Build deeper customer and employee relationships in disruptive times

Autodesk's CMO speaks about building customer relationships during disruptive times, developing a deep bench of talent, and preventing employee burnout.

Illustration of a Zoom call with nine participants

Susan Etlinger

November 24, 2020

min read
Illustrated portrait of Autodesk CMO Lisa Campbell
Autodesk’s former chief marketing officer, Lisa Campbell Illustration courtesy of Micke Tong.

Marketing leaders have had to figure out how to deepen relationships with customers and maintain strong lines of communication with newly remote teams and employees in this time of unprecedented uncertainty. How can leaders hit the right note and determine how to turn disruption into growth and opportunity in 2021?

Altimeter Group Senior Analyst Susan Etlinger spoke with former Autodesk Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Campbell about building customer and employee relationships that keep everyone connected, developing a deep bench of talent, and preventing employee burnout.

How are relationships with customers and other stakeholders changing, given that everyone is now conducting most interactions digitally? How much of a shift has this been for you?No matter which customer you talk to, everybody is worried, and everybody is talking about digital transformation. Our customers know that things can’t continue to be the way they were. And we’re finding that things that we expected might have taken two or three years are now being done in six or seven months. As an example, cloud adoption: We have customers that have to move all of their design work to the cloud and collaborate there now.

Before the pandemic, a small customer that had maybe three employees would say to us, “Well, we don’t really need to move to the cloud.” They are now customers of our collaboration design tools because they actually can’t stay in business otherwise; there are business-continuity issues if they don’t.

What’s important to our customers has also changed, so we had to be very much in tune with their priorities. What are the big business issues they’re facing now? What is their C-suite talking about when it comes to business continuity, and how do they navigate this current COVID-19 crisis? What is going to be permanent and what isn’t? For most of our customers, these are going to be permanent changes because they’re part of digital transformation.

For the most part, marketing is already digital. But when people in the US went into lockdown in March and April, we had to change how we were marketing. People were trying to figure out how to keep their families safe, how to keep themselves safe, and how to make payroll. Doing active marketing and demand generation would have been tone deaf. So we had to step back and say, “Let’s be attuned to what our customers are struggling with: What are they going through?”

We started to shift some of our marketing programs to become more about helping customers. We quickly put up a COVID-19 resource website to help them figure out how to navigate. For example, we have teachers and students who are customers, and we were trying to help them get their curricula online.

We started working with our architecture, engineering, and construction customers to move their models to the cloud. We took our trials for key cloud-collaboration software and made them available for commercial use for a 90-day period. We’ve never done that before. Trials are not meant for commercial use; it’s usually 30 days, and then either you buy the product, or you don’t. But these were extenuating circumstances.

Illustration of woman in green suit racing up a cloud
The pandemic has led to an unprecedented acceleration in cloud adoption. Illustration courtesy of Micke Tong.

We did other things for furloughed and laid-off workers in the industry. We’re working with our channel partners to provide free vouchers so that anybody who was furloughed or laid off from our customers’ companies can use that voucher or cash it in with a channel partner to get training on upskilling and reskilling. That was a win-win because the channel partner could keep employees on payroll because we were helping to subsidize their training, and the workers were able to upskill, which could help them whether they had to find a new job or went back to their employer. In either case, they’ll have skills to add to their portfolio, which makes them even more valuable contributors.

We’re also getting a bit more time with customers. Our online events are getting fantastic attendance. People aren’t spending so much time commuting or traveling, and they’re relying on Autodesk for up-to-date information about what we’re seeing globally within their sector. Some of our customers bid on projects globally, irrespective of where they live. So they ask: “Are you seeing things pick up in China, Korea? Is APAC having more of a bounce-back than EMEA versus North America?” And we can say, “Here’s what we’re hearing from customers we’ve spoken to.” We can be very helpful in that regard, which has helped us build more trusted engagements and partnerships with customers.

