IAA Webinar with Julie Roehm, Chief Storyteller, SAP

02 Aug,2013


The International Advertising Association (India Chapter) hosted its fourth webinar under the ‘World Goes Digital’ series. Julie Roehm, Chief Storyteller, SAP was the guest who joined in from New York.


The IAA Webinar series is spearheaded by Abhishek Karnani and director, Free Press Journal group and Manish Advani, head – marketing and public relations, Mahindra Special Services Group as co-chairs. *


The panellists included:  Ashish Mehra (Mahindra Holidays), Abhishek Karnani (Free Press Journal group), Manish Advani, (Mahindra Special Services Group), Gaurav Mendiratta (Sociosquare), Pradyuman Maheshwari, Editor-in-chief and CEO, MxMIndia moderated the discussion:


We know that storytelling is all about emotions and while you are an organization that’s essentially into technology, one doesn’t really need emotions because there’s technology that does it for you, right? How do you get the two to work for you?

I think it’s interesting you said that because you know where my background is concerned I have been with SAP for 20 months and before coming here I had my own consulting business and had worked with companies like Wal-Mart, Chrysler, Ford…and as you may have gathered none of that resume included big technology software companies. I came here because Bill McDermott – who is going to be our CEO starting May of next year – had found me by reading something about me at some point of time and we had a dialogue for multiple years and he had asked me to come to work for SAP doing what I really like doing. I think to your point he also is a man who obviously has an interest in the success of SAP and has also been a technology executive himself. So he saw the need to bridge the fact that we are a technology company but sometimes big technology companies are seen as cold and very process oriented and therefore to try and be more human in approach. So when we came one of the big terms that we track and we try to fulfill is to humanize the brand because we believe that with this world the technology, maybe unlike 20 years ago, wasn’t something like a cool and slick kind of thing and nice to have in the background. Technology is pervasive in all our lives whether you work in a technology company or whether you are housewife you use technology everyday; you count on it and it is a part of the fabric of our lives. So to not to be able to connect that human element even in the big business scale that’s what technology enables companies to do. For example, we think about procurement and how it helps them to source products better. Okay, there is not a lot of humanization in that but if you go deeper then maybe there is because if you care about where you source your product from and who is it on the other end that is making that product then there might be a human story there and may make you think more about how technology improves the lives of employees every day. I mean think about the technology in the cloud that we are deploying all over the world where for example, you think of an HR person who is using it to help with the talent recruitment… So we know all, particularly the fact that you are all sitting in India with brilliant minds and the fact that we are very short of having bright strategic technologists to work in these high-tech companies. So the war on talent is big. Certainly money is the big thing but it’s not the only thing and technology can help us do that. So there is a lot of emotion that is available to us to connect and I’ve always believed that people who are trained in technologies and they always like to talk about that but everybody has a greater kinship and a feeling of connection; when you can connect something to a story or something that touches them personally. Those are the kinds of stories I think that will help us use this humanizing idea and get us to that next level by opening the doors maybe to the other industries and even to other types of businesses. People who have used our technology in the past understand that we actually do have solutions that’s going to help them in their positions too.


What we have been trying to do essentially is look at storytelling by way of soaking in experiences as shared by the users. From the surveys that we conduct, we found out that customers were calling our call centres to share their experiences about the holidays and similar such sentiments. It was an incredible feeling because I’ve never heard customers actually talk to a tele-marketing executive or customer service representative that our holiday was fantastic; all they spoke about was individual moments during their holiday that made them elated. My question to you is whether you can share experiences on similar lines from your end and reference it against what we have experienced till date.

