Sage North America was a company in hiding — or at least its name was.
When Pascal Houillon was appointed president and CEO of Sage North America in 2011, the specialty software solutions company was known to the North American marketplace by many different brand names. But “Sage” wasn’t one of them.
Depending on which of Sage’s products or services you used, you might have known Sage by any number of names — and your experience as a customer might have varied greatly from brand to brand.
Houillon, who had led various global regions for parent company Sage Group PLC since 1997, knew Sage North America would never leverage all of its resources and realize its full potential under such a fragmented setup.
“In my vision, I wanted to bring this group of brands together as a singular company with a consistent customer service experience and a consistent way to go to market,” Houillon says. “The flag that I’ve tried to focus everyone on is the Sage flag, the Sage brand. Right after I took this position, we dropped all of the product brands, which we have become known for throughout North America, and merged everything into one master brand called Sage.”
But it wasn’t as simple as a name change for the 3,000 employees working for Sage in the U.S. and Canada. To sow the seeds of change and allow them to take root, Houillon needed to define what the unified Sage brand would embody, the vision for the company moving forward, and then communicate that vision in a manner that would create belief and buy-in across the entire Sage North America footprint.
Houillon recognized from the outset that it would be no small task.
“It’s a big transformation when you’re taking a group of companies with their own specific products and characteristics and merging them together,” he says. “You’re trying to form one company with one common customer service experience.”
Define the brand
As a veteran leader within the Sage organization, Houillon had spearheaded branding initiatives in other countries and regions. Apart from an emphasis on the Sage name itself, the other main component lacking in Sage’s North American branding approach was a focus on customer solutions.
Because Sage had become so fragmented, the company had aligned along product lines. Each segment of the business was driven by the production, promotion and sales of a particular product.
In a commodity-driven business, that approach works. But in the solutions-driven, customer-focused business that Houillon wanted to create, it missed the mark.
“We believe the Sage brand should mean we give our customers the freedom to achieve their visions for their own businesses,” Houillon says. “It is not about software or technology. It is not about the product by itself. Our customers are often small and midsized businesses that don’t have their own IT departments, so the Sage brand has to be a customer brand.
“It is not about promising that we are going to change the world with our technology. It is that we are going to give our customers the means to achieve their own goals and ambitions.”
Houillon and his leadership team pared Sage’s 11 North American business units down to four product lines, all focused on delivering customer solutions instead of promoting and selling a particular product.
“The first line is small business, the second one is midsized business, the third one is our credit card processing line, and the fourth line centers on verticals of a specific area or industry, such as IT solutions in the construction industry,” he says. “That was an important step in moving the focus from products to understanding the needs of our customers.”
Changing the field of play was a critical initial step, because the following steps focused on shifting the mentality of several thousand employees, who had been cultured to sell product, not find solutions.
“In a product-focused organization, you focus on developing your products, and after that, your salespeople focus on selling the product as it is,” Houillon says. “When you move to an organization and a vision that is more focused on marketing and customer solutions, you’re not developing a product and then figuring out how to sell it.
“You’re first analyzing the customer’s needs, then you move into the product development phase. Then you focus on the types of services you’re going to develop around that product. That is why this type of process takes time. We’ve been on this journey for well over a year.”
Manage the process
To help redefine the Sage brand, Houillon needed to redefine his company’s connection to the marketplace in North America. Shortly after Houillon took over, he helped initiate a series of projects aimed at defining a new beginning for the company.
“I asked Sage employees from different levels in the organization to work on different projects, and in the end, we would select the three to six different projects that we would ultimately work on and move forward with,” Houillon says. “In total, about 150 people were involved in the different projects, along with others who gave some inside information about their department to our project teams. It was really incredible how people stepped up and invested their time in these projects.”
Houillon and his management team ultimately selected four projects out of the 11 total projects. Sage North America focused on those projects as the initial steps that would redefine the brand.
By involving employees in the projects and initiatives that would shape the future of the company, Houillon spurred the new Sage brand off the boardroom table and into three-dimensional reality.
For several thousand employees, the idea of a new, unified Sage brand began to move from an abstract concept to something living and breathing. It was a critical step that, in many ways, served as the ignition switch for the entire process, as employees took a sense of ownership in what Sage would become.
“In the beginning, I think you have a lot of nostalgia,” Houillon says. “People are hesitant to drop the name and the brand that they have been working for and possibly have been working for over a long period of time. I’d say, for the first six months, people were excited by the change but also afraid of the change.
“Everybody wants to change, but nobody wants to have to deal with the consequences of the change.”
Houillon realized he needed to give his people an opportunity to express their thoughts and concerns over the elimination of the product brands in favor of a unified Sage brand. He couldn’t minimize how his people felt, but at same time, he couldn’t allow nostalgia and a fear of change to derail progress.
