By Ronald Hedley

Rendi Miller is VP of Procurement at Zendesk. We recently sat down to discuss the attributes of quality customer service. While our conversation did deal with customer service, it soon evolved into something much more significant. Perhaps the inaugural words of JFK capture the essence of our conversation best, “Ask what you can do for your country.”

Our conversation began pragmatically as I asked Miller, “Why did you take a job at Zendesk?”

“It was a great opportunity to expand my scope of influence and grow my career. Things were great [at my previous job], but sometimes doors open, and you need to walk through them,” explained Miller.

Core Values

What were these new opportunities that presented themselves at her new company? Miller explained, “One of the things that attracted me to Zendesk was that their core values are in line with my personal values. It’s really good to work for a company that aligns with [me] personally.”

According to Miller, Zendesk’s core values are to focus on great relationships, practice empathy, and be humblident (humble and confident smashed together). She then explained, “Zendesk has a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team that facilitates community service. We partner very closely with St. Anthony’s Foundation, Glide Foundation, De Marillac Academy, and many more. We also work with Meals on Wheels and Cycling for Seniors. This was definitely one of the draws to Zendesk.”

Miller sees a direct correlation between her volunteer work with Zendesk’s charity organizations and customer service. “[I’ve] always been very service oriented. That’s the kind of person that I am. The older I get, the more I realize that I have a knack for understanding what people [need] and helping them get it. Throughout my career, whether it be as an entrepreneur in the retail space, working for a non-profit, or doing volunteer work, and now, in procurement for almost 20 years, [I know] that quality customer service has been the foundation [of my success],” Miller explained.

Customer Service

Miller believes that quality customer service requires knowing your customers. She added, “I think customer service is understanding what your customers think they need and delivering to them what they didn’t realize they needed. It’s your job to figure out how [to] deliver to your customer. You’ve got to spend time with them. You have to know what’s available to them and how much they are willing to spend.”

She then offered a quintessential example of quality customer service, “I was working with our marketing team on an upcoming renewal or replacement of our creative agency [vendor]. Our executive management was extremely happy with the deliverables produced by the agency, but our team that worked with them struggled to get the support they needed within desired timelines.” In other words, sometimes they were late with the deliverables produced.

Miller continued her story, “The agency was offering a renewal contract at an increased price, arguing [that] they were losing money [because of] how much time they were investing. The marketing team, on the other hand, wanted to go to market [to find] a new agency, but [they] had concerns with how executive management might respond, given their high level of satisfaction with the outcomes the agency was delivering.”

The plot thickened as Miller added, “The marketing team also didn’t want to pay an increased price for what they considered [equivalent] work. As I listened to each party represented, I determined the following things:

1) Executive Management wanted the same quality of output.
2) The marketing team wanted more support and responsiveness, and [they wanted to make sure that they were getting their money’s worth].
3) The [creative] agency wanted more money.”

Miller explained how she was concerned about hiring a new vendor, “If we went to market and selected a new agency, we didn’t have any guarantee that their output would meet executive management’s satisfaction and, ultimately, that was the most important outcome.”

Sometimes you have to listen to what is NOT being said. When you ask what works or what they want, you have to read between the lines. When you listen to what is not being said, you might hear what they need.

Fortunately, Miller had an answer. “My solution was to renew our contract with the existing agency at a slight increase. I built a bonus/penalty structure into the agreement with very specific criteria for both,” she explained.

The bonus/penalty structure satisfied all parties involved. “If the agency under-performed, they were charged a fee that was deducted from our quarterly retainer. If they performed at status quo, we paid the negotiated contract retainer. If they over-performed, they had the ability to earn a bonus over and above the quarterly retainer,” Miller said.

The story ended happily ever after. “It was a win-win for everyone. But it was not what my business partners thought they needed when we began the conversations about renewing the agreement.”

So, what did Miller learn from this experience? “Sometimes you have to listen to what is NOT being said. When you ask what works or what they want, you have to read between the lines. When you listen to what is not being said, you might hear what they need,” Miller stated.

Parents’ Influence

Miller believes she learned the patience that it takes to be a good listener from her parents. She has great respect for them because, for one, they were caring foster parents. “I have a foster brother that my parents have pretty much adopted. Growing up, my parents fostered quite a bit,” she stated proudly.

