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Insights Learned From Digitally Transforming a $9B Company

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No digital transformation is the same, but when a massive B2B organization embarks on that journey, you better believe that there will be a lot of lessons learned that can be applied to any other company. That’s why we wanted to talk to former Chief Digital Officer at Univar SolutionsIan Gresham, who led the digital transformation and ecommerce implementation at this $9 billion multinational industrial distribution business. Look around at the things around you, make up, dish soap, skincare, solvents for your car. Univar probably has a part to play in that.

On this episode of Up Next in Commerce, Ian tells us about the experience of bringing a massive organization into the world of digital commerce, and he reveals some of the biggest learnings from the experience that he is using now as an executive advisor to multiple businesses. For example, how should ecommerce leaders frame the building of a platform to get buy-in from the top down, and what kind of strategies should you implement to drive adoption of your platform? Interestingly, it’s a combination of moving fast but also taking it slow — tune in to learn what that means in practice. Plus, Ian shares more tips and discusses some of the insider details on the projects he’s currently working on. Enjoy!

Main Takeaways:

  • If You Build It, They.. May Not Come: When going through a digital transformation, many companies fall into the trap of believing that if they simply build and launch an ecommerce website, their customers will flock to it. In reality — and especially in the B2B space – there is an education and adoption phase that needs to happen to actually make an ecommerce site successful.
  • M-V-P!: It’s wise to take an MVP approach to building an ecommerce platform because it forces you to focus on one specific feature that you can provide that solves a problem for a customer reliably well over and over. By offering that one solution, you can drive faster adoption of the platform because you are not overwhelming customers with a multitude of features, some of which they don’t want or need. New features can come down the road, but adoption needs to come first. And the entire organization needs to be on the same page that building a platform is an ongoing process with no set start and end date because there will always be new things to add or improve.
  • It’s About The Journey: In businesses that rely on face-to-face interactions, the omnichannel experience is becoming more important than ever. To digitize some of the interactions and drive the adoption of more online tools, you have to start from the bottom up and understand every kind of customer and customer journey that exists within your business. From there, you can start reallocating headcount to digitize certain processes and send other resources to handle high-value customer interactions so that you know you are investing in the parts of the customer journey that are most in need.

For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Key Quotes:

“In B2B distribution, one of my observations was that innovation was not as common as it was in these manufactured product companies. I think a huge opportunity that I saw was with digital, this is a way for a distributor to innovate around customer experience. A distributor doesn’t typically make products. What they make is a unique customer experience, and they deliver on that better or worse than their competition. Digital is a way for that type of business to really create a better customer experience and solve problems that have remained somewhat unsolved.”

“My story is one of helping lead a company that’s pretty early in a digital transformation stage, not the bleeding edge… What we learned was the Kevin Costner movie, ‘If you build it they will come,’ Field of Dreams, is not necessarily the case in ecommerce. You have to drive adoption. You have to have a great product that makes something better for customers to use it, prefer it, and stick with it. But also, you got to do some hand-holding with some of these customers that have been doing things the same way for a long time. Digital transformation is about leaving an old state of affairs and moving to something new and better, but change requires support and communication.” 

“It’s really helpful to know what are your most valuable features, and focus them on that first. One of our most popular features was having a library of customer documents where they could access at any time. In the past, they had to call somebody, they had to email somebody, they had to wait. Well, this is 24/7 that they could go access documentation, which is a regular thing that customers needed. Once we introduced that, it became a no-brainer for a customer to say ‘Oh, okay. That’s where I go? Thank you. That’s a solution to a problem that I’ve been less than satisfied with in the past.’” 

“If you take a true MVP view, focus on what are the moments in the customer journey that you can digitize successfully and give them a superior experience, and start there. Maybe you don’t need as many features on your platform to start with, but build something that does perform very well and earns their adoption, and then add other features as you go.”

“What makes it intimidating for people who are starting the journey is seeing the complexity of all the problems that need to be addressed, or all the features that you need. If you compare yourself with Amazon, yes it’s going to be a very expensive, very big project. But you don’t necessarily need to have all of the features and benefits to start with. Start small. Move fast. And work in the world of results to understand what’s working and where to double down on success and invest in scale.”

“Really, we just had to find support somewhere in the business who believed that they had an opportunity. The reality is that the speed you can move in digital is an opportunity. We could touch the entire national customer base for a given product in seconds, where it might take weeks for our traditional sales force to get out in front of those customers.”

“If you’ve invested and you believe in an ROI that will come with this, then adoption is an important factor that limits your ROI. I would just suggest that companies starting this journey think about all the investment and systems, and infrastructure of digital. Don’t spare too much on adoption in favor of technology because you will be spending money on technology that’s poorly used. It’s worth the investment to drive timely, effective adoption and satisfaction with everybody in the ecosystem.” 

Mentions:

Bio:

Ian Gresham is a global C-suite marketer with deep experience in digital, and has 20+ years of experience in a variety of B2C and B2B industries. Recently, Ian led the charge on digital transformation — capitalizing on the enormous opportunity that lies at the intersection of marketing and digital — and has marketed iconic brands like Sherwin-Williams, Craftsman, Black & Decker, DEWALT, Minwax, and many more. Ian has also rebranded a global Fortune 500 company overnight (literally overnight!); managed a diverse portfolio of 40 brands; launched a brand on a new continent; reinvigorated 100+-year old heritage brands; designed stunning in-store shopping experiences; and created multi-million dollar integrated marketing campaigns.

