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Marketing Post-Covid: Jeff Mills, Chief Revenue Officer, iMerit

Transcript

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post COVID-19 world, which a year plus into this, we’re all ready for it here. So, today’s guest is Jeff Mills, the Chief Revenue Officer at iMerit Technology, which provides data annotation services to clients ranging from FinTech and e-commerce firms to healthcare providers. Prior to his role at iMerit, Jeff was an executive with a variety of technology firms, including 1-Page, an early employee at Kayak, Criteo, and began his career at Yahoo. So, Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jeff Mills:
Thanks Brian, for the introduction. I’m excited to be speaking with you today and hope I can provide you and your audience with something of value.

Brian Erickson:
All right, well, let’s put you to the test. Let’s talk about weathering the storm. So there have been a number of pivots, I’m sure, as you’ve navigated the storm here, and technology has formed the backbone of how we do business, regardless of industry. Talk a little bit about how this unprecedented moment changed the way, and probably continued to change the way that iMerit approaches business growth and expansion.

Jeff Mills:
Yeah, no doubt. Over the past 20 years, I would say it’s become imperative tech savvy to find success in business. Over the past year, it’s been absolutely unprecedented. At iMerit, we have a unique challenge. We’re a double bottom line company. This means we’re judged on both conventional business performance, like top- line growth and profitability, but also on a second bottom line that measures performance in terms of our positive social impact. So our workforce is over 50% female, over 80% come from what’s considered an inclusive or marginalized background. We keep an over 90% retention rate of our employees. So we weren’t in a position where we could even consider downsizing or making those types of pivots. That would completely go against our ethos in the company. So going into the COVID lockdowns, we had about 2,800 full-time employees working across seven centers around the world.
Then in the course of a couple of days, we had to somehow embrace that these employees supporting hundreds of projects with high quality and throughput, SLES, security, compliance, et cetera, now would work remotely in areas of the world that make this change significantly more complicated than just here in the U.S. We needed to do all that while continuing to deliver on our current business, close new business, and not lose momentum. So there was definitely hard work cut out for us. I would say there were a few really important factors. The first was in the U.S. Our U.S. operations were a bit lucky. We had embraced a remote workforce model prior to COVID. So we were a little ahead of that curve. One thing we had learned early on was that video is super key. So every single call we have, internal, external, partner, client, it doesn’t matter. We’re always on video.

We believe face time is still important, and frankly, it’s probably even more important right now during COVID to connect in the small ways we can. We really have embraced video as a company. Finding time to chat with all the stakeholders and doing your best to find ways to still engage in non-business banter, we have found to be crucial as well. So we’ve lost those opportunities of walking through an office, sitting at a coffee bar, riding on an elevator with a client. Those conversations with clients are still absolutely crucial. So we find ways of still engaging with our staff and with our clients and prospects with that banter and continue to have those types of conversations.
The second, internationally, our centers in India and Bhutan the challenge was a bit different. Those are our technology centers. Scaling up a remote workforce, shifting to a fully distributed model of managing people at scale, virtually while maintaining the quality and efficiency that we have to hit for our clients was very difficult.
For us, I would say the main key for that was remembering our north star. For us, creating these sustainable jobs for an inclusive workforce while being absolutely client obsessed is our number one priority. They’re not really two different priorities. We look at both of those as being absolutely critical to our success and have to happen all the time. So the idea that we had to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we could help others could not have been more true for iMerit.For us to deliver for our clients who are also struggling mightily during these lockdowns, as basically the entire global workforce shut down … our operations became even more imperative for them. So we did what we do every day, and we invested big time in our people. Training, support, organizing spaces in their homes, getting broadband installed. I’d say one of the big areas that was key was there’s no job beneath anyone in the company.
There were stories of our CFO getting on a bike and delivering a laptop to someone. Our CEO, leveraging contacts to get shipping centers to release laptops. A bunch of us were doing office hours at night, just to be there, to talk to people. Just to banter again, talk to people who needed it.