Her dedication to foster care is not the only reason Miller respects her mom. “My mom is an amazing woman. My parents moved to the West Coast from the East Coast without an education and $75 in their pocket. After years of hard work, she and my father became successful entrepreneurs. Looking at my mom and seeing that she didn’t let anything hold her back, especially in a time when women were typically homemakers, really inspires me,” explained Miller.

Her praise for her mom continued, “She showed me that she could be a full-time working mom and still manage a family and a household, and [she] showed me that I didn’t have to choose one or the other. As a child in the ‘70s, I never felt that, because I had a working mom, I missed out on something. She’s been a true inspiration to me and has shown me what I can do with my opportunities.”

Because of her sibling foster experience, Miller was motivated to continue the family legacy. “I worked for a foster care agency when I lived in Orange County. My role there was to recruit and train potential foster parents,” she shared. Her job also entailed giving the foster parents on-going support and placing children in their homes.

Miller explained how her multiple foster care experiences have had a positive effect on her procurement career, “It goes back to that core of what I’m passionate about. It’s serving people and helping them find what they need. I was able to connect children that needed families to parents that wanted to extend their love and [care] to another child. To get those children into a loving environment, [to] see them change and blossom and grow was very rewarding.”

Helping Children in Africa

Several years ago, Miller traveled to Kenya. It had a profound effect on her. She explained how she got involved with a charity called Milele Home (milele means “forever” in Swahili). “I was there with my best friend who supports children in Kitale, Kenya. A few years later as a junior in college, [my friend’s] daughter, Cassie Fields Furnari, started the Milele Home for street kids.”

Miller continued, “The Milele Home provides opportunities, encouragement, and education for teenage street children. [The goal is to help them] rise out of poverty and become leaders in their communities. Cassie is taking teenage boys who are living on the streets and giving them a milele (forever) home. I have been involved with them ever since.”

Miller explained how and why the funds were raised, “Cassie solicited sponsors for her home. She got the boys into boarding school, [which was no easy] feat because they can’t go to school unless they have purchased their uniforms, shoes, books, everything.” In addition to the costs of an education, there is a negative perception surrounding street children and many people are unwilling to help.

The work did not end there. “Beyond that, Cassie found them a home because of what was happening during breaks in school. [The boys] didn’t have any place to go. The risk of returning to the street was huge. [We thought] that we might lose them to drug abuse or other abusive situations during those breaks in the school year,” Miller stated.

Miller then explained her role. “[Furnari] enlisted a local pastor and his wife, who graciously offered to take these boys into their home. Their home wasn’t large enough to accommodate all the boys, so Cassie solicited more support and found a bigger home. The funding is managed by Cassie and her team to help Pastor Joel and Margaret Juma run Milele Home. I am part of supporting the bigger home.”

The results have been miraculous. “What started with seven boys has grown to 22 boys that have been rescued from a life of hopelessness on the streets to a life of love, acceptance, care and education: A life filled with hope,” explained Miller.

The results have been miraculous. What started with seven boys has grown to 22 boys that have been rescued from a life of hopelessness on the streets to a life of love, acceptance, care and education: A life filled with hope.

Transcending Procurement

Procurement is more than just a job for Miller. “I really do love it. I love that I get to know so many people, and that I [interact with] every single department in the company. Pursuing a career, working hard at it, and being successful has enabled me to fulfill a lot of other passions in my life. And one is supporting these children [in Kenya]. Not just there, but I also do volunteer and charitable work here in our own backyard,” she explained.

Her backyard is California. “I volunteer in Santa Cruz. I have done work with Project Homeless Connect and with a women’s shelter and crisis pregnancy center. I got involved through my church, but it’s an entire community service effort that helps these organizations in Santa Cruz,” Miller explained.

When I asked Miller if she felt that she was carrying on her parents’ legacy, she responded by saying, “If I can do half of what they did and impact a few lives, I will be grateful. They have impacted a lot of different people in many ways.” In her own humble way, Miller is an inspiration to others, showing how one person can make a positive difference in the world.

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy

*Note: Cassie Furnari is looking to expand Milele Home in Kenya. If you are interested in learning more, visit milelehome.org