Up Next in Commerce is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Respond quickly to changing customer needs with flexible Ecommerce connected to marketing, sales, and service. Deliver intelligent commerce experiences your customers can trust, across every channel. Together, we’re ready for what’s next in commerce. Learn more at salesforce.com/commerce

Transcript:

Stephanie:

Hey everyone. Welcome back to Up Next in Commerce. This is Stephanie Postles, your host and CEO at Mission.org. Today on the show we have Ian Gresham, Chief Marketing Officer and Digital Officer, and currently an Executive Advisor to multiple businesses. Ian, welcome to the show.

Ian:

Thank you very much, Stephanie. It’s great to be here.

Stephanie:

I’m excited to have you here. I just was looking through your background and we did not cover on our call that I thought you went to University of Maryland, which I am from Maryland, so-

Ian:

That’s right. Go Turts. Fear the turtle.

Stephanie:

This is already off to a wonderful start now that we have that connection. I love that. I wanted to kind of start with your background. I see you’ve been in a lot of marketing roles, and I wanted to hear how you got interested in marketing, what that journey looked like.

Ian:

Yeah, sure. I don’t remember exactly how marketing became an interest. In business school, I was looking at a number of things. I think perhaps that it was the fact that it was pretty people-oriented, and it’s sort of an extrovert function in business if you will. That was pretty exciting to me. There were some pretty school businesses in the Maryland area that were recruiting at the business school there, and ultimately I ended up starting my career with Black and Decker. I worked on the DeWalt brand, and it’s just a great place to learn a ton of great marketing and sales skills, and get out there and interact with the world.

Ian:

They put you out there on the street selling and talking to real people very quickly, and it was a lot of fun.

Stephanie:

Are there any lessons from Black and Decker where you still use them today, or you think back to advice you got or campaigns you were running? Or is it totally different now?

Ian:

I guess I think that for one, they set the standard very high for brands to create excitement and create products and experiences that their customers love and are loyal to. We used to get on the DeWalt brand pictures of people who had DeWalt themed weddings. I have had the good fortune in my career to work on a few other brands like that with Craftsman and later… And Sherman Williams, we had a brand called Purdy, which is a brand of paint brushes and applicators. They make these paint brushes here in the US by hand, and painters can tell a Purdy in their hand when they’re blindfolded. They know the feel of the wood. They know just how these things feel and work, and they believe in them.

Ian:

Anyway, to be able to work on a brand like that at Purdy, we got a video of a guy who had a funeral for a paintbrush that he had used for years and years. When it finally just wouldn’t go any further, he filmed a little memorial service and buried it in his yard.

Stephanie:

Oh my gosh.

Ian:

Anyway, DeWalt’s the same way. Black and Decker, they just set the bar very high in terms of brands that create amazing loyalty and amazing customer experiences, which I have tried to carry through my career as well.

Stephanie:

I want to dive into your time at Univar, because that company is obviously huge. I think it’s what, a $9 billion company, Fortune 500.

Ian:

Yep.

Stephanie:

9,000 employees or so.

Ian:

Yep. Yep.

Stephanie:

I want to hear about your work there. First of all, what is Univar and what did your role look like there?

Ian:

Sure. Univar, now Univar Solutions, is a pretty global multinational industrial distribution business. So, very B2B. We sold chemicals and ingredients into many different industries, everything from food ingredients to food manufacturers, to ingredients to personal care product companies like cosmetics companies, shampoos, sunscreen, lotions, paint and coatings, adhesives, industrial use. It was just a super diverse customer base. Thousands and thousands of customers, hundreds of thousands of products, and just millions of transactions. Lots of repeat business.

Ian:

Some of the products we sold were very commoditized. Some were highly specialized and patent protected, and exclusive ingredients that took a much different sales approach. The customer experience around that was very different too.

Stephanie:

What was your role when you first started at Univar? Then where did you transition to over time?

Ian:

Yeah, so I spent a couple of years as the first CMO at Univar, and put in place the first global corporate strategy, built out a lot of the core marketing frameworks with market research, with brand standards, articulating our value proposition, enhancing the value proposition, and aligning how we were communicating that and the brand identity globally. Then after a couple of years somewhere along the way I picked up a responsibility for ecommerce. A couple of years into it, the CEO talked to me about this opportunity to become the first Chief Digital Officer.

Ian:

When we had that conversation, he made the point that he really didn’t want a technical person in this role. He wanted a commercial person in this role who could think about value creation and how we leverage digital to create value for our customers and suppliers, and to differentiate ourselves in a pretty fragmented marketplace with a lot of competitors of all different sizes. To me, this was really exciting. If I think about my whole career, I’d spent time in these companies like Black and Decker, Sherwin Williams, companies that made mostly consumer-facing products that really thought a lot about innovation.

