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Ask Nicely came from New Zealand to Slabtown to find nice but in-it-to-win-it salespeople

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Aaron Ward, the CEO and co-founder of customer experience software company Ask Nicely, in the companys Slabtown office. As growth continues, they have moved four times in Portland since moving the headquarters from New Zealand in 2018. They are hiring sales and marketing people, leaving the techies to Auckland.

Ask Nicely's product is Software as a Service that makes it easy for businesses to see what's being said about them, to reply to messages, and to share feedback with staff.

If that sounds simple, it's not a task that can be done with old tools like email and Slack.

Today, people are more likely than ever to trust their cousin's friend's opinion posted on Facebook more than a crafted message in a traditional ad.

As CEO Aaron Ward said when Ask Nicely was rated No. 1 by customers in the Grid Report for Enterprise Feedback Management Software, "Customers no longer make decisions based on what marketers or salespeople say. A friend or colleague's recommendation is more powerful than ever before, making it critical for businesses to leverage real-time customer feedback to constantly improve their offerings."

The company was formed in Auckland, New Zealand but relocated its headquarters to Portland in 2018 to better expand into the U.S. market. Ask Nicely has customers in 80 countries, but that crucial five-hour time zone shift was enough to convince Ward to make the move. That, and a piece of serendipity. In Auckland, Ask Nicely is on the same street, Ponsonby Road, as Icebreaker, the merino wool apparel company that made Portland its US home for a while. When Ward found an office for Ask Nicely here at Northwest 13th and Pettygrove, he discovered on Google Earth that it was Icebreaker's old building (before they moved to Vancouver, B.C.).

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Ask Nicely's SaaS produces surveys and gather data about customers, just as Ask Nicely the firm constantly checks on how its own salespeople are doing. Purple is the company color, signifying its culture. If a worker is 'in the purple' they are on point.

Warriors come out to play

Ward moved his family here in 2018. In their current office in Slabtown, at 1400 N.W. 22nd Ave., he explained to the Business Tribune that his mates at Icebreaker, including CEO Jeremy Moon, helped with due diligence about Portland. After all, as he puts it, all Ask Nicely employees must have three qualities.

"We believe in being nice, and you don't get in the door if you're not a nice person We fundamentally believe that we can build a large, high-growth business with nice people in a nice culture.

"The second element is a play-to-win attitude. We're not here for lifestyle, we're here to claim a big prize and to plant the flag as the rightful owner of the title around customer experience."

He wants Ask Nicely to be the Salesforce of customer experience.

Feedback is third.

"Feedback is what our product is about but it's also how we win. So, if you as a person who works here for Ask Nicely is open to receiving feedback and taking on that feedback but also prepared to share your feedback and color outside of the lines of your role, that's how we're winners of business."

He makes sure that he and co-founder John Ballinger do the final interview before they hire them, so they are natural to the culture.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Staff at Ask Nicely work under a sign that emphasizes the software they produce is for companies to run surveys and gather data about their customers, just as Ask Nicely constantly checks on how its own salespeople are doing.

"The objective of that is not to test you for skills, it's purely a test around our culture," said Ward.

Instead of waiting for quarterly marketing reports that are not easy to act upon because they're already out of date, businesses that use Ask Nicely can take the pulse of the customer experience at any time, with short, targeted

questionnaires. There could be 'Rate your experience from 1 to 10" or "How likely are you to recommend us to someone you know, 1 to 10?"

The goal is, if a customer is happy they don't need to be hit with more ads. If they're frustrated they need to be helped quickly. If they are in danger of being lost as a customer, they can be lured back with a coupon. It's the kind of real time feedback that brick-and-mortar sales people have always had, looking their customer in the eye. But in the jungle of online sales, where there's always a better deal around the corner and customer service is unpredictable, Ward and his colleagues are trying to craft a digital solution to a new problem.

The other element is that if you are the call center or website customer experience person who does a good job, you get instant feedback on a dashboard on your screen. And all your colleagues can see it too, which promotes pride at work and healthy competition.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - The monitor in the Ask Nicely office  in Slabtown shows the company dashboard, which tracks stats, and sometimes switches to feelgood Slack messages. Using a taco emoji rewards a job well done. Three tacos is, as CEO Aaron Ward would put it approvingly, 'almost over the top.'

Portland nice

Ward cites standard reasons for moving to Portland, that the people are nice and the company can support its staff in a standard of living that wouldn't be possible in the Bay Area.

"But the biggest reason is that we are a customer experience business. We need our frontline staff — all the people that you see out here (in the office) — to be able to evangelize that gospel around really overcommitting for the customer. It turns out that in Portland, unlike anywhere that I've ever been in the world, people pour so much love and craftsmanship into everything that they do. It's almost over the top."