Yes most certainly, I am not surprised at all. We see this all the time. It’s probably more expected in the travel & lodging and the entertainment world where one expects to hear great stories because if you go on a holiday you hope there is a good story that comes out of it and the fact that there isn’t always a place to communicate that unless people are tweeting or putting pictures on social platforms. We see the same thing in our business and maybe our challenge is even greater than what you are speaking of and that’s why we try to talk less about the actual technology itself and more about the experience and the impact. There are a couple of things that we have done and also that we are about to do – ideas that would be useful to you to think about. We’ve created an app for iPad that is called Customer Journey. It opens up on a series of stories. The reason we call it a customer journey is because it is the voice of our customer and in your case the traveler, but maybe it’s an opportunity for you to put across various entities or hotels or whatever to be able to capture some of the stories that people tell them and put them on here so that people like a little bit of trip advice or any of that third-party apps that are out there. One of the things we are in progress of doing is we are trying to create a movement, which I know is a very lofty goal, but it’s a movement around the idea that I mentioned about our first app which is to make the world better and improve people’s lives. Well, to run better means a lot to a lot of different people so what we are trying to do now is looking at creating our own social space through “Run better”. For instance in New York the fashion week is coming soon and we are thinking of capturing people talking about how fashion impacts their lives. Now you would be thinking what does it have to do with SAP? Well for Levi’s, especially for women who walk away with low self esteem because a certain pair didn’t fit in right, we have created a technology that helps them to image a women and tell which Levi’s jeans is gonna be best for them. We are talking about filming two girls chatting outside the dressing room where you can tell that they are trying to un-jean themselves by looking under their feet, under the curtain and then they come out and their faces are glowing because they’ve found this great pair of jeans and they feel so good about themselves. So when people feel so good about themselves they have energy or an aura that is very contagious to the people who they run into. So if we can capture that in other people’s movement by saying what does “run better” world look like to you it may have nothing to do with us in the long run but we can be associated with making the world better.


I think today the social aspect is probably our most powerful tool and I would say it’s the same for you in the entertainment and the travel industry as well where it is about creating places where you empower not only your customer to be able to put their stories up but also your employees in all those hotels, restaurants etc. And I think the more angles you can have at a story out of personal experiences the more impactful it will be.


How do you develop a talent pool of people with a right skill for storytelling? And in the era of ROI, how do you convince management and owners to invest in storytelling?

From a talent perspective and something which I find interesting is that the team which started on customer storytelling was new – it’s not that people weren’t telling stories but to have an organization focus on that was new. What was interesting in that was what comes out from the woodwork of people who have a passion for telling stories whether it’s through writing or verbally or creating video or you know whatever method they use…it’s actually easier to find talent than you think. That said, once people get the notion that this is an option for them and that there is a commitment to this you will find a lot of people who actually have more of a talent face for it than you might have thought existed especially in a technology-oriented company. Secondarily, we set up storytelling training last year in as simple a way as possible. I did a five-step approach to storytelling which we did through a presentation. It is always easy to do five steps because to train people has to be a story in itself so it was like who was the customer, tell me a little bit about what they do, what is the problem or opportunity that they have…then the third step is how can technology help them either tackle their problem or realize their vision. Four, what kind of an impact does it have or they are hoping it has on their company and five, what is the impact it has on their customers? So if you can give a very prescribed list that is very simple, very logical to anybody out there to be able to capture that. What I did then is when we started to actually roll out these stories and when I was teaching my own team, I would have them follow that and then they would come back and read it to me. So I would say okay, if I am reading it or you are reading it to me and when I read it it reads like a Harvard Business case to me. Nothing wrong with the Harvard Business school mention, but it’s not necessarily highly consumable for everybody. It feels like I am in class and I got to read for school versus it’s a piece that I am reading in my favorite magazine or website that I am enjoying. So there a way to write and I really teach my team how to be more casual in language in writing these kinds of stories because otherwise it would become very professional. So that training has been super successful and was started last year; this year we mandated for all of our Marketing team. So there are 1600 people in Marketing at SAP so all those people are going to be trained in it. It’s a simple training just 30 minutes but when we know our marketing force understands what it means to tell a story or capture a story we know that we definitely are making a difference.


