Learn more about Driving the Mobile Workforce Forward by Thinking in Reverse: How Venado built a better enterprise solution by starting with the user experience
Carl Lewis: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast, where guests share how they stay connected. I'm your host, Carl Lewis, from Vision33. My guest is Justin Lake from Venado Technologies, where they specialize in digital solutions for firstline mobile workers.
Carl Lewis: Justin, please tell us about yourself and your role at Venado.
Justin Lake: Thanks, Carl. I’ve been fortunate to spend two decades focusing on technology solutions for the mobile workforce. At Venado, we help business leaders implement technology that allows their field forces to do things better, faster, and safer than if they did them manually. Everything we do is focused on mobile workforce solutions and how we can help businesses prosper.
Carl Lewis: That industry has experienced dynamic changes in two decades. A lot of automation plays in the mobility area, but what's the number one thing others are talking about?
Justin Lake: The biggest thing, and what we're doing now, is the proliferation of technology for mobile workers and its evolution. If we look back just 10 years, many technology solutions for the mobile workforce were solutions of convenience. It was the early part of mobile technology adoption for enterprises, and as mobile technology has evolved, more companies embrace these solutions every day.
Justin Lake: It's no longer a convenience application – the technology is inextricably linked to the business process, creating a new set of challenges for the companies implementing it and the workers trying to use it.
Justin Lake: We all feel like tech experts in our personal lives, and to some extent, we are. We use Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, etc. Everybody has a Nest thermostat and an Alexa, so there's a reason we feel confident about the technology we use.
Justin Lake: The companies I just mentioned are well-known and successful because of their focus on user experience. They spend a lot of time thinking about how users will use their solutions. Companies that don't do that tend to be unsuccessful in the consumer market.
Justin Lake: When it comes to enterprise customers, however, and building the solutions they want to deploy, we don't spend enough time thinking about the employee experience.
Justin Lake: Then, we don't spend enough time thinking about how users will adopt that technology – how they’re going to learn. For Netflix, Facebook, or other consumer technologies, we have all the time we need to learn how to use them. They probably spent a half a billion dollars working on user experience to make it easy.
Justin Lake: In the enterprise space, the workers don't have the luxury of taking their time to learn a solution. They can’t put the device aside until the weekend. They have a job to do. They're standing in front of a customer. We must educate them and give them tools to be successful immediately. Otherwise, the solution isn't successful for anyone.
Justin Lake: The two biggest things are focusing on the user experience with the employees and figuring out how to educate them to use the technology.
Carl Lewis: You were practically telling my biography! All the tools at our disposal, and I’ve gone to zero training courses – I just jumped right into that Nest thermostat and figured it out.
Carl Lewis: I doubt I even opened a single page of the user manual. You mentioned focusing on the user early on, and I don't know if your 20 years covers this, but my first smart device was a Kyocera phone with the Palm Pilot operating system. Everyone was like, “Ok, we know how to use a phone, and we have a Palm Pilot, so we should know how to use them mashed together.” But that was an island, right? It wasn't tied to part of the work process; it was personal convenience.
Carl Lewis: How do you change that mindset from personal convenience to the business process? Does it require something more than “I'm a techy guy, I can handle this”?
Justin Lake: I want to address your question in reverse. The average worker in the industries we serve isn’t techy. They’re not a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from a technical university. These are folks who got their jobs because they enjoy driving trucks, working with their hands, being outside. They didn't choose their jobs to become computer science experts.
Justin Lake: But now they’re required to use that technology. They can’t do their job without it, which can create a lot of anxiety. The more we explore that circumstance with our large enterprise clients, the more we find they contribute to higher support costs and higher retention costs. Well, lower retention and therefore higher recruiting costs, because people get frustrated and leave their jobs when they're given tools and not taught how to use them.
Justin Lake: There are two primary ways to address this. The first is that when we're helping a customer build a new solution, we start with the mobile worker and work our way back to the enterprise systems. What currently happens is that we look at the enterprise systems and work our way out to the field worker.
Justin Lake: Then, because most large companies we serve have multiple backend systems, we end up with a poor employee experience. The way to turn that around is to spend time with the folks in the field. To understand a day in their life.
