The Secret to a Successful Digital Implementation with April Braun
Jary Carter: Hello everybody and welcome to Digitizing B2B with Jary Carter. I’m here today with April Braun, director of marketing at Werner Electric. April, welcome to the podcast today.
April Braun: Thanks Jary!
Jary Carter: I’m so happy to have you. I’m really excited to talk with you. This spurred from a couple handful of conversations that you and I have had about B2B eCommerce. I’ve been really just impressed with your perspective, the depth of understanding you have and the journey that you’ve been on with B2B eCommerce, which you’re doing now Warner. I guess before we get started, just to level set for folks, tell us a little bit about Werner.
April Braun: Thanks, Jary. Werner is really just, at the root, a B2B model. We’re an electrical distributor. We’re headquartered in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. We have six branches that span Minnesota and Wisconsin. Next year, we’re going to be celebrating our hundredth anniversary, so we’ve been around for a little bit of time, and we’ve had tremendous growth. We have a little over 350 employees. I think there are a lot of businesses out there just like us. Like most distributors and even manufacturers to some extent, we have hundreds of suppliers, thousands of customers and tens and hundreds of thousands of products.
April Braun: The challenge that we have is that we’ve built this business over a series of time growing rapidly over the last five years, and doing stuff systematically is somewhat challenging for us. So, I have found through talking with lots of other folks in the same space and even other businesses that are very much like us. This is what’s happening to a lot of the B2B businesses that are out there trying to figure out how to wrangle some of this stuff. So Werner I don’t think is any different than many. We might be bigger. We might be smaller. But I think a lot of us are going through some of the same growing pains as our customers are needing more and the requirement for digitization is just becoming table stakes for B2B operation.
Jary Carter: I think you’re absolutely right. I think you and I have talked about this, that there just needs to be a conversation going in the B2B eCommerce world. I think so many companies are really siloed and trying to figure this out on their own. I think you have a perspective about sharing what you’ve learned and allowing other people to do the same. I guess, let’s maybe back up before we get into what you’ve done there at Werner, I’d love to just understand how you arrived to lead marketing there and what your background is.
April Braun: I have an interesting background. I haven’t come here and lots of folks in distribution really have grown their roots here. I came from manufacturing for over 20 years. I worked for large publicly held companies, multi-million dollar global operations, from 3M, to Ford, Ingersoll Rand- this is where I have a varied background of Sales and Marketing and dabbled in finance and operations based off of different roles I’ve taken. And so really coming up through a different environment than distribution. I’ve worked with distribution my whole career, but I’ve never worked in distribution.
April Braun: This was really my opportunity to literally take bits and bits of everything that I’ve done over the last 20 years and apply it here. That to me was very exciting to be able to see it and be close to it and watch it come to fruition. In large companies, many times, you’re a piece of something. Here, we’ve definitely learned, and I think we can talk about this. You need to work with others within the organization. It’s a smaller organization so you really get to get deeper into some of it and really see the fruits of your labor. From that perspective, it’s been really interesting to apply at the heart of everything that I’ve done no matter what.
April Braun: Now I’m in marketing. I started in sales, but at the heart has always been the customer. Really, that’s what I’m passionate about, really understanding the customer, really looking to figure out what it is that makes them tick in the B2B space, which by the way is the only model I’ve been into. I’ve been in B2B most of my career with some exception at Ford where I was really trying to mark it out to the consumers based off of obviously a very consumer driven brand, but really just trying to understand what makes them tick, why they need to do business with us, what it is that can make their lives easier.
Jary Carter: I think you’re interestingly poised. I mean, you have this background in sales, this background in marketing, a little bit of finance, a little bit of operations. I mean, you’ve got all of this experience in a lot of different areas. Now, that really poises you to lead some digital transformation and take the company down this journey. Can you walk us through that digital transformation journey you’ve been down since you joined the past couple of years?
April Braun: It’s been fun! I just had a meeting this morning and we started to reflect on some of the things that we’ve been through just in the last six months. What’s been interesting is my journey started with really just getting the lay of the land, and so spending some time within the business at our branches with our employee really trying to understand our company and who we are. I spent a lot of time with other distributors, so pretty neat industry where they have lots of industry associations where people want to share.
April Braun: I’ve not been in all industries that have been so willing and open to share. So taking advantage of that, meeting other folks within other distributors, both big and smaller than us. Then I really did start to take a look at our manufacturer partners and where they were just really trying to get this assessment of what needed to happen within the organization. Early on, right away, probably within my first 90 days, I assessed just the marketing organization that I was brought in to lead and really trying to figure out what the right roles were.
