Interview by Greg Sterling, VP Market Insights
Tijs van Santen has just been appointed Uberall’s Chief Customer Officer. He brings an extensive history of building go-to-market teams for high performing tech and SaaS companies, including HP, Forrester Research, Impact and Button.
I caught up with Tijs this week to ask him a series of questions about what it really means to be “customer centric,” the most important SaaS KPIs, what SaaS companies often get wrong, what failure has taught him and the cultural differences between US and European startups.
You can watch the full interview below (approximately 33 minutes). This article is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Greg Sterling: Why don't you give us a little background on your experience for context.
Tijs van Santen: I entered the workforce in financial services. Then I pivoted to enterprise technology sales, initially in a somewhat technical role at HP and then as an enterprise field sales rep. Then I spent a long time at Forrester Research where I joined as an associate global account manager. I ended up leading the global sales organization for Forrester based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts. After nine years with Forrester, where I learned a lot, I was pretty committed to pursuing the startup dream. Long story short, there was a company called Impact Radius, at the time, which was a scrappy Santa Barbara, CA-based startup with 35 people. I think it had a $3 million in run rate when I joined.
That’s where I really had the opportunity to prove to myself. I managed to build a pretty successful go to market strategy, ultimately creating a category leader. I'm still very close to the folks at Impact today who are approaching an $80 to $90 million run rate. After that, I spent a good two and a half years with a New York based startup called Button, focused on mobile. I really enjoyed my journey there, particularly because we were a lot closer to the consumer. I learned a lot and now I'm here.
1. GS: At HP, you were in a technical role and then shifted into sales. What attracted you to sales?
Tijs: I graduated college with a marketing degree. When I graduated, Philip Kotler was the marketing guru and a lot of his principles were being taught. He was all about the needs and the wants of the customer. He advocated that marketing is not a function, it's a philosophy and everything is ultimately a tool of that, including sales. My initial perception of sales was not the most favorable one. But then when I joined Hewlett Packard, I actually recognized that a lot of those folks were having pretty meaningful conversations around how technology strategy could ultimately help businesses achieve their objectives. When I made that pivot I was part of the enterprise group, which had a bit of a broader approach. HP had a pretty broad portfolio at the time. So that was really appealing to me.
2. GS: Uberall was hiring for a CRO, but your title is Chief Customer Officer. What is the significance of that title change?
Tijs: That’s a great question. To your point, I think it's a pretty meaningful one. It was a very deliberate decision. I think it represents a few ideas. Chief revenue officer, as the title suggests, primarily focuses on revenue. That’s something that we as a company care about. But by changing “revenue” to “customer,” I'm trying to send a signal that my role is really about creating value for the customer.
I want to build a fully integrated end-to-end engagement model that has the customer as its North Star. Whether it's a large, multinational corporation or a small store owner at the corner of the street, I want to make sure that everyone understands that's what I stand for and what the organization stands for.
3. GS: The language of “customer centricity” is widespread. But in most cases you don't really have that in the behavior or culture of the company. What does it actually mean to be customer centric?
Tijs: I think it's a really valid point. Although our investors are certainly expecting positive returns, they also understand that creating value for the customer is going to be a leading indicator for us to make that happen. It really comes down to how you organize your team. We’ve just had the first KPI sets deployed in the global customer org. and one of them is customer centricity.
We’re asking: do we really know who our customers are? Do we really know what they care about? And do we also understand how we contribute to their objectives or help overcome their challenges? I still have a number to hit. But we are sending a strong signal to the organization about what we care about.
4. GS: If one of the KPIs in an organization is “customer centricity,” how do you actually measure that?
Tijs: A relatively easy one is NPS; that's certainly something we'll continue to use. What we are doing this quarter is really looking at our ability to capture business needs versus operational needs. What you see in SaaS companies is a lot of focus on the product and the feature functionalities and how it can support certain operational metrics, which is important but only a piece of the puzzle.
One of the things that we're going to measure is the ability of our sales teams and account management or success teams to capture those business priorities for our customers. Are we able to have those conversations? If so, how effective are we in capturing that and then is that reflected in the way that we engage and support them? I see this as an ongoing KPI. I will be speaking to peers in the industry and, obviously, to a lot of our customers and partners to refine the approach.
5. GS: There are a lot of SaaS metrics. If you had to pick one to track what would it be?
Tijs: I think it's really CAC, then LTV. CAC has to do with our effectiveness in acquiring new customers. That speaks to a whole load of different activities. Then LTV: our ability to not just tell a great story and convince people that there is value in working with us, but more importantly actually delivering on that. At the end of the day they have the option to work with us or with others. We’re not putting a gun to anyone's head and telling them to keep paying us. We need to continue to prove that we're worth our keep, so to say, and that's why I think that the LTV metric is an important one.