The third I would say is our L and D team really stepped up. So learning,development, and the complexity of what we do was probably the third area that we invested a ton in. This is a bit of an extension of the second, but it deserves its own mention. Investing heavily in learning and development for our employees made a huge difference. We want them, in fact, need them to be experts in the field, for our clients, and our clients love us because of the quality and expertise we provide in that process.

That’s what creates the high quality-data that empowers the AI systems you mentioned that we worked on in the beginning of this call. So our clients expect our employees to grow, and become even more advanced in those skill sets through that experience, and keeping up with the growing complexity of their use cases. Our clients rely on that expertise, and this shows when they’re trying to solve these complex edge cases in AI. We had to embrace video again. We had to do tutorials. We had our solution architects shooting videos of them doing some of the sophisticated tasks that we work on and going through and sharing that with individual team members to really get them to the next level. All those little things, believe it or not, added up really quickly. I think it was essential for our team to know that they weren’t alone and that we were all in this together.

I think the relentless commitment to our clients, and investing heavily in employee wellness, and skill development is what helped us overcome the challenges of 2020 and really become stronger than ever. In fact, we reached new highs in client satisfaction, revenue, and employee growth from 2,800 full-time employees around the world to over 4,000 during COVID. Ironically, we even got satisfaction surveys that got us just recently to be certified as a great place to work. I think it was that investment in really our people that got us to the next level. Ultimately, that ended up making us deliver for our clients at an unprecedented level. It really just helped us raise our game as a company.

Brian Erickson:
Wow. That’s awesome. Well, I’m glad to hear you ended up on the right side of all this craziness here. I guess, were there any notable pivots from a sales and marketing messaging standpoint that you went through with all of this?

Jeff Mills:
Definitely what I would say is the first thing was, you had to understand that your clients had problems. What I basically tell my team, and if you sat in my office, you’d hear me say this 10 times a day, solve the client’s problem. I think as marketers, our jobs can be looked at as super complex.The reality is, if you break it down to what the client problem is and focus relentlessly on making sure you take care of what that problem is for your client, you’re already ahead of the game. So I would say that we really went into a disruptive mindset. So a lot of our messaging is around how do we disrupt your current business? How do we make sure that we can bring your costs down and make you as efficient as possible during this difficult time and by solving the client’s problems and showing that, not just telling them, started to move us to the next level quickly?

Brian Erickson:
How to win friends and influence people, right? That core sort of principle of focus on the other person and their needs never goes out of style. For sure.

Jeff Mills:
100 percent.

Brian Erickson:
So super difficult, super difficult to do, no matter what … whether it’s your first day on the job or 20 years in, it’s equally challenging. So that’s a good core message to keep in mind. Obviously, iMerit works with companies at the forefront of technological change from AI to medical breakthroughs, to driverless cars. What are some lessons or best practices that you can share that can help companies prepare for the new era of technology that we’re entering or probably that we’re already in and don’t realize?

Jeff Mills:
Yeah. So I think one of the things in AI, people kind of get excited about the new and intelligent devices that are coming out, the autonomous cars, the robots, the drones. These are the things that get all the attention in the media. They’re tangible. You can experience them. You can touch them, but the benefits of AI come in a lot of different forms and it’s not always a new product. A lot of times it’s taking an existing business and making it more efficient … reducing those costs, creating faster processes, better accuracy, less waste, improved service … finding greater insights and just making smarter decisions. So what I would say, what I think is really important is asking yourself, how will someone use AI to make their process better and more cost efficient? How will AI save us time or save them time? If that happens, does it become a strategic advantage for the company? Can you compete in it?

