How Francesca Van Oss went from Customer Success Manager to Director of Partnerships and Alliances at Workiva
During the lockdown, Francesca Van Oss, accompanied by her husband and dog, moved away from the chaotic London lifestyle to the calm English countryside.
“It's not necessarily everyone's idea of heaven, but I'm surrounded by fields and cows and that's how I switch off and relax,” she shares.
Yet this calmness doesn’t stop her and her husband from keeping busy with activities like walking their dog and renovating an 18th-century farmhouse.
“Everyone thought we were just doing a bathroom but we gutted the entire house,” she says laughing. “Our project makes everyone feel better about their own renovations!”
When she’s not busy with farm life and remodels, she’s deeply involved in her work as the Director of Partnerships and Alliances at Workiva. We sat down with Francesca who shared how she made a career out of building relationships.
A New Beginning in Customer Success
At school, Francesca excelled in languages and imagined herself working as an ambassador or for the consulate. When she arrived at university she contemplated studying Italian but also felt drawn to studying Dutch because of her family roots.
“My family is originally Dutch, but no one in my family speaks it, '' she explains. “So I think growing up, I always felt like I wanted to explore that Dutch side.”
Her focus on languages eventually led her to study abroad.
“I did my Erasmus year in the Netherlands at the university that my great grandfather had gone to,” she shares.
After her year abroad, she came back to the UK, finished her degree, and contemplated her next career move.
“I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do in the UK,” she confesses. “So I moved over to Amsterdam on a whim and I gave myself six months to find a job.”
Five months into living in the Netherlands, she got an interview with Workiva.
“They were looking for a native English speaker who would be one of two to start in Europe,” Francesca explains.
In the middle of a snowy winter, she interviewed for the customer success role. A position that, at the time, was new to her and not too common within the industry.
“Customer Success wasn't a common term at the time," Francesa shares. “It was just coming to the market for Fintech and SaaS companies.”
Nonetheless, Francesca was drawn in by Workiva’s culture and was ready to embark on a new endeavor.
“They were such a lovely welcoming company," she explains. "I agreed to do customer support initially, and that's how it started.”
Growing with Workiva
Workiva is a global company based in Iowa that supports businesses and people all over the world by managing and reporting their business data.
From the moment Francesca started, she was embraced by the supportive culture.
“They'd come over to Europe looking for people they could trust," she says. “And so you give that trust back.”
Francesca did a four-week training in the middle of a cold Iowa winter, where her spirits were warmed by the connections she built with her colleagues.
"It was amazing getting to know everyone and the company," she shares. “You come back with this amazing energy and you feel so supported. You're on a mission knowing that you're the first boots on the ground in Europe.”
As the company began to expand, so did more opportunities for different roles.
“I was fortunate to be given lots of responsibility from a young age, and my age didn't matter in software and at Workiva," she explains. “It's about hiring the correct people. When I joined, there was only customer success and now there are a plethora of roles that exist.”
After working in customer success, she became a solutions architect and then moved to a pre-sales and post-sales role in London, which allowed her to travel throughout Europe and Asia and taught her the skills necessary for her next role.
“It helped me get to where I am now because I got to understand multiple regions and continents and the cultural etiquette,” she explains.
This exposure to other companies and their business structures helped her see how Workiva’s business could expand.
Building the Partnership and Alliances Team
“I saw the US had started exploring partnerships and alliances, and how other software companies had a very heavy partnerships and alliances model, which was successful in helping them to grow,” she points out.
Following the success of others in the industry, she approached her leadership team with the idea of starting a partnership and alliances team.
With approval from the higher-ups, Francesca started in a strategic initiatives role. “I was given the flexibility and the trust to be able to explore something that I felt would be revenue generating," she shares.
Eventually, the partnerships department grew from two people into a larger team, and little by little Francesca prepared herself for the Director’s role.
“You can't just become a Director overnight,” she admits. “Stepping into the role was a transition. It took time.”
Once Francesca stepped into a management role, she took initiative to make the most of her new position. “Sometimes you have to take initiative and not be afraid to go for it, "she encourages. “I think too often, we're waiting to be asked to do something.”
Francesca explains how she would put this advice to practice. “If there wasn’t a partnership voice in a leadership meeting, determining X, Y, Z strategy, I’d find a way to engage and collaborate with the right people.”
As a result of her active participation, the Partnership and Alliances team has developed into a type of ecosystem where she creates bi-lateral relationships that accelerate business growth.
“We partner with consulting firms and technology implementation companies so that we can ultimately provide the best software to their clients, our customers,” she explains. “These partnerships help drive business growth broader and faster because we're able to reach into new markets or new solution areas.”
Thus building reciprocal relationships has been a key part of their success.
The Importance of Relationship Building
From the moment Francesca started in customer success, building strong relationships has been her overall objective.
“Internal relationships initially were key because when you are the first person in a role, you are not going to be successful on your own,” she explains. “So my relationships have always been super important with peers and there are people I've spoken to for nine years now that I've never met and it doesn't necessarily matter because you can still build those relationships virtually.”
Once these foundational relationships with colleagues were built, Fransesca began building relationships with her customers.
“In the end, if our customers aren't happy, then we are not successful,” she explains.
“Customer success and trust are two of Workiva’s values,” she points out. “Whenever you are with customers, you're always thinking what's best for them and you build strong relationships with them, not because you have to, but because you care about them as well.”
Having genuine empathy and concern for her customers is just one relationship-building skill, another crucial component of relationship-building is emotional intelligence, EQ.
“Emotional intelligence will help you to pick up on the nuances that are often missed and can take you from having a good relationship to a really strong, deep, and lasting relationship,” Francesca notes.
She further explains how having EQ supports business development especially when primary communication is virtual.
“I hired half our team in lockdown and hadn't ever met them,” she shares. “Supporting a team through lockdown where it's super stressful, it's quite a pressure cooker sometimes and you need to be able to pick up on that through your keyboard or a screen.”
Career Advice on Transitioning Into Leadership Roles
Relationship building is an important skill in order to make customers happy and advance in your career. For those looking to grow into leadership roles, Francesca offers the following advice.
1. Be inquisitive: “Because that's how you keep growing,“ she explains. “Keep asking questions, keep exploring, keep learning. It's not always about rising upwards in a company. But if you keep learning, you are naturally going to rise because of your breadth of knowledge.”
2. Be open to feedback: “Don't ever be so protective that you can't see the faults or that you can't take feedback,” she advises. “One of the hardest, most important things to remember is that it's okay to not be right or for things to go wrong. Ask for advice, take on the feedback, move on and bounce back quickly."
3. Kindness is not a weakness: Early in Francesca's career, she was advised not to be too nice. “It could be seen as a weakness or naivety,” she shares. “Having been told that I then always worried in the back of my mind that it’s going to derail my career or I wouldn’t be taken seriously.” She grew up with the message of women needing to be fearless to succeed in the workplace, and being kind would make you appear soft. However, Francesca learned the contrary. “Being kind doesn't mean being soft. You can be firm when you need to be and strong when you need to be, and still lead with kindness and empathy. So don't ever feel that you have to fit a stereotype of what a leader is. Be yourself.”
If you are looking for your next job opportunity, check out these openings at Workiva.