Can you tell us a bit more about the kinds of topics customers are asking about?They’re asking if we can help them with people coming back into offices. They want to see if they can use our design software to help them redesign office space to make it safer. We can help them with that; our design tools can help them figure out how to reconfigure their floors so it’s a safer environment. Our manufacturing customers are saying: “I need to get people back on location; how can you help us do that safely? How can you help us reconfigure or redesign the flow of a manufacturing floor?” Some also needed to redesign their manufacturing floor so they could produce something different. A number of customers wanted to see if they could manufacture PPE; our software helps them figure that out.

the next normal Susan Etlinger
Author Susan Etlinger, senior analyst at Altimeter Group Illustration courtesy of Micke Tong.

What has your experience been in terms of interactions with employees and customers? Are you looking at any new indicators?I read this great article the other day in which the author talked about how everybody has a surge capacity. She quotes Dr. Ann Masten as saying that surge capacity “is a collection of adaptive systems—mental and physical—that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” Surges are typically episodic, but all of us have been using our surge capacity nonstop for the past seven months, at least if you live in the United States.

I also find that more and more of our conversations are about people’s well-being. What are they doing for self-care? How can they incorporate that with a more flexible work schedule? This is particularly true for employees who have young children who can’t go back to school; there’s either a hybrid environment, or they’re 100% virtual. It’s very stressful. So we’ve been trying to provide more flexible time for people so they can work it a more agile way. We also have a number of programs available for people who feel they need someone to talk to.

As you’ve probably heard from many other leaders, we do things over Zoom that are just social. Of course, a lot of people are having videoconference fatigue; sometimes, the last thing we want to do is turn on our camera. So one of the things we instituted in my group is 45-minute meetings so everybody has that extra 15 minutes to return a phone call, go get a drink of water, or just do something—even if it’s just to walk around a little bit. I have gotten so much feedback from the team on how much they appreciate this simple little thing.

I’ve also upped communications. I used to do a quarterly all-hands meeting. Now we have almost doubled the amount of communication where we’re just sharing information with people. I meet with all the managers in the group on a much more frequent basis just to share information. It’s really just communicate, communicate, communicate; people are craving more communication and connection and reaching out. I’m also finding that people are less certain about how they’re doing because it’s hard when everything is remote. I’m having more conversations to give more real-time feedback. So from a leadership perspective, a lot of my focus is invested in health and well-being.

I also feel like I’ve gotten to know people on my team better than ever before. Thanks to videoconferencing, I’ve met their children, spouses, and pets. Before COVID-19, it used to be considered a terrible interruption, and people would be frustrated by it. And now, we all laugh, and I think: “Hey, I know their kids’ names. I’ve seen their Halloween costumes.”

When it comes to measuring things differently, I’ve also found that we had to take a look at workload and some of our roadmaps, and we did have to make some adjustments. You can’t hold everybody to the same productivity level while people are struggling to balance their work and personal lives. So where it makes sense—you can’t do it everywhere—we have tried to adjust some of our roadmaps and commitments so we can give people more time to get things done. Where we can’t, we have to stick with the current schedule, but whenever there is some leeway, I want to work that into the schedule. And I think that has helped, based on what we’re tracking and measuring.

Given that people will be living with the pandemic for some time, how can you scale this kind of interaction? On one hand, people need the tenacity to continue to work like this, but right now, a lot of learning is anecdotal. To what extent have you been thinking about how to manage remote work in a more programmatic way?Well, we didn’t necessarily plan to get these new skills; we have all built new skills for remote work because we had to. So we’re learning and finding that some things that were supposed to be short term or for a crisis situation are turning into more refined skills. Here’s an example with videoconferencing. When we used to do videoconferencing, some people were in the room and some people were remote—the way meetings used to be when you’d have people calling in from different countries. People who were remote had trouble following the conversation. And they had trouble getting the floor.