Ian:

Then to make the transition into B2B distribution, one of my observations was innovation was not as common as daily there as it was in these manufactured product companies. I think a huge opportunity that I saw was with digital this is a way for a distributor to innovate around customer experience. A distributor doesn’t typically make products. What they make is a unique customer experience, and they deliver on that better or worse than their competition. Digital is a way for that type of business to really create a better customer experience and solve problems that have remained somewhat unsolved.

Stephanie:

Very cool. Were you nervous taking on not only one, taking on a role where you’re really the first CMO, and now it’s like and now you’re going to be the first Chief Digital Officer, were you hesitant to take on a new role that the company had not had before?

Ian:

Yeah. When I had the conversation initially, one of my thoughts was I don’t know if I’m the right person for this. But that conversation around wanting somebody who had the commercial mindset rather than a technical mindset was reassuring. I think if you look at chief digital officers as a position and the people that sort of reside in those roles today, there are few different walks of life that find people there. Sometimes it’s a technical leader. Sometimes it is a commercial leader, and maybe sometimes it’s a transformational sort of complex project leader type person.

Ian:

It’s not uncommon to have a marketer in that type of a role. As I think about marketing as a field and CMO as a role, what’s clear in today’s world is that digital is becoming really important to marketers. It has already, but the CMO role in general has evolved a lot and it continues to evolve. Much of the change is around digital and the power of data. As I thought about this role, to me it felt very relevant to my career, and it felt like the right skill set to be adding to my toolbox.

Stephanie:

Yeah. Yeah, very cool. What did it look like behind the scenes when you were entering into this new role? After you started observing for a bit, what did the process look like and where did you want to evolve it to?

Ian:

We had already started someone. We had an ecommerce platform we had just launched, and we had some analytics work that was already underway. We had some thoughts on how digital would help in supply chain and some other ways. The idea with creating this chief digital officer role was to put it all together to create a bigger wholistic vision, to prioritize and think about which of these things do we really want to do, and what sequence do we want to do them in, and how much are they all worth to us, and what is the investment going to require?

Ian:

The first thing to do was start to put the elements together and continue progress for accelerated progress in the things that we already had started. Fortunately, I really enjoyed a lot of the work we were doing there. It was very customer-facing. It was on the commercial side of the business, so we had an advanced analytics team that we rapidly were growing. We were doing AI and machine learning. We had a ton of transactional data, very good CRM data, and we were able to create a lot of value out of that by identifying insights that were commercially actionable.

Ian:

We had a couple of marketing automation systems in place, and we were choosing and moving to one. We were using that pretty effectively to reach out and activate with our customers as well as the ecommerce platform itself. We were still really trying to drive adoption of the ecommerce platform. I guess one of the lessons we learned was we were moving…. There assumed to be a lot of pressure to have a website, an ecommerce system, a customer portal where our customers could transact. There was a bit of a race to build it and launch it. We did.

Stephanie:

[crosstalk] you launch it, and what did your tech stack look like? What was the perfect fit for a company of Univar’s size?

Ian:

We were using very heavily the Salesforce B2B commerce stack. That’s what we built our commerce platform on, which was originally CloudCraze then became B2B commerce for Salesforce. I’d say we had a pretty good experience there. We were able to launch a platform in weeks, not months.

Stephanie:

Wow. [crosstalk]. That’s super fast for a company that size, because we’ve talked to other people who were like, “Oh, 28 weeks.” It’s a whole thing.

Ian:

It was incredibly fast. We had both a strong internal team using very good development processes, and moving fast. Also, we used outside support for the build as well. We spent some money on it. Speed and money sometimes are inversely correlated. This was kind of an example, but we built it. I guess the story that I think is relevant here though is that… Let me just say, my story is one of helping lead a company that’s pretty early in a digital transformation stage, not the bleeding edge. I think that looks like a lot of the companies out there who see digital transformation as an opportunity, but an overwhelming one. Where do we start? How do we get our house in order to get going?

Ian:

We just knew we needed a platform and there was a race to launch it. We launched it. What we learned was the Kevin Costner movie, “If you build it they will come,” Field of Dreams, is not necessarily the case in ecommerce. You have to drive adoption. You have to have a great product that makes something better for customers to use it, prefer it, and stick with it. But also, you got to do some hand holding with some of these customers that have been doing things the same way for a long time. Digital transformation is about leaving an old state of affairs and moving to something new and better, but change requires support and communication.

Ian:

Honestly, we had to do some handholding with customers to show them what’s possible, show them how easy it is, and then once they’ve used it a lot of them feel like “Yeah, this is great. I like this. I didn’t know this was that easy.” They’re just not even open to thinking about something new because they have a habit in place.

Stephanie:

Yeah. How did you scale that adoption? Because when I’m looking, I think you have over 100,000 customers. How do you scale adoption? Are you giving them training videos? Other than the [crosstalk] handholding, what did you guys do to really pull them onboard?

Ian:

Yeah, we did do some one-on-one calls. We had some webinars. We had programs where we were getting our Salesforce and customer service reps to have the same conversation on scale across all of their customers. We were trying to activate it across all our touchpoints to introduce it to customers and have that conversation with them. If they needed more support, we could put them on the phone with somebody who could help them answer questions and demo it. We had automated or sort of recorded demos they could watch online.