April Braun: I found that a lot of distributors had either just started investing in marketing or hadn’t yet been investing, and so using them as a benchmark was not that easy, so I started to build up, especially modeling other businesses outside of the electrical distribution space, to take a look at what really leading marketing organizations are about, what types of roles, what types of talent that they’re looking to bring in, and so really redefining and transforming marketing into what was traditional marketing.
April Braun: I happen to be blessed that I have a great team that really embraces change and wants to help the business grow through marketing and other efforts that they can drive. That was at the start of it. Now, what I’ve had since day one has been leadership support. The leadership was committed to transformation. In fact, that was very much what they wanted to know that I was capable of doing when bringing me into the organization is how can I help them reach their customers differently. I’ve been very lucky that I have not had to convince our leadership as to the direction that we needed to go.
April Braun: They were already bought in that the model of which we’re working within today, very personal relationships, very hands on. It just isn’t necessarily going to be realistic to what the customers need. They need information quickly. They need it when they want it. They need it when it’s relevant to the project that they’re working on. They may not need it between our hours of seven and five. They’re changing and evolving, and so we need to change and evolve with them. I’m pretty fortunate that the leadership team already determined that when they brought me in.
April Braun: I think that’s a big reason why I was brought into the organization, given my background and not that I was from electrical distribution. They were looking for something different and unique. Our journey, I started calling it from day one. It really began to take a look at who are our customers and what do they need from us? What do they care about us? Where are they buying? How are they acting? How do they need to do business with us? In distribution, sometimes I’m like manufacturing. They’re varied. Today and in our model, we reach out to contractors who do projects, and we reach out to engineers who may be looking to upgrade a plant in the next year.
April Braun: Those particular customers behave differently. They have different values. They buy from us differently. They need different things, and so really trying to educate the organization on who the key customers are, what do they care about, and then really trying to figure out the best way to get the biggest bang for the buck. We were really looking for our shortest pot. If you take a look at all of the digital mediums that we could reach our customer, our website for instance, was eight years old. It was HTML- it couldn’t be updated. I had to have a coder actually be able to make any changes from it.
April Braun: We knew that needed to be changed immediately. Social media, as an example, was a great way for us to reach the customers quickly and really inexpensively if you thoughtfully did it. We really reached out and started to take a look at being more effective in that realm. At the same time, we knew we had to re-platform our eCommerce. Our existing base is more of a web ordering portal, and we knew that wasn’t going to be sustainable. At the same time, we were in parallel using a partner to basically identify the right software that we could do to upgrade our eCommerce experience.
April Braun: That journey itself, outside of some of the digital marketing upgrades and redefinition that we were doing within the organization, we launched a brand new website. Actually in July, we immediately got on social media. We started to do more relevant and effective email campaigns, but the eCommerce one has been, I think, one of the most complex because there are lots of choices in the market. We chose to find a project partner that would help us with the RFI so that we wouldn’t get bombarded, and so we used a partner who actually went and put together a proposal based off of the business requirements.
April Braun: We’ve talked to lots of customers. We talked to people internally. We did benchmarking to create a list of business requirements. We took that to start exploring who we wanted to do business with, who we thought would make a good partner for us in our journey. I do know that a lot of other distributors and other folks that I had talked to in B2B, they really fell in love with a particular software and then tried to make it work for their business requirements. We were pretty adamant that we wanted to know what we were seeking before we sought out what was going to fit that need, and so we evaluated 25 different platforms.
April Braun: Quickly, we were able to get down to at least a dozen. Then from there, we started to take a look at capabilities and what really met what we were looking for. It really at the end came down to two. We built out a lot of demos. We did testimonials. We talked to the existing users, the existing customers. We really were trying to be comprehensive in our choice because it gets to be less about the technology and more about your ability to execute on it and the application of it. There’s a lot to be said about just having a good partner to get you to implementation and understanding your business and understanding some of the challenges you’re having.
April Braun: This digital journey for the last two years has, one, not been boring, and two, has just been something that’s been extremely unique to our company. In fact, I would say that the initial efforts from modernizing our marketing to going to digital marketing, to really getting into digitization has really transformed itself into an overarching business transformation where our leadership has taken a very front seat approach to, “We need to more effectively go to market to meet our customers’ needs.” Ecom is just one of those things.
April Braun: That just happens to be eCommmerce has really set the stage for how we want to provide value to our customers differently, but it’s really been a true journey and one that is certainly a marathon and not a sprint, because holy cow, I don’t know that I would’ve passed out by mile marker one at this point. It’s a lot of work, but very exciting.
