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Why the Time for Digital Assistants for Enterprises Has Come

When it comes to enterprise information, I’ve seen both sides of the coin, so to speak. I’ve been in the field as a sales rep and consultant trying to use information to help me get work done, and I’ve been a business owner and leader in need of information from the field in order to understand what is really happening with customers.

When I look back on each of these experiences – each with their own set of challenges – I realize just how much these experiences have shaped my perspective over the course of my career. I also realize how much these experiences highlight the problem we’re solving at Yesflow and how much they inform the solution we’re creating.

Now more than ever, it’s apparent to me that the time for digital assistants for enterprises has come, and they will benefit both sales reps and managers alike.

A Quick Look Back at Datastream

My enterprise journey stretches back more than 25 years – 13 of which I spent with Datastream Systems. During my tenure at Datastream we grew from 32 people to 850. We became a public company with a global footprint and over $100M in annual revenue. Along the way I had individual contributor and leadership roles in both Sales and Professional Services. The growth and diversity of each role exposed me to numerous sales, marketing and customer service challenges.

Early on in our growth at Datastream, we became big advocates of CRM because we believed in the power of leveraging information to help our teams execute at the highest level possible. Our CRM system proved to be an integral component to our growth and managing the business successfully. I gained a business person’s perspective on how the technology could be leveraged to support the business. I also had an end user’s perspective of using CRM and other technologies while in the field.

Seeing the Problem and Seizing the Opportunity

When I co-founded Customer Effective in 2003 with Scott Millwood, we felt the timing was right. We had a longstanding relationship as friends and eight years of working together at Datastream. We had a common belief that CRM was going to be an explosive software market. We also had a firsthand, field-level experience with a real business pain – a pain that came from our shared experience with Oynx, our CRM system.

Onyx was our introduction to the amazing power that can come from a team united by a system that delivers the single version of the truth about how we were working with customers. However, as beneficial as Onyx was in connecting our teams together, it was not the tool people naturally gravitated to use all the time. Our team relied heavily on Outlook to manage their contacts, their schedule and, of course, their email communications. This created a gap in how people wanted to work and how our CRM allowed them to work.

The plan to start Customer Effective crystalized when we learned that Microsoft was entering the CRM space. They touted that their CRM would tightly integrate with Outlook, and we felt that integration cast a spotlight on a problem we could help customers solve. Tight integration between CRM and Outlook promised to bring together personal productivity software with Customer Relationship Management. With that perspective in mind, we quit our jobs to become a Microsoft partner focused on their new CRM product.

CRM Grows and Customer Effective Grows With It

Over the next 11 years Microsoft made dramatic strides in the CRM market and so did Customer Effective. We earned accolades that included Microsoft CRM Financial Services Partner of the Year, four-time East Region Partner of the Year and seven-time Inner Circle Member (top 1% partner). More importantly, our customers dominated the Customer Success awards at conferences like Microsoft Convergence. We were successfully helping customers leverage technology to improve marketing, sales and customer service, and our business was growing quickly.

As our business grew, we learned to manage by the metrics. Cash flow was vital, and healthy cash flow always demanded that we carefully manage our service delivery capacity with keen insight into upcoming demand. The key metrics in that balancing act were pipeline, forecast and backlog.

Of the three key metrics, we found backlog to be our consistently most accurate metric. We carefully tracked each project’s budget and how much budget remained. Measuring backlog was a simple matter of aggregating the remaining budget of both time and dollars across all customer engagements. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good.

We also had a reasonably good handle on our pipeline metric. We closely monitored new lead flow and had a process for identifying early sales stages. We defined criteria that was well understood to identify qualified opportunities and monitor if they were advancing through the sales process. We felt confident our metrics accurately reflected that we were building pipeline sufficiently and that deals were progressing.

The Challenges of Accurate Forecasting

The most challenging metric was around the accuracy of our forecasting. This is arguably where the rubber hit the road. Was a deal going to close or not? When was it going to close? Like most businesses, a big miss in our forecast directly correlated to profitability. In our business model a miss could also negatively impact customer satisfaction. Our rapid growth required aggressive recruiting of new consultants and developers, and we based hiring on our quarterly and monthly forecast. If our forecast was off, we could easily under-hire or over-hire. If we under-hire, then we can’t meet our commitments to customers. If we over-hire, then we are carrying too many people on the bench. Accurate forecasting was vital to successful planning.

As the size of our sales team grew, the contrast in the reliability of various sales people’s forecast was often astounding. I observed that some of the people I considered to have raw sales talent (i.e., strong communications skills, relationship building skills and customer presence) had the least reliable forecasts. Interestingly, it became evident over time that the best forecasters were also the top producers. The most reliable sales people understood the buyer’s process and where we were in the cycle and communicated those things via our CRM and direct deal reviews. Over the course of what may be a long and complex sales cycle, strong communication, relationship building and customer presence were all important, but there was also skill required to translate that into a forecast and into an “on schedule” closed deal.