Ian:

All of that still felt like it wasn’t as fast as we had hoped it would be, adoption. That was one of the lessons that we learned. I guess another thing I would suggest is it’s really helpful to know what are your most valuable features, and focus them on that first. If customers need to… One of our most popular features was having a library of customer documents where they could access at any time. In the past, they had to call somebody, they had to email somebody, they had to wait. Well, this is 24/7 that they could go access documentation, is a regular thing that customers needed.

Ian:

Once we introduced that, it became a no brainer for a customer to say “Oh, okay. That’s where I go? Thank you. That’s a solution to a problem that I’ve been less than satisfied with in the past.” I’ve talked to other companies that maybe handling payments was their way in, where once they started taking payments online and managing payments online, adoption went through the roof. It was one feature that customers really felt was superior to the old way of doing things, and that helped to drive adoption.

Ian:

There were a few things like that where we zeroed in on key features. Another key feature that we had a lot of popular success with, and was highly used on the site was Two Clip Reorder. 80% of our business was repeat purchases. For a customer to log in and then see their last several orders and be able to immediately access those and reorder turned out to be a very popular feature. I guess for a company starting the work, that it was important to do is, to really think about the customer journey today and what are those moments along the customer journey that you can make better quickly, and focus in on those and try to create the right solution that’ll drive adoption around those features, is my takeaway from that.

Stephanie:

Yeah, and that’s such a good reminder for a platform. I would see a lot of people, if you try and throw all the features, most people are probably not ready to get power user of a brand new platform and they’re like, “I want to know every single feature on here,” so just presenting them with the things that are pretty uniform, like you said, payments are a big thing, reordering is a really smart way to get people in the door. Then start maybe dripping out the extra features that would overwhelm them from the start.

Ian:

I would take it further upstream than that too, Stephanie, which is to say maybe you don’t need to build a platform with all of those features on it out of the gate. If you take a true MVP view, focus on what are the moments in the customer journey that you can digitize successfully and give them a superior experience, and start there. Maybe you don’t need as many features on your platform to start with, but build something that does perform very well and earns their adoption, and then add other features as you go. Beyond adoption, it’s even how do you start faster and get out of the gates with some traction on it earlier?

Stephanie:

Yeah. Did you have any surprises from either customers or maybe your internal employees who you were also trying to train up on this new platform? Anything that you look back and you’re like, “Oh, we should have probably done it this way. We could have avoided this if we would have approached it a little bit differently”?

Ian:

Boy, there’s probably a good list of things that we would have… We learned along the way by doing. I guess I would say one of my biggest takeaways was probably we could have started smaller and been a little more rigorous or embrace that MVP concept even more.

Stephanie:

Rolling it out for a pilot group type of thing? Like smaller in that sense? Like don’t do it [crosstalk] on there?

Ian:

Or is less complexity to begin with. An even simpler platform and prove that you can drive adoption around that, it’s easier to explain, it’s easier to build. Then there’s less to change and iterate as you learn more about how to make it even better platform. But one of my takeaways I think is really embrace that idea of MVP. You can think about narrowing the scope of the customer base you launch it to. You can think about limiting the products. You can think about a lot of things to make it smaller and more manageable, and get it out the gate and just have data coming in on what’s working and how is it generating value. Then build complexity around that. Know what works, and build on success rather than… This is what makes it intimidating for people who are starting the journey is, seeing the complexity of all the problems that need to be addressed, or all the features that you need.

Ian:

If you compare yourself with Amazon, yes it’s going to be a very expensive, very big project. But you don’t necessarily need to have all of the features and benefits to start with. Start small. Move fast. And work in the world of results to understand what’s working and where to double down on success and invest in scale.

Stephanie:

How would you get your leadership team to agree on “Here’s the five features that we know that maybe 80% of our customers want,” how do you get everyone in the same room to all agree when everyone probably has very different customers and they all heard different things, even if it’s one off their like, “I know this is important to a customer. It’s very big revenue-wise for us.” How do you [crosstalk] agree on something?

Ian:

First, I think it helps to start with a long range vision. I guess one of my other learnings would be that I’ve seen companies that become system-focused like “We need a platform. Let’s build it. Let’s turn it on. It’s going to cost us $X million and take a year and a half to build.” They think about it as a project with a start and an end. The reality is, you need to just think about how fast can we get to the starting point and how do you make that as fast and reasonably good as possible for their MVP. Then assure people that this is not a project that has a start and an end.

Ian:

It is a journey that has a starting line, and MVP is sort of how you’re racing to get to a starting point. Then a multiyear potentially perpetual journey building that out. I think when you get the team in the room, you’ve got to have some data. You need to have data around your customer segments, around their preferences and needs. You need to sort of have an understanding of the customer journeys that exist. I think it’s important to realize that it’s easier to digitize simple processes than complex ones. There’s a logic to we got to start small. Let’s take recurring purchases with existing customers who know exactly what they want, and they buy it regularly.

Ian:

How do we just automate a repurchase? That’s super simple. The customer would prefer to do it that way anyway versus… Later, you to get to things like troubleshooting or selling differentiated products that are a first time purchase to our customer that has a high performance need. Leave the high value add complex work to people and start with simple processes. Add complexity as you go. I think you can, between using real customer insights and the logic of what is possible in the digital world in terms of solution creation, and using a longterm like a three to five year journey map or a journey roadmap. We can assure people, “We can’t get to you first, but these are the building blocks that we have to put in place in order to get to that level of complexity,” and something that serves that unique customer need.

