B2B eCommerce Adoption: Connecting with Your Internal and External Stakeholders
The B2B eCommerce Podcast
An eCommerce digitization project should be driven by customer expectations. The most successful digital transformations have the customer as the Northstar.
Customer interviews before the project and feedback during the project are often the biggest sources of innovation for eCommerce projects.
There are enormous benefits of letting a business team lead the digitization project, instead of an IT team. It helps to better connect with customers to understand their needs and wants, iterate more, and get to results faster.
Top management should be involved in dealing with internal pushback when adopting new technology. The key message: tech is not going to steal your job, it will help to upgrade, elevate and evolve your role at the company.
B2B eCommerce Adoption: Connecting with Your Internal and External Stakeholders
Jary Carter: We are going to talk today about connecting with your internal and external stakeholders, ie, the folks internally inside your company that need to help you with the digital transformation you’re trying to do, as well as the folks outside of your company, your customers and prospects. I’m joined here with really an all-star set of participants today. We have Jason Vagnozzi, who is the Global Director at Braskem. Welcome, Jason. So happy to have you here. And we also have Andy Wagner, who is the Executive Director at AAXIS Digital. Welcome, Andy.
Andy Wagner: Thanks. Great to be here.
Jary Carter: All right, I want to jump right in. However, before we jump into today’s discussion, I’d love to give you the opportunity to just briefly introduce yourself, and your background and tell us a little bit about why you’re passionate about our topic today. So I’ll start with you, Jason. And then we’ll head over to you, Andy.
Jason Vagnozzi: Sure, thanks, Jary. So I’m Jason Vagnozzi. I work for Braskem. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a large commodity plastics producer with global headquarters in Brazil and commercial headquarters for North America based in Philadelphia. So that’s where I work. I have been with the company for the past 20 years, and most of my background is in procurement, supply chain, and business development.
The company recognized that digital innovation was a core part of our strategy about four years ago. And so, I joined a digital transformation team in all the different areas of our company to figure out how we can use technology to drive efficiency, both for us internally as well as for our clients externally. So my whole career has been a change agent disrupter. So this was the perfect role for me.
Andy Wagner: As Jary mentioned, I’m an executive director at AAXIS Digital. For those who don’t know, we are a digital commerce agency. And we really try to act as a commerce business partner for customers, which simply means we start by helping our customers tackle those decisions that are really going to matter for the business and the customers. And then, we look at what’s the right technology to use to make that program successful. In a nutshell, that’s what we do.
I personally have spent the last 24 years delivering digital commerce and customer experience programs while living in Sweden, Italy, India, UK. And now, back in the US, where through AAXIS Digital, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Jason and the Braskem team from the very beginning of their journey. So it’s really great to be here for the conversation.
Jary Carter: Very good. Very good. Thank you to you both. Now let’s just jump in. Jason, a big reason we wanted to bring you in is to talk about your project currently. So we’d love to hear a little bit about your business and the challenges you were experiencing that led to the idea of building a digital portal for your B2B customers.
Jason Vagnozzi: Sure. When I joined the digital transformation team, one of the core projects that I worked on was how we transform the client experience for our customers at Braskem. The chemicals industry is not known for innovation. We joke about it internally. The last real innovation that happened was probably email for the way we do sales to the market. We used the argument that, don’t you think it’s crazy that we’ll sell a railcar of polymer for $200,000 and can’t really tell you where it is, when it’s going to arrive, or how it’s going to get there. But you can order a pizza for five bucks, and you know who’s making it, when it’s going in the oven. And it’s going to show up pretty on the nose when they tell you it’s going to show up.
We recognized that something was off. So we really took a look at what we were doing and tried to fix what was going on. OroCommerce was obviously a great solution for us. We looked at a lot of out-of-the-box solutions, and most of them are made for selling widgets.
But when you have a business like agriculture, chemicals, oil and gas, some of those solutions don’t fit the user experience. We needed something that was a little more flexible and customizable. And so that’s when we looked at solutions such as Oro and went in that direction. But the entire transformation was the challenge. How do you bring that Domino’s Pizza experience to the chemicals industry? That’s really where we were starting.
Jary Carter: I love that Northstar. The direct-to-consumer world has done so much innovation when it comes to customer experience and customer communication. But the further back in the supply chain, you get a lot of times the worst customer experiences. Bringing that forward becomes such a sustainable place of competitive advantage.
