Creating an agile technology backbone

I came across a Linkedin post the other day with the title:  RETAIL IS DEAD!  It then went on to show this simple graphic:

brick and mortar

This type of black and white messaging, typically used in a context designed to make a product or service look favourable, drives me a bit mad.  Retail is far from dead and consumers are spending more than ever before, it’s just that now they have more options for how and where to buy the goods they need than at any other point in retail history. Brick and mortar, Desktop, mobile, 3rd party marketplaces, subscriptions, and the list goes on.   Are some of these retail channels suffering?  You bet. Are some of them evolving? Absolutely.  Are some of them seeing record growth?  Of course.  The challenge then becomes which one, or ones, are right for your business?

Every brand, wholesaler and retailer should be asking themselves “What channels are right for my products and how do I best reach my target audience?”.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario, that’s for sure, and often it’s not a single straight path.  No more “if you build it they will come” approaches, as it’s typically a multi-faceted, convoluted, multi-channel, zig zag path that leads to a consumer purchase in today’s retail landscape.   With new sales-channels constantly evolving, and a larger amount of technological disparity between both generations of consumers and the organizations they buy from than ever before, the key is not to have a locked-in plan and stick with it until the bitter end, but rather to be agile and build your foundation around flexibility and agility.  Because your answer today, will surely not be the same as your answer in 5 years.  Things are changing too fast.  Allow your organization to change directions quickly, try new avenues with as little risk as possible, quickly measure your successes, learn quickly from your failures, and then move on and re-route accordingly.

While people go to great lengths to foster an innovative team environment, and rightfully your technology backbone plays an equally important role.  The technology used by your team tends to either create bottleneck within your organization, which can put a hard stop on innovation (i.e., “We can’t receive orders this way”, “We have no insights to gauge success on”, “it’s too time consuming to publish products to multiple channels”, “we aren’t streamlined enough to handle that amount of information”, “we can’t make changes that quickly”, or on the other end, actually drives innovation and your ability to take calculated risks and build a truly innovative company.

So, what does your current technology suite say about your organization?

Inventory Updates With Product Information Management

The rate of product invention and production has accelerated rapidly, resulting in shorter product life cycles than at any point in the history of manufacturing and sales. Every link in the supply chain depends upon centralized, constantly updated, and standardized inventory data. Product information management (PIM) systems are the best tools available to ensure that product producers, suppliers, and retailers share the same necessary data and details and that this relevant information is passed on to consumers. Accurate information is necessary for correct ordering, successful sales, and customer satisfaction.

Innovation and Information

The continuous introduction of new products to an ever-expanding marketplace in addition to updated models or versions of existing products makes PIM systems a necessity. The provision of accurate information from producers to suppliers and retailers is of utmost importance. At the final stage in the supply chain, merchants need to be able to ensure that their inventory includes suitable quantities, varieties, and versions of products in order to satisfy customer demand. Standardized product information is imperative to prevent incorrect or insufficient labeling that results in returned orders, customer complaints, or overstock that is difficult to move.

Accurate Product Data

The accuracy of item descriptions is especially important when merchants stock multiple releases or versions of certain products. There may be significant variations in specifications or pricing between items that appear relatively similar. Two products of the same brand may be distinguished only by refinement between production cycles or generations. PIM systems can account for these minor distinctions all the way down the supply chain. Merchants can be sure that they are stocking and offering the correct version of a product for the proper price and avoid confusing or dissatisfying customers.

When it comes to differentiating between newer and older versions of products and accounting for the fact that the latter may become overstock, having appropriate inventory data can allow retailers to accurately depict and price different versions. Some customers may be interested in purchasing discontinued products, possibly at a discounted price, which still result in sales. It is all the more important that newer products or versions can be easily distinguished from older stock through accurate and updated product data.

Successful Product Launches

Whether a vendor is stocking an entirely new product or a new version of an existing product, PIM solutions can play a pivotal part in a successful product launch. Standardizing product descriptions, pricing, and other details off the manufacturing line can allow for efficient distribution and sale. Accurate product information increases retailers’ ability to effectively promote new stock to potential customers and facilitate conversions or purchases.

Updated information plays a crucial role in today’s sales ecosystem, which still spans the digital divide. The synchronized updates made possible by PIM systems allow for standardization across every stage of the supply process. It is important that dead-end branches off of these centralized and consistent systems are prevented whenever possible, as these can result in sinks for inventory and profits. The benefits of accurate and consistent product information accrue to all companies involved, and ultimately to consumers.

