It was at a neighborhood ice cream parlor that Elisa Steele first discovered the power of a great customer experience.
“I scooped ice cream at a place called Rose Glen Dairy with the old-fashioned windows where people lined up to get their ice cream on a hot summer evening,” Steele says, recalling her very first job while in high school.
“That’s when I realized how much customer service can make a person happy. I had a very long line because I would always be generous with my scoops. I just enjoyed making people happy. It was a physically hard job, but it was a fun job to be able to serve people and make them smile and create that kind of connection.”
As Steele moved into her professional career, that passion to delight customers only burned brighter. Instead of serving ice cream, Steele searched for ways to help businesses work more effectively and provide the best possible product or service to their own customers.
“What do they need?” Steele says of a typical customer. “How do you help them solve problems? How do you create a relationship that drives satisfaction and pays off for the people and the company? I got very enamored with the ability to think about those customer problems and how you can solve them at scale.”
As president and CEO at Jive Software Inc., Steele has found the perfect place to feed her passion for customer service. The company of more than 700 employees is a leading provider of modern communication and collaboration solutions for businesses and works to help its customers boost employee productivity, alignment and innovation.
“The trend to be able to use whatever technology you want to use to be able to communicate with each other feels liberating to an individual, but for a company, it creates a pretty big problem,” Steele says.
“It leads to content being created in a silo that is not accessible. It creates teams working together in groups that are not connected to other groups who need to know that information. You can imagine just starting to add layers that it is extremely inefficient.”
One of the primary missions of Jive is to help customers maximize the power of technology, but do it in a way that brings people together and combines the unique skills and talents of that customer’s employees so that they can better serve their customers.
“Every leader, every business is going through some sort of transformation to embrace and think about how lifestyle has changed the way people work in their company,” Steele says.
“That’s a massive thing for leaders to think about. No matter if you’re going to go very aggressive on technology or less aggressive, the fact is people have changed their work style because they have changed their lifestyle. You need to be able to understand that in order to provide the right work environment for your organization.”
Bring people together
Mobile accessibility has driven a major change in the way companies function. Working on the go is not just a perk or a skill that only matters to the high-tech businesses. It’s everywhere.
“It’s not work on the go,” Steele says. “It’s just work. It’s the standard today.”
Given that change, companies need to change the way they approach the training of new employees.
“Before, you would join a company, get trained, learn all their systems and you really didn’t have any other option whether you liked the systems or not,” she says. “You had to use them because that’s the way the company operated.
“Today, if I want to get something done, all I have to do is pick up the phone and I can use anything I want or my colleague wants to use to do our work together. It has been creating a tremendous number of silos in organizations.”
Those silos are exactly what companies don’t want in the age of a stronger focus on culture and collaboration.
“Companies are trying to create engagement strategies for their employees to keep them interested and involved in their company because talent wars are really tough out there,” she says. “You want to hire the best people, you want to retain the best people and you want to provide career development and engagement for them to stay at your company.”
Those strategies need to be given top priority since in many ways, they are as important to your company’s future as the work itself.
“Put in a strategy for unification,” Steele says.
“You have teams and departments at the company level that are able to interact in ways that are very efficient and productive. Create a repository of information that is searchable and visible and drives corporate memory.
“It should be able to be found by anyone who might need that information in the future. It’s very important to have a strategy around how you do that. Otherwise, your company can get bifurcated and end up working in all these different hidden pockets.”
One of the first things Steele did as CEO at Jive was to put out an idea jam on the topic of employee satisfaction and engagement.
“I’m the new CEO and I want to know what’s on your mind,” Steele says.
“What can we do to make Jive an even better company? You get all sorts of ideas. Some of them are not so good, meaning they are short-term or they are not something that is strategic for the company. You get some ideas that are really good. What you find is the community comes together and the great ideas that are really meaningful rise to the top.”
