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June 11, 2020

Supporting customer and supplier relationships in uncertain times

Shailendra Hegde, Ian McKinley

Editor’s Note: COVID-19 has impacted people around the world, challenging us to adapt to travel restrictions, school closures, and the removal of barriers between work and life—all at once. So, what does a cross-functional team of engineers, data scientists, analysts, and marketers that lives in the space between workplace culture and data do when presented with the world’s largest work-from-home shift? It, well, does its homework. In this blog series, we’ll share real-time learnings as we measure the impact of this unprecedented shift on how one group of employees works, connects, and balances our lives. We hope these insights will teach us something about how work is changing and help us all get through this, together.

“We only succeed when our customers succeed. Helping them through adversity builds trust.”

We are facing great adversity. The global pandemic and the economic disruptions it has triggered pose myriad challenges. Our immediate concern is for our colleagues facing significant stressors, including caring for and helping to educate their children; worrying about their health and safety and that of their families, friends, and communities; and feeling pressure to be “always on.” It also goes without saying that companies across industries are experiencing major challenges to their ways of doing business, including impacts to employee wellbeing, abnormal economic conditions, fluctuating customer demand, and at-risk supply chains.

These twin challenges come to a head inside any customer-centric organization. Because of our desire to help customers succeed, especially in times of crisis, sudden uncertainty is often met with an instinct to quickly reach out to our key relationships and, if needed, to ramp up support. We’re left with an environment where employees are stretched thin, customers are stretched thin, businesses are disrupted, and yet the relationships remain as important as ever.

This week, we explore data from the Microsoft sales, customer success, and manufacturing organizations to understand how external-facing teams are changing how they work to manage customer and supplier relationships. Our data, drawn from M365 using Workplace Analytics, clearly shows that everyone in customer-centric roles is communicating more with contacts outside Microsoft than they were before the current situation. But beyond how much, we wanted to know: how are external-facing Microsoft teams adapting, given all the additional challenges they face? And are there any changes in internal Microsoft relationships, which we’ve identified as critical drivers of sales and customer success, as a result?

We know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to customer or supplier relationships during the current crisis. But by quantifying these adaptations, we gain useful insights that help us understand their impact and chart a path forward. We offer our findings as a perspective for other external-facing organizations to consider.

Our field organizations: Sales and Customer Success

Our field organization is the lifeblood of our business, keeping us attuned to the needs of our customers and helping those customers navigate difficult times. With the increased market uncertainty and the endless cycle of critical decisions, we know that customer needs and expectations have changed. Our data indicates our field teams have changed their collaboration patterns in response.

Sales

The best salespeople know the outsized importance of each customer interaction, so we expected the desire to quickly reach out to their customers. At the same time, sellers must constantly balance time spent with existing customers and time spent building new customer relationships. With the onset of a massive work disruption, we wondered how sellers would strike that new balance and whether customers’ collaboration needs would change. Would existing customers want to give more of their time, which is suddenly more precious than ever, to Microsoft? From the data, it appears the answer is ‘yes.’

Finding: Sales meetings, both Microsoft- and customer-initiated, increased compared with business as usual.

Measuring patterns of collaboration in everyday work, we found that Microsoft salespeople are spending 11 percent more time with customers every week. They are initiating 26 percent more meetings with customers. At the same time, we learned that salespeople are not spending additional time emailing or reaching out to new leads. These are signs that salespeople are concentrating on supporting existing relationships during crisis, and that customers want and need this prioritization.

To better understand how the shift to remote work is impacting sellers’ time with customers, we asked some sellers what they’ve been experiencing. Their input confirms the increase in collaboration and provides context for how relationships—the lifeblood of the sales motion—are being impacted and nurtured:

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[We’ve seen] a huge increase in customer engagement as many organizations are trying to understand remote work impacts to their business.
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[I’m fielding] much more interest about our business continuity capabilities.