Your company has grown and you’ve established a strong brand image domestically. Your supply chain is intact and you have the capacity to increase your volumes.  It might be the perfect time to consider creating an international presence.  But there are a variety of factors and many processes involved which may make it overwhelming to consider.  That isn’t the case when you consider implementing a product information management system, or PIM, to manage your multiple storefronts from one central location. A PIM is the perfect tool to ensure your success in a global expansion-and will make your domestic operations more efficient at the same time.

Testing the Markets

The streamlined approach you gain through this technology will allow you to get your product open to a test market anywhere in the world quickly. Whether you introduce your wares through eCommerce or retail avenues, it will allow you to start quickly and then track test data for your marketing team. You can learn quickly which markets will provide the growth you’re looking for and form a sound strategy for continued expansion.

Selling in Multi-Currency

When considering selling in other countries, you have to create processes that allow you to sell in each country’s currency. This is a function that this type of software provides, as it will convert foreign currencies for you. From an accounting perspective, this saves a lot of time and clerical work. From a sales and marketing perspective, it gives you a quick apples-to-apples comparison of results around the world.

Speeding Up Time to Market

Faster time-to-market is critical to staying innovative and keeping your customers interested in your products. Domestically, this is one of the key reasons companies invest in this type of software. That benefit is only magnified for international operations. Even a multi-storefront, multi-channel operation across several countries can get new products introduced everywhere at once and reduce the time it takes to do so.

Preserving Brand Image/Consistent Brand Messaging

Your brand image is special and what makes a company recognizable. When considering a global expansion, you don’t have to sacrifice the integrity of that. There are two ways PIM software protects your brand messaging. First, by allowing you to manage all product information from one place, you can easily ensure that your brand messaging stays consistent. Second, it has multi-lingual capabilities that let you share that message anywhere in the world.

Immediate Results

As you imagine implementing a PIM system in your company, you can see the advantages it will give you as you work to expand globally. While it will certainly allow you to accomplish this more quickly than you might have thought, there is another key factor to consider: the immediate results you will gain in your domestic operations. Streamlined, quicker product entry, accuracy, consistent brand messaging and faster time-to-market speeds will improve your bottom line immediately. The return on investment you will gain can even lead to more cash flow for that global expansion you’re planning for.

Invest in the Future

As you can see, whether you’re considering an international eCommerce sales expansion or increasing your presence across the world with a multi-channel or multi-storefront strategy, PIM software is critical to your success. There is no time like the present to take that first step!

PIM stands for Product Information Management, and it is essential for anyone working in the B2B world. Almost every seller relies on a catalog of data to organize their often sizable assortment of products, whether it’s a distributor, wholesaler or manufacturer, and more often than not, those catalogs still exist in the form of multiple spreadsheets scattered throughout the organization.  Unfortunately this creates a lot of room for error, as well as task redundancy and an abundance of manual processes.  Here’s a quick look into how your organization can capitalize on well organized and accurate product information, and effectively utilize this data.

PIM solutions offer professionals the opportunity to pull their data from a variety of sources, including ERP, POS, spreadsheets and multiple catalogs, condense it into one central location and then automate the publication of that data out to multiple sales and marketing channels. The ability to sort and create product groups, categories, and hierarchies based on product attributes and rule sets allows you to search and batch edit information as you see fit for any of your multiple sales and marketing channels with 100% accuracy.  Think of creating promotions, new sales categories, price changes or inventory threshold rules for thousands of products at once with a single click.  Think of publishing tens of thousands of SKUs to a website or a 3rd part market in mere minutes.   It’s this type of agility that allows for faster speed to market, greater accuracy across channels, the ability to scale your business without adding costs and ultimately, happier customers.

Improve Your Customer Relationships

Nothing is more important in the B2B world that having solid relationships with your customers. And coming in at a close second place is good quality product data.  Not only do customers want to be able to quickly find their requirements, but industry professionals often see a product catalog as an indication of how easy a company is to work with. Rich product data, multi-media assets, cut sheets, user manuals, instructional videos, multi-language descriptions, all at their fingertips.  It’s not just wanted by today’s buyers, it’s expected.  A lot of the success of a wholesaler comes down to the simplicity of product research and having a partner that facilitates an easy buying experience, and having an accurate product catalog not only strengthens brand image, but also builds relationships and gives both you and your trading partners the ability exceed customers’ expectations.

