Why You Should Focus on e-business, Not Just e-commerce

speed of acceleration of technology

(33 minute podcast)

In this Hug the Curve podcast, host Steve Niesman is joined by Bob Meyer, Vice President of Customer Experience Solutions at itelligence, to discuss why your business should focus on doing e-business, versus just e-commerce.

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(Steve Niesman) Hello, everyone, welcome to our Hug the Curve series podcast. Great to be with you again. I’m your host, Steve Niesman. Today, we’re joined by Bob Meyer, Vice President of Customer Experience Solutions at itelligence. Bob, welcome to the podcast. Can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself, your background, and just what the heck is a Vice President of Customer Experience Solutions?

(Bob Meyer) Sure, happy to do that. And it’s common for most folks not to know what exactly customer experience solutions are — so long and short of it, a customer experience solution is anything that deals with touchpoints for the customer. That could be online, that could be offline, that could be a sales person, customer service representative, etc.

As far as my background, I’ve been in the space for a very long time, over 20 years in the online space. I originally started when catalogers — remember those things? — when they were trying to move online and figured out the whole, how do we get our products to display? How do we then add them to cart? How do we accept credit cards? And then, over the years I’ve seen that evolve into business-to-consumer commerce, for example, then obviously business-to-business commerce. And then CX started taking on a couple of other areas, as well. Marketing automation — how do you get your brand messaging out to folks? Sales and service automation, so think CRM; think field service technology and then now, today, how are you tracking identity and consent with all the rules and regulations around what is being tracked and the right to know what’s being captured on me and the right to forget and all that stuff? It’s become an important part of the customer experience process.

(Steve Niesman) Thanks, Bob. You brought up a lot of information just in your introduction, and there’s a number of areas I’d like to explore and for you to pontificate with our audience. But let’s start broadly about what do you see going on today in this world of engaging with customers of e-commerce? What the heck is happening out there?

(Bob Meyer) That’s a great question, and it’s actually a very exciting time in our space. And I couldn’t find the exact quote, but the gist of the quote was, “In the last six months, e-commerce has evolved ten years.” So, in other words, what we expected to see in 2030, we’re actually seeing already in 2020. And I think that’s putting a lot of pressure on companies as to, what do I need to do with regards to customer experience? And a few of the things that I find customers are hesitant on is, first, inactivity. They don’t know what to do and they think it has to be perfect. And so my advice is start small. You can always expand from there.

The other thing is, you don’t have to boil the ocean all at once. So there are a multitude of solutions that can work well collectively, like the CX suite from SAP, but they also work well independently. So you don’t have to do everything all at once. You can find your pain points, find areas where you can expand your relationships with customers, increase revenue, etc., and capitalize on those small things to start. And then the systems are sophisticated enough that over time you can continue to expand and grow them to tackle any other business challenges that come up.

(Steve Niesman) It’s interesting, Bob; I like what you said just a moment ago. I’ll rephrase it in my vernacular. And you said, perfect is the enemy of ‘good enough.’ In other words, as you said, start small.

So let’s explore for the audience, if you would, what is e-commerce today? Where do you start small? What are some of these pain points that companies are seeing in this world of technology evolving so fast? And then maybe a second part, Bob, if I could set you up, and that would be with COVID-19 and the pandemic hitting while customers’ companies are so confused, where do they start?

(Bob Meyer) First, I think as an industry, we do a terrible job. We say e-commerce; what we really mean is e-business. So, yes, it includes being able to find products and add to a bag. And in a lot of cases, that’s where companies are hesitant. They don’t think their products will translate online or that their buyer will want to buy things online.

I can tell you that 90% of all research is done before somebody contacts a company online. Millennials are now making up a big portion of the purchasers, and so 70% of them don’t even want to talk to a sales rep. They want to find it online. So I think for companies, it’s what do they want to achieve and what are their biggest pain points? For example, we’re working with one of our long-term customers, and we are putting in Commerce. We’re calling it an e-business platform, but we’re not even turning on the cart capability just yet. What we’re doing is we’re creating a dealer portal for them. And what they’re able to do is offload a lot of work from customer service representatives and phone calls, all of those things. They can put all that information online. So if I placed an order and want to see what its status is, I don’t have to call in. I can go online, click, find my tracking number, find out what LTL it’s on, get information right there at my fingertips. I can also look up invoices, those types of things.

