Ready to take your ecommerce business to the next level and finally integrate all those siloed systems and dis-integrated data?
Spreadsheets are your frenemy.
Frenemy: Someone that appears to be friendly, is also a rival...or enemy.
A frenemy is someone or something that can be or appears to be friendly but is also a rival. Or even an enemy.
So how does that apply to spreadsheets and data siloes?
Let’s turn to Dana Smith for answers.
When the subject is overcoming data silos, Dana Smith is an expert. Dana is vice president of information technology at Lasko Products. Lasko manufactures home comfort products such as air purifiers, heaters, humidifiers and fans that are sold through major retailers. Lasko has been successful and in business for more than a 100 years. But now, as their retail accounts started to demand more support from vendors for their omnichannel ecommerce efforts, Lasko realized that they needed to up their ecommerce game.
“Our customers are the bigger retailers that we’re all familiar with,” Dana said. “As this battle for ecommerce channels versus bricks-and-mortar came along, we were faced with the challenge that these retailers wanted to expand their channels and we were faced with figuring out how we were going to help them do that.”
Dana led the charge, which involved figuring out how to integrate and automate systems and data from dozens of large retail customers, each customer’s ever-changing channel requirements, Lasko’s own DCs and new fulfillment partners, and internal systems and processes that had served Lasko well for decades.
Getting back to spreadsheets…
Spreadsheets were a crutch...and a clue.
Dana realized that spreadsheets were a crutch. And a clue. They were a crutch because Lasko’s people used them to organize disparate data. They were a clue since that meant the data was siloed, but important enough that people were willing to perform what Etail process engineers call “spreadsheet Olympics” on regular, repeated basis to pull the data together. They identified spots to start ripping down silos and integrating data.
“Spreadsheets are your friends, for sure,” Dana said. “I don’t want to give spreadsheets a bad name because they have their place…but not as a data source. They are a tool that you use for one-time analysis. But as soon as you are doing the analysis multiple times, the spreadsheet becomes an operational tool and a problem that you need to solve for.”
That’s the kind of hard-won experience that Dana shared with host Michael Anderson in a recent appearance on Etail’s “D2C Leadership Now” webinar series. The live briefing (recording available here) focused on “Scaling Ecommerce Growth and Profit beyond your Siloed Systems”. Dana offered expert advice on how to tackle dis-integrated and siloed systems and data – especially when supporting a large customer base of top retailer accounts.
Lasko’s focus on customer needs drove them refine their IT capabilities in light of supporting their retailer customer's drive toward omnichannel ecommerce.
“Put yourself in the shoes of your customers,” Dana said. “When you do that, you allow yourself to think about ‘What do they want to be?’. Today, if you ask them, I think you'd find that they want to be omnichannel. They want to be able to sell to their customers in any way that the consumer wants to be able to buy. So is that on an app or on their phone? Do they want to walk through a store? Do they want to be able to buy on Facebook? It’s all of the above. And so in the end, those are the kinds of capabilities that we need to be able to provide so that our customers can be successful with their consumer.”
One problem, Dana said, is that Lasko’s workflows and processes were finetuned over decades to fulfill truckloads of products sent to retailer warehouses and distribution centers. They were hands-on, spreadsheet based and labor intensive. They were fine for processing a limited number of orders a day, but in no way ready to support their retail customers’ demands to support complex, high-order-volume D2C ecommerce programs such as vendor drop shipping.
“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in,” Dana said. “Once you’re in the consumer ecommerce space, it’s always going to be about minimizing touch to the extent that you can.
“Our company has been very volume driven, but this was a really different concept. But we all know where the retail space has evolved to, and we wanted to be in that game. So it’s really about capabilities: Can we deliver on this capability and make money at it? It was all manual. You just can’t that. We had to figure out how to do it in an automated way that doesn't disrupt what we are currently doing.”
Dana said aggregating and normalizing data across the Lasko ecommerce ecosystem was key to overcoming silos and getting everything integrated.
“Master data is huge,” Dana said. “Obviously, it’s part of any manufacturing business, but from an ecommerce IT perspective it’s the biggest challenge, particularly when you are bringing in new partners who don’t know your SKU structure or what different data values mean. We had embarked down the road of leveraging this technology before we seriously thinking about the D2C direction, but I don’t know that I necessarily connected that this path was going to save us a tremendous amount of work.”
Along with normalizing data, normalizing communications was another major challenge.
“You’re dealing with partners that you don’t know a lot about,” Dana aid. “You’ve got to set up communication paths, data flows and ensuring that error checking is in place. In our world, we had a very inward environment from an IT perspective, now we were exposing that to the outside. We found that what we could consider standard terminology for the D2C space sometimes didn’t mean anything when you were dealing with partners.
“There were also traditional sorts of business metrics we all think about in being a manufacturing company like demand, inventory posture, velocity – those kind of things we needed to have access to. We found that even though you might think these are table stakes, they not as easy to implement as you might think and even access is not as easy as you’d expect.”
Common data definitions. Streamlining communications. And finally, establishing a single source of truth, became they keys to overcoming silos, Dana said.
And that leads us back to spreadsheets: People use spreadsheets and manual processes to combine data and disparate systems because they don’t have access to the data from a single source.
“The first CIO I worked for said that there are two things that will impact your success on any IT project: interfaces and reports,” Dana said. “Today if you fast forward to ecommerce, you’d translate that to integrations and analytics. So when you think about the analytics piece, if you don’t have access to the data, you can’t bring it together into one format so it becomes valuable information. It’s a point that I championed: if we are all not looking at the same, single source of truth, we’ll make bad decisions.”
The most important part of the process, Dana emphasized, is to get started. Growing and developing ecommerce expertise is no longer optional for consumer product companies and the IT departments they depend on.
“I don't like to go into this thinking of it as it as just a capability, but it's really getting about back to what the customer needs, Dana said. "We want to make sure that we are meeting their requirements. One of the real value props for Lasko is our ability to deliver and so that applies all across customer needs, all across the channels.”
The most important capability, in Dana’s view, is the ability to be nimble in the fact of a fast-changing ecommerce market.
“You’ll get to a milestone, call it an annual milestone, and take a look back and see how it’s very different than what you envisioned 12 months before,” Dana said. “That’s partially due to the things you didn’t know, but it’s also because of what happened in the industry and how things changed. And so how do you protect against that? You have to stay right on top of the data when things change. You have to be able to react in any kind of direction. It reminds us of how important it is for us to remain close to the data in the business and remain nimble and be able to pivot on a dime if that's what's required to keep the customer happy.”
LEARN MORE. WATCH THE WEBINAR.
We’ve only scratched the surface of Michael’s wide-ranging discussion with Dana Smith. Check out the "D2C Leadership Now" live briefing where they discuss inventory forecasting, understanding order-to-cash and other key processes, KPIs, and Lasko’s crawl-walk-run approach to IT project management. Click here to view the recorded webinar.
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