Now we go around the room and do virtual hand raising. We try to make sure that everybody gets an opportunity to ask clarifying questions, to react or participate in the conversation. And I have found that people who are more introverted or like to take longer to think about something have said that they feel like the playing field has been leveled—for the first time, they are actually able to participate in conversations that they were never able to participate in before because we would have already moved on.

Being remote has been the great leveler; more people are feeling connected and able to share. But they miss the human and personal connections. In the future, we’re probably going to have a hybrid environment. Some companies have announced that they’re going all virtual—or virtual first, meaning that if you want to work remotely, that opportunity is open to you. In some cases, companies are saying that their office is going to be repurposed to become collaboration space rather than a place you would come every day to sit at a desk. So I think that we’re building a set of future-of-work skills right now, and we’re going to refine them because the next normal is going to be more of this hybrid experience.

For my new research report, Strategies for Growth in the Reimagined Workplace, I interviewed Ben Waber, who was one of the coauthors of a recent article on the implications of working without an office. He brought up the idea of weak ties,” which are basically relationships between people who interact occasionally, whether at work or in their personal lives. He said that, in organizations, those weak ties are critical not only for the health of the culture but also because they can be an important source of information people might not have known otherwise that can have an impact on the business. I wanted to raise it because the world is still learning about how to create those more serendipitous interactions in digital spaces, both with employees and with customers.I agree; we call it the quick office chat, the drop-by. One of the things I tried to do with my team was to create the equivalent of the five-minute hallway conversation. Instead of scheduling yet another 30-minute Zoom call, we said, “Let’s do hallway phone calls,” meaning that in a situation where you would pop out of your office and grab somebody, just pick up the phone and try to call them or send a text. The other thing that we and a lot of companies are doing, as well, is moving things to Slack, and that has been super helpful.

We have a dedicated Slack channel for my staff and other cohorts where you can pop in, ask a question, ask for feedback on a document, and so on. It’s another way for us to connect, which used to be the hallway conversation, and people are sharing information that way. Someone will say, “I’m on a rolling power outage, and my power’s out this morning.” Or “Hey, I just read this great article.” So we’ve been trying to institute that. But I do think that people miss those hallway conversations. It’s hard; I haven’t yet heard of a great formula on how to plug all the gaps, but there are lots of different ideas on how to address some of it.

Are you noticing any different types of indicators or other types of customer feedback that are changing?Customers are being more open with us. We’ve started to do listening sessions because we just wanted to talk to customers. You know what happens sometimes when you do surveys—people don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, so they may be a little bit nicer. And I’m finding that there’s a bit more directness, frankness, and honesty about issues or concerns, which helps us serve customers better and solve better problems for them. We’ve also gotten better at analyzing data and intent. For example, if a customer hasn’t used certain kinds of capabilities within our product after a certain amount of time, it’s possible they aren’t onboarding well, so we try to reach out to help them.

I’m curious to hear how you’re thinking about the future. Is there anything in retrospect you might have done differently? And what do you think you’ve learned from this experience that you’d like to carry forward as things start to normalize?Something I would try to be more planful about is how to develop a broader bench. We tend to over-rely on our best performers. We tend to ask people to take on new things in addition to their existing workload, and top performers in particular never want to say no. So we need to develop more people so that we have a broader bench we can rely on in these kinds of unusual circumstances.

There are a couple of things I would like to carry forward. I like the concept of “the great leveler” because I found we were making better decisions and getting to better outcomes when all voices were heard. I would also like to keep the part where I feel like I personally know people better. We seem to be bonding and sharing a little bit more about our personal lives with each other than we did before. I think that helps people remember that, whatever our role, we’re all human.

Susan Etlinger

About Susan Etlinger

Susan Etlinger is a globally recognized expert in digital strategy, with a focus on artificial intelligence, technology ethics, and data. She is director, AI & Innovation, at Microsoft and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Her TED talk entitled “What Do We Do With All This Big Data?” has been translated into 25 languages and has been viewed more than 1.3 million times.

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