Adam Nicholson is Vice President of Product Management at AgileOne. He is an industry-recognized expert in vendor management systems (VMS) and managed service provider (MSP) product development, implementation, and support.
In our conversation, Adam discusses how experiences like running restaurants in his twenties helped shape him as a leader, and how he builds trust in his teams and with customers by being honest about the realities of the product. Adam also shares insights into how important indicators, like the amount of time customers spend in the system, shape how he fixes problems.
The change leader piece is probably one of the hardest parts of my job. One of the skills I lean on most is the ability to break down the complex into really simple, bite-sized pieces. I find that a lot of change is about education and feeding those bits to people in bite-sized chunks.
It’s a lot about finding out 1) how you communicate with the audience you’re talking to and 2) how you demonstrate what’s in it for them. Change is scary. We are, as human beings, naturally resistant to any kind of change, even if it benefits us because our first reaction is to think it’s not going to. It really is about education, figuring out what’s going to speak to that audience, and figuring out what’s in it for me as part of that audience.
Here’s an example I do the most often. Many times during sales conversations with some of our clients, integrations come up. And many times we are not talking about IT to IT people; I’m talking IT to HR or procurement. They don’t necessarily have a technical background, and I get the question, “Do you integrate with [insert system here]?”
A lot of times, I’ll say, “Well, let’s start with the word integrate. Do you mean integrate or interface?” And they’ll often say, “What’s the difference?” I’ll explain that if I go and plug something into another, I’m integrated with it. If you and I are just talking, we’re interfacing. There’s a big difference. Most IT departments don’t want true integration because if I can go and plug in, I can manipulate, whereas in an interface, it’s like putting your data in escrow.
I tell them as long as I can get you the data you’re looking for or vice versa, the answer is yes. Usually, that’s exactly what they want to hear. The bottom line is they want to hear, yes, we can, without all the technical pieces behind it. Another example is in user experience, like if we want to build a new feature function to take 52 steps down to three. If you just start by saying that, you tend to get people’s attention better.
I think a lot of companies will claim to be innovative, and that’s a buzzword. But what does that really mean? To me, it means we are flexible and think outside the box. We will do what it takes to serve our clients’ best needs. Even if that means we don’t have what they’re looking for, we can partner with somebody who does.
Part of evangelizing, if you will, is helping our internal stakeholders and employees understand that by doing that, we’re taking care of the client. We can all build technologies, we can all offer services, but if they truly believe that we’re their trusted advisor or we’re going to take care of them, they’re going to stay with us forever. And that’s really the goal.
When we talk about innovation, it’s not just building those new features or using the latest and greatest technologies. It’s also the ability to look at what we are doing. What is the industry doing today? What isn’t the industry doing today? And from a Venn diagram perspective, hitting that middle spot.
It’s a huge component. It’s one thing to say things but it’s another than to stand behind what you say. Building trust is huge.
I sent a lot of sales presentations, and I’m a big fan of transparency and honesty. I don’t want to go in and blow a bunch of smoke. Tell us, what should we expect or what should we be afraid of? Let’s lay that on the table, but also understand that we’re here to help. I think people tend to appreciate honesty more than “Oh, it’s going to be easy. We’re going to do everything, and you’re just going to have to sit there,” because that’s not reality.
When you get into implementation, that’s when things fall apart. I ran implementations for years. One of my favorite sayings was that implementation is the first opportunity for buyer’s remorse if you don’t do it right. You have to build trust and be innovative and flexible. Especially in our industry that has been built out of flexibility. We’re not your typical SaaS where you get what you get and that’s it. Our industry has never been that way.
It’s funny, every company looks at it a little bit differently. When you’re bringing in-house developers especially, you’ve got a lot more control and visibility. You are typically hiring a higher level, but you’re typically paying a significant amount more. When a company outsources that, either they own the resources or they’re outsourcing another company in an area where labor’s a lot cheaper. There are some real benefits to that from a cost perspective, but there are some real downsides too.
I think if you’re going to figure out whether or not to outsource, a lot of it comes down to finances. If you’re going to outsource, then you have to just make sure you have the right oversight in place and the right contractual terms. Not only do I like to have senior folks on our team internally, I also like to have a senior QA manager that also sits on top of their QA. You need to have enough control in place if you’re going to outsource.
Lots. We have a robust logging system, so I know all the clicks of everything in the system. I always look to see how many steps it took to get through a process. I also can see somebody come in, start something, leave for a while, and come back. To me, that’s often indicative of “I’ll do this later.” That’s a metric.
I also like to measure the number of calls that come into our support desk and their types. We classify those by bug, technical issue, or user question. If we’re getting a lot of user questions, there’s a problem with the UI/UX experience.
The other one is the types of requests coming in through the product pipeline of stuff people ask for. If they’ve taken the time and stopped to think about an improvement, that means something’s bugging them. Most people, if you’re interacting with something that’s working as you expect it, you don’t take the time to then offer up suggestions.
A lot of times we also will measure the amount of time spent in the system. We can measure how long it takes to do a process, but people coming and going is more of a subjective number.
Typically, I can look at time spent in the system on a client, department, or group basis as a flag and go back to talk to the onsite team. I can say, “Is this group just so busy that they’re walking away for two hours or are they struggling? If they’re struggling, is it because these individuals are not doing it often?”
Sometimes it is as simple as that, they’re not heavy users so they only do it once a year. Other times, they couldn’t do something, and for one reason or another, they’re missing a data point and they have to go out to another system to get that data. That’s where we start to look at what we can do to fix that.
In my twenties, I ran restaurants. I started as a cashier and worked up my way to a general manager. A lot of what I learned in that industry sticks with me today. I always use the reference of the one-minute manager as an example, but in the restaurant business, you’re moving at a million miles an hour. You don’t have time to sit down and talk about performance.
What you have is literally 30 seconds or a minute to address a behavior you just saw in the moment, whether good or bad. And I still do that today. If I see something that gives me concern, I’ll ping the person and say, “Hey, I noticed this. Let’s just tweak that to this.” Or something I really liked, same thing, “Hey, I love the way you did X.”
To me, that’s way more effective. My rule of thumb is that if any of your people are surprised by anything you are telling them in their performance review, you’re not doing your job. I find that incremental small tweaks as you see them are more impactful.
Hire slow. I would say this in my own painful experience of rushing to bring people in. It’s better to keep looking because you end up losing so much time finding somebody and getting them up to speed. It’s better to take the time upfront and make sure you find the right person who’s going to stick around and hit the ground running. You’ll make up a ton of time that way.
In terms of traits, I love people who can think outside the box, and I love people who are not afraid to challenge anybody. One of the questions I always ask is, “Are you afraid to tell me I’m crazy?” I have these crazy pie-in-the-sky ideas, and not all of them are realistic or even technically capable. I need people that are not afraid to speak up and I like to surround myself with people way smarter than I am.
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