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From business prevention unit to value-add: Suzanne Phillips, Zendesk

Suzanne Phillips, 11 February 2020

What does legal look like at a hypergrowth tech company? We asked Suzanne Phillips, senior legal counsel at Zendesk, discussing success in legal and lessons learned from Salesforce and Cisco. 

Hi 👋 who are you? 

I’m Suzanne Phillips, I’m the senior legal counsel for EMEA regions at Zendesk.

What do you do at Zendesk?

My primary function is to support the sales team. I also negotiate agreements with customers and offer guidance on our data-processing policies. It’s a collaborative role; when GDPR came into effect, the legal team worked alongside marketing and sales teams to align our business practises with the new requirements of GDPR. The legal team is in a privileged position because we have a good oversight into different departments and what their needs are, and can offer feedback accordingly.

How big is the legal function?

Our team is always growing with legal teams in place in each region globally. In EMEA, we have more than 800 employees, having grown by 40% over the past year across our sales, research, marketing, customer success and support roles. It’s great, because it means we can get involved in anything, and offer better advice! 

“When I first joined the in-house legal world, we were seen as the ‘business prevention unit’ … I found negotiations unpleasant for that reason”

Impressive! How do you handle this growth?

The legal team has this incredibly holistic view of the business, and collaboration is essential. It’s important to work closely with different teams so they understand the purpose of our function. By collaborating we can provide better-quality advice, but also learn and absorb that breadth of knowledge - which means we’re agile in a fast-growing environment. 

It’s also important to dedicate time to each other. We wear many hats in the legal function, and handle a broad scope of daily tasks. Everyone has a good understanding of each other’s requirements, which means everyone is generous with their time and knowledge. The willingness to stop and listen to someone is vital in a company growing as fast as Zendesk is - there needs to be a unity between teams and people to ensure the culture is still there even as we grow. 

How has the legal landscape at Zendesk changed since you joined?

When I first joined the in-house legal world, we were seen as the ‘business prevention unit’. We were involved near the end of a negotiation with customers, and had no input in the communication. I found negotiations unpleasant for that reason, like a battle of wills between legal and commercial. 

However, there’s been such a shift in the industry over the past few years, and now we are included in the sales process from the beginning, so we’re seen as value-add as opposed to a “last hurdle” inconvenience. We’ll get involved in pitching to customers, detailing privacy policies, and answering any questions early on in the sales process, so by the time we reach negotiation on legal terms, many of the pain points have already been addressed and resolved. 

This speeds up what was previously a long and tedious process, but more importantly, allows us to establish positive relationships with customers. 

“A successful legal function is all about showing a willingness to listen. Experience, age and background don’t always matter”

Zendesk started out as a hypergrowth startup and is now a publicly traded company. What does a successful legal function at a high-growth tech company look like?

The legal team has grown into different departments now. I work in the commercial legal team, dealing with the transactional side of legal, but we also have employment, IP, and litigation lawyers. Naturally, in the earlier days, there were only one or two lawyers based in the US, but we can’t continue to grow at this level and have only one ‘general’ counsel. One person can’t handle everything to the level of detail and knowledge we require, so we have to grow alongside the business and begin to specialize.

A successful legal function is all about showing a willingness to listen. Experience, age and background don’t always matter; if you can identify an issue within the business, or even within your team, there is always someone at Zendesk who will listen. A willingness to listen, combined with good commercial awareness and a collaborative mindset means we can quickly identify and resolve issues before they escalate, both internally and externally. 

People in the legal team should enjoy what they do. It isn’t about ‘culture fit’, it’s about ‘culture add’ - what can you bring to the team and how can you improve the way we operate? We work like a tight-knit team, network well with others in the business, and prevent silos. That enjoyment breeds enjoyment, so success will surely follow. 

You also worked at Salesforce and Cisco - what was that like? Do you see common patterns in the legal teams of these successful tech giants?

Definitely! It was a real privilege to work alongside bright and brilliant people at these companies. The size of the business was a clear reflection of their success, but people also spoke about “turning the Titanic” in terms of how long it took for ideas to manifest and take effect. I felt like a tiny cog in the machine. 

"Your internal network as a lawyer is so essential for the business... You don’t need to know everything in a business, but you do need to know who does. 

How did your experience at Salesforce and Cisco prepare you for the legal role at Zendesk? 

My past experience has taught me the importance of being customer-centric. I always strive to work with my sales team and the customer  to achieve their business needs, without compromising our business objectives. I’ve never seen this approach work more effectively than I do at Zendesk. 

I also learned about the enjoyment that comes with creative thinking and problem-solving. Salesforce and Cisco taught me to approach every problem as a puzzle and a means to collaborate with the wider business. I can offer legal and commercial advice now, because of my experience. 

And finally, both companies emphasized the value of networking within the business. It’s important to be available but also understand who you can approach about certain questions and concerns. People here are generous with both their time and their knowledge and we really pay that forward.  Your internal network as a lawyer is so essential for the business - if you need to discuss product functionality, who do you approach? If you have questions on GDPR, who can you ask? Conversely, it’s important to let people know you’re available to help, and clarify where your core strengths lie. You don’t need to know everything in a business, but you do need to know who does. 

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to privacy, for SaaS companies at the kind of scale that Zendesk operates at?

Zendesk is a data processor, but also a data controller. The balance we have to strike is offering protection and sharing responsibility. We have to agree on a proportional level of risk between parties, but the challenge is getting customers comfortable with the processes we have in place and understanding security measures we offer. 

It comes down to building a relationship with the customer and identifying their primary concerns. Understand what you’re seeking to mitigate, and how you can make the customer comfortable in the process. I don’t think it’s difficult to achieve, although it requires time and patience, as well as a willingness to listen and reassure the customer. 

What’s next for Zendesk?

2020 is a big year for us! We’re continually bringing new innovations to our service-led CRM, including conversational messaging tools, sales force automation, self-service and community products. Our global user conference, Zendesk Relate, is coming up next month in Miami where we’ll also be sharing more news.We are on target to become a billion-dollar revenue business by the end of the year, and go from billion-dollar to multi-billion dollars by 2021. Our plans for growth are exponential, and it’s a fantastic time to be a part of the business. 

Thanks, Suzanne!

To find out more about CRM software, visit Zendesk.  

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