The top performers were also great at marshaling resources during the sales cycle. They communicated the various details of what was happening in their deal with a broad internal group of allies (i.e., pre-sales, service and marketing) and externally with our partner Microsoft. This was a vital activity of the salesperson. After all, they were the quarterback of the deal. A big component of playing that role was being well-organized and having excellent follow-up and follow-through. I think of those things as the “outside the meeting skills.”

Over time I grew to appreciate that much of the activity that needed to occur outside the meetings was simply not in the nature of some of our salespeople. Some who appeared to have raw sales talent weren’t always well-organized and didn’t have the greatest follow-through. They just didn’t like those types of activities. And, really, how many people are excellent at things they don’t like doing, even if they know those things are important?

This insight into how salespeople handle the challenge of “outside the meeting” follow-up and follow-through is key to our belief in the power of a new way of working that can help a salesperson get these types of activities completed more easily with a digital assistant.

Common Struggles With Enterprise Systems

Eleven years after founding Customer Effective we received a compelling acquisition offer from Hitachi-Solutions. On April 1st, 2014 Customer Effective officially became part of Hitachi-Solutions. Scott and I spent almost 3 years integrating Customer Effective into the larger organization. When we felt comfortable our team had found a good home, the timing for a new venture felt right.

During our time at Customer Effective, we were deeply involved with CRM, integrating it with many other systems to help drive productivity in marketing, sales and customer service. Although many of our customers achieved great success, the use of the systems was often a struggle for the people being asked to use them. The list of reasons why is expansive, but at a high level it usually broke down to the systems being too cumbersome to use and the people being asked to use them perceiving too little value in the process.

The common perception was that the systems were more about management’s needs than the individual’s. Management’s intention, of course, was to provide people on the front lines of prospect and customer engagement with the information they need to be effective and the tools to execute business processes. Despite good intentions, the mark was frequently missed. Something was missing, and we felt cracking that code would be the secret to providing customers with value in our next business.

Technological Advances and the Genesis of Yesflow

By the end 2017 several technological advances were already changing the landscape of how helping customers could be approached. Digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have been adopted at a rate never before seen with new technologies. Everyday people have demonstrated they enjoy the experience of speaking to devices or texting with an assistant to receive information or execute processes. The trend of how to interact with technology is a massive shift in how people can leverage technology. The missing link with consumer digital assistants is access to corporate information and processes. That’s where an Enterprise Digital Assistant like Yesflow is needed.

An Enterprise Digital Assistant can do things like deliver a customer dossier containing information that may reside in multiple corporate systems. Even better, a truly effective assistant, including a human personal assistant, would proactively send the dossier in advance because they know an individual’s schedule.

If speaking to or texting with an Enterprise Digital Assistant can deliver information and follow instructions to capture information and execute processes, can’t the assistant make using the corporate systems easier and more gratifying to the people who are asked to use them? If an Enterprise Digital Assistant can provide needed information proactively, can’t we help the salespeople be better prepared with less effort? If an Enterprise Digital Assistant is helping people stay on track with the “outside the meeting” work, aren’t the salespeople more likely to successfully execute sales engagements?

If you didn’t already know, the verdict is in – people don’t like to boot their laptop or wait until they get back to their office to access information, capture information or execute processes. They don’t do it well, and, as a result, information and process execution suffers. Smartphones took over quite some time back. The verdict is in on that too – people have not embraced apps that rely on navigating menus with numerous forms. Their lack of adoption has proven they don’t like the “fields on forms” app experience. That’s how we arrived at the problem we’re working to solve.

Reducing Friction To Help Businesses Run Better

Information is critical to success in most businesses. Following processes is important too. The difficulty of using enterprise systems has created a friction that is impeding the pace of many businesses, and we believe that digital assistants for enterprises can reduce that friction and help businesses run better. Not only that, we believe it can help mobile professionals be more productive and help managers be more informed.

Last fall we founded Yesflow on the belief that we have reached a convergence of technologies that allows us to build an Enterprise Digital Assistant to drive business execution.

We believe the opportunity to solve the problem at hand is more exciting than the problem we tackled when we founded Customer Effective 16 years ago.

The part of the journey I find most interesting is that my views aren’t shaped solely from engaging with many customers over the years and understanding their challenges. At least as influential to my perspective is my experience as an individual contributor working in the field and living the “planes, trains and automobiles” life.

I empathize with the system and process challenges front-line professionals face. I’ve been a manager and a business owner, and I can also empathize with how important information and process is to achieving sales excellence. At Yesflow we believe an Enterprise Digital Assistant can make salespeople feel like the technology is finally working to help them. Who, after all, wouldn’t want an assistant to help them get more done?

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Michael Elliott
Michael Elliott

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