Sellers also reflected on the challenges of being 100 percent remote:

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Contacts are more frequent and fast, but it’s harder to realize the value of these interactions.
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I miss the ability to see faces and body language as part of the feedback during a session.

This input raises the question of whether it takes more collaboration time to maintain the same level of customer engagement and support in a fully remote environment, and/or within a crisis. While we can’t answer with certainty if this is the factor driving increased collaboration time, it is a learning we’ll keep in mind as we plan for what’s ahead and as managers help sellers prioritize.

As with other parts of our organization, the data and shared experiences also highlighted the increased importance of personal connection in this time of disruption:

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Compared to previous remote meetings, the inclusion of video has improved the dynamic significantly. And in the absence of any opportunity to complement calls with in-person interaction, it is critical that we have an experience as personal as possible with our customers.
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Conversations do start out with more personal connects on the front end to learn how the client and their people are doing, and how we can support their hybrid work environments.
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We’re working together as people, not just positions.

Next we asked, where is this extra time coming from? With remote work and a crisis to navigate, sellers and customers are likely in situations where they have less time to give. Knowing how important internal relationships are for salespeople, we were happy to learn that it’s not coming at the expense of those: in our measurement we saw no material change in how sellers are connecting with their colleagues inside Microsoft. But this could always change, and as we move into our state of new normal, maintaining internal relationships will certainly be top of mind for Microsoft. And through observing the increase in customers reaching out to Microsoft sellers, we have more evidence that customers are viewing our sellers as critical resources during these times.

Customer Success

Employees in our Customer Success organization are responsible for helping customers drive business outcomes and increase value from Microsoft products and services. Their weeks are also more filled with customer conversations than ever before: collaboration hours are up 26 percent overall since the shift to remote work. Interestingly, this increase was driven not just by the teams’ outreach to customers but also by customers reaching out to the team (customer-initiated meetings went up 22 percent). In a role like Customer Success, this is a sign that customers are actively seeking support as they turn to Microsoft products to help them through these challenging times.

As one colleague shared in a survey response: “I am having more frequent interactions with customers now that we have more flexibility to meet virtually. Previously, we would get held up trying to schedule in person meetings, and that would delay conversations and/or increase the duration between conversations. Now we are operating at a faster cadence to support customers’ needs to measure and maintain business continuity.”

Finding: In addition to increased customer collaboration, the Customer Success team experienced more internal collaboration within Microsoft.

Unlike our Sales team, the Customer Success team also increased its internal collaboration, with collaboration both within the group and with our Services organization up more than 10 percent. Given that Customer Success professionals tends to wear multiple hats (sales, training, services, marketing, etc.) this behavior could be a reflection of the increased importance of internal relationships in making customers successful. It could also be that our Customer Success team has the most complete voice of our customer and is doing all it can to share that voice across Microsoft as customers are leveraging our products in more ways than ever.

These signals give us a sense of what it has taken to ensure our customers’ success over the past few months, but the landscape keeps shifting, and we’ll need to continue monitoring them over the coming months. Will our customers continue to need additional support, or can we fall back to our old way of working? How do we ensure the increased time spent on internal relationships doesn’t overwhelm the core function of this role? And if both internal and external collaboration remain this high, how does Customer Success thrive while also striking a work-life balance to promote individual wellbeing?

Field leadership

The story thus far focuses on people with direct customer responsibilities. But we know from past research that there’s a direct link between the time our leaders spend with our customers and the success of those customers. This felt like a particularly important point, as our leaders are spread so thin right now.

When thinking of “leaders” we investigated two cohorts: sales managers (i.e. the people who directly manage salespeople) and sales leadership (i.e. the people who manage other managers). And two different stories emerged.

Finding: Both sales managers and sales leadership increased time with customers, and leadership spent more time with some internal groups.