So we’re seeing companies recognize that, again, you don’t have to do everything at once. Figure out what your pain points are, and we can help identify and prioritize those for you and then determine what is the best first step.

The other thing is you don’t have to build Amazon day one. You can build a simple checkout process where you can order consumables, replacement items, those types of things. But, for example, you’re not going to order a big press brake online. You could in a few months, if you wanted to. But initially you could order those small, consumable things that, again, could take burden off of the rest of your staff.

As far as companies, where to start? That is a great question. And, I think, in my opinion, the best place to start is, what are your and your customers’ pain points today? And what we often see is companies do have an online presence or do have a good CRM system. And what we’re finding is those experiences differ from each other versus when they call in to a call center person or an associate on the phone. And what we like to look at is those individual point solutions and how well integrated are they to the enterprise. And that’s where we feel SAP stands out, where we can connect or integrate online, for example, to your pricing engine. So you don’t have to replicate those prices. So if I’m a customer and I go online, I see those parts or those products, I know that’s my price. If I call in to a call center person, they see the same price. If I talk to a sales rep, that sales rep sees the same price.

So I would start with what is my pain point, and how can I address or attack it first, and then look to expand that capability and then perhaps expand into different touchpoints of the customer where those or that same pain point is, or new pain points exist.

(Steve Niesman) That’s really good, Bob. But let me rephrase, in my words, what you just said. In other words: crawl, walk, run. You can’t be an Amazon on day one. Don’t be afraid or try to pretend to be Amazon, but get the foundation, and crawl, walk, run. And the crawling may be in the step one, as you identified for our folks, would be find that business pain that is holding you back and address that. Is that fair?

(Bob Meyer) That is fair. The other component I would add to that is delay or latency could cost you revenue. Sometimes, and as we spoke at the beginning, it’s better to do something than to do nothing, even if that something isn’t 100% complete because somebody else out there is thinking about it or doing it and will disrupt your business.

So it sounds cliché, but you’re better off disrupting your own business, because you can control the narrative than having the competitor come in offering a better experience versus, you know, similar products, etc. The experience is the differentiator, and having them start to take customers away from you.

(Steve Niesman) Bob, help our audience with a viewpoint in the sense that you said customers can’t afford to wait. Technology’s moving too fast. They’re going to fall behind the curve of technology. Yet with COVID-19 and the pandemic, budgets are frozen. CFOs are trying to protect cash. But you’re saying something that sort of goes against the grain is, spend what you can; you need to do something. Otherwise you’re going to fall behind, correct?

(Bob Meyer) I’m fortunate; the segment of our business that I’m in is all cloud based. So we have a lot of subscription products. So you don’t need to have that big capital outlay in order to get these projects started. Working with itelligence, we also have flexibility to extend how you go about paying for your implementation and integrations. So right there we feel we have an advantage for most companies. But it’s a matter of talking to your solution partner and understanding what those challenges are.

And again, now is the time to look at how you’re allocating capital. Do we make that big capital purchase for something that might be in the office or extra hardware, versus, is now the time, do we look and see if we can get a subscription model? And now you start off small and it’s kind of, again, cliché, pay as you grow. You start off small with a modest subscription for an e-commerce solution, for example, then as your business ramps up and grows, because it’s in the cloud, you don’t have to re-platform, you don’t have to buy more hardware. You add to your subscription and the infrastructure and all of the things that we over the years have traditionally worried about are not a worry anymore, because those are inclusive in the prices. Somebody else who’s an expert at those things manages those pieces of infrastructure, and you get to manage the results of that infrastructure and that software, and that’s running your business. How do you do more online? How do you move people over to a digital channel? People that want to be on the digital channel, how are you addressing their needs and taking care of their wants from your organization?

(Steve Niesman) Bob, maybe if you could just explain to our audience a little bit more. You hit on the concept of what’s called CapEx, or spending capital — a lot of cash up front and a big purchase upfront versus this cloud, or “subscription model,” which people call OpEx, which means the payments are paid for over time. So that’s both in the software space, but there’s also some interesting trends in terms of services that companies more and more — or some of them, like in itelligence — are moving to a subscription as a service. Can you comment on that and how that can help a customer?

