In the Remote Work Era, Project Delivery Doesn't Stop. A Q&A with John O'Connor, SVP Services

April 7, 2020 Team Zilliant

Business travel and face-to-face meetings are on indefinite hiatus in the era of lockdowns and social distancing. On the surface, this is a problem for vendors and customers that are implementing transformative, mission-critical software. Some large projects may in fact be forced to go on hold, especially if they revolve around on-premise software.

Zilliant customers are in a better position due to our product portfolio of 100 percent SaaS solutions and our long history of majority-remote implementations. We currently have multiple new projects in flight, as well as ongoing expansions of current customer implementations. Yet even with the advantage of SaaS, there is a not insignificant adjustment for us and our clients as we transition delivery from mostly remote to fully remote. To help our ecosystem better understand this new process, we sat down for a Q&A with John O’Connor, SVP Services.

Thanks for sitting down with the Zilliant blog team, John. I assume you are very busy right now.

Indeed. After record sales last year, we have many new projects in flight, including some upcoming go-live dates, and we’re also helping existing customers expand their Zilliant investment. But everything is running on schedule even as we’ve had to adapt to this pandemic like everyone else.

Obviously, this is a time of intense change for many businesses. How prepared is Zilliant to face the new reality?

We are really good at implementing our own software and have built a whole methodology around it. For the past seven years all of our implementations have been SaaS, which allows us to install, configure, model, optimize and report from anywhere in the world. We have teams all over the U.S. and Europe, so it’s typical for us to do a lot of work remotely. In fact, historically, the vast majority of our implementation work – over 85 percent – has been done remotely. We have experience performing every single phase of a project remotely, so this is not a shocking change for how we implement.

Can you describe to us what a typical Zilliant project team looks like?

Sure. We usually staff a project with an engagement manager that is a combination of project manager, software expert and business consultant. These are people that have spent years helping businesses make selling and pricing decisions. We also staff a data architect to handle the automation of data transfer and to set up our APIs for real-time data access. A data scientist is assigned to handle the more complex analysis and the creation of sophisticated optimization models. When needed, we might also assign a expert to help build screen configuration and workflow in our applications. Finally, a practice director oversees it all and ensures that each implementation provides a high-quality result.

During the project we assign a customer success manager (CSM) who will help out with software adoption and change management, and then when the project is complete that CSM becomes the customer’s single point of contact for ongoing needs.

You’ve said it’s not a shocking change for Zilliant, but what are some of the ways these project resources are impacted by travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders?

Well, especially at the beginning of a project, we find it’s very important to get our people on site for face-to-face workshops. Obviously, this is not possible right now. But our team has been incredibly flexible and creative in its approach. That’s the biggest difference – these on-site workshops were used to drive requirements, get agreement on decisions and build relationships. I’d say the hardest part now is building those close relationships. That’s really important to me and it’s something we can’t do as well over virtual project communications.

Describe how the team’s workshop approach has changed under these circumstances.

Before the virus closed everything down, it was customary for us to have these intense workshops that were usually two or three days long. That part of the project is now being dramatically rethought.

When you’re in a room over a period of days with a large number of people, you receive clear feedback from customer subject matter experts. We quickly found out that virtual meetings reduce the amount of feedback we get and are less effective when the audience is large. We also recognized that online meetings are unsustainable after a few hours, as no one wants to be on an eight-hour web meeting.

We’ve identified and operationalized some new best practices. Now, we split these large workshops into multiple smaller, focused sessions, and we concentrate on breaking down each session into smaller, more manageable chunks – usually two to three hours. Then, instead of one large feedback session we have several focused meetings to limit group size and ensure feedback is targeted to specific constituents. We’ll redo the same kickoff several times if we have to, with different departments such as leadership, sales, pricing or IT. Another way to elicit feedback is to send out materials in advance with specific questions.

Our communication frequency has been ramped up as well. We set up frequent, short, one-on-one calls with project leads, who are now, more than ever, our eyes and ears in these implementations.

On the flip side, are there advantages or unexpected positives to more remote delivery?

Absolutely. The first one that comes to mind is resource availability. For example, in the past we would potentially not fly a Zilliant product manager out to an on-site workshop because of time constraints and cost. Now, we can leverage those resources when we need them. If we need someone to address a point issue – like a Zilliant security resource to explain our encryption – they can be there when we need them. The opposite is true as well. We have many customers with branch-based businesses, who would have to fly people in for on-site workshops. It’s now easy to pull geographically dispersed customer subject matter experts in to get feedback.

Remote delivery is also a time and cost saver. A little back of the napkin math shows us that if we did four or five on-site workshops and lost a half day of travel each way for two-to-three resources, it typically costs us 10 or more days of productivity. We are now able to use this time more effectively and reduce travel and living expenses, in turn reducing project costs.

Another upside is we can easily record online meetings so people who have conflicts can easily get caught up with project details and these recordings can serve as a reference for the decision-making process.

Finally, could you see Zilliant adopting more remote delivery as a standard after this crisis is resolved?

Well, it’s difficult to project much of anything right now, but I think we’re learning that some on-site travel can be curtailed when things are back to normal without any negative impact to project success. But stay tuned, more will certainly be revealed!

If you have more questions about Zilliant’s remote implementation capabilities, reach out to the team today.

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