Stories That Inspire #3: How Catherine's passion is reinventing CRM consulting in France

In the first episode of “Stories That Inspire” for 2019, we have a senior partner sharing her story of transition, from an employee to an entrepreneur. We'd like to present the founder of ZSphere, Catherine Coolen—a management expert in France and a Zoho enthusiast at heart!

Adhya: Hello Catherine, and welcome to Stories That Inspire. Before ZSphere, what was your story?

Catherine: I'd worked in managerial roles at several IT companies. I have over 20 years of experience in different types of software companies and was involved in various capacities, including that of a project manager, a trainer, a marketing manager, a consultant, and towards the end, I was the CTO of a company. These jobs taught me a lot about building and selling software.

Adhya: So what prompted you to make this shift from working for a firm to starting one of your own?

Catherine: Entrepreneurship was always at the back of my mind and I knew, deep down, that I would build my own company. This switch got turned on during my last stint, when I was tasked with centralizing the CRM for our ten subsidiaries all over the world.

It was at this point that I realized CRM was the thing for me; it provided the right mix of sales, marketing, finance, and IT. And, I started ZSphere from this thought of having my own consulting company.

Adhya: Having been a CTO, you would have already mastered the art of managing a firm. How different was it with ZSphere?

Catherine: I've always worked in software, so it was more of that than a consulting company. I wanted to promote a product. Given my history with software, it wasn't easy to put myself across as a consultant. So I made up my mind to work with only one product—CRM—and give it my undivided attention.

Adhya: How did this focus to find the right product culminate with Zoho?

Catherine: There were a lot of options for big companies like ERPs. In fact, in France it was getting a bit saturated. On the other hand, for small and medium companies there were fewer affordable options, but there was a huge opportunity in the form of cloud-based CRM.

So, I wanted to find a CRM for that target. I started following bloggers in the US and discovered Zoho in a CRM blog. So, I tested the product and was very much convinced that this was the right CRM for the SME market.

Adhya: What's your approach to the implementation of a CRM for a customer? 

Catherine: The bigger and smaller firms operate very differently. When I implement a CRM, I understand the needs of the customer, how to customize the products to their demands, and how to convince them to adopt the tools that come with it. This was the basis of promoting CRM and marketing tools.

Adhya: How has this journey from inception to landing your first client been?

Catherine: I started out with traditional marketing. At the start, I wanted to be with the right company, so I bought leads that were in my area of SMEs and started promoting Zoho as a CRM, not only because of my passion for Zoho, but because I was aware of the possibilities of the tool.  

At that time, Salesforce was one of our biggest competitors, but my first client was very open-minded. Despite having his options, he was willing to discuss the potential of Zoho. This made it easy for me to show him how Zoho can achieve the same functionalities as the rest along with incredible savings of cost and time!

Adhya: Traditional marketing is never an easy option, especially at the beginning. How did it work out?

Catherine: Traditional marketing was an outdated concept then, but we didn't have the resources to run a huge campaign. So the conventional marketing strategies and email campaigns were all that I had to explore.

I knew people and approached them to convince them on the strengths of the product. This was challenging at that time because there were people who objected to the idea of Zoho, due to the bigger names out here. Yet, when a client tested the Zoho product, they were convinced of its potential and the cost savings that would come along, rather than going for the bigger names.

Adhya: How has your lead sourcing game changed?

Catherine: Now, we work very differently, because the brand is better known in France. We have cold prospects calling in to learn about Zoho and the traffic on the website is also on the rise. Zoho Campaigns is helping us market most of the leads. Since we used Zoho in our company, it makes it easier for us to convince our clients to do the same.

 Also, Zoho has a lot of products now. Existing customers have been coming in to explore and get trained on the newest additions to the catalogue. We've opened our Zoho campus in Paris, where we train companies on all the Zoho products. It's been the best place for companies without a budget to have a consultant to get trained and meet new customers. So now, when we get new leads, we nurture them!

Adhya: And what are the skills that you're trying to onboard?

Catherine: There aren’t any Zoho consultants in France—we have to train them all. So, I have a group of consultants who are experts in sales and marketing. This expertise gives them the potential to convince the CEOs of companies. Most of them are senior consultants—old Zoho customers who were impressed by its results and wanted to recommend it to other firms.  

Another sect of my consultants are students who are just out of school. Zoho keeps coming up with new products and I believe that these fresh minds can master them in no time.

Adhya: Wow! So, you had both sides of the spectrum covered. What type of industries do you serve?

Catherine: We're not focused on any specific industry because Zoho can be used everywhere. Initially, Zoho was spread across the US and Silicon Valley, but not in France. So, our first few were from the IT, technology, and services background. However, we're not restricting ourselves to one domain.

Last year, we saw a lot of industries coming in to integrate their ERP with Zoho because Zoho had the perfect package for their marketers—we have a lot of people coming in from the marketing front of companies.

Adhya: You started your journey with Zoho when we were hardly present in the French market. How challenging was it?

Catherine: We have 2 issues in France. Our first issue is language. Over 50% of the French market doesn’t know English, but all the tools and training expertise provided by Zoho are in English. So, we cannot use them directly; we have to translate it all and we didn't have the time for it.

The second issue was that, at ZSphere we have a small team of consultants and at times it becomes overwhelming with the number of new products and updates from Zoho.

However, being around for 11 years gave us a knack for understanding how things work at Zoho.

Adhya: Could you account on any such challenging experiences you’ve had while serving a client?

Catherine: We have very different case studies. One was "PackShot Creator"—an expert in product photography. We learned that they were using different tools to run the firm: HubSpot for marketing, Sage for invoicing, and Zendesk for after-sales. Spread across 35 nations, they felt disconnected and wanted a single interface to provide for all their services.  

So, we proposed Zoho One because it had every module that could build a business from scratch and they ended up building their entire business around Zoho!

Adhya: How did you celebrate a decade of partnership with Zoho?

Catherine: For the 10th year of ZSphere, we travelled to Chennai! I wanted my team to understand and experience the culture at Zoho in Chennai—a very friendly environment! In fact, it is my dream that every new entrant in my firm visits your Chennai campus. Partners are from all over the world and I think it's important to meet and build relationships. I like the Zoho Community for this!

Adhya: Thank you, Catherine. We would love to have you here! So, what are your plans for 2019?

Catherine: We're experiencing the same growth as in the past, which is about 40%. This year, we plan to investigate new markets to promote Zoho Recruit. Many recruitment companies are looking out for this, so we're planning to work on this dedicated market. Also, there's another market in digital agencies, and we're planning to promote Zoho marketing tools here. This will be my way to stay connected with Zoho.

Adhya: We've reached the end of our interview. Is there anything you'd like our readers to know?

Catherine: I am thrilled to contribute my experience with Zoho; it has been a great journey for my team. Zoho has a very different approach to work. The culture reflects Sridhar Vembu’s vision for the future. He's an inventive person who has been many things—a manager, HR, a technical person, and an entrepreneur. I think the entire Partner network also works with this Zoho spirit!

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Know more about Partners @ Zoho here.


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