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7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007
In the six years that Nina L. Smith has been at Sage Software, she’s been running full speed. In that time, she has seen the software company take on more than 20 acquisitions to grow.

Smith, president, business management division, watched as those acquisitions helped build the company from $100 million in revenue to $1.01 billion in 2007. But with that growth came problems.

The acquisitions had not been fully digested. Too many employees had been part of other companies and didn’t have a full understanding of what Sage was about or what its capabilities were. They couldn’t sell additional Sage products or services because they didn’t have the knowledge required to do so.

Many of the company’s customers were in a similar situation. The growth had come so fast that they didn’t have a full understanding of everything Sage could do for them. Customers of the acquired companies might be used to getting one particular product or service from what was now part of Sage, but for the acquisitions to fully pay off, Smith needed to sell multiple products to each customer.

If that didn’t happen, Sage would never get a full return on the money it invested in the acquisitions.Smith and the leadership team realized the solution was to focus communications on the employees and the customers. If the employees got the message, they could then help sell customers on Sage’s expanded capabilities.

So Smith rolled out a vision to get Sage attention as the leader in the marketplace — internally and externally. Step one was getting employees to buy in to build energy and spread the word. Step two was pushing that to existing customers.

“My vision is to become the recognized leader of business management solutions in North America,” Smith says.

Since Sage, an arm of The Sage Group plc, was already at or near the top of the market for most of its products, Smith said the goal was to roll out a vision that her 2,000 employees and the company’s more than 2 million customers could understand. To do that, she wanted to go out and touch those people with the mission, get them on board and then follow up with them.

Reach employees first

The employees were the starting point because they were the ones who could then carry the message to customers.

“First, you have to engage the people to make them a part of it,” Smith says. “You have to energize them, you have to do it with a shared vision.”

That sounds simple enough, but with 2,000 people in her division, there are 2,000 different opinions of where Sage is going. So even though she’s not writing a book or promoting a show, Smith went on a publicity tour to get out the new growth message.

“My philosophy is there are very few secrets in business — the more people know, the more we can all work together to achieve a common goal,” she says. “Do a lot of round tables with employees, tell them, ‘I’m here, we’re all in this together, you understand your jobs better than I do, and so together, we have to really understand where we’re going. I’ll share with you my vision, you share how things are running operationally, and together, we can determine where things will go.’”

In order to get feedback on what her employees are thinking, Smith has to get people to stop thinking about her title and start talking to her honestly.

“I do a lot of walking around. I like to touch the employees, I like for them to feel comfortable,” she says. “I ask them, ‘How are you feeling about it; can I answer any questions?’ Just because you’re in this senior role, you should not be removed from what’s going on, and the more you are in touch with the rank and file, the better leader you will be, and you can truly move your company forward.”

Smith knows that just walking around the office won’t have employees falling over one another to get on board, but it’s a start. From there, she visits different Sage campuses with her message.

“It’s so important to do direct communication because cascading doesn’t always work, or the e-mail an employee is sent isn’t read,” Smith says. “So the upfront, personal communication is really critical. You have to at least kick off your year by touching all the employees and then do the round tables. And by the way, I’m not the only one doing these round tables, I require that my direct staff does the same thing.”

There is one caveat to Smith’s leadership style: It can take time away from other things. When she decided that getting employees to understand Sage’s capability and new growth was job No.1, she realized that had to be the main focus of her visits. As a result, she schedules time for round tables on all of her visits. She also leaves time in her schedule for answering questions from employees.

“I simply make it a priority,” she says. “The round tables are scheduled on my calendar; it’s a priority with my assistant. I answer my e-mails personally, and I pick up the phone and call people. I have an e-mail that employees can send to me. I don’t always answer them on an e-mail, sometimes I’ll just pick up the phone and talk to them.

“It’s really making a difference and employees are feeling comfortable now. I can tell by the number of employees that will just walk into my office. It’s a very different style, but it’s about engaging and energizing the people to think about the overall solution and not letting them get stopped by barriers from this title to that title.”