Justin Lake: We don't care about the backend systems when we're doing that initial discovery. We look at how they work, what scenarios they experience, what tools they use, what vehicles they drive, and what their environmental conditions are. Then we build the experience back from them to the enterprise system, so we're creating a single user experience based on the user's profile, not the enterprise system's profile.
Justin Lake: We're not always fortunate enough to build the solution. Sometimes we're asked to make a company’s current solution engage better with the mobile workers – or make the mobile workers engage better with the solution.
Justin Lake: We've built a training platform that’s specific to the mobile workforce’s needs so we can make them comfortable. We give them a sandbox environment for them to learn, experiment, and become competent on the tools they must use. And we do it on the devices we expect them to use.
Justin Lake: It gives them the confidence and skills they need to use those tools successfully, in a productive environment.
Carl Lewis: A friend recently transferred from the printing industry to driving a truck. But suddenly, he drives a pad a lot more than he drives a truck.
Carl Lewis: He had experience with Facebook, but that's where his technology knowledge ended. How does a company with enterprise applications that depend on field-worker technology hire new people? The employee needs it for their job and to satisfy the company with their performance, but they’re not familiar with technology. Is there a technique for that?
Justin Lake: It's something we believe is overlooked. It's also why we’ve invested in the platform I described.
Justin Lake: The challenge most of our large clients face is that when a new project kicks off some new technology solution, there’s an enormous amount of attention on it. There are product managers lined up, funding for building the software and implementing the hardware, logistic support, and all the other things that go with a new technology deployment. And that's awesome.
Justin Lake: But there’s a beginning and an end to the project, so they eventually consider the technology deployed. Then, the minute the initial project is completed, all those resources for supporting the users go to the next project or their other job, and they decommission that team.
Justin Lake: Most of the client applications we're looking at have somewhere between 20, 30, or 40% turnover; sometimes even more. If you're the trainer workforce with 1,000 users during the initial deployment on how to use a piece of technology, presumably by the end of the year 200, 300, 400, or more of those users have never seen the initial training or met the trainers that deployed that solution. And that’s a problem.
Justin Lake: Often, they’re given on-the-job training by a supervisor or someone at that site who might be proficient at training. They may be the local subject matter expert and the savviest of the people on site for using the technology, but their background typically isn't training. They rarely use training materials that are well-seated to the purpose, so new hires like your friend must figure it out themselves.
Justin Lake: If we look back five or ten years, some applications may have been convenience – an alternative system for parts of their job. Now, it's a mission-critical system. They can't do their job without it.
Justin Lake: We need to give them tools to learn on-demand, on-device, in the environments they’ll be working in, and make the process easier for them.
Justin Lake: It’s a shift in thinking. The challenge is that when large companies implement new technology solutions, there’s often a divide between the initial project deployment and the business-as-usual phase, and the handoff rarely includes much consideration for end-user training and making sure they’re adopting and engaging with the technology.
Justin Lake: That's a shame, because the company has invested hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars building these solutions and they're probably not getting the return they should on those investments.
Justin Lake: I have empathy for the employees because they didn’t want to be a computer scientist. They wanted to drive a truck like your friend, or work with their hands, or whatever, and we're leaving them to fend for themselves.
Justin Lake: We need to streamline that. We can’t give them Nest or Apple experiences because the systems are more complex with more variables, but we must ease the transition and give them tools to be better equipped.
Carl Lewis: It seems to happen in my industry, too. The ‘line item’ for training, and especially ongoing training, is almost non-existent – it’s a line item in an implementation process that gets trimmed to having little real value in its deliverables.
Carl Lewis: Why do you think people believe that that’s one of the least important parts of a project when ultimately, it’s going to get us the real value?
Justin Lake: A new team member asked me the same question recently, and we had a long conversation about the realities of large enterprise projects. I described it how you just did: when the project is conceived, there’s allocation for the deployment and training, but throughout the project, there are inevitably circumstances that draw from that budget.
Justin Lake: It's an easy line item to grab from when unexpected circumstances arise. Maybe it was originally $1 million, and they'll add $100k to the application, or $100k to pay for a cloud service, and suddenly it’s the end of the project and there's not enough money left to deploy it well.
Justin Lake: When we talk about it in hindsight, it obviously doesn't make sense, but I can understand the challenges the project teams face. They're making tough decisions. A lot of times it's like, “Hey, that's at the end of the project. Let's deal with today and deal with that later.” Unfortunately, when that time comes, there aren’t many options.
