Speaker: Sense of purpose vital to future success

Alicia Tillman’s life and career are about stories.

When Tillman started her position as chief marketing officer for SAP, she asked how the technology company is making a difference, then worked on telling that story.

First, she told the story to employees over a three-month period, using those conversations to improve how to share how the company connects to customers.

In her 14 months in the position, she said an international magazine’s ranking of most valuable brands had moved the company, started by five former IBM executives 46 years ago, from 21st place to 17th place.

“We build technology to help companies run better,” she said Thursday to an audience at Lycoming College full of business and entrepreneurship students.

Her story-telling has included targeted print advertising that show readers in regions across the world how SAP helps the companies they know improve the readers’ communities. The effort also developed a TV ad that addresses audience’s concerns on world issues and how engineers and SAP can help alleviate them.

Tillman’s own story began years ago in New Jersey.

“I had two very hard-working parents,” she said, explaining how her mother inspired her to “dream big” and be relentless” in pursuit of her goals.

She began working herself at 13, bussing tables in a restaurant before moving on to selling tickets for admission to the local New Jersey beach. In that job, she said, customers frequently would argue and question New Jersey’s policy of charging admission to beaches.

“It was a tremendous experience that served me well,” Tillman said.

She attended Lycoming College, where she was involved with student government and the Gamma Delta Sigma sorority and played lacrosse. She said the experiences taught her the value of teamwork and balancing responsibilities. After graduating, she went to work for Rosenbluth International, a travel management firm. She began in the corporate leadership program before being offered a position as an aide to the CEO.

“I was able to see the company through the eyes of the founder and CEO,” Tillman said, praising the opportunity.

After Rosenbluth was bought by American Express, she worked to develop a public affairs program for travel initiatives at American Express. She then took a position with Ariba.

“I was asked to transform the brand at Ariba,” she said.

Her and her team’s efforts to reinvigorate the brand’s profitability and innovativeness after its acquisition by SAP produced eight consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth. About 14 months ago, she was promoted to chief marketing officer for all of SAP.

Tillman said the brands and companies that thrive in the future are going to be the ones that develop personal connections with customers.

“Your personal values are why people buy,” she told the audience of future entrepreneurs and business leaders.

She said consumers want businesses that connect with them on the issues that are important to them, and that companies with strong senses of purpose and values outperform ones that don’t.

“We need companies to emerge as leaders,” Tillman said. “I truly believe that companies that don’t have a purpose — won’t be here.”

She emphasized “creating a culture of effectiveness” and said that without diversity and inclusion, “you won’t be successful.”

Tillman said understanding customers has to be the top priority, and shared six attributes of building exceptional customer experience: Being consistent, creative, personalized, convenient, transparent and human. She said the faster businesses can react to a crisis and the more transparent they are in their reaction, the more confidence they will inspire in customers. She warned the audience that reliance on corporate jargon like “optimization” is an obstacle to connecting with customers and clients.

“Be human,” she said. “Be authentic.”

She said technologies like chatbots and virtual experiences can help connect to customers but cautioned against overwhelming consumers with them. Tillman said many consumers are returning to brick-and-mortar retailers because of the frustration of being bombarded with content and diversions through online shopping. Instead, she encouraged businesses to use technology to “do more with less” and empower employees to focus on important tasks.