Jeff Mills:
So one of the big messages I tell people is ultimately, if you can do more for less, you will drive more business in the long run. I think that’s an ethos that a lot of companies don’t embrace. They want to make as much as they can the day they can make it. If you can actually save your client’s money, by doing things more efficiently, they will end up spending more with you in the long run. So ask yourself, how can you use AI to increase value for your clients while bringing their costs down? Even if that means they’re going to pay you less in the beginning, because this will ultimately add to a much bigger budget. They will invest more in you because they will see that value add, then that value creation.

Jeff Mills:
The other thing I would just say is look around your company and see if there’s unstructured content that exists. I think one of the areas that a lot of companies don’t realize is they’re sitting on video and images and documents and audio conversation. There’s all these silos of information that AI can help break down. There’s a wealth of information in that unstructured content that you can use to get better, faster, cheaper, smarter, right, more efficient. You may be sitting on a goldmine of this proprietary data within your company that could change your entire business outcomes. So I think one of the biggest opportunities is to just look at the unstructured data that you may be sitting on as a company and see if you can use that to create value.

Brian Erickson:
I’m sure you can’t name any names, but is there any example, even conceptually, that you could give us of a brand that you saw do that?

Jeff Mills:
Think about recorded speech. We’re on a recorded call right now. So, you as a company doing podcasts are creating a bunch of audio data. Well, audio is going to become the new UI as things move forward. You’re already seeing companies, products that are out in the market. You have smart devices throughout your home that are all audio enabled, right? So companies need lots of unstructured audio data … excuse me … that can become structured data.

Jeff Mills:
So if you can take huge amounts of audio data, structure that … that can be used to start creating AI systems that become very valuable. So even this podcast that you’ve created … if you had enough of them, would start to create an unstructured data set that becomes extremely valuable for AI models that are going to eventually be what powers your car, that’s powering the electricity in your house. That’s creating value for consumers on a day-to-day basis. So even your podcast right now has got unstructured data that could become very valuable.

Brian Erickson:
I like that. You got to kind of break some of the preconceived notions that are just kind of on a worldview level, the way you think about things to really get into a future-oriented mindset there. I like that a lot. In terms of a future-oriented mindset and what comes next for marketers and revenue strategists in the technology industry, which aspects, maybe even tactically, of our marketing and revenue growth strategies will persist into the new normal that we’re hopefully headed to soon? Which do you think will revert?

Jeff Mills:
Look, it’s a great question. To start with, I think the days of being able to get a hold of a person on their office line are over. That’s been dwindling for years, but it’s basically impossible now. I don’t see people going back to the office for 10 hours a day, five days a week anymore. So I do believe remote work is the new normal. People start going back to the office a bit, but it’s just never going to be the same as it was, as we grew up. So I would say, get used to that, embrace it, lean in, and learn how to communicate with your audience where they are. That said, I do think conferences will come back. People will travel again, but you’re going to need to be even better at the virtual conference, the video content, the webinars, and again, value creation around content that your market wants to consume and needs to consume.

Jeff Mills:
The content has to be something they learn from when they touch it. If it doesn’t add significant value, it’s just noise. At iMerit, I would say we’ve spent a significant amount of time during COVID, during these virtual events, doing micro-blogging during conferences this year, to make sure that we were helping get the strongest content in the hands of our audiences. I think the idea that you’re going to stand at a booth and just scan badges at a conference, those days are over for good. That said, I do think we are going to revert back to traveling. You just may not be going to an office to meet your client. You may be going out to the suburbs or to their lake house or somewhere else to talk to them. So I think you’re going to have to start embracing that you have to go to where your prospect, your market is, and make sure you bring them value early and often. They’re not going to just trip over you anymore.

Brian Erickson:
The virtual conference topic has come up a number of times recently. What is your feel on where virtual conferences are going to go? I spoke at one somewhat recently, and it was just like a one- or-one translation, or an attempted translation from a physical real-world conference to a virtual one. It was like, okay, do your speaking spot, and then now go stand at your booth, which is just a virtual booth. Then people just like pop onto your screen and attack you. So I guess, do you have any thoughts on how virtual conferences can be done in a more elegant way and adapted to the medium sort?

