The Kula Ring

Episode 29 B2B Marketing When Your Customers are in a Rapidly Changing Industry

In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman talk to John Perry, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Power Digital within GE Power. John talks about the challenges of marketing to customers who are in an industry that’s in the middle of rapid and fundamental changes to their business model.

B2B Marketing When Your Customers are in a Rapidly Changing Industry Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring. My name is Jeff White. Joining me today, as always, is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing today?

Carman Pirie: I am well. I am well and this is the first and probably, this doesn’t happen very often that we’re going to have a guest on today that it sounds like we share the last name. So I don’t know, I feel like we should maybe tell people in advance that it’s not a relative, it’s not a plant.

Jeff White: We didn’t just call your uncle.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. We didn’t run out of guests that quickly.

Jeff White: That quickly, no. It’ll happen eventually, I’m sure.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, I’m sure.

Jeff White: But joining us today is John Perry. John is the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Power Digital within GE Power. And John works, in terms of marketing, all of the software and pieces that power the GE Power hardware. It’s incredibly interesting and I’m really excited to have him on the show.

Carman Pirie: I think he’s going to be able to introduce it way better than you did.

Jeff White: Oh, I think so.

Carman Pirie: John, why don’t you … John, welcome to The Kula Ring. Tell us about you and what you do at GE Power.

John Perry: Thanks guys. Really glad to be here. And, that was a very good introduction, but I can add a little more color and detail.

Jeff White: Thank you!

John Perry: You bet. I work in marketing for Power Digital, which is the software division supporting GE Power. GE Power is in the business of supporting the electricity industry, really through the full lifecycle of the electricity industry, from generation to transmission to distribution. So, source, coal plants, gas plants nuclear plants, renewable energy, all the way through the wires that lead into homes and businesses, so source to socket. And, all of that needs to be managed by software and automated digital today and that’s really what we do.

Carman Pirie: Jeff… a bit of a tangent… I don’t know. Is a turducken a Nova Scotian thing?

Jeff White: I don’t think so. I think it reaches-

Carman Pirie: But John, do you know what a turducken is?

John Perry: (laughing) I do know what a turducken is and, as a vegetarian, I rear back from the turducken.

All: (laughing)

Carman Pirie: You probably won’t like the comparison, but I really feel, in our prep for today’s episode, that really what you’re living through when it comes to the notion of digital transformation is a bit of a turducken. (laughing)

Now, there’s transformation on a number of different levels happening. There’s a lot going on in this space. There’s so much change on the consumer side of electricity. There’s this blending of consumers also becoming the generators of electricity and becoming more knowledgeable consumers of it. There’s a political climate surrounding it all that is undeniable. And, then of course, buyers, utility buyers themselves are changing.

It must be a fascinating space to be involved in.

John Perry: It really is. I am really blessed to be working in the power space and in the digital end of the power space at a time when there is really nothing more relevant, I think, to this business and this industry than digital and the way that digital can solve some of the complications and challenges that you’re talking about.

The electricity industry really did not change significantly for a hundred years. What it did was it grew and it became more efficient, but the grid has been with us… the grid is the largest and most complex machine that has been in continuous operation since inception. I know it sounds like almost a silly thing to say, but the grid is kind of like a giant machine that we have continually tinkered with and expanded as the demand for and the need for electricity has grown.

But beyond that, the principle of generating electricity through spinning turbines, through coal plants and gas plants and then later, through renewables—that didn’t change. You generated electricity through plants, you transmitted electricity through the wires that carried it across the country, the grid itself, and then you delivered it, changed voltage at substations, delivered it in a usable form to businesses and to consumers.

What did change was the demand grew steadily, so there was always an increasing, expanding marketplace for folks in the utility business and we got more efficient with some of the things that we used to deliver it and to carry it across the country.

In the last five years, all of that has changed and I think the utility buyers that we work with today who’ve been in the business for a long time, many of them 20, 30 years, are really working in a business that they never would have predicted, that would have been unrecognizable to them when they started. And, that’s a remarkable thing to say about an industry. It’s still here. It’s still as essential as ever and it’s really changed to be almost unrecognizable.

