We make it a habit to chat with SaaS industry leaders as we continue to build out Baton, a leading software implementation project management platform. The following are a few excerpts from Kristine Vallila’s conversation with Lily Engle, Vice President, Implementation Services & Support at leading commercial real estate software provider, VTS, Inc. Ms. Engle is a veteran in customer success who shared her insights on her industry and the changing requirements for software implementation professionals. Kristine runs Baton’s Customer Success team. What follows are a few highlights from their conversations:
Kristine Vallila: Let’s start with a little bit about VTS?
Lily Engle: VTS is a commercial real estate technology company that enables real estate landlords and brokers to manage all of their tenants, deals, leases, and spaces, in one central, online platform. This lets them execute leasing deals faster, reduce time wasted on manual work, and gives them access to real-time information to make the best decisions for their real estate portfolios. We’re used by more than 45,000 users to manage more than 12B square feet of real estate across over 40 countries. VTS was started in New York City, and we now have offices around the US, as well as an international HQ in London, and a Product Development Center in Toronto.
Our company, Baton, is literally named for the handoff between project participants, so let’s jump in right there. Regarding the ideal handoff from sales to the implementation team, is there anything you wish you could tell a sales team about handoff?
There are pros and cons of being a fast-growing startup that has audacious goals. We do need to sell, sell, sell, and a close partnership between Implementation and Sales is essential to ensure customers feel comfortable and taken care of. My team has very much become a resource for the sales team to help build confidence with prospects in our implementation process. We are engineering a tighter feedback loop and building a playbook that balances the need to close deals with getting the right information early in our relationship with a client. Handoff is much more about the relationships internally and the understanding of what’s to come. I am hoping over the next year we’ll start to have more conversations around implementation earlier with clients - especially defining the key factors to making an implementation successful. More often than not, it’s the relationships we build with the client’s team and the engagement they invest in the project that will make an implementation successful. If we nail this partnership, any challenges that come up during the rollout are easily solved with much less pain on the client’s end.
How do you share that wisdom with your team or do you have any tips?
I personally love human connection and building bridges between my team and others at VTS. I do think having that natural proclivity helps me, because everyone sees that I am involved cross-functionally. I am in meetings I don’t belong in because I strive to understand what is going on and I try to encourage that with my team. Years ago, I made it a priority among my team members to build a strong relationship with our Sales team so that we could more easily smooth any issues that came up in the Sales/Implementation handoff. For example, we could very easily say that we weren’t getting what we needed, but why was that the case? Until we understood the reason, and asked “why?” we were just as at fault for not proactively getting ahead of it. I try to encourage people to ask: “What can we do about it, and what is out of our control?” We are not going to make someone who is commission-driven take the time to get us more information unless they are rewarded with clear results and understand the value of that added effort. We have to appreciate the small wins. The more we can build that cross-functional empathy and align on our common goal of happy clients, the better the outcome for everyone. So we focus on that.
VTS is a technology company that occasionally works with non-technical clients. I imagine that for a lot of the clients you’re working with, it’s the first time they’re using technology to replace a previously paper-based process?
Yes, and that fact has made change management very important to us. In years past, implementation was about standing the thing up and then passing off to client management. What was missed was the concept of change management. As we quickly scaled, we noticed that some clients weren’t set up internally to successfully implement the product, or that adoption was a challenge. We soon learned that this was the case largely because the new workflows that clients needed to adopt into their day-to-day were not the focus of implementation. Today, we’ve shifted to implementations being very much focused on all of those business users who need to work differently, and ultimately more efficiently, by adopting VTS. We’re bringing users into the implementation process early so that they are getting educated on how it works and become fluent in our VTS language long before they log in for the first time. We strive for users to never feel forced into using VTS without proper education and engagement with the platform before go-live.
That’s got to make a difference?
Absolutely. VTS is a workflow software, not just a data provider or other platform with a more passive user-base. Shifting our focus to emphasize change management has greatly improved the engagement we see during implementations from users across our clients’ orgs. We introduce clients to VTS workflows from the very start of a project, alongside all the technical API connections and mapping. As we are kicking off the API calls, that same day we are kicking off conversations about business processes. Our project managers go through very rigorous training to ensure that they’re fluent in both the technical and business process language and project management. Everyone at VTS has a good grounding in how our clients do business.