Key to making this strategy work is your ability to listen. If you have sessions to generate ideas and you get ideas, but you don’t respond or take action on any of them, your people will quickly see that it’s all for show.
“You have to listen to your customers and listen to your teams,” Steele says.
“The reality is most of the best information is closest to where the problem is. The CEO is typically not closest to where that problem is. There is someone in the company who is closer. There is a customer who is closer. There is a leader who is closer. Active listening is critically important to develop your own perspective, to help the team make decisions and to empower them to go faster in the market because they have decision-making capabilities.”
Never stop learning
If you’re the founder of a business, you likely know what your company does inside and out and are the best person to answer just about any question an employee or a customer might have.
But even if you have all that knowledge, or if you’re a CEO who is joining an established company, you can’t carry yourself with an attitude that you know everything there is to know.
“I’m a CEO who knows the product really well from a customer advocacy perspective,” Steele says. “I can talk to all of our customers about our product and not be in a sales pitch. I’ve used the product as a paying customer and now I’m using it every day to run my company. I can talk about it from the heart and from the truth of how I experience it myself. But on the deep technical parts of the product, I rely on my engineering team.”
Steele makes an effort to spend more time with her engineers hearing about what their issues are and what they are working on.
“I’m not an engineer,” she says. “I have to be more of an active listener than in a customer or a sales and marketing situation where I have strong experience in those areas.
“CEOs need to look at where are their strengths and experiences and how do they help their team grow in those areas and then what are the areas where you need to make sure your team is really empowered to do the things you need them to do. And you need to be a good listener on those things.”
Jive took in $195.8 million in revenue in 2015 and is on its way to topping that figure in 2016. Steele says her ability to use her own company’s experiences with adapting to technology to help Jive’s customers has been a great asset.
“One of the amazing things we can do with our customers is we can share with them how we do things inside our company,” Steele says.
“It’s very often and very typical that I talk to other CEOs and I show them how I’m running Jive with our product. Our product gives me the ability as the CEO to reach and engage with any employee and any person who is connected with my company because they are in connection with my product.”
It’s all part of the process to help companies adapt to a changing world.
There are many companies that are still trying to figure out and don’t have a common leadership approach to how to use digital to change the culture of their company,” Steele says.
“Our consulting services and our professional services team are in great demand because it’s not as simple as let’s just buy this product, put it in and start using it. It’s something that leaders want to have a vision for in how they want their employees to connect and communicate.
“That’s part of the mission of why we’re so motivated to help companies see that. We’re about 1,000 companies strong in customers, but we want many thousands of customers and we have to go through our process to help other companies.” ●
How to reach: Jive Software Inc., (877) 495-3700 or www.jivesoftware.com
- Be strategic about how you adapt to technology.
- You don’t understand your customers as well as your employees.
- Learn how to be a better active listener.
The Steele File
NAME: Elisa Steele
TITLE: president and CEO
COMPANY: Jive Software Inc.
Born: Providence, Rhode Island
Education: Bachelor’s degree, business administration, University of New Hampshire; MBA, San Francisco State University.
Who has been a big influence on your life? My whole life, my dad has always encouraged me to do the right thing and to not shy away from hard things. I’ve always been encouraged and motivated and he’s always been a source of support and strength for me.
Along the way, I learned to form what I call my personal board of directors. I coach and mentor people to form their own personal board of directors. Who are the people in your life who serve as your board of directors? Who do you go to for advice or bounce ideas off of? I would say my dad is the chairman of my board of directors.
Who is one person you would like to meet? It would be my grandfather who came over to this country from Lebanon. I never got to know him because he died when I was born. All of our family legends and stories of our family stem from his decision to find his way to America and then what happened to our family and how it grew from there.
So I would like to meet him. The first question I would ask him is what did he see in the future where he wanted to come to this country and put his roots here for his family? It was a family he didn’t know yet, but obviously knew that putting his roots here would change the dynamics of how the family tree would be born.