Make the Right Impression

One small mistake in your catalog can create a world of trouble.   A wrong SKU number, incorrect pricing, poor images or incorrect product specifications can create headaches and added costs for your retail partners, not to mention fines for you, the distributor. The PIM provides a single source of product truth for guaranteed accuracy, and also has the ability to set rules and validations based on the completion stage of each product and its readiness to be published to each channel.   The auto-publication capabilities of the PIM also dramatically reduce the amount manual input needed to populate each of your sales channels every day.

The result?  No fines, better sell-through, better profit margins through internal efficiency gains and the ability increase your customer base without creating internal chaos.

By Jon Marsella,

It’s 3:42am and those seductive baby-blue-hues are irradiating my eyeballs with cancer beams again.  I awoke suddenly and couldn’t resist reaching across my night-table for my iPhone to indulge in another squinty-eyed search-powered info-snack.   ( Should I be getting some sleep instead ?! )

It can start with a flash of media from Netflix on a cold driserable November day.  Maybe it was induced by a smell or sound that teased a distant memory.  Often it’s tangent driven, such as whether or not driserable is an official Oxford Dictionary word [which it isn’t btw] and so now I’m fully compelled to know the answer, immediately.  And there it is again.  Regardless of the initiating stimulus I’m just about to have what Google has officially termed a: micro-moment.  

A micro-moment usually plays itself out on a mobile device and is driven by the need to know something or do something… right here, right now, in the moment.  They are not always rife with intent, often they are a knee-jerk assault on the pocket and they can happen 100’s of times per day apparently.

Micro-moments for Retailers

Micro-moments present opportunities for retailers to connect with consumers personally and meet their immediate needs but they do not always lead to a purchase, nor do they promise to result in any consumer engagement at all.

For our purposes let’s narrow down on consumer micro-moments that are action rich and intent driven; those that lead to a mobile search on a smartphone or tablet specifically.  A search that yields a result with details about your product or service that’s of interest to your ideal prospective customer.  

While powerful and responsive content speed-to-market systems and SEO/SEM refinement tool-sets are vitally important to helping consumers get to the content that sparked their micro-moment in the first place,  let’s instead focus on the importance of handling the moment and communicating intelligently with consumers right now, in real-time, while they are still having their moment.   Google calls these I-WANNA-TALK-TO-A-HUMAN micro-moments.  

How can you build legendary trust with consumers by showing them you care about their needs and stand behind your brand and really meet them in their moment?   Answer: connect with them on a deep personal level, help and educate them, follow up with them several times (building confidence each time) and then ultimately move to land the sale.  

When I have a micro-moment and come across a product that looks enticing, sometimes I might be in the mood for dialog with a live support rep to tell me more about it.  If so, suppose I were to launch a live-chat window or call the store directly… would I really get someone on the line who’s impartial and friendly or will they be totally see-through and selfish (hopped up on Red Bulls) trying to aggressively (and impatiently) push a transaction through?  Will they really have relevant info on the product or service I’m interested in?  

I crave something real or grassroots, but I  especially want to know it wasn’t planted there mindlessly by ACME Corporation and I don’t want another lifeless made-in-the-marketing-department scripted live call center experience to be sure.  Who enjoys being put on hold, dropped off the call, and then having to start all over again with another lousy disengaged droid bot? There are far too many untrained and just plain miserable customer support staff answering your company telephones, chewing away at your brand trust, putting off customers with poor quality interaction.

Authenticity is what I’m after.  Give me something inherently wise or insightful.  Give me dialog that’s real and pleasant!

Meeting the Customer In Their Moment

What kind of problem might someone have that spawns a micro-moment that could directly relate to a solution your product or service can provide?  Consider an example published by Google with insight into how Red Roof Inn was able to anticipate and respond to just such a micro-moment:  (slightly paraphrased with emphasis)

“Recently, Red Roof Inn realized that flight cancellations were leaving 90,000 passengers stranded every day, their marketing team developed a way to track flight delays in real time  and trigger targeted search ads for the Red Roof Inns near airports. [emphasis mine]

Ads that said, in essence, “Stranded at the airport? Come stay with us!” They committed to those I-need-a-hotel-ASAP moments and delivered with relevance on what people needed. The result: a remarkable 60% increase in bookings across non-branded search campaigns.”


Note how the marketing team developed a way to do this… not the IT department.  What kind of tools/systems were the marketers empowered with to do this?  Was the solution capable of mitigating high volumes of concurrent user and search traffic of desperate displaced travelers a consideration in the architecture? Were intelligent live-support-agents (and enough of them) empowered to actually help customers through this moment in real time especially for those older consumers who may not be savvy enough to book through their mobile device?  