Stephanie:

Yeah.

Ian:

But there may be some things that’ll never be digital or in the foreseeable… They’re just too complex and they don’t have the scale. You may have some one-off customer problems that only occur several times a year, and it just doesn’t make sense to invest the kind of cost and a digital solution for some things. People might need to hear that too along the way.

Stephanie:

Yeah. What did the change management when it came to employees look like? Was there any pushback? Because I could see as an employee being like I always talk to my customer like this, we’re on the phone, I do the order for them. We have this relationship. Don’t mess with that. What was that like behind the scenes trying to train the employees up, get them onboard, and what kind of things [crosstalk]-

Ian:

Yeah.

Stephanie:

[crosstalk] for that.

Ian:

I think there are two great things to discuss on that. Great question. First, I would like to talk about Agile and how Agile played a role in adoption in our own employee environment. Second, really we had a very robust change management approach going into place at Univar Solutions that is worth talking about. First of all, Agile, this is where I became a real believer in Agile and certainly there was a lot of resistance. There were sales people who said “I don’t want anybody touching my customer without me knowing about it. You shouldn’t go take them a price or an offer, or anything like that without me approving it first.”

Ian:

A lot of businesses out there are like that still today. There’s a lot of trepidation about change. Really, we just had to find a support somewhere in the business who believed that they had an opportunity. The reality is that the speed you can move in digital is an opportunity. We could touch the entire national customer base for a given product in seconds, where it might take weeks for our traditional Salesforce to get out in front of those customers. We found somebody who wanted to work with, and try, and experiment. We put together a plan to target the right customers with the right offering given out there via marketing automation.

Ian:

We started at a very small scale, and it was to be honest, so small. We knew going into it, this is not going to move the needle at all. It’s just too small. Everyone was being too cautious. But we ran the experiment and it came back, and sure enough we just didn’t have enough scale to get any movement. But that was what we learned from it. We took it as a learning. We started too small. We need to open the target zone here of customers. The second trial we did, very quickly with a larger customer base, we started to see some progressing results. We picked up a few other learnings. So, we quickly ran a third iteration of it, and by that time we sent this experiment out, this message to customers, and we got real traction on it.

Ian:

The conversation which started from “Wait a minute. I don’t know, why are we messing with customers without salesperson involvement?” to within about three to four weeks having results that were very promising. The conversation flipped, and the business team was saying to the digital and marketing team, “How can we do more of this? What do you need from me to do more of that? Because that felt good. That was a great solution that aligned with my business themes.” In that sense, Agile, this idea of start small, run real experiments to get real data, and then once you prove a hypothesis about something that works, the discussion about investing and scale is much easier and you actually have a pull for the solution rather than pushing it into the business teams.

Ian:

I think first, Agile is a great adoption tool and a process for working cross-functionally with the rest of the business to help drive adoption of digital solutions. Second, I wanted to talk about change management. I would say I commend Univar Solutions for the approach here where part of this came in as well as it relates to an acquisition, and a lot of change that we were rolling out, because we were integrating two companies. I guess I would say as companies think about investing in digital, they’re really thinking about how they spend every penny and they make those pennies go as far as they can.

Ian:

Usually, it is not natural to say “We need to hire people to help communicate.” Meaning, communicate through and train our employees, communicate and train our customers. It feels like can’t we just have existing people have that conversation? But the reality is, we did hire a change management leader. We started staffing out change management roles to integrate with customer service, to integrate with sales and to interact with customers. I guess a learning, looking in the rear view mirror was, that is the way to do it.

Ian:

You might even want to have customer adoption teams or cross-functional teams that involve adoption leaders throughout the company.

Stephanie:

What did this role look like? I mean, you’re bringing someone in. Their role is to do change management. What does their day to day look like? How are they supposed to be partnering with teams?

Ian:

We had a leader at Service Central level who was thinking about putting together training programs, putting together communication, and coordinating timelines and rollout structures, and plans. So, full-time they were… Now, they weren’t just working on digital. They might have been rolling out other major changes in the corporation, but digital transformation is something that fits that bill. My point is to have a dedicated structure in place, probably with a leader whose overseeing it, and potentially ambassadors in a variety of cross-functional teams or functions, like sales, customer service, sales ops, and even customer-facing adoption sort of agents is very fruitful.

Ian:

If you’ve invested and you believe in an ROI that will come with this, then adoption is an important factor that limits your ROI. I would just suggest that the company starting and going down this journey are thinking about all the investment and systems, and infrastructure of digital. Don’t spare too much on adoption in favor of technology because you will be spending money on technology that’s poorly used. It’s worth the investment to drive timely, effective adoption and satisfaction with everybody in the ecosystem.

Stephanie:

One point I’m thinking about is all these things are changing, and a lot of the managers… I mean, I’ve seen this in the past companies I’ve worked for, well we need more head count. We always need more head count. For what’s happening behind the scenes here, you just need to throw more people at it. How did you approach your teams who probably were all saying something similar I would assume? Did you supply more heads to try and solve problems? Or were you like “Hey, let’s rework the talent pool. Let’s put people on different roles.” What did that look like?