When I say that, what I’m talking about is the introduction of renewable resources. Distributed Energy Resources, is what we say in the business; DERs. And the introduction of more hydro, wind and now the explosion of solar, has meant that suddenly, there are sources and producers entering into that balancing act that the utilities have had to do on the grid for so many years that they never expected.

And, they’re also not the same kind of sources that they dealt with in the past. So, in the past, you spun up power when you needed it, you turned on the plant, you turned the plant down when you didn’t need it, but here we have these incredibly powerful sources of energy, the sun, the wind, that we can’t rely on and that we can’t control. So, if the wind stops blowing for a week when it’s been blowing heavily for the week before, you’ve got a sudden variable source of power.

Same thing with… people come home from work, the lights … the sun is down, lights need to come on just when you need it the most. And, storage as a solution is essential in an environment of DERs, of this renewable energy because of the variability of the source, but storage has not had its magic bullet moment. We continue to make incremental advances with storage, but storage remains, I would say, at a pace… a step or two behind where distributed energy needs it to be.

So, it’s a time of challenge. It’s a time of change, but it’s also a time of huge opportunity.

Carman Pirie: It’s funny, because I can kind of imagine some marketers listening right now and they may be thinking, “This is fascinating as hell, but I don’t know what it has to do with my day to day life as a marketer.”

John Perry: Yeah.

Carman Pirie: Just to connect the dots, I think it’s so directly related ’cause we’re talking about a notion where consumers have more information than they’ve had before because of their being more informed. They’ve come to the table with different expectations, they demand more from their relationships with utilities. And that distributed power production, if you will, seems to me, pun intended somewhat, that it changes the power dynamics of the relationship between the consumers and the utilities that serve them. And, I think all of those things that I just mentioned, you could say the same thing about the buyers of almost anything these days.

John Perry: That’s true. That’s true. Customers… all of us are utility customers, right? We don’t really have a choice. Unless we live off grid and in the woods and so you’re not hearing this podcast… we are all customers of the utility industry. We all plug into the same internet. We all have the same experiences as consumers that have changed our relationships with the service providers in our lives, right. We expect more communication. We expect more transparency. We expect reliability, better service, all of those things.

So, expectations for our utility customer’s customers have changed, so how we help them with digital solutions that actually make them better at keeping power on, at being resilient when outages happen, at communicating with customers, at keeping customers informed in real time… all of those things are managed by digital solutions.

So, we have answers for that changing power dynamic between our utility customers and their own customers, for sure. At the same time, our customers come to us and they are facing all of this change, they’re facing an environment in which they always basically held the keys to production, right. They held production in their hands. They decided how much energy they were going to consume and push out based on load and demand and, today, they are just… they are big players, but they are players in a much more complicated market.

There are people out there aggregating energy that is being created by consumers who are acting as prosumers with solar panels on their roofs. Suddenly, aggregators are in the mix. There is a kind of an energy buying market that is a lot like any other commodity trading. It happens in real time and you need digital solutions in order to be able to be on top of that kind of energy trading experience. So, that’s another space in which digital plays a huge, huge role.

What, as marketers, we need to do in this space, is help our customers… our utility customers… our customers in the power sector see a way forward, feel confident that we have a vision that is both really forward-looking in an environment of rapid change, but also deeply rooted in real outcomes. Right? Real outcomes that are being delivered today. So, they have the confidence, as a lot of people are surrounding them talking about “we can fix this, we can fix this with software, software is the answer to everything”; they need to hear from us that we not only have software, we have deep domain expertise, we’ve been doing this for a hundred years. It’s right there in our name. We started the electricity business ourselves with Thomas Edison and Pearl Street, so we know the business, but we also know software and we’ve made some smart acquisitions along the way that have made us really good at managing this stuff digitally.

So, they need to hear that from us. There has to be a strong message of “we get it, we’re out in front of it, we’re right there with you and we are delivering outcomes today”, but they also need to hear from us that we can help them with that relationship that we talked about. So, they are our customers, we understand their customers and we want to help them maintain and evolve and really benefit from, on both sides, mutually, that customer… that changing customer dynamic that they’re experiencing.