(Bob Meyer) Yes, quite simply, in COVID, it’s about cash flow. And what are you doing with the cash that you have, being able to justify hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in cash outlay without knowing what the results will be for two, three, four years or on your time horizon. Imagine if you could take that same approach, slice it into smaller, absorbable components, pay for it monthly, and then as your projects come online, you start to see the time to value much, much faster.

So rather than spending $500K dollars on an e-commerce solution all up front, imagine if you were able to spread that cost as well as the software subscription over a period of two or three years, whatever that is. And now all of a sudden, you’ve got a much more palatable budget. You can understand what is working with the solution faster. And then it also enables you to look at things with a different lens so that maybe some of those nice-to-haves or things that were going to be a project you are going to do in two years, they may actually have a real benefit. And if you did them now, the monthly cost may not be that much more or that significant, but the return on investment is going to be much quicker. So you tend to make decisions on how quickly can we see a result and what is going to drive our business versus worrying about how are we going to pay for that extra $100K or $200K worth of software and services. It gives people a lot more flexibility as to how they’re going to market.

The other benefit is, because you’re biting things off in smaller chunks, your projects tend to be more successful because they’re smaller, more manageable. You get to see the results right away. And now you can make decisions as to your next release because you’re seeing the results or you’re not seeing results. Do we need to tweak something to make that growth or that return happen faster? And I think it just gives much more — I’ll steal a project management term — much more agility to an organization to be able to flex and react to things without having to worry that, oh, my gosh, I’ve got this massive capital outlay and I’ve got to stay on this single focused project or process for two or three years. You can move between things much quicker and they have to prove themselves out much faster.

(Steve Niesman) Very good, Bob, so thank you. I think that the whole context of what you were just explaining walks us to your paradigm against, start small and make the payments and the cash flow, afford what is in your business model, given the pandemic changes and all of that. So very good.

I want to explore another angle. You stimulated a thought in my brain. Much of what we’ve read about from the analysts and the writers, from Fortune and Forbes and so forth, they talk about technology and the speed of change and how technology has never moved this fast before and will never move this slow again. And my pointed question to you, Bob, is many people fear technology that, hey, this automation will take away my job. But what do you experience in the e-business space, how is technology perhaps enabling people to do a better job rather than mundane tasks where things can be automated? What do you see in your space in e-business in terms of the embrace and use of technology to enrich employees’ jobs?

(Bob Meyer) That’s a great question. What we see is that the fears are real with the employees that could be impacted by some of these technological changes. But from my vantage point, it’s helping the employees understand what is really the focus of their job, and what are they supposed to be doing with regards to, in this case, customer experience.

So if I’m a customer service associate, is my job to answer the phone and tell somebody where their order is? Sure, that’s part of it, but isn’t my job really to help our customers understand our products better and how they can use their products better to make their business more successful? And imagine if you could take off those mundane things that could be self-service tasks from a customer service agent or a sales rep or whomever, and allow them to focus on the things that really make the business better for their customers — and in turn their company — rather than just the tasks that can be easily handled by technology.

And I think that’s something that once folks overcome it, they tend to realize that while technology really can help and the other component to technology is because of the pace in which it’s moving, it can do things much quicker and much more accurately than humans can. We’ve seen it with image recognition, for example. A computer can recognize an image of something faster than a human can. We’re starting to see with voice technology where our Bot technology, if you will, where I can ask a question to a computer and it knows a series of logic to be able to answer my questions, and it can do it 24/7, 365. So those are all things that once folks understand how it’s going to benefit their job to make it more fulfilling, less mundane and less tedious, if you will, they tend to embrace the technology. It takes a little bit to get them over that curve. But once they start to see the benefit, we find that a lot of companies and employees embrace that change.

(Steve Niesman) Cool. Thank you for that. And I want to take you in maybe another direction just for a minute. And I want to quote one of the guys that I like to read, Alan Murray from Fortune magazine. And earlier this year, when the pandemic hit, he alluded to businesses throughout the world and since the onset of COVID-19, every business, essentially, that was a brick-and-mortar store has become a freight-forwarding warehouse and an online e-commerce business or an online-delivery restaurant, so to speak. In other words, what Alan said, is business has been dramatically affected by COVID-19 and companies are using technology to restir their business. Do you have any examples, or would you like to comment on what Alan is trying to tell the greater business folks out there?