Ian:

Yes. The answer is yes. No, certainly, you are thinking about head count, but this is where as a B2B business we started talking about omnichannel and sort of reconfiguring how we handle customer needs. In a business that has traditionally been very sales driven and relied on field sales reps to deal with face to face with customers for a lot of things, which many businesses out there still do, we started to think more about these customer journeys. There’s simple, there’s more complex, and there’s very complex types of customer journeys, or events on a customer journey that need support.

Ian:

How do you start digitizing from the bottom up, the most simple, and how do you drive adoption of those? You can build a plan that drives the customer to self-serve options in order to reallocate head count into new… Sort of reinvest it into higher value activities from handling regular orders and replenishment orders to digitizing that and then thinking about how are we reallocating head count to digitize more complex processes, or to handle more high value added customer engagement opportunities. You can go from customer service handling manual work to more sales reps that are technically proficient and able to go sell a high value customer on a high value solution.

Ian:

As you up the continuum of complexity with digital, you’re continually reinvesting head count by creating a self-serve option, driving adoption, and then moving head count into a higher value space.

Stephanie:

That’s great. Yeah, I can see a lot of companies struggling with that now, and thinking how do I put these people in new roles, and then train them. Is it worth all that? Or should I hire someone who’s already done this before? Tricky place to be, but I like that.

Ian:

Yeah. You can think too in today’s world post-COVID, I think there’s a continuum from digital to sort of inside… Or let’s say digital, customer service, inside sales and then your outside sales or national count. Sort of that hierarchy of the types of resources you’re applying against customer needs. The inside sales team becomes an even more potentially bigger team. They make more calls a day than outside sales rep can, and in an omnichannel environment they have the tools that you’re investing in with ecommerce and digital to be even more efficient and have more intelligence at their fingertips to handle those customers as well.

Stephanie:

Thinking about intelligence at your fingertips, I want to shift back to the topic of AI. I know we mentioned it earlier that you guys are starting to experiment with that. You have a really big catalog at Univar. You have high frequency of transactions, a lot of stuff going on. What did that look like, introducing that into some of your processes? What did that world look like?

Ian:

Yeah, sure. Let me say, I am such a huge believer in AI and machine learning, and the opportunity here. This is sort of a revolution that’s just starting. We were building out AI and machine learning use cases and deploying those, and integrating them with our entire sales and customer service ecosystem sort of. I think first, if there are companies out there that are wondering about this, I would say a lot of people quickly go to debates about is it AI or not? Or is just a formula?

Ian:

I saw a couple authors of a book Competing in the Age of AI. I saw them speak recently and one of the authors said “Look, you can get into a debate if you want to. I suggest that you just forget about that. It’s not even worth debating. The reality is, if it is, if you’re using algorithms and automation to do something a human used to do, let’s call that AI.” AI isn’t all about sort of recreating human-centric consciousness or something, or super complex. More and more, the vast majority of AI application is going to be in super focused problem solving sort of settings.

Ian:

That’s what we are looking at, at Ford. I would say any company out there that has lots of transactions, lots of customers, lots of products, any of those combinations probably has a great opportunity here because if you’ve got the data from transactions, from your CRM system, and especially if you have a large catalog and you’re only selling a portion of that to most of your customers, there are insights hiding in all that data. In a B2B environment, it can be very valuable to understanding and optimizing your pricing.

Ian:

Pricing is hard to manage, and there are a lot of variables. AI can allow you to put many variables together and create some really sophisticated ways to monitor competitive things, or going on regents to look at how you’re pricing customers across your own business, but bring some timely intelligence and automation to recommending optimum prices. AI allows you to predict and prevent customer turn. You can put together dynamics across a variety of variables that might indicate when a customer’s regular purchasing cycle is changing, and there may be other factors involved that would indicate that this customer is likely to leave us.

Ian:

We’ve had a few things that are not correlated with success here and retention. Certainly, everybody has experienced as a consumer going online and seeing customers like you also bought. AI allows you to see and make those connections with more certainty and a higher understanding of what’s the probability of success on these things in order to invest in automation and turning that into a feature, or marketing automation.

Ian:

This was super exciting, and we had success building teams out internally, bringing in data scientists and setting them loose on different business opportunities where they could build an algorithm and then we connected it through marketing automation or ecommerce to drive real financial benefit and results for the company.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that’s awesome. What kind of insights did you get, or “aha” moments where you’re like, “We never would have stumbled on that without building out these algorithms”?

Ian:

An example would be that we had a customer segmentation model in place but AI created an outcome that had 34 micro-segments of customers that was driving certain activity that was really generating value. No human could manage coming up with 34 micro-segments of customers based on many different variables. That’s an example of how AI is able to piece together insights that just humans wouldn’t get around to and couldn’t connect on the right kind of actions probably with that in place.

Ian:

Like I said before, if you’re a business that has a lot of transactional data, AI might be for you. If you have a lot of customers, a variety of customers, AI might help you. If you have a big catalog that you’re trying to sell to a lot of customers, AI might help you. I think that there are plenty of businesses that think it’s too farfetched or too sophisticated. I’m a believer that it’s more within reach than people think, and that that’s not just for any one business but it’s already starting to change everything about online merchandising for some businesses, and marketing automation.