Jary Carter: I feel like just hearing you talk about the last two years, my head is spinning a little bit on how much you’ve done. That feels like 10 years of work condensed into two years and a lot of different activities. I mean, I’m just surprised by the breadth of work that you’ve taken on. I mean, just this idea of all the marketing work that you’ve done, the technology changes that you’re making, and then on top of that, a massive eCommerce re-platform and really sort of positioning yourself to get that piece right going forward.
Jary Carter: Out of all of this work that you’ve done, I’m sure April, you’ve skinned your knees along the way. I’m certain that you’ve probably had a ton of success. What have been some of the just the really key things that you’ve learned through this process?
April Braun: Thanks. Thanks for asking. I would say bumps and bruises heal, and so you have to be ready to take them on.
Jary Carter: (Laughter) I don’t know whether that’s positive or negative. You’re saying there are bumps and bruises, but they do resolve themselves.
April Braun: Because you’re learning the whole way. I mean, you have to embrace the business that you’re in, and meet it where it is. You can have these grandiose ideas that you want to digitally deployed this whole new mechanism for customers to do business with you. It sounds really good and it sounds easy, but in application, it’s not. There’s a lot of challenges. Technology is just at the very tip of what challenges your business. There’s cross departmental and cross functional needs to get a project like eCommerce out. I would say that many of our businesses have not been …
April Braun: They’ve not been designed to work that way, and not to the fault of those businesses. They’ve been created around silos, and this organization needs to achieve this. This organization independently needs to achieve this. Some of these projects are the first time that we really had to not just learn to work with one another, but to see each other’s vantage points and to really rely on one another, and you’re having shared goals for the first time. Some of the stuff that you need to get done is dependent on others doing it. I don’t know that all of our organizations have been equipped to manage that as effectively.
April Braun: The faster you can figure that out, that not one person owns this transformation, not one person owns this journey, we’re all in it together. We win together. We lose together. It’s okay to say, “Hey, we don’t actually know how to do this. We haven’t done it before, so let’s find somebody who can help us do that.” I think admitting that is sometimes challenging to folks, especially in businesses the size of Werner, they’ve built this based off of who they are and what they’ve been able to do. They’ve done really, really well with the level of success that the company has seen.
April Braun: Now, to change that model and to suggest we have to do things differently is counter-intuitive, and so change management becomes this driving force. It’s sometimes way less about the technology and more how the people within the business can actually embrace it or if they see it as a potential threat. That really impacts their need or interest to support it or to make it successful. I think that can’t really be underestimated as to the impact that has. I think, sometimes it’s making stuff take longer and then folks get discouraged.
April Braun: I think you have to be okay with you’re going to get bumps and bruises. You have to be okay with stepping back and taking the time to explain to somebody that what we’re doing and the changes that are happening by bringing digital and technology to our workplace and our environment is to benefit the customer. Ultimately, that benefits us as individuals who then can focus on different things that the customer needs from us. What I have found is in most of those conversations, the individuals are more … They’d rather work on the staff that brings more value to the customer.
April Braun: They don’t want to chase down a delivery date. They don’t want to chase down when the package went out. They don’t want to chase down a price or a time to delivery. They would be happy if the customer had that information at their fingertips because the customer is still going to call with a more advanced question of, “Hey, how does this particular component interchange with this component, and how could I go about getting this achieved through buying something from you?” Those are the calls that people want to take and that’s who we have equipped to take it.
April Braun: Instead, they’re chasing down those very tactical things that a digital platform can give you, but if you don’t know what that’s gonna look like in the future because you haven’t experienced it before, it can be really, really scary, and so understanding that and meeting the organization where they are, meeting employees where they are and giving them what they need to feel comfortable, I think, can’t be underestimated, but it takes a lot of time. If you’re really forcing yourself into, “We have to have this done in six months,” think about the change management because if you don’t allot for it, you may ineffectively skip over it. And I think that probably, it’ll take you longer to implement in the long run.
April Braun: The last thing is, I really truly underestimated the value of IT. That seems counterintuitive when you talk about a technology project, but for us, our IT organization has done a good job. They make sure that we have computers. Our help desk is here. No matter what I have is a problem, they’ll solve it. They’ll make sure my phones are working, but application development and doing more customer facing, that’s our B2C brother, and it had been doing it for a long time. In the B2B space, not so much. You can’t underestimate the strong marriage between IT and Marketing.
April Braun: I’ve been to plenty of conferences that have figured it out because they are having IT leaders come at the same time as Marketing leaders. I just would say that this has not historically been a very strong partnership, not because you didn’t want to, but because all of this hasn’t been a necessity. Now, I do know plenty of organizations where there’s actually animosity built up between the two organizations of IT and Marketing, and the sooner you can get over that and the sooner that you can identify yourselves as partners is going to help because they’re interchangeable.
