Rob Enslin keeps SAP North America moving forward in a down economy Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

The first thing Rob Enslin did was get on the road.

It was February 2009, and Enslin had just taken over as the president of SAP North America, the 10,000-employee, Philadelphia-based wing of global software solutions provider SAP.

The trouble was that Enslin was taking over the ship in the midst of a hurricane. The economy was faltering, and along with it, employee confidence was shaken as SAP swam against the economic current, attempting to build and maintain the customer relationships that supply the company’s lifeblood.

But in order to maintain a presence with customers, Enslin and his leadership team needed to ensure that employees across North America were not only on board with the growth-oriented vision and direction of SAP but also confident that the vision would be realized.

“I started doing town halls,” Enslin says. “I went to Chicago, Palo Alto, Dallas, Houston, and I just got in front of every employee with the same message and vision, just to let everyone know where I was. It was important that I got on the road, because when you try to communicate that type of message through a conference call, the dynamics of the interface are missing. People needed to see that I was absolutely sincere.”

Enslin needed to inform and encourage his employees, building their confidence in SAP’s future, and giving them the tools to help SAP’s leaders realize their vision: to turn SAP North America into a solutions-focused company that tailors its capabilities to meet customer needs.

Once he had the employees on board, he needed to connect with customers, discover their challenges and how to best construct SAP’s business model to meet those challenges.

“I had to show everyone that this is how we’re going to connect with customers, this is how they’re going to buy software, this is how we will be successful,” he says. “Internally, this is what we’re going to do to change, simplify our business model and do it really quickly.”

For Enslin, taking on his new role meant putting communication first. He needed to promote a message and stay on it and make sure that multiple groups with varying challenges and concerns were on board with him.

Connect with your employees

Enslin had to overcome a great deal of negative momentum when he took the reins of SAP’s North American operations. The economy was in bad shape, and employees were all too ready to believe the worst about the state of business, in general, and their jobs, in particular.

With that in mind, one of Enslin’s first and most essential messages to employees was to turn off the television, put down the newspaper and focus on the future, not the present.

“A lot of employees were really concerned about their jobs, about job reductions in the marketplace,” Enslin says. “People were concerned about where companies were going. There was a lot of negativity, so the biggest thing was really to have a positive approach to it, lay out how the plan was going to unfold over the year, lay it out in an articulate manner to the employees, and we did that from day one.”

Having a great communication plan is only the beginning when promoting a vision. Messages are made to stick in employees’ minds through hard work and repetition on the part of company leadership. And that’s exactly what Enslin set out to do.

In addition to traveling throughout SAP’s North American footprint, Enslin began to create interface opportunities with employees through periodic morning briefings and other frequent forms of messaging.

“Employees would see our messages when they first woke up in the morning,” he says. “Maybe not every morning, but maybe once a week, once every second week. It was all about clear communication from us as the executive leadership team, explaining the success we are having and how we’re facing our challenges.

“After three or four months, we got the message out, people understood our plan moving forward and started to understand how we were going to get there. From there, we needed to elevate our game. You do that by getting together with everyone on the sales team, vice presidents, managers, consulting, field leadership, and start to focus on an agenda.”

As upper management, vice presidents, managers and employees began to focus on the customer-centric vision, a dialogue began, and Enslin started to see the blossoming of another critical element in developing and promoting a vision: employee feedback.

Enslin wanted to personally gather feedback on his trips. He wanted to hear what employees were saying so he could harvest new ideas and correct misconceptions before the rumor mill could begin churning in earnest.

“The feedback was pretty incredible,” Enslin says. “As you’re on the road listening to employees, you start to break down pieces where you start to find the things that normally don’t show up on your desk. You start telling them why customers are buying in a different behavior and how we need to adjust. Once we got that type of feedback, we were able to make adjustments in a very short time. People were willing to give their feedback because they knew that action would be taken.”

When it comes to implementing your own communication strategy in times that are trying or uncertain, Enslin says that, above all, you need to have an unwavering focus on and belief in your vision. If you communicate your vision and strategy with confidence, chances are that confidence will rub off on your employees.

“First, make sure that they know your vision is rock solid,” he says. “Understand the reality of the situation, and the reality of the situation in 2009 was that people wanted to know the truth. You have to let them know the truth and explain to them the difficulty of the situation.

