The company mission is essential to bonding the people together. One perspective on the mission is to put the customer first. When you have a focus on customer success, you can understand them better. Today’s guest is Guru Hariharan, CEO of CommerceIQ. His company was ranked #4158 on the 2019 Inc 5000 list. We look at the common misunderstanding of customer first. Guru shares why putting the customer first is so important.
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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
Customer focus does not mean loving the customer, right? Being customer-focused is truly and for us, it’s very clear that it is understanding the customer thoroughly deeply what they are where they are today where they need to go tomorrow or the day after. And what is the path that they need to take on and, and what is the what are the tools and techniques and people in the organization, everything that you could go multiple levels in and understand that it’s really the brain, not the heart, at least when it comes to CommerceIQ, and then how we define come?
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs of the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their group. Are you ready to grow?
Gene Hammett [0:54]
Understanding your customers is critical to your company’s success period. We have to understand customers in a way that allows us to get results that our peers aren’t getting the competition. And as leaders, we have to make sure we’re putting those customers first or their success. First. I have a very special guest today. He’s the CEO of CommerceIQ. They are a platform that helps automated sellers that work with brands like Kellogg’s to really streamline the e-commerce functions and really support them through all the complexities and how it’s grown over the years. But this company has grown really fast because they understand their mission is to put the customer first now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me, I’ve always thought that customers have to be put first by the company. Now I will tell you, my research tells me that leaders should be putting employees first if you really want to scale. You want to make sure leaders are putting those people developing them and really positioning them to put the customers first. That’s the key. I could go over my data around this, but I don’t want to belabor it. But I do want you to focus on this customer first. One of the things I like about this conversation with Guru is he is really smart when it comes to failure, understanding the failure, the way we look at that toward the end of the interview, I think you’ll really appreciate you’ll be able to take and apply to your own leadership and culture. It’s something that I think you should really pay attention to. Now, here’s the interview with Guru.
Gene Hammett [2:26]
Guru, How are you?
Guru Hariharan [2:29]
Doing really well, Gene, thanks.
Gene Hammett [2:31]
Well, excited to have you on the podcast. We are here to talk about growth and culture. Before we kick-off, I would love for you to share with us about CommerceIQ.
Guru Hariharan [2:41]
That’s a pleasure to be on your show. Thanks for having me. Yeah, so CommerceIQ is a company based out of Seattle Palo Alto, New York, and Bangalore, India. We are the leader in the e-commerce revenue automation category. Providing machine learning and automation to enable consumer brands like Kellogg’s, and Johnson and Johnson to win e-commerce on a world that is really driven by algorithms and machines. That’s what we are.
Gene Hammett [3:15]
Well, I really can appreciate that. You probably don’t know this, but I spent the first three years of my kind of startup career. I spent 10 years in a kind of corporate America, but I worked for the e-commerce company. And so we were building software solutions that integrated back into SAP and JD Edwards and working with a lot of manufacturing companies putting the first products online. This was 1999 to give you that perspective.
Guru Hariharan [3:41]
Gene Hammett [3:43]
I have a lot of respect for what’s going on right now within the e-commerce. You’ve built a team of roughly about 80 people. You’ve grown fast you made the Inc list. I know we talked about some of the key aspects to that and you thought that One thing was having a customer focus. And you specifically tied it into the mission. How does that work for you?
Guru Hariharan [4:08]
Yeah, I think. But for the definition, I oftentimes I’ve been but my, my team members and colleagues also ask about customer focus, how do you define it? In fact, we’ve defined our core values and one of the things that we talk about, in fact, the first thing we talk about is, is being our thing, the customer first approach. And to me, I think, I think the definition of that is very important. And then it ties back into the overall company operations. Being customer-focused does not mean loving the customer, right? Being customer-focused, is truly and for us, it’s very clear that it is understanding the customer thoroughly deeply, what they are, where they are today and where they need to go tomorrow or day after, and what is the past that they need to take? And what is the what are the tools and techniques and people in organizations, everything that you could go multiple levels in and understand that it’s really the brain, not the heart, at least when it comes to CommerceIQ, and then how we define customer focus to us that is ironically close to our heart that it is very critical for us to, for us to have that customer focus in the definition that I just laid out.
