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Sparkcentral Executive Interview

Joe Gagnon, CEO, Sparkcentral

Endurance Athlete Goes Beyond the Extra Mile to Take His Company across the Finish Line

Which do you think would be the greater challenge? To run six marathons over six days on six continents, personally arranging all the travel, and flying more than 37,000 miles in the process? Or to take the reins of companies from the founder and guiding force in their origin to spur new growth – on three separate occasions?

It’s a bit of a trick question. Joe Gagnon has taken on both these daunting propositions, the latter most recently at Sparkcentral, where he succeeded Belgian-born founder Davy Kestens as CEO of the messaging customer service provider in May of 2018. Gagnon, an endurance athlete, (we’ll get to his extraordinary accomplishment a bit further along) splits his time between his home in Boulder, CO, the company’s headquarters in San Francisco and a little time in New York. “At the end of the day, I go wherever the customers are,” he said.

“This is the third time that I’ve come in after a business’s founder,” he noted. “Either I’m really good at it or I’m a dope. There’s always a reason for the change. In this instance, Davy was the classic innovator with great ideas and a determined personality. He got his startup off the ground and sustained if for more than five years, but he recognized the need for a new leader with the experience of taking a company from its current size to the next level – from startup to scale-up.”

“One time, I took over a company from a Harvard professor who was a big thinker. Another time I took over from a serial entrepreneur. This time, I’m picking up the ball from a 20-something who essentially had a great idea and ran with it,” he said. “In each instance, you have to be mindful that the people who work in the company and the customers all believed in those people a lot. You need to think about operationalizing how the business is supposed to be run, because that is the piece where there has been difficulty; the forecasts may be off and the controls are not where you want them to be, the core processes and practices are not forefront for the most part. Sometimes, the culture is more emotional than stable. When you first arrive you quickly make some changes, and then you sit back for a while before you implement the things you believe in. Change is very much a function over time. Over a certain period, people start to think ‘hmm… there’s a reason why he (or she) is here.’ Because you’re doing things to help the business grow more systemically, not just episodically or with a lot of fanfare.”

“I’ve always fancied myself as a servant leader,” he continued. “You lead by supporting people and sometimes they are cynical about that in the beginning. Over time, customers, employees, and shareholders realize that the new CEO is actually there to protect their interests. Sadly, the change doesn’t always work because sometimes it takes place later than it should have but is always a worthwhile endeavor. At Sparkcentral, we have fabulous customers, software that is getting better every sprint and a market that is growing. My background fit very well with what Sparkcentral is doing, so I wasn’t afraid of taking on the challenge and the responsibility.”

When asked what he considered the most surprising change since he joined the company, Gagnon responded that it was the pivot from just a social customer care platform that had begun before he arrived, to a move to messaging of all types… private messaging on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, even channels older than the modern Internet, such as SMS… that pivot of how customers engage is still a work in process. “We see digital messaging as an alternative to calling in to the contact center,” he said. “What is surprising is that the interest in Social Care remains high. There is still a vibrant market and we still have over 50 Social Care customers.  The move to a broad scale messaging market is still early.  We’re early on the messaging market adoption curve and yet I believe the company thought we the market was further along in its maturity. But my experience tells me…as does all the research we’ve done since my arrival …that staying in the Social Care market is critical, it is great for the status quo and also as a pathway to a “richer” messaging market. We’ve really stabilized our customer base by helping them understand that we’re not moving away from social care. Market leaders like Zappos, which had been using us for social care, are now using us for SMS as well, supported by the same platform. Their growth path beyond social is exactly what we want to see happen with our customers; an integration of public and private messaging on the agent desktop to improve the customer experience. It might have seemed counterintuitive to go back in the direction we seemed to be moving away from, but we had 50 customers in that area who were using our platform and counting on us such as Netflix, Nordstrom, and jetBlue in addition to Zappos.”

Asked about what the tipping point would be to make digital messaging a dominant method of delivering customer service, Gagnon noted that having been in the enterprise software space for a long time, he realizes that you can’t fight gravity. “When budgets and plans are in place, it’s not always possible to work around them. Eighty-five percent of technology spend is on legacy, so there’s very little room for new ideas. The big shift will happen though as there is a growing sense of a plethora of benefits that will come with the move to digital.  Contact center operations teams have gotten to the maximum level of return on such metrics as average handle time and first-call resolution. And yet we are still nibbling around the edges with innovation.  There will be some real examples of companies we’re working with that show that digital messaging does cost less while increasing customer satisfaction levels. When CRM first came out, many people said, ‘why do I need that, I have Excel, or I have a database.’ As time went on, companies like Salesforce demonstrated the value of CRM.” He sees many parallels in messaging which does not require a major rip and replace operation but coexistence with existing systems. “Our solution can integrate with CRM, integrate with Workforce Management, and with virtual agents, aka chatbots, in a new and innovative way.  We’re hearing about some companies doing about 5 to 10% of their service as digital.  Getting to 50% is probably three to five years away.”

Looking at himself through the eyes of the young staff at Sparkcentral, brings to bear a different kind of personality that he thinks they appreciate. His quiet temperament balances with his high level of intensity which he attributes to his athletic background. “I push myself really hard, but there’s no yelling or screaming, no big drama. It’s just about grinding to a win and fostering a long-term formula for success.”

Gagnon is one of the growing number of executives who not only run companies but run endurance races. He is the author of a book entitled “Living the High-Performance Life: An Ordinary Joe’s Guide to the Extraordinary.” It documents how after achieving a level of success at 40, he redefined himself and realized that the more of a complete person he became, the more successful he was as a leader. “As an endurance athlete, I realized that temperament matters as well,” he said. “And we naturally bring a high level of energy to all that we do.  Mindset becomes the edge, the difference maker and whether in athletics or life we realize that pain is temporary, but quitting is forever and so we press on in spite of whatever the circumstances are. Having that confidence when you are, say, four-hour from bankruptcy makes you think about say, mile 35 of an ultra-marathon. All I have to do is hang in there and I will survive and then thrive. Yet we need to be mindful of how we are feeling, whether we admit it or not there is an impact of us and we have to find a healthy way to deal with the stress.  For me, running allows me to meditate and be active; I can mindfully process things and think through the issues – by the time the run is over much of what needed to be considered is taken care of.  Running helps balance chemicals in the body, produces dopamine and makes us more relaxed. It gives you an outlet to ease the great and wonderful burden of being a CEO, which can wear you down. I ran a 100K race (62 miles) last weekend and thought this is the only way I get a break from the job.”

In April of 2017, Gagnon ran the aforementioned six marathons on six continents over six days. “The best part about it was that I did all of the organization myself...from booking the flights to the training, to choosing the locations. It was quite an amazing experience…not just to see the world and meet people and push yourself to new limits… but to explore what happens, for example, when you don’t lay down for a week. A lot of what I had practiced for so long came together and it showed that doing things like this is possible if you put your mind to it. I went to high school and college in the Bronx, NY, so I can’t be that fancy.  So, when people say ‘oh, I can’t make it happen, I don’t have this, I don’t have that,’ l tell them that’s what I used to say.

Yet he managed to keep his focus on business as well. In the middle of this incredibly grueling schedule, one colleague reported that Joe gladly took a call on an evening between races to help with a key account. “I think we need to take the word ‘can’t’ out of the dictionary,” said Gagnon.