Ian:

It’s worth diving into.

Stephanie:

Awesome. I spent a lot of time diving into Univar because obviously the company is amazing. Your story there, all your stories, are awesome. I also want to hear about what you’re doing today. I know you’re advising, an investor. Tell me what are you up to these days?

Ian:

Yeah, so I’ve started working with another sort of distribution business that is starting their own digital transformation, a very similar story. I believe that there are plenty of them out there. Also, I’ve been helping a business where I’m an investor that is called Parcel Home. This is an IOT connected device. It’s launching in Europe. It’s been in Europe for a couple of years and we’re getting ready to launch it in the UK. Essentially, it’s a delivery box that install outside your home on your front porch or out by the street. It’s IOT connected, so with your phone you can access and monitor it. You can delivery people codes, so like if you were to purchase on Amazon, you’d just go in your delivery instructions and instruct them to use a code on the box.

Ian:

When they get there, they punch in the code. It unlocks. They leave your packages in the box. They close it. Then as you get home it notifies that you have received packages today. Make sure you go get them. You can enable other people in your home to use it, and you can set one-time codes for somebody who’s just coming by to pick something up or drop something off. Or set it up as a recurring solution for all your deliveries.

Stephanie:

I can’t believe that [crosstalk] haven’t had that yet. I’m just thinking about how archaic dropping off a box of Amazon, there’s a $500.00 item in there potentially, and it’s just sitting on my front porch for [crosstalk].

Ian:

I know. I had the same thought. People buy multi expensive things, and then the package gets left on your front doorstep and it feels like really I think in that situation it’s like security is essentially the fact that it’s concealed in paper or cardboard. The only thing protecting it is the fact that somebody’s not sure what it is, but it’s sitting out there outside your home for a while.

Stephanie:

Could be a baby bottle. Could be a high end TV. I don’t know.

Ian:

Yeah, $500.00 handbag or something like those, yeah. We see and there are some sort of online communities for neighborhoods where we see people talking about package theft. We know that’s an issue.

Stephanie:

Oh, I know that from being in the Bay area.

Ian:

Weather is an issue. If it’s left outside and you have precipitation or things like this, it can damage packages. I think now there are places where it’s just not okay to read the package because of threats of theft or something, so they have to ring the bell or knock on the door and interrupt now what are Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or whatever online meetings. It’s a nuisance as well.

Ian:

Anyway, this is a startup business that has been active in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and launching in Denmark here this spring as well as UK later this year. And really, direct-to-customer. So, building out regeneration assets and processes, a sales and marketing funnel and the processes to support that, and thinking about, as many companies are now, living in an almost purely digital environment and interacting with customers in that way.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that’s awesome. Do you feel like you have certain lessons from the past that you’re able to bring to this company to kind of help accelerate their progress? Or is it just such like a different field and startup where you’re really having to kind of relearn the industry and what startups are doing versus really large Fortune 500 type of companies?

Ian:

I think it’s some of both. It is. As you’re launching, there are some fundamentals that even startups may or may not have the talent or resources in place. They just need to do some of the blocking and tackle about marketing and PR as you’re entering a new market. How do you approach PR? There are some basics about press engagement for instance, that I can help with, but we’re also learning about influencers, micro-influencers, and how to… That’s an ever-changing game. There are new sort of marketplaces of influencers where brands can go and evaluate who are the influencers with audiences that matter to me, and how do I transact with them, or come to a mutually beneficial agreement to work with certain influencers? How do I scale that kind of work and what kind of investment do I need to do that?

Ian:

It’s an important way that brands are reaching people now. Every moving target, with new platforms: TikTok, et cetera. It’s a combination of executing on known best practices and staying in touch with what’s working today. In a startup, you have a business that in the course of a year their commercial processes may change many times over. You add one additional person into the working team, and suddenly new processes emerge, or people reallocate different tasks. So, it’s a very dynamic environment in that way.

Stephanie:

That’s awesome. Yeah, I will be watching them closely. I’ll be excited to see them expand, and hopefully they come here.

Ian:

Yeah.

Stephanie:

Well, let’s shift over to the lightening round. The lightening round is brought to you buy Salesforce Commerce Cloud. This is where I ask a question, and you have a minute or less to answer. Are you ready, Ian?

Ian:

All right, I guess I am ready. I didn’t even know about the lightening round.

Stephanie:

It’s easy [inaudible]. What one thing will have the biggest impact on ecommerce in the next year?

Ian:

I honestly think we’ll see… If we rewind, people have entrenched behaviors. Take my family for instance, we were buying groceries online from a source. Everything got disrupted. We were a loyal online customer, but certain products and processes changed and we had to change to adapt to what our needs were. Many customers change brands and change their choice of where they purchase these things in the last year. I think the question will be, where did things land? Do people stick with the new brands that they’ve adopted? Or do brands settle back into a way that they win their customers back who’ve experimented and gone somewhere else? I think we’re still in the turbulence of COVID.

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep. I agree. What do you predict then? Do you think people go back to kind of what they knew before? Or do you think now it’s so ingrained with the new stuff they’ve been doing that that’s the new way of living?