How do you ensure all customer-facing departments within SAP walk their talk presented through storytelling to all their stake-holders?

Well, it’s like 365,000 people so I am not magic but I think the best way to be able to do it is through word of mouth. First of all, none of this would event successful if our CEO at the time wasn’t committed to this. I mean he wanted to do this and in fact now he is pushing me very hard to give him stories from customer’s perspective. So instead of filming the CEO, COO you have Suzy who uses this out on the street and you need to have commitment from the top for anything like this to work. Secondarily, the training that we have implemented is like one group at a time and what we has also done is we ork closely with our head of Sales, Rob Enslin who also believes in capturing these stories. It’s like being introduced to a whole new way of doing things. So being able to talk to my customers about a handful of other customers who are in a like industry or a like situation and wow that’s really impactful and I really need to get more of that. So when we talk to our head of sales we share what we are trying to do and they were able to input tons of things that were helpful     to them when they are meeting with customers. More importantly, they also give us feedback that allows us to constantly grow and optimize what we are delivering. I think they are finding that now that they have tried it out it’s a much easier way to be able to talk about what we do.


How does the art of storytelling change with demographics and culture?

When we get pushed back in terms of whether our customers are willing to share their stories or be video-taped, it’s usually less because of cultural issue and more because of the fear that if they talk about what they do it somehow gives away their intellectual property. But from a cultural standpoint, you certainly have to take that into consideration but with the social world, even though people don’t want to have a picture of themselves there are other pictures that they can put to express themselves…to express who they are without actually having a image of them. So I think, more the choice that you give people to be creative on their own the more you can overcome some of the cultural barriers. Sometimes it’s cultural – country culture and sometimes its personal culture. Some people just don’t feel comfortable in any walk of life; it doesn’t matter where they live. They are just more introvert but if you give them an outlet to express themselves in a way that’s more comfortable to them I think what you will find is they do it so. So for me the moniker is choice…you have to give them choice…you know film yourself, take images, words whatever it is. We need to create interesting platforms where people can engage. There are lots of ways to generate engagement and I think the engagement component is lot more important even if not everybody is willing to jump on and create something for themselves.


Very broadly, are there any other industries where storytelling works very well and where it doesn’t?

Well you are talking to a purist so I don’t think there isn’t a place where it doesn’t work. I think the only time it doesn’t work is when it hasn’t been tried or done well so that would be my answer to that. When I give a talk on storytelling there are two examples that are relatively modern that I use. One is Google. You think about Google and you say well, it’s search. You may probably think I use Google all the time but it’s interesting to storytell. There is a beautiful video on youtube that is basically shot from a perspective of a father whom you cannot see but what you see is him putting something on search and then finding images and you hear him talking where he is writing an email to his daughter who is young. It basically chronicles her key moments in life like her first house using Google maps…then the day when she lost a tooth and such things…It’s all kinds of things using different Google tools but it never feels like a Google commercial because you are so involved with this man writing this touching email to his daughter that he is preserving for her. I find that it is great and I am really impressed with their storytelling because they have done a really nice job of telling their story from their perspective.


Do you think that the government in India can use this technique to talk about what they are doing and communicate with the masses? For instance, do you think President Obama could have adopted the storytelling approach in the election year in the US?

Yes I think he did that. I think how Obama uses it is to some extent to tell their personal story. I just find that at least in the US the political actions are so scripted that it lacks true feeling and I think that’s why people run towards Michelle Obama or the kid because they come across to us as being more authentic because when they speak as long as you are not behind the podium they are not typically as scripted as Barack Obama is. He has got lot of things that people have to say but Michelle to some extent comes across as much more national figure. When she goes on TV shows and when she talks about the clothes and the like it creates a very human personal connection and she does it better than he does it not because he can’t but I think “the handlers” believe it’s too great a risk because they put themselves out to be attacked on whatever personal things that they would share. So yes, I do think it would be a much better opportunity but I have low expectations that they will do it.



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