Involve customers

When it comes to growing with a new vision on the external level, many organizations will start off by cruising the market for new customers. In order to shore up Sage, Smith’s first focus was on existing customers. Like building buy-in with her employees, she knows that Sage’s customers can be free promoters for the new plan.

“We have to start with our customers,” she says. “Inside this division, we have over 2 million customers, and we want to be connected to them so that they feel good about us, and they feel good about our products so that they’ll recommend those products to their friends and business colleagues.”

During all the acquisitions and moves Sage made, there was a drop-off in how much attention was paid to customers. While many stayed with the products they already had, not enough were making additional purchases. To solve this problem, the company started holding customer conferences where it promoted all the products available.

“We start by making people aware of who Sage is,” Smith says. “We did marketing campaigns directly to them, and we had a response from probably a quarter-million customers saying, ‘I didn’t know you had this product; I didn’t know you offered that.’ It was really critical for us, and I think that it’s twofold, if you build a relationship with the customer you have, what better recommenders do you have, what better promoters do you have?”

So Sage started the process by reassessing the assets of the company. At the end of the day, all the growth hadn’t just meant new buildings and products, but a whole list of customers who, if treated correctly, could be the message carriers for the company.

“When I came to Sage, it was a little over a $100 million and now we’re at a billion, and you could just look at all of these customers and say, ‘What a crown jewel,’” she says. “For me it was just taking a step back and saying, ‘Wow, these are the things that you have to do, you have to build awareness in the market if your product will ever be considered, you have to tell your customers and you have to keep your customers.”

Follow up on the plan

Creating and implementing a plan is only the first steps to success.

“You have to stay out there,” she says. “You have to make sure everyone is always on the team and working toward the same goal.”

As hard as it is to get employees to buy in initially, it can be very easy to lose them if you don’t keep them on the path. Smith refuses to let her people forget about the vision.

“I won’t allow that to happen,” she says. “If someone sends me an e-mail, we don’t send a ‘We’re going to get right back to you’ message. If it’s an area where, let’s say, it’s a marketing question, I’ll send it to the head of marketing and say, ‘Would you draft a response on my behalf,’ and then I’ll follow up with the employee.”

Smith doesn’t make any reservations about how much time the effort takes, but it’s her job as a leader to get her employees moving, and that personal connection works wonders.

“Yes, it takes time,” she says. “But it’s so important to leading an organization and having everyone feeling empowered and like they are part of the team.”

Similarly, Sage couldn’t just promote itself to existing customers and then fade away. In order to keep them happy, customer account managers were created to create profiles for each customer. That profile is then traced and when the company is ready to move up, Sage has a migration center that can help fit it with a new product. The key idea is to be on top of the customers’ needs as they evolve.

“In business, often what happens is a lot of the sales force is they go out and get the customer, and then they leave them because they’re off to get the next customer,” Smith says. “What we’ve done is we have an organization that’s focused solely on getting customers, and then it’s moved over to the customer organization; that allows us to focus on the customer needs.”

The idea is strikingly similar to Smith’s desires to constantly follow up with employees.

“You over communicate, you don’t allow the organization to become complacent,” she says. “You do the same thing with customers. Their business is growing, they’re doing new things, so we don’t spend time at a conference talking about how great we are, we bring people in to talk about what it takes to run their business and what changes they’re going through. We all live in a world of change, so you have to stay engaged and you can’t rest on your laurels.”

Smith and her senior leaders have set up metrics that measure a customer’s challenges. They send out surveys on a quarterly basis to see if customers would recommend Sage products and to find out if they have any issues. Those reports go directly back to Smith and her team.

“We really look at what’s happening with the customer, that’s how we keep the pulse,” she says. “You have to stay on top of customers by just going out there and visiting them and just talking to them and staying connected to your business relationships.”

Maybe you can’t get every customer to buy in, just like you probably can’t get every employee to buy in, but Smith says you can’t give up trying.

“You don’t want to lose anyone,” she says. “I always say to the organization, ‘Shame on us if we lose one because we already have them.’”

HOW TO REACH: Sage Software, www.sagesoftware.com, www.sage.com or (866) 996-SAGE