Jeff Mills:
So in some ways I think you can embrace the virtual conference better. I was alluding to that in the last question or bit was the micro blogging and content that you can take from within these virtual conferences now, you can start to connect with more people because they’re looking for the content. They’re not necessarily going to conferences. They are having their tablets in front of them all day. They’re in their cars. I mean, it’s why your podcast is doing well. So you need to be able to push that data out to people. There’s a lot of ways now that you can get your brand and your message tied into that data without just standing at a booth anymore. So I find the virtual conferences and a lot of ways can be much more beneficial than the old school conference methodology because we got very used to going in, getting to our booth and scanning badges, and giving away a Teddy bear, Teddy Ruxpin or something at the end of the day.

Ultimately, that wasn’t really driving the right lead quality. I think when you can bring that value with the great data that you have to solve your client’s problems, then you’re way ahead. I believe the virtual conference has been more affordable. More people have tuned in to some of the big talks, and it’s given us the ability to grab more content and be able to interface with our clients more. So again, lean in, embrace it, find a way to leverage the content coming out of that to reward your audience and reward your customer or prospect.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely, definitely. I guess I would be curious about any thoughts you might have as someone that, of course, is working with big data in some exciting ways on any practical advice you would give to small and mid-sized companies around leveraging their own data for success and marketing sales and other customer-facing incidents?

Jeff Mills:
Yeah. I think the first thing, big data itself as a topic, big data is dead. That might shock people to hear me say that. The reality is that big data will cost you and your company a significant amount of time and resources, but great data is here to stay. Start thinking about what data is important and what data is going to again, help solve your client’s problem. Then again, I told you guys, you’re going to get bored of hearing me say that, but solving your client’s problem is everything. So remember, data’s now the new code. It’s going into the models. Bad data equals bad models. Great data equals great models. Make sure the data you’re collecting is great data. You don’t want your model cheating off a C or D student, right? You want it to copy off an A student.

I think first and foremost, thinking about big data is the wrong thought process now. People need to think about great data, not big data. The next thing is, there are really no barriers to entry. So small companies can act and present themselves much more like big companies. In fact, I would say that the bigger the company, the size can actually hold you back. The smaller companies can be more nimble, flexible. The data space is all about iteration. So again, lean in and leverage that to your advantage in the space. Be super iterative and be super flexible on leveraging the great data that you can get your hands on.
From a tech perspective in general, I would say, continue to invest in technology platforms that can multiply or compound your capabilities. So, CRMs and customer engagement, chat bots, communication platforms, all of those things I think are also super important, but make sure that people you have managing those systems have both the tech aptitude, but also the vision, and aren’t scared to make mistakes. So that’s one of the big things I have really dove into is, iterating. You have to remember that this space, tech and data both, is more like an art. You’re only finished because you decided it was finished. It’s not because you graduated. So everything you’re working on is just a work in progress and you need to be very iterative and very flexible and continue to push it and just realize that like you’re never done. There’s no graduation date.

Brian Erickson:
That’s awesome. That’s pretty funny. One of my colleagues just said, oh, it looks great. I know everything we do is work in progress. So definitely I’m on board with that. It’s funny because it was a little bit of a dig, but it’s actually also a positive for sure, as you’re always building it and you have that opportunity to launch every 10 minutes.

Jeff Mills:
A hundred percent.

Brian Erickson:
So what do you see as the biggest headache for marketers in your industry as to what they’re going to have to deal with for the remainder of 2021 and how do you think they can best tackle this challenge?