Less systems oriented and more philosophically, consider this: did they opt to gouge customers who were already annoyed at flight delays, or did they wisely offer them sincerity, condolences, and connect with their need personally and further provide a nice discount for their stay (or maybe other sweet perks) building SO MUCH GOODWILL and RARE SOCIAL PROPS it would shock-and-awe the customer into long term loyalty for the brand that $$$ can’t buy.

Professional Systems to Power Micro-Moments

Let’s meet our target customer in their desire for one-on-one hand-holding and manage the micro-moment through real time quality human dialog.  Old fashioned phone conversations (remember those?) are the obvious means to do this.  And yes, of course we include all of our favorite modern communication mediums as well (i.e. live chat, texting, Facebook messaging, WhatsApp, email, tweeting or other social media exchange).  

By offering the consumer a number of ways to engage with us, we now need to turn our attention to employing a solid back-office solution that can handle consumer inquiries quickly no matter what the inbound medium!  To accomplish this, ALL departments need to be empowered with a centralized solution to curate content, quickly plan and assemble search campaigns, and address large volumes of resultant sales and support inquiries such as Red Roof did.

What You’ll Need First – The Intangible Soft and Squishy Stuff

All systems involve inputs and outputs.  If the input is terrible, you can guess what that will mean for the output.  The most absurdly obvious input of greatest importance to any system (and it will be redundant and pedantic to the learned reader yet is always so underachieved and ignored by retailers in my experience) are quality staff engaged at every step of the way in the consumer journey.   

To summarize, professional systems that power micro-moments first require:

  • Quality people power. Employ world-class human resources.  World-class defined = people who are intelligent, skillful, and talented – but also patient, graceful, humble and show good heart quality. These things convey trustworthiness and generate loyalty by the pound for your brand.  Mission possible! (It just takes the intent to do it, which is itself the hard part btw).
  • Highly connected and communicative internal office culture. This is much easier said than done, but itself is the holy-grail-secret-sauce to handling micro-moments. Do this and you’ll solve a whole world of other internal corporate issues as well. To truly succeed here though, you’ll also need systems and internal process and pipeline reworks.
  • Awesome strategic partners and suppliers. In order to meet your consumers’ micro-moments in real-time you’ll need a large external network of curators and subject matter experts that can be called upon to contribute to actually helping consumers, not just to sell them something.
  • Buy-in from your upstream and sibling-stream (i.e. managers, owner/operator(s), C-Suite).  You might have to fight here proving to your leadership that you need such a solution in the first place. Be prepared to promise them that if they invest in these systems (and apply the quality staff and financial resources & the partner network) required to meet consumer micro-moments before the competition does, it will generate impressive ROI scenarios.  We’ve seen as much as 4x top line revenue increases for clients that adopted a new 360° synergistic back office solution, but consider average KPIs being 23-28% sales growth and 15-18% reduction in labor costs.

Next, the Hard Goods – Interconnected Systems and Customer Service Workflow Synergy

Tools to power the infrastructure and backbone of inter-office collaboration and product/service knowledge base sharing.  

Tools to power inter-connectivity between your call center and your enterprise back office ERP

What if your CSRs (customer support reps) could access inventory and rich product media (with the systems described above) and also get a list of experts they could immediately call upon for support in helping the customer? The solution is to build an API-driven framework to power cross-CRM integration between strategic partners.  

For larger retailers with more gracious budgets, consider also integrating the full stack above with an enterprise ERP as well.  MS Dynamics (GP or NAV), Netsuite, SAP or Oracle 11i are great choices. For the budget challenged (and I know that includes many of you), in effect, any quality ERP that’s responsive (i.e. FAST!), secure, professionally managed and follows modern best-practices are suitable.  

Quality infrastructure tools don’t always have to break the bank. Start with what systems you have and either integrate directly (assuming you have a major best-of-breed enterprise back-office) suite OR seek out quality technology partners to help bring in the new strategic middleware needed to augment the whole. 

Capability Rich versus Feature Rich.  Lean and Mean.  Less is More

Invest in a capability rich solution stack, not just a feature rich one.  The primary difference between the two is that often retailers will only use a fraction of the features found in the larger back-office systems, and the greater percentage of unused features can create bloat, performance drain and adds to the overall complexity in the solution.  Focus on the lean capability instead;  i.e. the core features needed in the platform to empower your staff to use the tools quickly and effectively, pushing products up to the consumer lighting fast and responding likewise on the downstream with the inbound call center work flows.