April Braun: In order for some of the customer facing applications to be delivered effectively, you have to have lots of organizations within the company part of it, but if your IT and your Marketing organizations are not aligned, you’re going to have a much tougher time.
Jary Carter: This is so valuable. I mean, all the elements that you talked about in terms of change management, which has become a massive thread through every interview that I’ve given. So much so that, I mean, it is sticking out as the biggest challenge that people were talking about. The key learnings have been people underestimating the amount of change management that they were going to have to spend their time doing as part of digital transformation. This is not just a technology implementation. It’s an entire business change, so much of this, what you’re talking about it.
Jary Carter: It’s interesting that you talked about this marriage between IT and marketing because, I think, that’s another thing. You’ve brought this out in our previous conversations that it’s not necessarily a natural marriage for Marketing and IT to talk to each other. I’m at least seeing that good IT departments are really starting to be sensitive in understanding the needs of the application development needs of the marketing organization, and good marketers are starting to become much more technical. I’m a lot of times on the phone with Marketing, and I feel like I’m talking with IT because of the fact that marketers are really stepping up their game in terms of their technology understanding.
Jary Carter: I’ve seen that within your team and within other organizations that the Marketing organizations are really getting well versed with technology, which is becoming incredibly valuable for the organization overall.
April Braun: Yes. It’s the first time in my career, Jary, that I’ve seen Marketing leaders become IT leaders. I couldn’t think of anything further from my career path 20 years ago as far as a direction you’d see marketers going. I only get the bad thing. I think, there’s lots of ways to skin a cat, and you can attempt to do it either by learning it on your own or finding partnerships. I’ve seen plenty of organizations from the manufacturing perspective where they get frustrated with IT and so they just bring the resources in house within their own department and go around IT.
April Braun: I would say that’s a longer path to take to, and so I would really suggest that you embrace it. You’ll learn enough to keep up as a marketer. If you want to learn more, great. Leverage and rely on your IT partners who have technical capabilities and knowledge that will be valuable. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with CIOs and other technology leaders in other companies trying to figure some of this stuff out.
April Braun: Just so I could help the organization identify some of the gaps that we had from a competency perspective and technology skillset, I didn’t ever intend to bring those folks within my organization from a marketing perspective. I just wanted the organization to have them so that we could be effective together. There’s lots of ways to do it. I think, it’s evident to me in talking with lots of different companies and different marketers and different technology leaders, IT leaders. I don’t know that B2B has figured it out. I don’t know that there is one cookie cutter approach that any one of us has figured out.
April Braun: The good news is that you can do it lots of different ways. The bad news is you can do it lots of different ways. I think that’s what’s been really challenging, and you got to figure out what’s best for your organization, but the sooner you can figure out that IT is a critical partner, the better. Trying to circumvent them is not going to help, I think, from that perspective. And so there’s lots of critical folks within the organization, and the change management comes at all different directions. Part of which is not just getting people to see the value of the technology, but also to understand that, who once maybe didn’t seem like a partner needs to be a partner, and you gotta figure it out in order to be successful together.
Jary Carter: To some degree, I think about this like a marriage, right? I mean, you have two really different organizations, two different styles, communication, backgrounds, work backgrounds, and you’re coming together for a common purpose, and you have to communicate. You have to learn the other’s objectives and goals, and you really have to collaborate towards a common goal. That I think is what digital transformation has … It seems like it has really been a good forcing function for your organization to get the organization collaborating around goals and objectives centered around customer experience.
Jary Carter: I think, it is the customer experience that with all of this change management, it’s about updating, refreshing the customer experience in a way that they want to be treated, in a way that they want to be interacted with through the purchase process and through the customer journey. It didn’t seem like you had a large B2B eCommerce presence before you took on this larger eCommerce initiative. I talked to a lot of people who are on the fence about whether they should invest in B2B eCommerce or just continue down their current path of a very small or no digital footprint.
Jary Carter: I’m just curious what your advice would be to people in this process or that are considering making this investment.
April Braun: I think that’s a fair assessment to say that it hasn’t been a big part of our organization. I was brought in specifically to bring eCommerce to the business, and so I was surprised to find out that we have been doing it for over five years. Now, eCommerce, I think, would be a very loose term to call what we’re doing. We have a web ordering portal. So many of the early adapters in the B2B, from what I could tell, decided early on they needed a mechanism for customers to be able to place orders. That, to me is, not B2B commerce.