Guru Hariharan [5:31]
And in fact, that ends up becoming the mission for the company that we as I look at our, at our team and our colleagues, colleagues as a set of people sort of missionaries in a tribe, the sort of whether you talk to me or folks on for engineers on our team to salespeople on my team, chances are you’ll sort of hearing and hear the language and the words that are being used, and the ethos would be very, very similar. And we actually behave and act and hire and, and promote within and all that like a tribe. And for that, I think, going starting the customer-first approach is helps, it creates a very clear Northstar and a mission that we go after, we want to see our customers very successful. And, that’s what that’s how we end up defining ourselves as a team. And that is truly, really worked very well for us. Whether it be peacetime or whether it be wartime, like what we are living in today. It’s just held us together as a team, and just makes us do what is the right thing in having that Northstar?
Gene Hammett [6:43]
Well, we all know the importance of having a North Star as a strong mission statement that binds people together. You talked about the core values, a lot of companies, you know, they create the core values once and I’ve done so many episodes about how important they are But apparently, you believe it is very important to how we communicate and work together and how we actually serve and really grow the company. is where did Where did you get that from?
Guru Hariharan [7:13]
Oh, so I’m better to get that from the dissolve from I spent a spent early days my career at Amazon. And that’s really where that came from. In fact, it’s very interesting the way that that Amazon thinks about the core values also happens to be very similar to how we think about it is not really sort of values that you just paste on, on a whiteboard or whatever or for your on your walls. But really think about it as leadership principles, what are the principles that we as leaders want are, and what we want to cultivate in the company. And so and from that perspective, and you sort of think put it in those terms, it starts to become at least that commerce IQ.
Guru Hariharan [7:59]
It’s a journey we have when we are interviewing for people, along with competencies. Like if you say let’s say you’re being interviewed as an engineer, we obviously look for core competencies with from data structures to programming languages and problem solving and things of that kind. But we also in parallel look for the values and the principles that we stand for. And is this person true to those values? And there have been numerous times where we’ve declined candidates because they did not stand true to that value of say, truly understanding, an ability to dive deep, right, maybe there are sales and marketing folks, for instance, sometimes when they come in, they’ve demonstrated fantastic capabilities and other other companies but they’re not able to dive deep. We don’t work with us.
Guru Hariharan [8:51]
So we end up from, you know, discarding some of that pedigree elements and not hiring that person. regardless of whatever different department that is where it really starts from there, from a hiring standpoint, to then the next stage of the life cycle where we have every quarterly check ins and goals to have yearly performance reviews. And these are done the feedback is seeked, from our peers and colleagues in the company, from with respect to from the lens of the values that we stand for. And, and same performance that is given back as from a manager to to the team member is through that lens of leadership principles or values. And same thing that sort of takes on further in terms of whether it’s promotion, or whether it’s just parting ways. It’s the full life cycle ends up revolving around that core piece of our values. And so that it’s sort of a we have woven this entire set of values that we stand for into the into the into the fabric of what we Build the company, from all the way from hiring to the entire lifecycle of, of people at the company. I don’t know what you like, have you seen other models of potentially this having work, always a student of this thing? I,
Gene Hammett [10:16]
I wouldn’t say other models. But I think the way people operationalize those values, which make them a part of the day to day are different. And so, I would love to ask you like, what do you feel that you do differently? That makes you really live by the values? Is there a ritual that you guys do? Or is there something else that you can think of that has made an impact?