Do you charge for that service?
We do charge and do not get any pushback from clients. Our implementation fee includes the technical and business onboarding. We even get asked why we don’t charge more, given the depth of our work with each client team, which is encouraging! We work with plenty of clients who employ complex, business-critical technical tools and we help them use those other products better because we make data more readily available to the business users closest to the details. I do think it is kind of a special thing because we come in and help them optimize technologies across their business, not just what is completed within our platform.
What other challenges do you run into?
One key challenge is getting client teams that are not used to working together, like business teams and technical teams, doing so in a way that makes VTS as robust as possible for the organization. For example, our implementation might be the first time a business team understands how their lease data is managed on the back-end in their accounting system, and it could highlight some inaccuracies in how specific terms have been entered historically. It’s the VTS team’s job to reconcile and implement change on both sides, which requires careful management. The technical side might be underwater with a million other projects and priorities and it may suddenly seem like the front end of the house is telling them what to do. So we do need to play the role of a relationship manager in terms of selling both teams on the value of what could be tedious data cleanup. Selling the business team is typically a little easier because they’re ultimately our end users, but getting those technical teams involved early and on the same page is a really big driver of success for us.
On a previous call you mentioned the importance of understanding “the Why.” Can you share a bit more there?
About a year and a half ago, I headed up an initiative to build our customer journey at VTS. A cross-functional team collaborated on mapping the journey, refining the language around outcomes that our product drives, and folding those into everything that we do. “The Why” is each one of those outcomes that the client is looking to achieve with VTS. A client can get frustrated with challenges during implementation, but tying everything that we ask the client to do back to “the why” reminds them of the value of what may seem like tedious work at the time. So when the client renews or they share that they’re happy with the outcomes VTS is delivering on for their organization, that gives our team feedback that we’re working the right way. It’s all about those “Whys,” both internally and when we’re talking to clients.
The battles - talk to me about your worst project moment?
It was a big client, pre-merger, with a 3rd party project consultant to manage from their side. That person did not have good real estate knowledge and would berate me because he did not have complete clarity into things that our mutual client did. That was a frustrating client experience, having to parse the third party input from the noise when the client was happy and was moving forward. The challenge is how do you manage someone who is blocking you and eating up all of your time, so that you can get on with the project and achieve the best outcome for your client within your deadline?
I had a project where I was introduced to a client and they initially asked for someone else because of my lack of experience - I had started only 2 months prior with the company. As a perfectionist, that hurt. BUT, they didn’t replace me on the project and, particularly because of what they said, I really leaned into learning everything and building that expertise that they wanted out of their project manager, while also communicating constantly about project status. The client started relying on me heavily and it clicked. The relationship was strong. Our main account sponsor ended up sending a note to my CEO saying, “Lily has been phenomenal, I am sorry about being a pain early on,” so that felt good. It was validating to know I was making an impact and that my efforts were recognized. I didn’t need a background in real estate, I just needed to know what was needed for the task at hand, have a good demeanor and get it done transparently. That filled in the relationship blanks. We are still in touch. It was definitely a good experience.
I think the best hires that we have had in implementation have been those without strict implementation backgrounds, but with the soft skills to lead a project strongly. At VTS, it’s about how they handle themselves, communicate, and think through things. We focus on soft skills. Can you break down complex problems? Are you naturally curious? Curiosity is so key. It is one of our core company values and the number one thing we care about on our team. If people are curious, they take ownership of their own learning which leads to success. They care to be informed, which leads them to take care with how they translate those learnings to our clients.
Does any one skill in particular come to mind when interviewing?
One of our best hires came from a completely different, but still process-oriented field. She spoke clearly about what her job entailed and what could be improved, was very strong at delineating concepts, and explaining those concepts to someone unfamiliar with that world. She speaks in a way that moves things forward, which I think is a very important skill in a startup. At growing companies there are always a lot of things that could be improved. You can’t be torn apart by the imperfect. In the past I’ve worked with team members who were more about getting things done the way they wanted things done and devalued the complexity of a growing company. We are now a 300+ person organization - we have to work together and compromise around the right things.