Smarter Commerce for the Midmarket: An Interview with IBM’s Ron Kline

In conjunction with IBM’s Smarter Commerce initiative, the SMB Group and CRM Essentials are working on a series of posts discussing how technology is empowering today’s customer, and why companies have to change their approach in order to build strong relationships with them. This is the third post in the series, which is a summarize transcript of the podcast series that Brent Leary of CRM Essentials and Sanjeev Aggarwal, of SMB Group recorded with Ron Kline, director of marketing for IBM’s midmarket division, about IBM’s Smarter Commerce solutions for SMBs. If you’d like to listen to the recorded podcast series, click here.

Brent Leary:  We’re really excited to talk to Ron Kline, director of marketing for IBM’s midmarket division. Ron, before we jump into the Smarter Commerce Imitative, IBM has been doing so much around this whole idea of a Smarter Planet, can you talk a little bit about the big picture of the Smarter Planet initiative.

Ron Kline:  Sure. What we mean by Smarter Planet is that the world we live in is becoming smarter. Everything around us is becoming more and more instrumented, and that allows us to measure really almost anything.

Think about it: there are over a billion transistors for every person on the planet. Over 30 billion RFID tags are embedded across the supply chain around the world. Everything is becoming instrumented.  Supply chains, health care networks, even natural systems like our rivers.  As a result of being able to measure and instrument from various touch points, the world becomes much more inter-connected and intelligent. By measuring and connect this information, you can build a more intelligent planet – one that can respond much more quickly to change.

Take an example like in San Francisco where they’ve launched a parking system so you can see what parking spaces are available throughout the city and determine where there is an open place to park. I actually have this app on my iPhone now. With the next step, you’ll be able to pay for your parking using your smartphone as the payment device.

Sanjeev Aggarwal:  Thanks Ron. So what is Smarter Commerce, and how does it fit into the bigger Smarter Planter picture?

Ron Kline:  Smarter Commerce is about how we deliver the customer experience using all of the insights that we are gaining about our clients and supply chain to provide a much better customer experience.

For example, you used to just go out and buy a car, or a company would just order parts from a supplier. But as consumers got more information at their fingertips, they could start to get price comparisons online and hear what other people had to say about a particular product before they go shop. Things have quickly moved on to include people sharing information and opinions on social networking sites and blogs.

Smarter Commerce helps you maximize the insight that you generate through customer interactions, whether in the store, over the web, from smart devices – what is being said out in social communities and taking that insight and pulling it together to improve the customer experience. Then you can tailor your offerings to what a customer is interested in.  You can improve profitability by targeting the right offerings to the right customer at the right time, or by reducing the cost of returns, restocking, and supply chain expense by having to handle reverse logistics because you just didn’t know what the customer was looking for. The bottom line is improving the overall customer experience and living up to customer expectations.

We sort that into four big buckets, but it all comes down to customer experience. It’s the marketing, how do I target and personalize my marketing?  Yes, to get better yield out of my marketing dollar but really to have a better experience for my customers – so that I am providing relevant, targeted, offerings or information. Then, how do I manage that whole sales process, fulfillment across stores, the web, social sites. And customer service has to span all of the touch points. It’s not enough to have a customer service department anymore, customer service is something that a client experiences when he is buying a product or shopping for a product and when he is looking for additional service. On the internal side,  how do I control the procurement of goods and source the goods. I can have a smarter procurement process and a smarter supply chain process only if I know really more about my customer.

Brent Leary:  Talk a little bit about who should care about Smarter Commerce in an organization and why they should care about it.

Ron Kline:  Well, the customers care about it, so therefore, all of us as businesses need to care about it.  It’s something that any business of any size really needs to focus on.  It’s just as important for small and midsize businesses to deliver a superior customer experience as it is for a large enterprise.  In fact, Smarter Commerce and Smarter Planet can help level the playing field for midsize companies. In this environment, it’s all about building a more loyal customer, understanding that customer better, and then being able to deliver a better experience.

Sanjeev Aggarwal:  Can you give us an example of how a midsize company is using Smarter Commerce today and what type of results they are achieving?

Ron Kline:  Sure. One example I find pretty interesting is Elie Tahari, a high fashion clothing designer and retailer. Nobody is more focused on appealing to the tastes and the emotions of their customers, but those tastes can change very quickly and a manufacturer who is caught with too much of yesterday’s style has got a lot of money tied up in inventory that is out of date.

Elie Tahari implemented an IBM Cognos solution that allows them to have a unified view of all of the information available from their different systems to make better decisions about what the market is saying and what specific customer needs are.

So now, instead of following what was a typical practice in the retailing industry–sending stores the same distribution of sizes based on historical information across the country–Elie Tahari has insight from their customer data for each particular store over a period of time. They can say, the distribution looks a little different over here, and distribute accordingly. It’s a better customer experience because the chances of being out of stock had been reduced. It saves money on costs of returns or discounting to try to move product that is not selling, either because you don’t have the right style in stock or you have to return it back to the parent company because you ordered too many of one size. This has enabled them to improve the customer experience, and on the supply chain side, they don’t end up with too much of the wrong type of thing.

Another example is BJU Press, a publisher in the United States that provides home schooling materials for kids in the K-12 age group.  They have developed a web store front end with an IBM partner, CrossView, using WebSphere Commerce, and Coremetrics, a web analytics application. Now they can provide customers with an easier online experience to search for products, continually improve that search experience.

In both cases, IBM and its patterns were able to not only improve the customer experience, but also the economics for the company as well.

Brent Leary:  Ron, those are some great examples, but how is IBM making Smarter Commerce accessible to the SMB market?

Ron Kline:  In fact, the examples that I gave you are midsize companies. They have the same pain points as larger companies; they just haven’t had the ability to address it in the past because a lot of the technology and solutions were out of reach.

IBM has bridged that gap in a of couple ways.  One way is to provide offerings that are built and designed for the midmarket.  We have a process in IBM to insure that the offerings that we bring to market for this customer segment are built and priced appropriately for midsize companies.  An example, Unica Email Optimization [OnDemand] Solution is $1,500 a month for running up to twenty-five events.  It’s very a very affordable solution with a lot of really great technology in it.  Unica Marketing Operations [OnDemand] is another one, marketing operations on demand is $6,000 per year for up to ten seats.  These are very much within the range of a midsize company, and provide the kind of analytics and insights that help a company deliver this Smarter Commerce experience.

We’ve also learned that customers are looking for local trusted advisors and that’s where IBM’s investment in a very large partner ecosystem has helped bring the IBM technology to these midsize companies through local business partners.

Sanjeev Aggarwal:  How does an SMB that wants to learn more about this get started?

Ron Kline:  Absolutely, first of all, you can talk to your local business partner because they are the trusted advisor for you there locally.  At www.IBM.com/smartercommerce you can learn about what Smarted Commerce is and get a bigger picture view of what other customers are doing in this area and how they are benefiting, and of course, what our offerings are.

Brent Leary:  Ron thanks so much for your time today and explaining what Smarter Commerce is all about, thanks again.

Ron Kline:  My pleasure, thank you very much.

This is the third of a six-part blog series by SMB Group and CRM Essentials that examines the evolution of the smarter customer and smarter commerce, and IBM’s Smarter Commerce solutions. In our next post, we’ll talk about how Speedo International is serving smarter customers with Smarter Commerce solutions. In the meantime, please share with us the successes you’ve had and the challenges you face in adapting your business to better serve smarter customers.

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