Guru Hariharan [10:37]
Yeah, so I think, as I mentioned, I think it’s a, you know, these are the, the things that we that we do the the rituals or the habits that we end up forming are around core things that we do as opposed to something that’s like an afterthought that comes as an as an agenda into your daily job. Right after this, after the our call, I’m going to be getting into a debrief about a candidate. And we are going to be talking about the core values does this candidate, how does this candidate show up in those on those dimensions of core values, to also performance reviews and everything else. So I think it’s the sort of the day to day working, that ends up becoming a part of it. That’s what that that’s how we have integrated. We do have some awards and things like that. But I would say that’s not what it what defines or helps us follow those core values. But it’s really the day to day working, and things that we as people and employees really care about in terms of how do we succeed at this company, how do we get promoted at this company and how do we sort of get drive more responsibility set and all that it all starts starts from from from those from those core values.
Hold on for a second. Guru just mentioned the importance of core values. Now want to put a spotlight on it, but core values are foundational elements that are often overlooked and how important they are. But what I’ve seen is fast growth companies not only have a clear understanding of what their core values are, every employee can recite them as necessary. But what’s really clear about the way they see it is they want to make sure they live it day in and day out. How do they put rituals inside their meetings and inside their gatherings and inside their one on one conversations that allow them to do that? Well, that’s the key you had to keep tuning in here to find out some of the details behind that. I also have some special trainings that go on so if there’s something you want more information on make sure you reach out to me [email protected] And now back to the interview with Guru.
Gene Hammett [12:44]
And one of those core values being the need for understanding the customer. I so am in alignment with that, but it is you know, I don’t want to get confused here. We talked offline guru about my research on you know, fast growth coming Companies, leaders typically put employees first. But I think we’re both in alignment that the company has to put the customer first or really understand them to serve them to the letter to the greatest degree possible. When you think about this, and you notice, maybe someone’s gotten, you know, maybe they’re putting themselves above the customer, because this happens. For whatever reason, how do you how do you tune into that? And how do you handle it?
Guru Hariharan [13:29]
Yeah, I think it’s always the the classic debate, I would say, and you hit the you hit the right. The core question in terraform, how do you feel push comes to shove? How do you sort of prioritize? To me I think at the end of the day, I think, you know, as a company, the reality is, the reality is both are important. However, the way that we have created the company that we do end up putting the customer first and that actually ends up becoming the the the The bond between all of us as, as as I would say, the missionary tribe, tribe members, that CommerceIQ is that really putting the customer first helps us create a language and create a sort of an intent around things that we’re doing. And it is so important, right? Like, it’s not just another job, especially when you’re working at a startup company, the odds are stacked up against you. You’re, you’re there are more things at risk than than not. There are more companies who are sort of better position then funded and start and higher investment when you’re going up against the big leagues. And how do you really sort of stay true to or create that competitive advantage? And towards that’s been really putting the customer first and, and and really asking the question, what would be the right thing to do for the customer at this point. So I’ll give an example.
Guru Hariharan [14:59]
For instance, here We were obviously we went through this pretty intense period of COVID-19. And we are sort of at the at, we’re in the middle of it, but when it all started, we so we, as a business serve, serve consumer brands. These are companies as I mentioned, Kellogg’s and Johnson and Johnson and beer and, and folks like that who utilize a product to grow on e commerce. What ended up happening in e commerce was there was a massive demand shock that was created. This was because of two reasons. One, there was a pandemic stock up and second because of lockdowns that people weren’t able to go to stores.
Guru Hariharan [15:39]
So guess what happened? ecommerce traffic spiked up. There were categories like pet food, and others, which started to be 800 900% growth, to like paper towels and toilet papers. Obviously in sanitizers and things like that. Were on an extreme demand shock and And we started to see our customers start there just brands start to have issues in terms of our supply chain in terms of sales and marketing to be able to sort of really adhere to this, or be be able to be effective in this in this period where it’s literally a one order of magnitude higher than what they have been set up for.