Tools that Power Real Time text-to-buy OR text-to-info or text-to-call-me-later

Is an SMS integration i.e. CPaaS (Communications Platform as a Service) solution worked into your overall eCommerce infrastructure landscape?  It probably should be.  Check out Webtext’s SMS and FB messenger capability OR; both have been nicely integrated into Salesforce Cloud.  Nordstrom TextStyle put text-to-buy on the map last year.

Let’s consider a real world example of one such workflow with TTB’s involved.   

Critical Path to Setting up Systems that Power Micro-Moments

  • Outfit your call center with IVR / SMS integration with a CRM, integrated to a PIM/DAM.
  • As micro-moments trigger inbound leads (via text, phone, email, gated form entries, etc.) the CRM routing solution attempts to make contextual sense of the request.  Inbound phone number or email (if on file as existing customer) triggers possible quote/order/customer call-up in CRM/commerce platform, include a photo of the user (if possible).  If customer is not on file, attempt a real time social media lookup (public domain info only of course!) to try to qualify, identify and profile them.   
  • Dialog is transferred to knowledge agent internally – QUICKLY!  Don’t have anyone on staff with the know how to handle this customer?  Let the handling agent connect to other suppliers/partners via Salesforce and pass the handling off to another within your network.  This is incredibly powerful!   Can’t route them to someone right now?  Let the customer know that you care enough to have someone AWESOME follow up later.  Flag it in the CRM and get on the follow through ASAP.

Landed Knowledge Agent Provides Context, Support, Insight and Help

Consider a sample CSR menu or fluid communication script below.

Agent says: Thanks for reaching out, how can I assist?

  • Need some help?  Awesome, happy to.  What can I tell you about our product or company?
  • Want more info?  Let me connect you to an expert.  ( Have any rockstar product ambassadors?  Other happy customers that bought your product before?  How awesome would that be, right!?  Get them on speed dial/text/email to help your organization build confidence and then sell social-proof style! )
  • Thinking of buying something, but, maybe later?  I’ll quickly take your details and setup a code to give you and you can text-us-later to buy instantly.
  • Ok, ready to buy now? Perfect.  I can place this order immediately and ship it to you in 1-2 days!  Further, repeat orders will get a discount I’ll give you a text-to-buy hotlink to make that easy for you.  Send the link to a friend and we’ll give you a referral discount!
  • Not ready right now?  How about I just set a reminder to follow up with you later online?

Quick Case Study

One of our esteemed clients handles micro-moments incredibly well.  They are a legendary music retailer with 50+ years of history and represent a lifestyle boutique brand that understands the importance of having amazing staff as part of the ‘system’ that powers really any success at all, let alone micro-moments.

They have incredible staff (in many cases, industry famous experts) who’ve worked in the store for 30+ years.  These are your rockstar knowledge agents and most of them play a part in the communication stream [some of them working behind the scenes] in dealing with real time customer requests that sell.

Suppose you found a super sexy Paul Reed Smith guitar on their website.  Once you find the particular product you’re after, read the full specifications,  and see some high quality eye-candy (i.e. stunning imagery and HD visuals) and then you can actually talk to a product expert and be treated with respect (+ also get an amazing deal!) you’re going to have yourself a well mitigated-micro-moment-mouthful of a viral story to tell to your friends.  

Their investment in systems (along with many more of our clients) empowers them to: merchandise and publish quality product content effectively, locate customers internally quickly, haggle in real time with customers, respond to Ask-an-Expert inquiries effectively and convert fans into loyal customers.

Bite the Bullet.  Invest In Your Customer.  Invest in Your Team

Professionally handling consumer micro-moments involves investment in human and financial capital and some forward thinking.  It involves synergy in your team and building networks of curators and product experts.  It involves installing professional tools in your back office to streamline and get content flowing quickly to both CSR agents and online media/publication/storefront and marketplaces.  A nicely mitigated consumer micro-moment is one that results in a quality interaction with a brand or product offering.

Successfully responding to consumer micro-moments is achievable if your organization can adopt a transparent & quality content oriented worldview and intentionally invest in the systems required to power them.   Retailers: if you rise to this incredible standard (and so few do in my experience) it will be the key to unprecedented go-forward success for your brand.

Thanks for your attention

I genuinely hope this has been an inspired micro-moment for you. It’s now 3:54am… iPhone weighing 1,000 lbs in my hands; nodding over, eyes scorched; it really is sleepy time now.  Goodnight.