(Bob Meyer) Yeah, my comment and my opinion on it is, he’s right. So if you think about just a traditional distributor, for example, they receive goods in from various manufacturers; they essentially are an intermediary. They make it easy for, let’s say, a construction worker to go find the things that they need for their project. You know, years past, and I came up from the ranks at a welding distributor when I was younger, and part of that relationship was, OK, I go into a local distribution center — or in some cases they call them stores — but location, and either place my order on the phone or went and talked to the guys at the counter. They pulled all my stuff.

Well, because of the social distancing and everything else, that’s not really feasible anymore. So what we see is technology enabling that same process, but with the safety measures in place. So I’m on my phone, I’m using the same technology that runs my e-business platform or e-commerce site, I look up the items I want, it tells me if they’re in stock, and I say, I want to go pick them up. I get an email when everything’s ready, I pull up to the front of the store, and now I’m able to get my products, walk in, walk out, have somebody bring them out to my truck and away I go. The process still happened. You were able to continue your business. You made the experience that much easier for the contractor, if you will.

And we’re starting to see that more and more. The fact that people still in certain industries need things right away, e-commerce and technology doesn’t change that, but what it can do is enable a method to get them those things right away with technology behind it. So the ability to order, pick things up, find out if it’s in stock, etc., I think are enabling companies to do things that they didn’t think they’d be able to do, and now they can.

Same with companies that take that same distributor for food, for example, restaurants. They supply goods and services to restaurants. Restaurants aren’t doing as much business, but people still need food. So all of a sudden you’re shifting your channel from, I go directly to restaurants to now I have to go to consumers. How do you do that? You’re used to selling cases, now you’ve got to sell “each-es” while having the right technology behind it to be able to have people pick up in the store, or better yet, I can put those things on a UPS truck or a FedEx truck, or what have you, and ship them direct to the end users’ site or house, if you will. Those are things that a lot of distributors hadn’t contemplated until COVID, and technology is enabling them to do that much, much quicker.

And again, they have to remember that that consumer is used to a consumer experience, not a B2B experience. So being able to do that, they don’t want to buy, you know, five cases of chicken. They want to buy a chicken. So how do you scale it down and be able to handle a hundred people who are receiving your products versus one, and technology has enabled a lot of companies to do that, and do that quickly.

(Steve Niesman) You know, you bring up an interesting point. In conversations I have with customers, Bob, I use the old adage, time waits for no one. And I change it a little bit to say, folks, today’s world of technology is waiting for no one. But what you’re trying to say is, hey, it’s happening in the world of the e-business/e-commerce space and the companies that — and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so correct me — but it sounds like you’re saying the companies that are not sticking to that and saying technology waits for no one, but we’re going to do some of our biggest business pains in an affordable subscription and a deliberate manner to crawl, walk, run, might be the ones who make it out of this COVID maybe as well as they used to be, or maybe even thrive more in the future. You agree or disagree?

(Bob Meyer) I agree, because what they’re doing is, they’re addressing their pain points — theirs and their customers’ pain points — in a manageable fashion rather than saying, you know what, we’re going to wait until business is back to normal. And again, none of us are sure what ‘business is back to normal’ is ever going to look like. So why not figure out how to be successful now, and then as the model changes again in 6-12 months, you’ll have technology in place that can capitalize on that change and help you pivot more quickly.

(Steve Niesman) Bob, are there any characteristics of a company or of leadership in all the companies that you talk to, in terms of, is this change that you see of technology and trying to adapt and not get “out Amazon’ed” by the small or midsize companies in your own business — is there a certain trait that an IT department owns this e-commerce project, it’s a business project, it’s a user project? What do you see the successful companies doing? Who owns these projects, who’s got the foresight, and who drives this?

(Bob Meyer) Great question. In my experience, the most successful projects are driven top-down with different levels of ownership. So what I mean by that is, it’s got to start at the executive level. This is how we’re going to solve these business challenges; we’re going to figure out new ways to go to newer technologies, newer markets, fulfill our customers’ wants and needs. And then the business has specific goals, KPIs, sales targets, revenue targets — whatever those are — that they have to achieve.

So they have to make sure that what’s being developed or delivered is addressing those KPIs, if you will. And then IT involvement is critical to make sure that the solution is, first of all, integrated well to the existing systems. That takes advantage of investments that are already made and that as it gets put into place, that the organization understands how it works and how it’s going to scale and then how it could be leveraged in the future for other initiatives that may or may not have been identified yet.