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Carman Pirie: I find it really…  it would be hard to identify a company that could stand as an example of this more that GE, in some way. GE, as you just stated, has been around for a very long time and effectively invented the space.

So, with that can come a lot of authority in the sale, there’s no question. And, then you’re facing an industry that’s facing a lot of shake up and I’m assuming there must be some newer players entering the space, as well. I’m curious about that dynamic between… I guess weighing on your experience and using that as a way of commanding presence in the marketplace and contrasting that with customers maybe questioning, “Are you nimble enough to deal with the new situation that we’re being presented with?”

John Perry: Sure, sure. And, that, I think, is really where we have to rely on proven outcomes, proven delivery. I don’t want anybody to take what we’re selling on faith. I don’t want anybody… I don’t want to tread purely on reputation. I want to be able to say, “Look, what we are suggesting you consider and that you do, is actually already happening. We have customers who are achieving the outcomes you’re looking for today.”

So, I’m very… when I talk to my marketing team, I’m very, very cautious and eager for them to only step forward when we feel confident that we can back up what we’re talking about with real world examples achieved today.

I’m a huge fan of Amazon. I feel like Amazon does this very well. They will work on something inside the house and not start talking about it until they know it’s really going to work. Until they know they have pilot customers on or users on it and that they’ve really come up with something amazing. Then they step outside and they say, “Oh, by the way, you know this is something we’ve been working on for the last six months, three years, whatever, and we just want to share it with you.”

I love that model of really doing the due diligence, of really proving the pilot, or proving the use case and then stepping out. I’ve been in other situations as a marketer where we’ve gotten way over our skis. We’ve been really, really good at what we do, marketing, and then the product can’t deliver.

And that is the last thing I want to do in a space that is as crucial, that has… that is as world-changing, frankly, as the power space. I mean, without power, everything that we do grinds to a halt and so the stakes are very high and we want to recognize that. Our customers are playing in a space that is so crucial, so fundamental, that we have to take that very seriously.

Our buyers tend to be, and the industry as a whole tends to be a fairly conservative one for the best possible reasons and in the best possible way because they take very seriously what they do. Their investments are scrutinized because of regulation and everything else. There’s a lot of transparency over what they can and they can’t invest in, CapEx, OpEx, et cetera, depending on where you are and what part of the world you’re in.

Many of them are only allowed, because of where they are, to be in one part of that generation/transmission/distribution equation; it’s split up. Other parts of the world, it’s together. So, we have to really understand and know all of those dynamics as marketers and give not only a narrative, a customer experience that’s credible, but that’s really rooted in achieved outcomes today.

Carman Pirie: I think that’s really great advice. ‘Cause I was… I had written on my list of things for us to potentially explore here is this leadership position that you assume… trying to unpack that and understand how customers react to that and how it plays in the market when you’re trying push a vision that can sometimes seem maybe a bit out there or what have you, so the notion of only kind of doing that in so far as we’ve already had some proven test cases and having that disciplined approach. I think that’s something that a lot of marketers in a lot of spaces could learn from.

Jeff White: Yeah, and you spoke of Amazon as an example of somebody else who does that. I mean it’s kind of like the exact opposite of Google and their approach is to kind of develop these things in the wild and release the product without having fully tested it and let the consumers kind of have at it as they’re beginning to market it all at the same time. And, you know we’ve all seen dozens and dozens of Google initiatives kind of fold under because they weren’t fully understood or properly tested out before hitting the market.

John Perry: Yeah, I would agree. I mean it’s kind of the difference between sort of open source co-development and waiting until you’re ready for prime time, if you will. And, I think that there are probably dozens of things that Amazon has tried to enter or played with or thought about that we’ve never heard about for just that reason. It’s a paradigm difference and I think we have to be much closer to the Amazon side than to the Google side and I understand the differences that different markets allow in terms of transparency, risk, experimentation. This is not a space in which we can be experimenting with our customers.

Jeff White: There’s no place to be flippant here. (laughing)

Despite the issues we’ve had with the grid in this province. There’s salt in the air. Look at that, the power’s gone. (laughing)

Carman Pirie: There’s no place in Nova Scotia, Canada where you can be more than 53 kilometers from the ocean, so salt in the air is a perennial thing and apparently it causes issues with our grid, but that’s neither here nor there.