Jeff Mills:
Ooh, biggest headache. Biggest headache is probably, it isn’t over. So I’m sorry to tell everyone. Everything isn’t going back to normal tomorrow. Even worse, we’re probably going to think it’s over and get sucked deeper back in it. This can be very difficult, I think, for the psyche, and you need to get in front of that a bit and probably a lot. For enterprise companies, like iMerit, the remote worker, as I mentioned earlier, is still going to be key to the success. So again, we need to embrace it and not fight it. So the remote worker, everyone’s working from home, it’s going to be hard to reach prospects. There’s no physical industry conferences, there’s no physical meetings. Travel’s still going to be stagnant at best. The dynamics for how you meet people and build a relationship have definitely changed. So I think people need to really think about how they’re investing in self-serve engagement.
I think this is an amazing opportunity for all of our companies to really step up our game in the self-serve engagement arena. So what would a fully online customer journey look like for your prospect and your client? Can you answer the key questions of how they find you? How do they determine if you’re credible? Can they use your product? The more you can push out there and the customer engagement cycle prior to ever talking with them, this will only increase the odds of them reaching out to you. So I will continue to go back to solving the problem, but if you can solve the problem and show them how you solved the problem prior to ever speaking to the client, then you are setting yourself up to survive through the pandemic this year that has probably propelled the company forward.

Brian Erickson:
Nice. That’s a crazy thing to think about, especially in a business-to-business environment, what would an entirely self-service model look like? I think we’re conditioned to just look at a longer selling cycle or sales cycle or buying cycle, really, probably the right word to use there, and assume that it’d be a big part of that on the brand side, but it’s not necessarily … it’s maybe a limiting belief to a certain degree.

Jeff Mills: I want to be careful. I would still say that the human is absolutely critical to the success of these things. In fact, white glove service is something that I believe in. I don’t think you can automate everything, but how do you make the journey digital? How do you make the journey something where you can interact with the customer and show them that value before they’ve actually picked up the phone and talked to you? How do you engage with them and start showing them that those answers that you can be flexible and iterative and do all the things they need and still give them that level of service before they’ve met with you?

Brian Erickson:
Definitely. Even just from a thought exercise standpoint of like, if you had to just do this totally digital before COVID, I think a lot of people would have been like, oh, whatever, I don’t have to think about that. Then you’re kind of thrust into it and you have to figure it out. So it’s better to think of it in advance and to plan it in advance if you can. So I’m definitely in agreement with that. So I guess zooming in and looking tactically at your marketing and revenue generation mix pre-COVID to now, were there any sleepers that just kind of came out of nowhere that you weren’t considering at all that really took off and won the day for you throughout all of this, that you think you’re going to hold on to? Or were there any tactics or channels that you just totally abandoned and don’t think you’ll go back to?

Jeff Mills:
Well, it’s funny, we mentioned events earlier. Events were probably 80% of our marketing spend or something in 2019. Events were a huge piece of our business. We want to get out. We are a human company. We work in AI, but we’re very much the human side. We want to get out and see our clients and sit down and look at them face to face and shake their hands and build that trust with the client. The best way to do that is to sit across the table from them and dig into it. When events got crushed and all of a sudden, I couldn’t go meet with clients in their offices. We really had to figure out that customer journey that I was just mentioning and figuring out how to engage with them throughout a fully digital cycle.

So that’s something that we spent a ton of time on this year. Our social media and our content production has become a huge focus for us. Again, it’s producing content our clients need and can use to be successful. I think account-based marketing for us has been a much bigger focus. It’s not just throwing a giant net out and trying to catch all the fish that way, but we’ve gone back to the basics a bit on who our accounts are that we want and who we need and breaking those accounts into clear segments and then sniper firing those specific accounts with the content they need. They’re struggling as well, right? Our customers are struggling. The world is struggling. So every time we reach out to someone, it’s to provide value. So I would even go as far as saying those automated seven to 12 email drip campaigns, that people are still running, they’re probably hurting your company more at this point than helping, because it’s becoming so much noise in the space because of that.
So you really need to be customer focused and tailoring your reach out specifically for that customer with value that helps solve their specific problems. So I would say stop selling features and functionality, which is something that we were doing probably strongly before COVID, but how we did that changed drastically while through COVID. We couldn’t just be at an event to do that. We couldn’t just meet with somebody in person to do that. We had to really create a better buyer journey. I think that’s something that’s going to help us for the long run.

