This services firm retains staff by tracking their daily happiness

Michelle Swan Profile picture for user Michelle Swan January 20, 2017
IT professional services firm Traction on Demand keeps talent turnover below 5% by making sure employees are at least 72% happy in their work

Traction on Demand Full Team at BC Place May 2016
No matter your industry, employee retention probably ranks high on the priority list. However, in the high-tech professional services industry — where people are the product and turnover rates are in the double digits — it’s often number one.

Some firms are spending millions to improve employee retention, on everything from training programs to global talent management systems. Accenture alone spends nearly a billion dollars on training and other systems annually. Yet Traction on Demand, a 250+ person cloud consulting firm in the highly competitive Salesforce ecosystem, is taking a different approach.

Rather than investing in a standalone talent management system to help the company scale and retain employees, it is coming up with new ways to use its existing customer relationship management (CRM), professional services automation (PSA) and marketing applications to track employee happiness, increase employee engagement, improve recruiting, and grow the business.

Some may call this being thrifty or creative. CEO and Founder Greg Malpass calls it being an adaptive enterprise. No matter what you call it, the company’s approach seems to be working — with a 573% leap in revenue growth over the last three years, an industry-low 5% employee turnover rate, and a long list of HR and Best Places to Work awards. Malpass explains:

An adaptive enterprise has the ability to listen to their employees, understand what their teams want or are good at, and spin that out into a recruitment, execution, assignment, sales or even venture strategy.

We need to look at people at the individual level in a way that empowers them to have a better understanding of themselves and participate in the improvement of their own work-life agenda. We are building a company that serves its team and makes its team happy so that team can turn around and better serve our customers and make those customers happy.

How it all started

Traction’s journey started with a small twist on an existing FinancialForce PSA application, which it was already using to manage team resources, project financials, billing, expenses, and so on. After watching someone enter time on the PSA app during a project, CEO Malpass realized time tracking was one of those critical activities that, while necessary to run the business, gave nothing back to the employee.

To create something that would add more value to the business and the individual, he and the team decided to add two simple drop-down questions to the timesheet interface:

  • What mode of thinking were you in? (e.g.  learning, teaching, executing, doing admin activities)
  • How was it? (e.g. amazing, pretty good, mildly painful and brutal).

From there they developed a small algorithm to calculate “percentage of happiness” and Traction Pulse was born. Traction Pulse is essentially a data collection tool that helps the company gauge real-time employee sentiment, gather deeper insight into the kind of work performed for clients, and better understand which projects and tasks keep employees most engaged. Says Malpass:

The results went way beyond what we expected. It’s changed so many different areas of how we operate as a business and the way I interact with the business at a macro level. We now have a picture of how happy the team is on a week-by-week basis.

We now can be proactive. Our average happiness across the business is 72%. If we drop by a bit, we’ll do team huddles or work with the business development team to see what kind of projects we should go after.

It took Traction less than four months to develop and implement Traction Pulse on FinancialForce. Because FinancialForce runs on the Salesforce platform, the product developer was able to easily hook into underlying capabilities such as Salesforce Wave to surface and present data to executives, managers and employees in an easy-to-consume way. Managers are encouraged to use Pulse dashboards to facilitate conversations in weekly check-in meetings. Malpass explains:

When people are having a difficult time or working on a difficult project, rather than shy away from it or hope it works out, I’ll actually go grab people, bring them in the office and ask them what’s going on, what needs to change, and how can we help.

It’s facilitated incredible person-to-person discussions. People are surprised we actually look at the data. It’s driven some interesting career changes because we can see what people enjoy and what they don’t enjoy.

Empowering individuals

Dave Rees, a data architect at Traction on Demand who helped develop Traction Pulse, explains how the data is empowering individuals like himself:

I knew I liked working with complex datasets and problem solving, but it wasn’t until I looked back at three or four months of my own data that I saw I enjoyed analytics projects and working with not-for-profits. Knowing that, they resourced me to a few enterprise-level, not-for-profit Salesforce implementations.

I also found there’s an optimal mix of work for me. If I could spend a portion of my time researching or learning new technology, I noticed my sentiment scores were higher. Now when I plan out my week I make sure to leave a little time at the end of the week to read a white paper, watch a demo video or run a learning session to share some knowledge.

After nine months, Traction Pulse is now being rolled out across the business, including marketing, finance and HR. Malpass says the tool has collected more than a quarter-million rows of data, and is spawning all kinds of new uses, from increasing customer loyalty to helping sales bring in more customers that make employees happy. The company is currently in the midst of rolling out a new marketing campaign to connect with existing and former customers to thank them and ask them to refer other like minded customers. It is also helping in the interview process. Malpass says:

We have all candidates implement Salesforce as part of the interview process, and as candidates build their demo, we have them enter their time on Pulse. This data helps us know if they are actually interested in the things that we need help with.

This isn’t the first time the company has reused its existing business applications to improve the recruiting experience. Today, when someone applies for a job at Traction, the company adds them to a nurture campaign using Salesforce Pardot and Quicktools, where candidates are scored on their interactions. This allows Traction to see which candidates are most engaged and putting the most effort into the process.  Traction has also created a candidate community using Salesforce Communities that enables recruits to speak with current employees or get questions answered.

Business opportunity

When asked why Traction chose to tweak its existing systems rather than investing in a specialized solution targeting employee engagement, Malpass had this to say:

A lot of HCM and recruiting platforms are standalone systems, built for the benefit of the business and not able to pivot for the benefit of the people using them. Part of being an adaptive enterprise means you don’t have to start from scratch. We took a whole bunch of our existing best-of-breed technologies and connected them. At the end of the day, apps like Pulse are more a philosophy and an integration. Ultimately, it will evolve to be more of a platform in and of itself.

Malpass believes that the flexibility of cloud-based technologies like Salesforce and FinancialForce open up a whole new opportunity for businesses like his.

Historically we came from a world where there’s high capital costs to acquire the technology, fix the infrastructure, assemble machinery. It’s all changing. We’re now buying components that can do a lot of different things. The big question is what will you build?

Traction is taking that question seriously. The company has set a goal for itself to build 100 different businesses in 10 years.

Employees want a place with meaning and purpose. If we really understand what our team wants to do, not all of those things will make a ton of sense for Traction as a core business. But why can’t we spin out more businesses? More of our developers want to get into longer standing development of software, not just responding to client needs. We wanted to create those opportunities for people to pursue.

In the last year, Traction has launched four different businesses from their Traction Labs model - Traction Guest, Traction Rec, Traction Hierarchies and Traction Complete. Malpass suggests that Traction Pulse might be next.

My take

The way I see it employee retention and engagement will continue to be a big challenge for companies, especially in industries where specialized skills are hard to find and competition is fierce. Companies are addressing this challenge in many different ways, but the simple yet effective approach Traction on Demand has taken could offer a few lessons to other companies going down this path.

First, measure what current employee sentiment is — know where you’re starting. Even better if you can collect the data within context of your employees’ workflow to make it easy to gather. Second, make that data readily accessible to managers and employees. Finally, create a culture that focuses less on the number and more on making decisions to ensure engagement stays high.

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