To Houillon, it wasn’t a matter of neutralizing the emotional attachment employees felt toward the old brands. It was a matter of taking that emotional attachment and moving it to the Sage brand.
“People have to have the ability to speak up and express themselves, because it is normal that they’d have an emotional link to the previous brand,” he says. “Having that emotional connection isn’t a bad thing. It’s a matter of viewing that emotional connection in a new way, with a focus on the Sage brand. I wanted to take those emotions and move them to Sage.”
As the initial rebranding projects began to bear fruit, the new, unified Sage brand developed an increasing profile with the company’s customer base. As customer feedback started to filter in, Houillon used it to deepen his employees’ connection to the new brand.
“After a bit of time, the employees start to see that the Sage brand awareness is rising, they see the feedback from customers, and they see that the customers like the change,” Houillon says.
“Previously, customers had to deal with several product brands, and now they’re dealing with a single brand for everything. The customer adapts to it, the employees see that, and they see it is a positive reaction.
“I remember getting some emails from customers who told me it was about time that Sage reorganized under one brand. They were tired of having all these different products with different names. When an employee sees that type of reaction from customers, it is much easier for your people to see the company is moving in the right direction.”
Once employees started buying in to the concept of a unified Sage brand, Houillon needed to keep the momentum going through his communication strategy. To help strengthen the effort, he hired an internal communication specialist, eventually developing internal communications into a department of three.
The internal communications department has become responsible for developing messages that are initially rolled out at the local level, at each of Sage’s offices throughout North America, and then combined with large-scale communications from Houillon and his team at the North American headquarters.
“In our meetings, every quarter, I will speak, as will some of my colleagues,” Houillon says. “We’ll have about 20 different locations where everybody participates from their own location.
“It was critical for us to change the way we have internal communication, because it used to center on a single product line and now it is more of a global company communication. It is critical for me to explain the vision, explain where we are and ask for feedback from Sage employees. I wanted to be genuine and transparent, because a lot of the time, it is about what people see.”
Houillon also used his communication opportunities to focus people on the value proposition of the Sage brand — in other words, explaining why it is advantageous to customers and, in turn, to Sage to remake Sage as a unified brand.
Sage’s leaders had previously tried to straddle the fence between maintaining the product brands and moving toward a unified brand, but old habits are hard to break.
“About three or four years ago, we had a product called Peachtree, which is accounting software,” Houillon says. “We renamed it to Sage Peachtree, but after a while, everyone just went back to calling it Peachtree.”
The leaders at Sage quickly discovered it was necessary to completely rename the product under the Sage brand, and it was relaunched as “Sage 50.”
“What we have done is to redefine the global value proposition, and by doing that, what we have done is analyze all of the product brand value propositions and move them to a Sage brand value proposition,” Houillon says. “It adds more value to the Sage brand, and it helps us explain how all of our employees play a big role in this new connection and this move to a new brand.
“We want our customers to see excitement about the move. We don’t want them to call up and get a sense of resistance from the employees they encounter. If the customers see a sense of excitement among the employees, they’ll see that the change is a good thing.”
However, Houillon acknowledges that performing a fundamental branding change often means taking a step back to clear the path for a leap forward, and all that you can do as the leader is continually reassure your people that you’re making the right move for the company.
“This isn’t a linear progression,” he says. “Embedding a new vision with employees is a process that will create fear and expectation at the same time. Most of the time, things won’t improve right away. In fact, things will often get worse at the beginning. But things can’t get worse forever, and once you’ve reached that point, you try to build success.
“That’s why you need to be transparent; you need to explain exactly what is going on and what will happen. If you let your people believe that everything is going to be better simply because you’re changing, that is a big mistake. You have to be flexible and pragmatic in a time of transition and let your people know that when things go wrong and mistakes are made, it’s a normal part of the process.”
How to reach: Sage North America, (866) 996-7243 or na.sage.com
The Houillon file
President and CEO
Sage North America
Born: Lyon, France
History: Houillon joined Sage in 1989 in sales and held a number of management positions as a regional director and sales director before leading the Sybel business when it was acquired by Sage in 1995. In 1997, he became CEO of Sage France, and in 2005 he also took on responsibility for Sage in Belgium, Brazil, Switzerland, and Morocco.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Being patient, which is sometimes not one of my qualities, I will say. As a leader, you tend to be very strong-willed, which means not only do you know where you want to go, you can get upset if it’s not exactly the road you want to take. That’s why you need to show some degree of patience with others. You need to be clear about where you’re going, but flexible about the road taken.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
You need to always have a mentality where you’re willing to question the work you have done. You have to be a bit of a paranoiac in that you’re never satisfied with the work you have done, that you’re always looking at your work with a critical eye. You always want to do things better, and that has to be a constant in the way you think.
What is your definition of success?
When our customers say we’ve had an impact on their company. If we can make a positive difference to our customers, at the end of the day that’s success to me.