Phil Buckley Precision Lender

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This is the second in a series of interviews I’m conducting with startup marketing veterans, in hopes of helping Triangle entrepreneurs better market their companies and find the right marketing leaders. 
For this installment I sat down with one of the key influencers in the Raleigh-Durham marketing community Phil Buckley. He is communications director at PrecisionLender and his prior roles include director of SEO at Virante, director of interactive at Capstrat, director of user experience at Media Two Interactive and search marketing manager at Sinclair Institute
In his spare time, he hosted the longest running SEO Meetup in the country and co-found the Digital Marketing For Business conference. He is a Boston native and he loves all Boston sports teams. (He even trolled me on Twitter when Harvard was ahead of UNC during the NCAA tourney last spring) 

Phil, how did you start working at PrecisionLender? 

I was co-founder of a startup called Curagami and we completed The Startup Factory in the spring of 2014. The company didn’t get the market traction that we needed so I went back into the job market. I saw a post on LinkedIn and PrecisionLender was looking for a full stack marketer. They wanted someone who could make things happen quickly. 
For several years I was a web developer. I accidentally found my way into SEO and eventually digital marketing. In 2015 the decision looks totally planned and brilliant, but it was completely by accident. 
When I met with the team I really liked that they want to move fast. The company pushes code into production 10 times per week. That’s a company that gets it! 

What does PrecisionLender do? 

PrecisionLender makes software for banks that helps commercial lenders win more deals. I didn’t come from a banking background so I had a lot to learn. I quickly appreciated that banks have salespeople, in this case loan officers, like any other business. Ten percent of them are gong to excel under any circumstances and our software is designed to help the balance of the team. 
The application allows the underwriting team to set lending parameters for the loan officers. Whenever a loan officer sits down with a potential client he can use the software to create a loan that is profitable for the bank and that meets the needs of the customer. We enable the bank to put up guardrails for the loan officer and he has a chance to close a deal without going back and forth with the lending committee. The software is easy to use, but if the lenders don't use it then none of it matters. 

The company had been around for a couple of years before you started with them, so you were brought in to accelerate the growth? 

The problem wasn’t closing the sale. I was really brought in because nobody knows about us. There are 5500 banks in the U.S. and about 25% of them recognize our name. 

It sounds like there are two goals here: How many people know the company name and how well they understand what you do. 

Carl, the CEO of the company, built an application like this several years ago and in 2009 he got the band back together. He had existing relationships that we could use to reach the early customers. Then he hired some salespeople. It seemed like the next logical step but the salespeople were used to selling something that the bank already had, like check imaging machines. What we were selling was something that customers had never thought of looking outside of the bank for. This was a new tool and required a new way of thinking. 
We shifted our game plan to speaking at state banking conferences. Each state has a conference and this year we will go to 70 state or regional events. We will speak at about 30 and we have a booth at the rest. Our talks are never really a sales pitch, we focus on how bankers think about lending. 
A big part of this year has been working on better collateral to tell our story. The company is engineering driven and the collateral needed to be upgraded. 

That’s how you manage the awareness, did you do any customer journey mapping to identify brand touch points? 

We didn’t do any formal work on that but during the last five years we have identified two major parts. The senior finance officers—the ones who are the economic buyers and the lending officers are using it. A big part of the journey is making sure that the lenders feel comfortable and enthusiastic about using the product. Lenders who are doing a great job—that top 10 percent—are easy to convince but the rest of the lending team is working to meet internal profitability hurdles. We work to change their perspective from appealing to the lending team to help a customer, to presenting (to the lending team) what PrecisionLender shows about the loan. 
The first part of the process, selling to management, we know how to do, but the second step is an on-going effort. Managers were used to imposing things and we realized that was the wrong approach. 

How have you segmented your customers? 

We segmented the banks by volume and we broke them out into three groups. The first is $100 million to $750 million and most of them are relying on relationships and judgment to make loans. The mid-tier is $750 million to $5 billion and they have spreadsheet financial models to help them make decisions. While the last tier is $5 billion and up and they typically have a development team that has built a lending application. 
Small banks usually have a tool they are using and it’s usually third party software. We tell them that our product allows them to focus on growth instead of technology. We price the product based on the assets of the bank so we also provide a great value. 
We see a lot of banks in the middle tier who have integrated a tool with salesforce. They typically are moving away from outside tools and want to build a custom application. Sometimes it’s spreadsheet driven which has a couple of problems. Once the CFO gives it to the lender, he has lost control and the lending officer doesn’t know why variables in the spreadsheet are changing. 
The big banks are a little more of a challenge. They have substantial IT resources that develop custom applications. Our sell to them is the development team isn’t focused on building and maintaining a lending application. They have 500 other things to do so why not buy a cost effective, easily implemented solution that will free up the developers to work on other things. Our product is cloud based so we can implement in 8-12 weeks. 

How do you position the bank? 

There are some competitors in the small bank segment but once we get out of that group there are a handful of products that we run into. We have a couple of points of differentiation when we compare ourselves to them. Our product is cloud based and it’s a sales and negotiation tool, not a roadblock. Its easy to implement, cost effective and it helps banks increase revenues. 

We’ve discussed how you are making people aware of the software and how you position the brand, but the selling process is pretty long from trade show contact to close. How do you nurture a prospect? 

That’s the biggest thing that we’ve improved. We work very hard to generate content that matches the needs of each segment. (By the way, PrecisionLender is looking to hire more writers) We write for all the state banking organizations and we started the first podcast focused on how to be a better lender. 
We are also working on two major projects. One is a book on how we think about lending. There is no Seth Godin in our space so we are establishing ourselves as the thought leader. We are also planning a conference for next spring with a group of complementary vendors. The goal is to provide high quality information instead of a long sale pitch. 
A lot of our best content and ideas come from our customer advisory board. They are our most engaged customers and they share best practices, help us develop the product roadmap and inspire us. 

Phil, as always, it was great to catch up and I look forward to following your success at PrecisionLender. You are still one of my favorite Yankees...  I mean northerners.