Jeff Mills:
The other thing I would say is embracing the remote workforce. We now have 4,000 employees that can work remote. We did not have that before. In fact, that was a humongous growing pain for us in the beginning of the COVID lockdown. Now we have that. So we probably wouldn’t have invested in that this year, but now we have the infrastructure, the security, the compliance, all the things we need to run a 4000 person distributed workforce, while still having our centers in place. So to us, that’s probably a big investment we wouldn’t have made this year that has probably propelled the company forward.

Brian Erickson:
That’s awesome. If you could kind of sum all of this and tie it nicely with a bow and give marketers and revenue strategists and salespeople in your industry and technology brands a single piece of advice, what would you say that they should be focused on?

Jeff Mills:
Yeah. I just think that the change in purchase behavior is drastic. People are generally doing all of the research and making 70 to 80% of their purchase decisions prior to ever talking with a sales rep. So you have to go back and ask yourself, do I give prospects that much value online? Have I proven to them that I can solve their problem? If I can, and then if I’m given the opportunity, can I show it to not tell them? I have to show it to them very, very quickly. So as you build your online presence, it’s essential to keep the value exchange in mind. That means you need to give more value up front. You need to educate them. You need to help with their buying decision before you ever ask them for anything. So to me, that’s the main focus that I think every company should be able to answer at this point.

Brian Erickson:
That’s great. do translating that to an individual level as we’re bouncing back from near record levels of unemployment. Hopefully we keep trending in the right direction. Obviously, there are still many sales and marketing executives finding themselves as free agents right now, how can individuals best position themselves, and their skill sets relative to that advice you just gave on folks that are employed to best find a new opportunity?

Jeff Mills:
Yeah. I think first of all, I love the question. First and foremost, I would say that even if you have what you think is a very solid, reliable job, the reality is we’re all renting walkers these days. The day of the gold watch is over. So you have to always be driving value, whether you’re a free agent or you have a full-time gig. So I think it’s very important for people to understand that they have to always be thinking about how I am going to be successful in my current opportunity or my next opportunity.

Jeff Mills:
Those questions come back to the same things we as marketers should be doing all the time. So if I’m a free agent, I’m thinking who’s my target audience, right? Who do I want to work with? What problem do I want to solve for them? What is their problem and how are they going to solve that problem? Now prove you’re good at what we’re talking about today. Find the right person at that company you want to work for. Engage with them by providing that value. The same stuff we’re talking about on digital value creation, how can you find the right person at the right company that you want to work with and start showing that you can provide that value and solve their problems? Because if you could do that, you have already proven that you’re the right person to help their business and they will hire you for it.

Brian Erickson:
It really is such an advantage for folks in sales and marketing, because you are marketing yourself in a job search. So you already have those skills.

Jeff Mills:
Brian, people forget it all the time. They forget to market themselves and go and sell. I mean it’s the same process.

Brian Erickson:
Oh, definitely. So just remember what you already know is I think the key to it. You’re doing this professionally, or at least you should be doing it professionally and you have to do it personally the same way you would do it for a brand. You are a brand. So, drive that value the same way as you do it on a corporate level. So that’s some great advice. Awesome. Well, Jeff, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. I really appreciate it.

Jeff Mills:
Hey look, it’s truly my pleasure. Again, I hope there was something that resonated and will help someone on here. If anyone wants to reach out to me, my LinkedIn is just /JmMills and my Twitter is @JeffDMills. So again, I’ll just say, keep solving problems. Here to help in any way I can.

Brian Erickson:
That’s the name of the game, keep solving problems. The world will keep creating them for you to solve, we don’t have to worry about that. So this is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach, thanks again for listening. Please make sure to check back for more senior sales and marketing executives sharing their perspectives of what marketing will look like in a post COVID-19 world.

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