6. GS: Do you see any tension between ambitious startup sales targets and the notion of being a truly customer focused company?
Tijs: There absolutely can be. I typically see the most tension in the short term. Working at Forrester, which was a public company, we had to hit quarterly goals. We had to do things that were really driven by that versus what makes the most sense for the customer. The flip side is: if I believe that if you consistently center yourself around the customer and understand what that means from an operational perspective (and that ultimately results in growth and retention), there is no conflict whatsoever.
My experience is that if you can be on the positive side of this you actually will start exceeding your numbers; it becomes a much easier conversation. By having a great product that satisfies operational and business needs, and then having an engagement model that is centered around what our customers care about, it becomes easier for them to say, “Yes, we will work with you, and by the way we will continue to work with you.” With that you start embedding more predictability in your growth model. That takes time and won’t happen overnight. But that's my experience.
7. GS: What do you think SaaS companies get wrong? What do you think they often misunderstand?
Tijs: It's what I alluded to before: not always understanding the context of how you fit in as a SaaS player, or technology solution. Not starting with a customer first perspective. Another one is that SaaS business models typically require a lot of upfront investment and companies don’t recognize that it will take time to earn back customer acquisitions. What I sometimes see is Series B companies that have just raised a good round after seeing strong growth continuing to do the same thing that they were doing, not realizing that the next phase of growth requires a different approach.
8. GS: I think the topic of failure is really interesting. Is there an experience of failure that taught you a fundamental lesson you still think about on a regular basis?
Tijs: I’ve failed a lot and learned to actually be okay with that. I totally failed to plan for execution and operation at scale. When you're 35, even 70 people, you can still get a lot done by direct involvement. You’re still close enough, where it will work. At some point, as you start onboarding more people, the need for a more scalable operating system is necessary. This is a real misstep that I experienced.
At Impact we came to realize that we as a leadership team did not have enough control over our pipeline and our data. We didn’t really understand what was happening. As we onboarded people we weren't able to train them as efficiently as we were when we were a smaller group. So that required a pretty significant pivot in our approach. Part of that was also thinking about a management bench -- bringing in people that are getting ready for that first line management role, to build more functional expertise across the organization.
9. GS: One of the things that people enjoy about startups is the collaboration, creativity, and to some degree, the chaos. How do you avoid silos as companies get larger?
One of the keys is consistent communication. You kind of have to over-communicate. I hear myself saying the same thing over and over, but it's actually really important. And communication starts at the top, from the CEO and the rest of the executive team.
What is the Northstar? What do we prioritize? Then there’s having checks and balances in place to make sure at the operational level, we know what's happening and that it's in line with the things that we agreed.
We need to be very consistent in our communication and clear in managing expectations, and being very transparent about what success looks like: these are some of my non negotiables, the activities that we all agreed that we would do. After that, you can have a lot of freedom and people can apply their creativity.
We also need to let people make mistakes. If we’re not it means we're not learning new things.
10. GS: You’re a European who has worked with a lot of US companies; now you're at a Berlin based company. What do you see as the biggest cultural differences?
Tijs: In North America everybody more or less speaks the same language, literally and metaphorically. In a European company there's more cultural fragmentation. The second thing is: people in North America don't tend to be as confrontational within the organization, particularly to leadership in public forums. I'm generalizing a little bit. I think, in Europe, that could actually be a good thing, as long as the basic rules of civility are being applied. I'm not suggesting that's not the case at Uberall. But I would say that that's probably one of the one of the bigger differences.
Bonus question — GS: What was attractive to you about Uberall?
Tijs: So for every opportunity that I've had the privilege to consider, I look at three things. I look at the team. What's the chemistry with the CEO as well as the rest of the executive team. Do we get along? The second one is really about the industry and the products we have to offer. I was really excited about the strength of Uberall’s core business, which is about enabling and empowering local businesses. And obviously our target customers have had a horrific year. Despite that we've been able to create enough value to continue growing as a business, which is impressive. On top of that, I believe in what the product team is doing. I'm really excited about the opportunity that lies ahead.
Lastly, what's the role? What's the opportunity for me to create value for the organization? And what is the opportunity for me to learn new things and grow as a professional?
GS: That’s a lot of great information. Thanks Tijs; I look forward to talking again, face to face next time.