Andy, I want to turn to you. You have a more broad view. You’ve certainly worked with the Braskem team, but you’re also working with a lot of other companies and seeing what’s happening in the industry. What are you seeing when it comes to more and more offline companies going online? Are there some interesting examples that you could share with us?
Andy Wagner: We all knew that the B2B industry was lagging behind. They were never really forced to tackle the digital commerce question. They didn’t need to. Everything was working great. But then we had the COVID pandemic. And when that hits, companies in the manufacturing distribution – any business really, where the bulk of their revenue was generated by a direct sales team – had to confront their digital future sooner than perhaps they were ready to. So one of the trends that we’ve seen come out of that digital scramble is actually on the B2B buyer side, where there’s a growing preference to purchase online.
In fact, I saw earlier this year a Gartner survey, where they found 80% of B2B buyers now have formal goals to increase purchasing through the digital commerce channel. It’s pushing these traditionally offline B2B companies to come to terms with the reality that digital has become the context for business.
In the Braskem poject, I can remember the day that our developers understood that we had to figure out how to track rail cars. That is something that you don’t see every day. But the big things we’re tackling are how do we transform that traditional offline business? What does that mean for our processes? And it’s being pushed from the customer side. So understanding how to better serve their customers is everybody’s challenge in the space.
Jary Carter: It really is about customer experience. And really liked that concept of digitization as a part of customer experience, not just the channel purchase. If you haven’t digitized that experience, if you haven’t created content for that customer experience, you’re really falling behind. I appreciate that perspective.
I want to go back to Braskem’s project. I’m so impressed with the story that you created. You’re a global director in a close to $6 billion market cap company. How do you get such a huge project off the ground? Where do you start? How do you lead change in that type of organization?
Jason Vagnozzi: It’s not easy. Especially the first one through the door, you got to get whacked in the face a couple of times, and you got to have thick skin for sure. I’m sure half the people on this podcast are trying to do the same thing. I tell my team: “you’re going hear “No” a lot. Get ready for it just right up front”. It’s really tough to see the bigger picture of how these tools work together. It’s tough finding the right people to lead these projects that are disruptors and innovators within the company. I can tell you, this wasn’t Braskem’s first attempt at something like this, and we’ve failed in the past.
One of the things that Andy mentioned was these things need to be driven by the client’s expectations. All too often, we drive them from internal efficiencies, we look at a program like this, and we try to justify it on an ROI basis: how much time will my customer service team save? How much time will my supply chain save? We forget to ask, what does the client need? Because there’s not a good ROI calculation for that.
You need to adapt and transform because the industry and the world around us are changing. And if you don’t do it, you might not be around to see what that looks like.
So that was just one of the first mentality shifts: for this project, we created a team separate from the business because the business people have way too much to worry about. They’re running the business. So we needed a separate project team. And we started the design phase from the client’s perspective.
We interviewed 60 clients and only 10 internal stakeholders. Because we know what all the challenges internally are, but we don’t understand what the challenge is to the client. Our whole design phase was based on the client’s feedback, not the internal stakeholders’ feedback. It was a mind-blowing experience. People were really frustrated with why aren’t you talking to me.
Internal supply chain customer service tended to want to just push work to the customer, saying, “I don’t like doing this anymore. Can you make the client do it?” And we answered that “We’re not sure that’s going to get the right customer engagement”. So some of those early decisions really needed to be flushed out and thought about.
Jary Carter: It seems that the most successful digital transformations have the customer as the Northstar in terms of their experience, how they want to interact with the brand and how they want to purchase, and how they want to go through that whole customer journey.
Jason Vagnozzi: Exactly. What we found is if you start with those ROI calculations, you end up with the incremental change in your organization. You do things, but you don’t really lead to disruptive change. At this point, you need to ask yourself, as a company, are we really trying to change the way we do business? Are we just trying to make incremental changes? Because most of us know how to make incremental changes. We don’t know how to really change the way we do business. And that was the goal of our platform launch.
Jary Carter: I think we could actually end the podcast on that comment. And it would be well worth our time. That is such an insightful comment. It is not about incremental efficiency, especially for projects of this magnitude.