“It was an unconventional time. SAP America was growing at 15 to 20 percent; then all of a sudden the market changes.”

And when the market changes, your customers’ needs change. Which is why you need to communicate with customers in much the same way you do employees: buoying their confidence in your vision and strategy, creating a dialogue and opening feedback channels.

Connect with your customers

When you go to your customers, you’re really trying to get the pulse of what is going on in the markets you serve. Especially during challenging economic times, customers not only represent your financial support, they provide a wellspring of information on the condition of the market at any given time.

As Enslin settled into his role, he visited with customers and began to paint a picture of their evolving needs and what SAP could do to meet those needs in the coming months and years.

“I spent day after day listening to customers, understanding their problems and how they were trying to be successful,” Enslin says. “It’s just a matter of asking them over and over, ‘How can we help you?’” It’s getting from the customer’s vision to your vision, and to realize that, you have to move at incredible speed. You can’t become consensus-driven. You have to say, ‘We’ve made a decision, we’re headed in that direction, and these are the things we need to change in order to be successful. Once you do that and people start to see success, the rest will follow.”

In the months after Enslin assumed his post, he and his executive tea

m began to debate over the best way to interface with customers. It had to be effective, and as important, it had to be cost-effective.

“We had an internal discussion over what we should do. ‘Should we do this thing; should we save the money? Is it going to help our business? Are people going to fly to Orlando to go to an SAP conference?’” Enslin says. “It’s amazing what customers will tell you when you ask them.”

What customers were telling Enslin was that the world of business was changing with the economy, and SAP would need to adapt, as well. As the economy bottomed out, customers were more focused on cost-saving solutions. Now that the economy has started to rebound a bit, SAP’s customers are once again starting to look for innovative, creative solutions.

“You have to make sure that you’re adjusting your business model to meet your customers’ demands,” Enslin says. “That’s step one. When a market is growing, you’re probably more focused on innovation. Where we’re at now is that customers have seen enough of the efficiency, enough of the employee reductions and capital restrictions. We’re to a point where the profit-and-loss sheets are starting to look pretty good and they’re asking how do we innovate again. So we’ve adjusted our internal business model, and now we’re working with our customers to say, ‘OK, let’s innovate together.’

“What I’d tell other business leaders is listen clearly to your customers on what they need, and then you have to figure out how to adjust your business model.”

The larger your business is, the harder it will be to adjust how you do business. You won’t be able to react to every ripple and wave you encounter. So you need to prioritize what types of services you want to provide and what metrics and indicators will serve as your call to action as an organization.

“When you’re putting together a longer-term vision, it maps around a couple of areas depending on what kind of customer signals you want to go after, what solutions you want to bring to market and how you bring those solutions to market,” Enslin says. “As you’re pulling in the long-term thinking, you need to know how the support services will be structured to actually cater to customers in the future. That is around HR, your financial department, how your contracting process works and how you enable the marketing process with the Web. All of those processes have to be aligned in order to match your vision.”

In a down economy, you sometimes have to make short-term compromises with your vision and business model, recognizing the market’s limitations while still keeping your eyes on the long-term prize of growth and a rekindled culture of innovation.

“The first thing you need to say is, ‘In this quarter, we need to stabilize the environment, we need to go to market, the customers are going to be spending, but they’ll be spending less, and that’s probably going to keep occurring through 2009 and ’10,” Enslin says. “Once you have that in place, what you next want to look at are the longer-term things that you want to work on. For us, our customers are significantly involved in SAP, and they want a relationship with SAP that is a three- to five-year relationship.”

Ultimately, you might need to modify your definition of success in the short term, focusing on short-term goals with your customers and creating company benchmarks focused primarily on incremental improvement.

“There are some things, as you go through this, that are so important,” Enslin says. “One, how do you measure the success of your business? Employees are used to measuring success in terms of growth, but we changed the way we measured success in 2009. We started to articulate to our employees how many transactions we were doing as part of a quota, our customer satisfaction, our partner satisfaction. We started to articulate how we were investing in the future. Once employees see that you’re investing in the future of the business and gain a sense of confidence in that, it’s amazing what you can do when you have that positive flow in the company.” <<

How to reach: SAP North America, (800) 872-1727 or