Ian:

I think more and more people will stick with their new solutions. To me, some of that is surprising because honestly we have bought through Amazon and Whole Foods, which I would think Amazon has got this under control, but for certain reasons a Target has over-delivered on new solutions and the product is [inaudible]. We had stopped buying from them. That’s an example where competition moved fast and have different relationships with some of those customers now. I think that businesses better get used to where things are now, and it’s going to be hard to re-win customers that they’ve lost.

Stephanie:

Yep. Yeah, same thing with Walmart. I feel like they’ve stepped it up in a huge way-

Ian:

Yes.

Stephanie:

On very quick delivery. I ordered a planter the other day and it showed up the same day. I didn’t really understand the delivery process because it seemed like just some random person, but I’m like, “Hm, my planter’s here,” in that same day.

Ian:

Yeah.

Stephanie:

Which made me kind of rethink where before I’d be like, “Yeah, I’m not going to Walmart because it could take a couple of days, and shipping and all this.” But yeah, they stepped it up.

Ian:

Yeah. I totally agree. They’ve done a great job.

Stephanie:

What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for you?

Ian:

The nicest thing anybody’s ever done for me? Whoa, that’s tough. Other than my wife bearing children? I would say that [crosstalk]. That’s a big one. It’s hard to beat that.

Stephanie:

That is a good one.

Ian:

I don’t know if I could top that. That’s a big deal. And as a father, there’s this moment where you’re like you’re going into that experience and you realize “I really don’t control anything about the things that matter most to me. I just have to sit here and hope it all goes well.”

Stephanie:

Yeah. Yeah. If you were to have a podcast what would it be about, and who would your first guest be?

Ian:

I think I’d have to have a podcast about what people are passionate about, and the lengths that they will go to to pursue their passions. I don’t know who my first guest would be, but I think that the most interesting conversations are when you talk to people about stuff that they really love, that they love doing, and that they… That’s what lights people up. I think I might start with unexpected guests, people that are sort of somebody in your own neighborhood that nobody knows, but there are amazing things happening that people are…

Ian:

I love these sort of stories of real humans of, kind of stories where somebody just went to great lengths. I read a great story that’s a good example. A little restaurant in Baltimore that made Fusion Asian food, there’s a woman who came to visit her kids in Baltimore regularly. Loved a certain dish they had there. Then she came down with terminal cancer. She lived in Connecticut there in Baltimore, and the kids this woman had called the restaurant and said, “Hey, can we get the recipe? We’d just like to prepare it for her in her final weeks.”

Ian:

The owner of the restaurant was like, “You know what, where does she live? We’ll be there.” They drove six or seven or eight hours and prepared it on the back of the tailgate of their truck, and knocked on their door and brought this food to her. Anyway, that sort of thing is… That makes for great stories.

Stephanie:

Oh, goosebumps over here. That’s amazing.

Ian:

Yeah, totally.

Stephanie:

We need that podcast. Someone sponsor this. Ian needs a sponsor. Oh yeah, that’s really great. I’d definitely listen to that. What one thing do you not understand today that you wish you did?

Ian:

Let’s focus it back on ecommerce.

Stephanie:

Okay.

Ian:

A big question that I don’t see an answer to that I really think is a big opportunity is, if I think about real world brick and mortar shopping it’s a very rich experience. If you think about walking in a store and walking back to the department you’re going to, you past thousands of products and many, many, many opportunities for a retailer to sell something to you: visually, stimulations, [inaudible] signs, POP, that kind of thing. Digital ain’t there yet.

Ian:

It’s a long way away from it. At best, we’re saying customers like you also bought, or… You know what I mean? It’s a cross merchandising that gets relegated to a side banner or below the fold kind of merchandising. It’s hard to imagine replicating the richness of an in-store experience, but I’m really curious to see how that evolves because brick and mortar is becoming less and less… It’s not going away, it’s just that’s a rich experience of hard to replicate, and how many online browsing occasions do you need to replicate or replace all of those stimulus that retailers or brands can present you with in-store effectively?

Ian:

I guess I’m wondering, without that in place what’s the output of the whole system here? Do people become just way more replenishment purchase-oriented and less new purchase? Or can we find other ways to effectively introduce people to products they didn’t know they were looking for?

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), that’s a good one. Definitely something that I’ll be watching closely over this next year, because I love retail. I love going into stores, especially if they have a good experience, good curation, the collection. I feel like you can’t beat that, even in a digital world and things like… Yeah, it’s hard to get there.

Ian:

The real world shopping can also be a social experience that online is not anywhere close to replicating either. How you share it with somebody, it’s a little different experience online too.

Stephanie:

Yeah, and you go with someone and… Yeah. Well, that is a great answer. Ian, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. It’s been a pleasure having you. Where can people find out more about you and your work?

Ian:

Reach out to me on LinkedIn. It’s LinkedIn slash in/slash… Whatever. IanLGresham.

Stephanie:

I’ll link it up. [crosstalk].

Ian:

Yeah, there you go. I’d love to connect with you. If there’s anybody that has questions about digital transformation or how to connect with customers in that way, I’m happy to have a good conversation about it. Thank you, Stephanie, for having me today. It’s been a great conversation.

Stephanie:

Thanks so much.

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Episode 102