Jason Vagnozzi: I’ll tell one more story. You got me rolling now. Historically, when Braskem would look at these things, it would be an IT-led program. IT would go and scope the solutions. They were presented to the business leaders, and the business leaders would select the solution. And then, the IT team would gather requirements from supply chain customer service, they would go off on their own, and they would build this thing over the course of eight months. Then they would come out of their hole, present the project, and it’s either good, or it’s not.
Our project, including platform selection, and interviews with the customers, was led by the business. IT was a support function to the project. Companies of our size don’t typically approach that way. But that was another revelation for us that makes a difference overall: it’s more about the user experience than the functionality.
Jary Carter: Well, getting closer to the customer probably made that idea of transformational change versus incremental change much easier to visualize and see.
Andy Wagner: I can’t state strongly enough just how brave that approach was that Jason and the team pulled off. It was more than just the business leading it, which is absolutely the right thing to do. What happened there was the business didn’t simply replace IT in terms of coming up with the requirements. The business listened to the customers. The customers defined the requirements.
So we had a very rapid prototyping iterative process whereby the customer was the real true client saying, “this is what I want”. It was an amazing experience. It took a little time to put the guardrails around it. But once we got there, it was an extremely valuable process that allowed us to quickly get to results that the customers were happy to onboard and say, “Yes, finally, let’s do this.”
Jary Carter: Yeah, it’s not actually diminishing the role of IT in a project like this because they are critical stakeholders. It’s about elevating the role of the customer and putting forward what the customer needs and wants, which is absolutely right.
I also want to talk about how you actually pulled the “what” out of the customer. There is this process of defining the project’s requirements and scope, and you want to get alignment between what the customers need and what your project looks like. I’d love to ask both of you how you did that in this specific case, because a lot of teams struggle to get those requirements out of their customers.
Jason Vagnozzi: We went with more of an iterative, agile approach to get those requirements from the customer. Firstly, we started with internal brainstorming and generated some hypotheses about what the key customer pain points were.
We mapped on a giant whiteboard with a whole bunch of posts and notes what the customer journey looks like today. We did an internal brainstorm as a project team about what we think it needs to look like tomorrow. Based on that, we developed some hypotheses about where the key pain points were.
We ended up with a list of questions to confirm our suspicions and get information about where the pain points were. Then we interviewed those 60 customers. We identified different personas within our client base: you have large strategic clients, the top 20% of clients, or 80% of your sales revenue.
Then we have the tail. And the tail probably doesn’t get as much direct attention. And they probably have a different set of pain points. So we interviewed clients from each portion of our portfolio, asking them the same script of questions, and then analyzed the results.
Very quickly, we saw about 10 themes start to bubble up, like “I need access to information”, “I need to do it quicker”, “I don’t like customer portals, because other suppliers have them. Here’s why I don’t like them.” I think there’s also this stigma about bad customer portals and bad marketplaces that really prevent people from engaging.
We took that feedback when we started developing wireframes. We went back to those same customers with these simple, clickable wireframes and said, “This is what we thought we heard from you. Can you give us additional feedback on this?” And we actually had them click through it and experience it before we built it. And we got great feedback throughout the way.
As we were testing the wireframes, we thought we were doing really well. We had a lot of engineers on the team, so we were very detail-oriented and trying to share platform. And then we were testing it with a customer and after we’re demoing this to him, he goes, “Guys, I need to stop you. I’m not going to use this thing. It’s way too complex.”
He said, “Let me tell you something. If it’s more than two clicks away, I ain’t using it. So we can just stop right now. You will think about that. And you come back and show me something in a couple of weeks.”
This was six months of the project – three months of interviewing and then three months of doing these wireframes – so we haven’t even built anything. But all that upfront work significantly accelerated the build process and our ability to launch the program.
So we went back, and we shared the feedback with the design team. The phrase “If it’s more than two clicks away, I hate using it” ended up being the mantra for the project. It drove everything we did. And it was such a simple comment. But the fact that we listened to it, and we drove our design decisions from that made our project much more successful.
Jary Carter: I love that story. So did he like it in the end? That’s the real question. When you brought it back to them and showed it.
Jason Vagnozzi: He did. He was one of those purchasing managers that the sales team warns you about: “Look, you’ll never get him to use this. He’s been in this for 30-plus years. He’s seen every portal thrown at them. He’ll never use it.” And he was one of our first 10 customers to use it, which was really a testament to the feedback that we got from him and other customers.