April Braun: We have a web ordering portal where, yup, customers can go and place orders. In order for us to do what I would define as fully eCommerce, we had to really embrace and understand all the customer needs. It’s more than just placing an order. It’s getting information that helps them make their decision, but it’s also transactional information that helps make their jobs easier. Being able to order online is just one piece of that. Now, if you have data issues and you have other problems that the customer can’t find what you’re selling, you’re not making it any easier for them.
April Braun: That’s really been our situation is we put a web ordering portal in place, which was, I wouldn’t say an extension of our ERP, but it was tied to our ERP. In essence, our customers, if they wanted to order from us, really had to understand the language of our ERP in order to effectively find something. That’s not a customer experience at all. That’s an overlay of our ERP and our customer being able to order from it. If you’re on the fence about, if you’re in a B2B space, I would take a hard and fast look at your competitive landscape and see who’s knocking at your door, and perhaps, obvious, one might be Amazon because that’s who’s knocking at most people store.
April Braun: But even aside from them, there are plenty of other folks who have built up business models probably in your space that doesn’t require brick and mortar, may not even require a sales organization, may not require that relationship, but it provides the customer with what they need when they need it. I would say if you’re on the fence, the reality of it is it’s not going away. More and more people are buying online in their personal lives and that is bleeding into their business lives. They need information at their fingertips and everybody is doing more with less, and so technology is a way for us to build productivity and efficiencies for not only our own businesses but our customer’s businesses.
April Braun: The sooner you can embrace that, the sooner that a justification of something to the magnitude of eCommerce will be easier to understand. I wouldn’t say that it’s a cost of doing business. I would say that it’s a mandatory requirement to do business. I don’t know what fence there is to be on unfortunately. Unless you’re at the luxury of being able to retire in five years and sunset your company, then, I think, you might be safe to stay with your existing model. We’ve been in business for 100 years, and we plan to be in business for at least a hundred more.
April Braun: The customers who started doing business with us 60 plus years ago, their grandchildren are taking over. Some of their children are taking over. Unfortunately, they aren’t looking to build a relationship with my account manager. They want to have information at their fingertips when it’s appropriate. That might be uncomfortable for us, and most of us who have come in from the B2B space believe that that relationship is king. I am the first to say it certainly is. Everything we know about our customer, everything we provide to them is way more valuable than what an Amazon can do in a two-click purchase.
April Braun: The reality of it is their days are getting shorter. They’re having to do more. We have to give them what they need in order to keep them as a customer. I think the decision might feel like a hard one and it certainly isn’t, I think, an easy process, but I really think the harder decision is, “Do you want to stay in business or not?” That seems very harsh I think, but unfortunately, it feels to me like the reality of where we’re heading. People want information. They want to be able to purchase whether it’s for their home or whether it’s for their business, and we need to be able to provide them a platform to do that in order to stay relevant and in order to continue to have that relationship with them.
Jary Carter: This is really great. I think that’s a great closing perspective. It’s interesting. I’ve been at a handful of companies where the person leading this initiative, companies that are a 100 to 300 million in revenue have been around for 50, 75 years, and the person walking me out at the end of the meeting says, “You know, if we don’t do this, we’re going to be out of business in five years.” I mean, you saying that, that sounds really provocative, but that’s not the first time I’ve heard that. That’s actually a really common sentiment, I think, in the industry for people that are looking ahead at not just what Amazon is doing but what competitors are doing.
Jary Carter: Your industry may be growing at 10%, 12% or 5% or 20%, whatever that is, but the tectonic shifts that are happening underlying in that market of where people are buying, they’re shifting pretty dramatically to where there’s going to be over the next five years big winners and big losers in every industry, where you see distributors and manufacturers that get this right that are going to look more like technology companies in terms of growth. Companies that don’t invest in this are going to go out of business.
Jary Carter: That’s the perspective that we’re seeing in the market is just that people that are getting this change management right across the organization are going to be the ones that are the big winners beyond the technology, getting the organization aligned for the future.
April Braun: I think our president had said it back to our organization. “You can choose to get disrupted or you can be the disruption.” You got to decide which side of the fence you’re going to be on, I guess.
Jary Carter: That’s great. Well, with that, April, thank you so much for spending time with me today.
April Braun: Thanks, Jary.
Jary Carter: I really appreciate your perspective, and always a pleasure talking. Thanks.
April Braun: Thank you!
- Werner Electric is an electrical distributor headquartered in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.
- Digital transformation is not just a technology implementation- it's an entire business change, so change management is key.
- IT is a critical partner in not only implementing a technology solution, but also collaborating with the internal team to provide a solution they can embrace.
- April's advice: Ecommerce isn't the cost of doing business. It's a mandatory requirement to do business. Provide customers a platform that will give them what they want in order to stay relevant.