Justin Lake: Some companies are making the upfront investment with instructor-led training. Other companies are ignoring the upfront costs, but they're ultimately paying for it with increased support because, as I've mentioned, these are mission-critical applications and the work can't be done without them. The other thing is the lack of appropriate engagement.
Justin Lake: And when we ask questions about the level of engagement with those mobile users, we're finding more gaps in the real world. That’s the most concerning part for business and IT leaders implementing technology solutions.
Justin Lake: That implemented solution was expected to accomplish A, B, and C, and if we look back at the implementation in a year or so and ask if we’re getting what we expected to get from this technology, it’s often no. And not because the technology is buggy or doesn’t work, but because the employees in the field are saying, “Nobody taught me how to do that.”
Justin Lake: We use only 5% or 10% of what's possible in Excel, and we can get away with that in our job. If we need to learn a new feature, we watch a video.
Justin Lake: But this workforce has to use almost 100% of the technology to do their jobs and maximize the investment in that software. Unfortunately, they’re doing what we often do, which is the minimum they have to to get through the application. They check in at the beginning of the day, do their job, and check out at the end of the day, but when we ask the right questions, we find that they're not using it to the fullest.
Justin Lake: That's a shame for both the business leaders who made those investments and the users. I feel frustrated for them – they’ve been put in a situation where it's harder than it should be.
Carl Lewis: They end up in a sink-or-swim game, and it's tough. They only use 10%, just enough to get by, but they can't perform because they don't know the rest. If they survive the sink-or-swim experience, at the end of a year they might be at 50-60% of where they need to be, so it's devastating.
Carl Lewis: This problem doesn’t just exist on the enterprise side with large companies – in even the smallest of companies, the impact is just as great from the bottom-line perspective. It has the same negative outcomes.
Justin Lake: Definitely. We described the scenario on one side, which is not spending any money up front and paying the price eventually. On the other side, customers may recognize the value of putting instructors out there and making upfront investments and training. But neither of those solve the challenge for your newly hired friend – the training team was disbanded long before he was hired.
Justin Lake: The real sweet spot is in delivering the training curriculum in a blended fashion – using the technology to train them and not necessarily replacing trainers but augmenting them by providing tools that will work for the initial deployment and persist for the entire life cycle of the solution. That way, when new hires are brought on, they have access to the same tools and knowledge from the original deployment.
Carl Lewis: A good onboarding experience is worth a lot to both sides of that equation.
Justin Lake: Exactly.
Carl Lewis: You also mentioned that not everyone is a trainer. This is one of the biggest problems I've seen – the company deploying the solution takes their most technical person and says, “Ok, John will train everyone on this technology,” but John doesn’t have any of the finesse or skills to be a trainer. And even if they had training, it's not done proficiently and not communicated well. There's no curriculum or materials. It's just off the cuff.
Justin Lake: I have strong opinions in line with that from first-hand observations. We're experiencing some of these things right now with some clients, where there's a heavy dependency on the business subject matter experts who admittedly know the processes, the technology, and all those nuances necessary for success. Those folks are incredibly important to the process, without question.
Justin Lake: But they’re not instructional design experts. They load up entirely too much information – the workers don’t need to learn 10 years' worth of nuance all at once, they need to get through a day at a time as they onboard.
Justin Lake: We have instructional designers now to bridge that gap. They think not just about every step, but also about what’s the most effective way to deliver this to someone who's never seen this technology before.
Justin Lake: That's a big trap for the subject matter experts – they’re experts in the subject matter, so they have a lot of depth. They understand all the terminology, so for them it makes sense to get as many steps and as much detail into every phase you can. It feels more efficient.
Justin Lake: But when you put yourself in the shoes of the student and have empathy for how they perceive it, it's a different circumstance.
Justin Lake: We also haven't talked about consistency. Even when we have effective folks delivering training at some locations, many of our clients have more than one location and don't use the same subject matter expert for every location. One person is in Dallas and the other is in Chicago, and they may deliver content very differently.
Justin Lake: When we're deploying technology, we want to standardize processes throughout the business regardless of geography. But if the training isn't standardized across the enterprise, we're not harnessing what we expected to from that technology investment.