Jary Carter: That’s great. Anything to add to that, Andy?
Andy Wagner: That was just such an amazing way to make sure you’re getting started on the right foot.
Once we had version 0.1 up and we had customers on it, we didn’t just sit back. We kept going. And we kept engaging with the customers. And at that point, we were able to get involved in some of these conversations. They were incredibly useful to understand not only what needed to be done, but why.
It helped us make better decisions in terms of how we connect things and use technology in the right way. It became this “Customer-Braskem-AAXIS” team that just rolled and iterated. It was an incredible process.
Jary Carter: Fast forward to the project launch, how did people react to the change? What was the reaction from the sales folks, or even potentially folks that may have felt threatened in the project? What’s been the reaction of your customers?
Jason Vagnozzi: It’s funny, but the exact opposite of what we expected to happen happened. We expected the change management fight or the change management challenge to be with the clients. Because of the process, we achieved the clients’ engagement quicker than our internal stakeholders. Because the platform was so based on an easy-to-use user experience, and the features that we launched were all the features that were asked, customers loved it.
The internal change was much harder. It was challenging for the supply chain, customer service, and sales teams for a few reasons. The immediate emotional reaction to a platform like this is people get worried about their jobs. That was number one. You have to be really sensitive to those things.
Our message was that it’s not going to replace your job. Instead of doing some of the data entry work, your job is going to evolve to help you evolve in your career. So you’ll go from more of a data entry position to an inside sales position. We want to upgrade, elevate and evolve the roles to give them more different responsibilities because we’ve taken some of the transactional work out of their day-to-day stuff.
I think that was one of the key messages that needed to be delivered from all levels of management. Not just from the project team but from all the way up to our CEO. We had him meet and talk about digital transformation because this is just one of several projects that were happening across the company.
It’s a little different message when your manager says it versus the CEO of the company saying, “Hey, we’re not laying anyone off because of these tools. We’re hoping to evolve the company so we can service clients better and increase our sales”. That was crucial messaging internally.
Jary Carter: I love those three words: upgrade, elevate, and evolve the roles. That’s good advice for anybody going through change to message to internal stakeholders.
One last question that I have for both of you. I want you to get your crystal balls out. There’s some heaviness with supply chain issues, inflation, and fears of recession. What’s the future of digitization, whether for Braskem or for the market generally? Are you seeing that this will accelerate digital change? Or that it’s going to slow it down?
Jason Vagnozzi: The quick answer for me is it should accelerate your desire to invest in these tools. One reason is it brings you closer to customers. The second one, it should make you much more competitive and efficient in the long run. And the third one, with these tools, you should be able to scale your business and continue to grow it without the need to add a lot more resources or overhead to the company.
So if you build the base now and build a strong foundation of tools, you can scale and elevate those tools as your business grows without adding people. The traditional approach was to add more people, more sellers, more customer service, and more back-office support. Digital tools should, hopefully, make you a lot more competitive as you move forward into the world. So I think that’s our quick view of that.
Andy Wagner: I think my crystal ball is really only useful as a bookend in the current situation. It just feels like everybody’s working in this mode of what’s going to go wrong next. We see a lot of companies that are forced to operate in this constant crisis mode. There are constant supply chain issues on that side of the house, while on the other side, there are changing customer expectations. Many companies are struggling to get these two sides of an equation to balance out.
Where we’ve seen companies and customers succeed is by embracing digital with capital D, not just digital commerce. This helps companies become more agile in handling this crisis. Organizations must realize that there are other ways that can give them some benefits, make them more flexible, to help manage the ups and downs. They need to prioritize the customer side, find solutions to communicate more quickly and directly to customers, and not allow customers to get into the position where they have to chase you with questions like “where’s my order?”
Digital is enabling you to go that extra mile, but not necessarily by adding that internal transactional overhead to make it all happen.
Additionally, we’re seeing our customers be successful by embracing new tools to help them onboard new suppliers or new partners more easily. It’s not even a year-long process to get somebody connected and integrated today.
And similarly, for the customer experience, being able to change, modify, and add new features very quickly allows the company to behave in a more agile and flexible way. You’re more ready to react to the next shoe that drops if you know what I mean.
Companies that embrace this digital transformation mentality are the ones that are surviving and thriving, even with all the craziness and crisis that’s going on.
Jary Carter: Gentlemen, really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us. Until next time!