Sales managers are spending significantly more time with customers (sellers involve them in 26 percent more customer meetings than they did previously and copy them on emails more frequently). Could this be an area where we can cut back? In a normal environment, we would say yes: managers co-attending meetings too frequently can lead to employees feeling micro-managed and lacking autonomy. However, given the current business environment, a temporary increase in these numbers may not be a bad thing. Time-sensitive customer situations might require elevated decision-making rights, and team members may be including their managers in meetings and emails as a way of keeping them updated on their day-to-day work, since quick in-person catch-ups are no longer a possibility.

Sales leadership is spending more time with customers as well (external collaboration is up 14 percent). But we noticed they are also spending noticeably more internal time with Customer Success and Services (and no additional time with core salespeople). This could be interpreted in many ways—leaders showing their commitment to customers, escalations of customer challenges, leaders’ need to hear the voice of the customer. But it absolutely shows leaders investing more time into these relationships. And as we’ve asked many times already, are there unforeseen costs to this investment?

Device manufacturing

Like salespeople, employees in supply chain roles are tightly connected to, and highly invested in, their external networks. And given the well-known disruptions to supply chains across industries, we were curious to learn what our Workplace Analytics relationship intelligence tools could tell us about how our relationships with suppliers are adapting.

Contrary to our expectations, we did not see the same large increase in external collaboration that we observed with salespeople. However, the number of people at suppliers who collaborated regularly with Microsoft spiked. Suppliers who previously had moderate engagement with Microsoft increased 13 percent, and those who previously had even deeper engagement increased 24 percent. This could represent a manufacturing organization that is trying to maintain continuity within a deeply disrupted supply chain, actively engaging with contacts and suppliers who can support demand.

Finding: A focused set of employees are deepening their relationships with their suppliers to maintain business continuity.

We also saw a striking new story emerge. Since the shift to remote work, the average number of people in our manufacturing group who regularly collaborated directly with suppliers varied by geography: it decreased in the US and increased in China. The possible explanations here are numerous and we intend to look at this more closely in subsequent posts. But initial direction suggests that groups optimized work functions as they adjusted to new normal. While suppliers (especially those we work closely with) have augmented their existing teams with new resources to address the fast-changing situation, our own manufacturing teams have tried to streamline supplier collaboration practices, including adjusting where this collaboration occurs. This likely fosters greater role clarity as people make thoughtful choices about which meetings to attend and which projects to take on, ultimately resulting in deeper, more meaningful relationships.

As we’ve seen, the impulse to quickly ramp up our collaboration to ensure the success of our customers and the other outside parties we work with is consistent across external-facing Microsoft groups. What is more interesting, and what we’ve outlined in this post, is how those groups have gone about doing more, and the unique ways they are responding to customer and supplier needs. Clearly, external-facing groups need to consider how their unique circumstances shape their work with outside parties at least as much as they need to track the hours they’re putting in. We hope this can provide food for thought as other companies and organizations consider the ways they can support their customers and stakeholders.

Methodology: To help us chronicle the journey of our 300-person organization and other groups at Microsoft, we draw on data from Workplace Analytics to help quantify the impact on collaboration, networks and focus, explore the lived experiences of our teammates through surveys and interviews, and tap into the knowledge of experts where it helps our understanding.

Research Lead: Kevin Sherman
Series Editor: Natalie Singer-Velush

Categories:

Workplace Analytics

Shailendra Hegde

Shailendra Hegde is a Director in the Workplace Analytics team at Microsoft where he applies human and artificial intelligence to create new experiences with behavioral data. When he is not telling a story to his little daughter ("Little Blue Truck" fans, anyone?), he is usually finding a story to tell with data. He was previously a Senior Manager at Deloitte Consulting where he helped banks adopt disruptive technologies to become more efficient and innovative.

Ian McKinley

Ian McKinley is an Associate on the Workplace Analytics team at Microsoft, with a background in law, management consulting, and corporate strategy. He works with Microsoft customers to help them understand and rethink their most important investments: people and time. Ian lives in Seattle with his husband and dog and spends his time outside of work outdoors as much as possible, rain or shine.