Not all of the feedback customers were giving Greenphire was pleasant, but the insights proved valuable in improving the automated payments provider’s financial performance, Susan Vestri, the company’s CFO, said last week in a CFO Thought Leader podcast.
"There was some pretty harsh criticism in the room … but it was good for us to hear," said Vestri, who came to Philadelphia-based Greenphire in 2015 after holding CFO roles in a number of tech companies, including cloud integration company Boomi, now a part of Dell.
The company launched in 2007 as a payment specialist for biopharmas and other companies conducting research in the life sciences. As a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company, customer satisfaction is one of its most important performance indicators, Vestri said, but traditional surveys weren’t consistently providing the kind of insight she and the other company leaders needed to tweak their operations.
"It's always challenging who actually responds [to these surveys], how you disseminate that information and make any use of it," she said.
The forums addressed that weakness, and now the company is launching a team dedicated to user satisfaction. At the top of its agenda will be changing the way it trains its customers.
"We rely on our partners to do a lot of the training on how to use our software and we’re finding that might not be the most successful way," she said. "A big driver of revenue is getting clients worldwide to use the software as it was intended, so we’re spending a lot of energy on understanding our clients and what it's going to take to make them happy and advocates of using our products."
In 2015, Greenphire wasn’t on Vestri's radar. She had just helped manage the integration of mobile software company Artisan Mobile, where she was CFO, with TUNE, a marketing platform provider, but a recruiter reached out to her with an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Not only was she attracted to Greenphire’s mission and people, but it was at a relatively mature stage in its growth trajectory.
"They were, thankfully, a break-even company," she said. "We weren’t going to have to run the company on investor money, which was certainly attractive. It can be such a distraction if you’re always in the process of raising money."
She did, however, have to build the finance organization largely from scratch. "I had one finance person," she said. "We had borrowed a person from operations. There were two temps and an interim CFO. If anyone has ever worked for a company owned by private equity, you’ll understand the rigor and reporting requirements are quite daunting. So, the first thing I did was hire a seasoned FP&A manager."
Vestri said the FP&A person she brought on board has become crucial to the success of the company’s finance operation.
"I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do my job if she wasn’t here with me," she said. "We had to build a team, put some structure in. It was tough at first because the previous owners were the founders, even though the company had been around for years. It’s hard to understand what it looks like when you sell the company, what the expectations and requirements are going to be [under private equity owners], so a lot of mentoring, bringing people under the new way of doing things. Education, building the team, adding rigor and reporting, starting to measure KPIs."
In addition to customer satisfaction, among the metrics she tracks are bookings, revenue, and a number of implementation metrics, including customer support escalations.
She also looks internally at employee turnover ratios and other measures of staff satisfaction. "One of the most important things we can do is keep our staff," she said. "The labor market is tight in Philadelphia, especially for technology roles."
To help improve efficiency of the finance operation, she has asked her teams to pilot robotic process automation (RPA) tools this year. "We have a lot of things we do that are repetitive and manual that I think we can drive not only efficiency but use our talent for higher level projects," she said. "My FP&A manager is leading that project."
She’s also started consolidating functions. "As the company grows, somebody that has time takes on something, but they can’t do that full time," she said. "Somebody else comes in part time, then you have people over here and over here working on things. So, consolidating things and having subject matter experts and backup subject matter experts" is a priority.
Lesson from bad investors
Vestri credits a bad experience she had early in her career, when the dot-com boom was in full swing, to helping her appreciate the importance of keeping revenue and costs aligned, even when you’re a new company and have to spend big to grow.
In the early 2000s, she said, “we had sold a company very successfully and the investors from that deal took a bunch of senior leaders to start another company, a dot.com, thinking, 'If you build it, they will come.' They poured money into this company, spending like drunken sailors. It didn’t ever feel right at the time.”
The company got way ahead of its revenues and ran into trouble. "Not all investors are good investors," she said. "They may be investing money but it doesn't necessarily mean they know what’s best for your business, so listening to your inner voice and trusting your gut instinct really came from an experience that at the time was not fun at all. These learnings have been valuable over the years."