition of a company that’s based in Europe [Xolphin ], trying to integrate a company during this whole pandemic where we couldn’t fly there and then there were language barriers and cultures [that] were just a little different. From my perspective, it was trying to work with them, trying to Zoom with them in those odd hours where they’re off and I’m barely awake. Then, integrating them into our systems as well was challenging. We learned a lot of really interesting pieces throughout that in terms of the things that did not go well—things like how forecasting to them was something very different in their mind than what it meant in my mind. That was definitely a little bit more complicated to work out.

What advice that you would share to women in the channel for the next 12 months?

Allen: I would encourage each of you to apply for jobs. I look for women and I rarely get any resumes from women. I did just hire somebody four months ago and I’m tickled pink with her, but it’s tough. I tell recruiters to find me women, and I just don’t get the resumes. So, I encourage each of you. Even if you don’t feel like you have the experience. I’ve hired people that if they didn’t pass the recruiter test to get to me but I looked at the resume and I saw some things that I liked, and I said: ’Let’s put them through.’ I hired that person in August that didn’t make it through the recruiter because I thought they brought in more. Maybe they didn’t have the eight years’ experience in the computer industry. Well, they had some other experience that I thought was more valuable. I love her communication skills. So please, even if you don’t feel like you have the experience, put your name out there.

Binet: Four years ago, I was presented with this opportunity. I had led teams before, but they were small. I had a previous CEO come to me and say, ’Listen, you could do this. I want you to jump into this thing and I want you to take it head on. You’re going to take it all, from soup to nuts. You get to put your own footprint on the enterprise organization. It is all you, lady.’ And I have to tell you, take the leap. I’d always taken leaps in my career, but this was a really substantial leap for me—it was a big transition. And I was like: ’Can I really do this?’ I’m here to tell you, you absolutely can. I’ve sat in front of countless boards. They’ve praised me for all the work that I’ve done. It’s validating to look back and say, ’You only did 18 percent.’ Wait a minute, I did 18 percent during this time frame when many people are growing in my industry by just 2 [percent to] 3 [percent]. Take the step back, take the leap. You can do it. I fully believe that.