Guru Hariharan [16:23]
That’s for people a process of technology standpoint. So what we did was we said, Okay, guys, we’ve got to, this is a super critical thing for our customers. We ended up putting a pause to everything in the company. And we said, we are going to focus the entire attention of the full company behind what it takes what it takes to essentially drive success for our customers. And we suspended everything, which was non mission critical, which is most of it outside 90% of company’s operations, and we came, came together and launched this thing called growth navigator, that this was a new offering that we came up with commerce IQ growth now And what it was, and we gave it away for free. We said to we went to every single customer of ours. And we said, Look, we don’t care what you bought from us, what is the term? What’s the where in the lifecycle? You are, You have been tied up to us for three years, and there’s no risk of attrition. But guess what, doesn’t matter.
Guru Hariharan [17:17]
We are going to offer the growth navigator as free to you. And it includes services which are exactly pinpointed on how to survive and succeed in the demand shot and how to set yourself up for the long term growth how to how do you get closer to your your shoppers, and really, for you to be successful as a brand at this at this point in time. And that’s what we did with more put the the remainder offering free and every single one of our customers Guess what?
Guru Hariharan [17:53]
Completely appreciate that jumped in wholeheartedly and sort of taking those services and that has been deployed. Because of that success, what we also did now, we’ve been, and given that given the learnings and how our customers are using it, using it, we’ve also gone out of the industry and we said we we’ve earmarked about a million dollars worth services for offering it again for free for essential products, brands, which are selling essential products in the in the market. And that is our way of giving back. And that’s also created a lot of really positive buzz and aura for the company in the market, which has been a velcome output. But that’s not what what we optimized for be optimized for sort of really helping our core customers and potential future customers to be able to be successful in this in this new market that we’re sort of getting into. So hopefully that gives you a flavor. Just as an example on how we are truer like how this all comes together the definition of customers. customer focus really starts to translate as tangible things, then you have to work with your money, work with your efforts and priority for your company that we have been able to do.
Gene Hammett [19:09]
I love that story. And I’m glad it’s working out for you. And giving back is a very important piece to this time right now. And we’ve all probably not going to go back and some of these ecommerce ways. I mean, we’ve been ordering from Amazon consumables like toilet paper and whatnot forever, and we had a stockpile, and we won’t go back. And a lot of people won’t go back to the old way. So this is going to be a boost for everyone grew. I want to take a little bit of a pivot here because I find that fast growth companies have a different relationship to failure and risk taking than most companies. How do you you know what is that tolerance for you as you work with employees that you really want them to, to take ownership of their work and really make decisions and move forward and not hold themselves back. What does that really ship with failure that you have?
Guru Hariharan [20:05]
Yeah, I think it’s so it’s a very it’s also as leaders, it’s very critical for us to define the tolerance levels and how do you sort of form because it’s a lot has to be has been said and will be said about like failures being important that is to succeed and a stepping stone and ability to learn. We have a very, very clear definition on what failures we want to see and what failures we do not want to see. I would not say it’s not a blanket statement saying hey, all failures are welcome. It is not. But at the same time, not the other way around as well.
Guru Hariharan [20:39]
So we sort of tend to think about it as a reversible, reversible and irreversible situation, which is, if there is a reversible situation, where Look, if I’m going to take a take a stab at something which where the cost of failure is not that high. I can sort of reverse that. The mistake that I did, and, and and go the other way, then sure that is a very welcome failure. It’s better like we’re sitting on a, on a on a fork of the road, you got to go left or right. And guess what if you go towards the right and you’re able to foresee a little bit and come back and go to left, if that ends up being wrong direction, we incentivize and we want our colleagues to take those those decisions, and not to do analysis paralysis sitting at the fork of the road, saying, should I go left, right or left? let’s actually go to the right, see if that’s if that’s the right path or not, and come back because it was a reversible decision.