The idea was if they could recruit such people — Portlanders long term or committed new arrivals — they don't need to be taught.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Aaron Ward, the CEO and co-founder of customer experience software company Ask Nicely, in the company's Slabtown office. They are hiring sales and marketing people, leaving the techies to Auckland.

"[They] understand what it means to have that type of service ethic, that type of attention to detail around the experience. It's something that's very nice and authentic about Portland....We don't need to indoctrinate them in our particular philosophy, they come pre-loaded with the DNA. And we think that gives us a significant competitive advantage over other people in our space. That's the major reason why we're very bullish about Portland."

Ask Nicely has only been in its Slabtown office for six months and has already grown. The head count across the business is 60, with 45 in Portland. He expects the Portland office to easily reach 70 by the end of the year and says it will definitely pass 100. They expect to move office again.

The expansion is fueled by a $10 million investment from California-based Nexus Venture Partners in April, bringing total funding to $15.2 million.

Long play

Portland isn't known for its unicorns

(billion-dollar startups) but there are plenty of companies that talk about being around for the long term. Ward says they are not looking for a quick exit through being acquired.

"We're looking to build an iconic tech business for the long term. We've chosen Portland because we think this is a place to build a business with substance and character for the long term. If it was a short-term play, we will probably have gone to the Bay Area and hiked it."

He's anti ping-pong tables at work, but pro fun, in a modest way. There's yoga in the empty space upstairs, and the meeting rooms are named after fun Kiwi and Portland things, such as Zoo Bomb, the soap box derby, the All Blacks (national rugby team) and bungee jumping. Mentioning New Zealand's loss in the cricket world cup to England doesn't get much of a rise out of him, but he watches 2 a.m. games by his beloved New Zealand Warriors rugby team on pay-per-view.

New hires, new Portland DNA

Ward was just back from Europe, where he was scouting locations for an office. Because of Britain's impending exit from the European Union he is looking at Dublin or Amsterdam, to access the English-speaking tech talent.

In Portland they are recruiting all roles except technical: marketing, sales reps and management, customer success, Human Resources and finance. He says it helps if a salesperson has experience in both software and a fast-growing business. The product is built in Auckland, and as new features and patches are released, salespeople have to stay on top of it. They usually hear about changes a month or two before they launch. He cites one experienced salesperson who had only been with the company three weeks. He was amazed that his feedback was valued by the technical team in New Zealand. It was the first time he had ever been asked for input.

"Obviously, the product is built around feedback and internally that's core to our entire culture."

It all comes back to feedback.

Naturally, staff at Ask Nicely are involved in a feedback loop around their own performance. The company dashboard runs on a large monitor at the front of the room. It shows things like new sales, or how many people have requested a demo in the last seven days. It also brings up written messages that often end in a taco emoji. It's from a plug-in for Slack called HeyTaco! A taco is a sign of appreciation for someone who has done a good job. It's a tiny icon but it gets noticed.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Ask Nicely VP of sales Casey Corrigan takes a video call in the glassed-in Soap Box Derby room.

Feedback hook and loop

Casey Corrigan, VP Sales at Ask Nicely, told the Business Tribune that Ask Nicely's strength is it catches feedback while it is hot.

"Traditionally, if a customer was frustrated, the event and the feedback would be so far apart that the customer would be already churned and out the door," Corrigan said.

Another challenge was that surveys were too long. What he calls "digital saturation" is taking its toll.

"Market researchers, they ask too much. People start out wanting to be helpful, and they have a no idea how long the survey is. On about page 2 or 3 they're like 'This is enough, I'm done.'"

Ask Nicely is a business-to-business company, so it is focused on the customer service or experience reps on the front line. When they do well, they get the feedback, and when they do badly, they also get the feedback.

A typical business the firm works with would be a dental office, where the customer attends every six months and feedback requests can follow a calendar. But Ask Nicely also has customers such as gyms, where motivation and attendance vary, and catching people in their "customer experience journey" is a more delicate art.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - An Ask Nicely worker in the Slabtown office. Ward and his cofounder video interview every applicant to make sure they are nice, ambitious and open to feedback.

Ward adds, "We believe that humans are best motivated through positive feedback. You see it in the tacos, you see it in the gong (which they bash when there's a big sale, and share the video). In the various devices that were built into the product we're building this culture of appreciation."

He says in terms of staff they skew towards Millennials, and has found they can handle negative feedback. In fact, they often request it.

"Often if I am sharing positive feedback,

I will get pushback from the people out there saying, 'Hey, that's great, and thank you for the feedback, but it's not necessarily helping me. Please tell me what I need to work on to grow.' And because we're recruiting people who come in with a play to win attitude, they have the openness

to it."

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Ask Nicely

Maker of customer experience management software.

Location: 1400 N.W. 22nd Ave., Portland, and 63 Ponsonby Rd,. Grey Lynn, Auckland 1011, New Zealand

Website: asknicely.com


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
971-204-7874
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