So it’s the proverbial three-legged stool or all three of those groups within a customer organization has to be involved. And then you add in the appropriate solution provider who can guide them through the various bits of technology, help understand what are the low-hanging fruit, the easy things to achieve, so that they can recognize those gains quickly, I think is the other important part.

(Steve Niesman) So the takeaway on this one, Bob, it’s really a partnership. It’s the vision of the business in concert with IT, enabling it as a three-legged stool or total partnership that drives the success.

Bob, one other thought or question for you. In doing my research to have the honor to interview you today, I’d read about how there’s a misconception in the marketplace when we talk about e-business or e-commerce. And some companies say today, well, I don’t sell like Amazon, I’m not going to an end consumer, so our technology – what we have today as a business-to-business — is good enough.

Is that okay to do today? Is it a mistake, is it changing? What’s your experience with all the customers that you worked with through the years on this e-business experience? What was it, where is it today, and where is it going?

(Bob Meyer) I think it depends on the technology, if it’s good enough. What we tend to see is that companies think that online or e-business is only at the bag and check-out. That on occasion somebody will want to do that.

But we tend to see in the space now is that companies are doing much more research online to find out about products and services and are checking multiple sources. So you may have a good relationship with somebody, but they’re checking out your competition. So making sure that your information is clearly presented, that you continue to sell yourself on a digital platform versus an in-person platform.

The other thing is that the wants and needs of the buyer are constantly changing. So you have to keep up with their desires in terms of how they want to be dealt with. I mentioned earlier that we’re seeing the purchasing group starting to skew younger and younger. They tend to be great online consumers in their personal time. They want that same experience when interacting with companies. And so how do you make that available to them?

And then looking at where you can expand the capabilities of online. So we talked about self-service, being able to look up my order status, being able to find out what invoices are past due, or can I print my invoice; where are my credits? Now we’re actually starting to see folks leverage the operational technologies that you’ve heard a lot about – IoT, for example. If you’ve got IoT devices on a bunch of your machines and what the customer can do is log on to your customer service portal and see all of the IoT data as it relates to the equipment of yours they own, and now they can start to see, okay, am I going to need consumables, am I going to need service on this piece of equipment in advance — because now we’re capturing that sensor data and presenting it to a customer so that when a sales person or service person calls them, they now have empirical data that says, hey, you’ve run this machine for 10,000 cycles, right around 12,000 cycles it needs to have this type of service work done, do you want to go ahead and schedule it? Or you’re burning through consumables ten times faster than 15 other companies that are using the same piece of equipment; is there something going on that we need to be aware of? Now you’re being a better servant to your customers, and they’re going to appreciate the use of that technology.

So we’re starting to see reasons why the status quo isn’t going to work and it’s starting to, again, blend together different technologies to address different needs; some needs you didn’t even know you needed– like looking at IoT data on specific pieces of equipment to see how it’s performing against others. And it can be very informative for you.

(Steve Niesman) Thank you, Bob. So one final question to you, and let me frame it this way: so you’ve just given our audience a lot of insights that e-business is certainly so much more than an online shopping cart in the simple order entry, especially from a business-to-business — and the business-to-business today is much more robust and needs to be much more of a business-to-consumer-like feel and experience. If you were going to leave our audience today with maybe one, two or three takeaways today, either to get started, to how do they digest technology affordably, what do they need to do to start now? What couple pieces of advice would you give to our audience to conclude today?

(Bob Meyer) Aside from ‘Call itelligence,’ I would say the first one is, what are your current pain points — make sure that’s understood and agreed upon. Some departments have different pain points from others.

If you have any insight from your customers, what things are your customers looking for that you’re not providing today? I would also look at your competitors. What are they doing, both in industry and outside of industry? Who do you aspire to be? What are they doing that’s so dynamic or so inspiring, if you will.

And then, think of where you want to be in 3-4 years, and set out a path to get there. Again, you don’t have to get there day one. Over time, what is it going to take for you to get those things put in place that will make you realize the vision of what you feel is going to happen in the next 3-4 years. So, again, start small, iterate often, and measure results each time.

(Steve Niesman) Awesome, very pragmatic, Bob, good way to approach things and thank you for spending time and helping to educate and inform our audience.

And to our audience, thanks again for joining us in the podcast today. I look forward to hosting you on another a Hug the Curve podcast in the future. Take care.

(Bob Meyer) Thank you.

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