Justin Lake: So, to have consistency and empathy for a user who's going to walk in and have no idea what they're about to face, we need to onboard them appropriately.
Carl Lewis: One of my own personal pet peeves is acronyms. When everything comes down to a three-letter acronym, it makes it so much more difficult to understand what we're talking about.
Justin Lake: No question. And that's where the efficiency piece comes from. When we have expertise and we’re communicating with other folks with similar expertise, it's often efficient to use acronyms because we all know what we're talking about. As the subject matter expert, it’s then easy to slip into that trap and use those same communication methods to share new information with others.
Justin Lake: But one quality we look for when interviewing folks is empathy – empathy and the ability to put ourselves into the shoes of the workers we serve.
Justin Lake: The end users of our technology solutions are not my customer. They're not the ones who select our company to do what we do. That's typically done by the leadership in the company. But the users are the ones we serve, and if we don't put ourselves in their shoes and figure out how we can help them, they can't succeed, our clients can't succeed, and ultimately, we can't succeed.
Justin Lake: I love the example of the acronyms, because that’s a huge trap, like other terminology that doesn't make sense to anyone onboarding. Imagine if we trained everybody in the organization and stripped out some of that – I bet some of the tenured people have been using acronyms and don’t know what they mean. Let's think about that when we're delivering training content and try to strip that stuff out and get everybody on the same page.
Carl Lewis: Let me shift to personal evaluation. You've been in this business about 20 years, so you’ve seen a lot of changes. One change I'm always curious about is how people communicate daily. How does your personal communication happen? Is it mostly still email or have social media, texting, etc. entered the picture as normal ways to conduct business communication?
Justin Lake: We spent a fair amount of time thinking about this. Until recently, Venado was primarily a remote company, where we had people working in various states in the United States and in various countries, and we used every tool we could to maintain collaboration and connectedness between all the remote employees. We still do that.
Justin Lake: One application we use more than anything is Slack. It’s a fantastic tool to use internally. We introduce our clients to Slack and establish a Slack channel with every new client, and many started using it internally as well.
Justin Lake: We create that environment and allow our customers to join. We ask our development team and our intel team members to use that channel as the primary interaction for text, files, screenshots, and all the other things we do to collaborate.
Justin Lake: I had to beg the team to do more video conferencing, and we do that in Slack today. It was an interesting transition. I’m a people person. I like to see people's facial expressions and read their body language, and I was trying to leverage technology to bridge the physical gap we have between locations.
Justin Lake: It was very uncomfortable for most of us, myself included, initially. It feels a little silly sometimes to sit in front of your computer with the camera on. But it’s been about 18 months now, and everybody just flips on their cameras and doesn’t think much about it. Nobody worries about their hair or what they’re wearing … or maybe we worry about it and make fun of somebody's outfit that day.
Justin Lake: But that level of connection has brought the team together regardless of where we are. So, Slack from a messaging standpoint, and Slack or another of our videoconferencing tools are the two primary methods of communication. Yes, we still get email. I get too many, really, but we try to get most of our transactional conversations on Slack.
Carl Lewis: My organization has gone through similar steps. We do a lot of video conferencing. I was a little self-conscious about it, as much as I'm with people a lot. But I solved that by putting in my own little studio, so at least I had the quality I wanted when I was in front of folks.
Carl Lewis: When you're working with third parties, is it challenging to collaborate in terms of this communication or can you bring them into the Slack environment as well?
Justin Lake: Yes, it's challenging, and yes, we bring them into the Slack environment. But there are two aspects to communicating with third parties. The first is style. It's not just about the tools – it's, “What are the expectations of the other party?”
Justin Lake: When we engage with a new client or new business partner, they have a communication culture. We have a communication culture, too, and don’t always match. When there's a relationship with both parties who are eager to work, you spend time discussing that. Are you a SharePoint company? A Skype company? Zoom? Slack? What do you use? Do you prefer to receive weekly reports in an email or posted in a Slack channel anybody can subscribe to?
Justin Lake: We have conversations like that when getting to know our customer. We bring it up even before a customer has selected us, and it’s one of the reasons customers choose us – because we’re proactive about communication. It's never perfect, but if we have these conversations up front, we'll prevent a lot of problems.