Guru Hariharan [21:39]
However, let’s take the same fork and you say, if you go to the right, and the gates are going to close, you can never come back. Right and you cannot go left. And by the way, if you do that you’re putting the company and it’s a huge value deterioration to the company. then guess what? The my answer changes on that I do not want you to go right, I want you to, I want you to take a step back, do that analysis paralysis, right and actually get into that, again, have a deep thought process on that. And also, what I what we also encourage our colleagues to do is go back and, you know, get two or three people around you to understand and agree with your decision of going right or left.
Guru Hariharan [22:24]
That is you’re essentially putting them into a lock hands and locking your hands with them, and saying, okay, we’re all in this way, as the four of us are in this together, we’re going to go in to the right or left. And that way, what happens as a result when you’ve gone out and tried to convince your colleagues that they need to be in this with us, it sort of makes you slow down a little bit, and not to jump into conclusion, and make a half as odd or quick decision saying let me go into the ride and see if that works. And so, really thinking about decisions as reversible or irreversible. Putting the cost of making the wrong decision really helps you define how fast you want to make that decision or how thorough you want to be in taking a step back and analyzing it.
Hold on one more second. Guru just talked about the need for failure inside an organization. In fact, he said failure is important. He went through a few different things that you should be paying attention to. But here’s the words I use it with my clients. We want to give our employees guardrails, we want to let them know what’s okay and what’s not. Okay. We want to encourage them to stay within the guardrails that protect them so that they can actually make decisions on their own. Because if you train your employees to get review every time from you or maybe even someone else, then you’re actually training them to not trust themselves, not have their own confidence, not have the courage to really stick their necks out. They need to be able to see the difference on when they should move forward by themselves and when they should ask for input. You want to make sure your employees know really do trust themselves and they grow that over time to better serve you and the organization and the overall mission of the company. Now back to the interview.
Gene Hammett [24:08]
I love the way you’ve approached this because I think that we, we have to put guard rails up there and what that’s what you’ve done right think through is this reversible or not? And then I love the the the detail that you add in there is like, could you slow down enough to gain other people to agree with you? And are they willing to you know, take ownership of that, you know, making sure that you know, you’re not alone. I love customer first I’m not I’m certainly not opposed to that at all. I know that it’s a little bit in the perspective you take companies putting customer first will win because customers that and I love the the part that you said guru about it’s not about the customer always being right. Because let’s be honest, they’re not always right.
Guru Hariharan [24:55]
Gene Hammett [24:55]
You know what they want doesn’t lead to the success because you have money. a different perspective and so much data in front of you and, and what has worked. And you have to be careful and challenge some of those things. So it’s about understanding them. Girl, thank you for being here and sharing your journey here with CommerceIQ on the podcast.
Guru Hariharan [25:16]
Absolutely. Thanks, Gene for the pleasure to be with you.
Gene Hammett [25:19]
Fantastic interview love having conversations. This is not contrary to what I believe I do believe that customer first is primary to the company. And I do believe that leaders must put employees first. And I love one of the aspects around this that he highlighted, which was the customer is not always right. In fact, many times the customer doesn’t understand how to interpret the data, how to see the different perspectives, things change very quickly, and customers are lost in some insight some of those changes.
Gene Hammett [25:50]
So our job as service providers is to have our fingers on the pulse and to be able to guide them as needed, and have our employees have the confidence and courage to be able to do That, that takes real leadership. Now, one of the things I want to remind you of if you are listening to this right now that you probably have not had a conversation with me, it is completely free for you.
Gene Hammett [26:11]
To get to know me, I love to get to know you. Maybe your story could be something I could highlight here on the show. Make sure you reach out to me. Let me know that you’re listening in the podcast, let me know that I made this invitation. That’s a little bit of a signal that I will pay attention to that email because I get pitched a lot. If you have something interesting about being on the show, make sure you reach out. As always leave encouraged. We’ll see you next time.
Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
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