Justin Lake: The second is tools. If you're a Slack company, let's set a Slack channel. If you have Microsoft teams, we can jump onto your teams' channels. But we don't throw tools at it just for the sake of throwing tools. We probably lean toward trying to use fewer tools rather than more, but we're adaptable, and we just want to find the best tool for each project and customer engagement.
Justin Lake: The process of human communication will never be perfect, but we do everything we can to be proactive and bring those conversations to the forefront.
Carl Lewis: I've talked to customers and it's one of their constant frustrations: not enough communication. And like you said, some of our subject matter experts aren’t necessarily great communicators.
Carl Lewis: One customer said, "He's a great guy. You have a problem, he'll come in and solve it. It's like a magician, though – we don't know how he did it!" So there's no discussion about it, just ‘It's fixed now!” That’s not great.
Justin Lake: You reminded me of something we talked about internally this week, and that is that sometimes it’s important to have a paper trail. Obviously not a literal paper trail, but some way to track communication, so we talked about the best methods for that.
Justin Lake: Certain tools are better than others for transmitting certain types of data. We had a situation where some information was being shared through a Word document with track changes on, but the customer had sent the wrong changes highlighted, so the information we got wasn’t accurate or current.
Justin Lake: It happens. It wasn't catastrophic. But it was a good example of, “Is a hacked-up Word document, where different reviewers' comments could be turned on and off, really the best way for us to transmit that information?” And it probably wasn't.
Justin Lake: It's something we think about consciously. We have to pay attention to it. We can't just dismiss it and say, “Okay, next time we'll just try to check the check box on the reviewers.” We need to examine those circumstances and determine how to do it better. For us, as a software company, we immediately added a new item to our future Word doc to say we need to look at how we're sharing this information with our customer so we can include this in our platform in a future edition.
Carl Lewis: As you work with your customers, whether it's around communication, reporting, invoicing, payments, and transactions, has the company tried to automate some procedures?
Justin Lake: We do. We use a platform that's built inside salesforce.com – an add-on called Krow. It's the perfect solution for a company our size doing the type of work we do. It allows us to build out an entire engagement for a client project and track everything we're doing from there. It immediately goes into invoicing and everything else for us.
Justin Lake: It’s a work in progress. We’re always looking for ways to streamline those transactional activities, but a lot of what we do is unique from client to client, so there's some challenge between streamlining processes so they can be automated to keeping ourselves nimble so we can serve our clients how they want to be served.
Justin Lake: It's a good problem to have in that we're trying to be flexible and accommodating. We recognize that every client is a company bigger than us, so it's easier for us to be flexible and accommodate their processes than for them to change to meet ours. But our customers need us to have a set of standard operating procedures around the services we're performing, so we try to marry those two things to make sense for both parties.
Carl Lewis: Yeah. It's difficult to put every customer in the same box, isn't it?
Justin Lake: It is.
Carl Lewis: My assumption is that since you're doing those things in an automated fashion, you can also track and measure and things of that nature. Are you doing anything unique there?
Justin Lake: I don't know how unique it is, but our development team implemented Microsoft DevOps for tracking all our development work. That improves the logging from our developers into our clients' environments so we can track everything from bugs to future requests inside a single environment everyone has access to.
Justin Lake: It’s streamlined a lot of the interaction we've had with clients. We were very honored to have one client – a much, much larger global company – ask to have our team show them how we were handling those internal processes because they were so impressed with our level of organization in communicating with them.
Justin Lake: That was a huge compliment to our team, about how they took the time to set up those processes so a multi-million-dollar global company asked for our little, little company to give them some perspective about creating best practices. It was a proud moment for us. We're eager to help them, and hopefully we can document some of those processes so they can use them in future engagements with us. And maybe they can share them with other companies they're working, too.
Carl Lewis: A feel-good moment for sure. Justin, I greatly appreciate you joining me on the Connected Enterprise podcast, and I'm positive other people will find our conversation about training illuminating.
Carl Lewis: I try to keep these podcasts to 20 minutes, because that's the average commute and that's where people listen the most, but I thought of something the other day, since I knew we would talk about training.
Carl Lewis: Mohammad Ali said, "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'" That has a big impact on where people can go.
Justin Lake: I haven’t heard that quote before, but I'd be surprised if it doesn't make it into our digital marketing campaigns. That was awesome, Carl, and a great way to wrap up.
Carl Lewis: Thank you very much. And everyone else, stay connected.