I’m curious about… you mentioned about the utility industry being conservative and conservative for a reason. Having spent a number of years working in the space myself, I very much agree with that. Therefore, I’m curious to learn more about what you’re experiencing as this industry is being shaken up and there’s, my guess is, a bit of a generational change in the buyers, as well at the same time. How has that changing the relationship that they want to have with GE Power?

John Perry: It’s an interesting question. I think the makeup of the electricity industry workforce is definitely changing and there is a need to capture the tribal knowledge as there is generational turnover.

It also means that the expectations of the utility buyers that we encounter are changing, as well. So, for instance, I will tell you that we are working very hard on what we call a brilliant UI and UX for our applications and for our portfolio of software precisely because that is an expectation that people have today, particularly younger people in the workforce. I expect the things that I use to do my job to be as good or as easy or as intuitive as my iPhone and that was not true 10, 15 years ago, at all. So, there are definitely changing expectations that we have to respond to as a partner and as a vendor to the utility space.

We have been in the process of changing our portfolio of software over the last year. We call it the Digital Energy Portfolio and the portfolio itself, just in terms of what we’ve done as marketers, has been brought together, it has been rationalized and it has been branded in a much more consistent and compelling way by us over the last year, precisely to respond to the expectations of the utility buyer that wants to see an end and software portfolio. That wants to see ease of integration, that wants containerized, modular applications that are simple to integrate and then to upgrade. That wants that brilliant UI/UX, et cetera, et cetera.

As well as the technological elements that are crucial for enterprise-wide digital solutions and those kinds of things. So, all of that has been part of what we’ve been doing from an engineering, from a customer delivery and from a marketing perspective, really is saying we have a vision, we have a modern modular approach to software, we have a unified and end-to-end stream-lined portfolio and all of that is table stakes to really serve this market and serve the needs of what our customers are trying to do, which is really enterprise-wide digital transformation.

Carman Pirie: It’s interesting to think of that as just table stakes, you know.

John Perry: It’s a lot of work, right, to get to the table. (laughing)

Jeff White: Yeah, well no kidding. I mean, even if you’re looking at companies that purely develop software… I’m just thinking of Hubspot as an example. It’s taken them ten years to get to the point where they’re a platform and not just a few different pieces of software that are interconnected in a less integrated sort of way. What you’re even talking about, I’m sure the expectation now is that it doesn’t just connect with everything and work beautifully and is easy to use, but also has APIs for integrations with other-

John Perry: Exactly.

Jeff White: -applications and kind of developing something that can communicate across the globe.

That’s not what you probably were expecting to do with Thomas Edison.

John Perry: That’s right. And, I don’t think that’s what we were expecting to do 5 or ten years ago even though we were in the software business at the time. We have had to evolve with the software business in the same way that our customers have had to evolve with the electricity industry. Same kind of rapid pace of change and we talk about that as marketers.

We are transforming and we are in the transformation business ourselves. Obviously, GE has stayed in business for 130 years because it has continuously evolved with the marketplace. And, some of our evolutions have been challenging, there’s no question about it, but that’s what our customers are experiencing. And, I think they see that mirrored and that’s certainly a message that we’ve tried to convey as marketers. We’re in this business together, we’ve taken this journey ourselves, we can help you take the journey.

Carman Pirie: What’s it like being on the software side in an organization that makes big, honking hardware?

John Perry: I think it is dynamite. I started out and I grew up in enterprise software in Silicon Valley. I worked for big enterprise software companies and I loved that business and I… it makes sense to me. I believe in digital solutions. I believe in automation.

But there is a point at which, after you’ve sold general ledger and financials and HCM and CRM and SCM, where the story kind of ends. You go back to the customer to talk about the ROI that they’ve achieved by going to an integrated enterprise-wide stack, but that’s kind of the end of the story.

What I love about GE is that the story extends to MRIs, to airplanes that we all ride in, to the lights that we turn on in our homes and to the electrification of school houses in Africa. It is a story that is all about impact in the world, so it’s this kind of digital pull through that has real meaning and real power for me as a marketer. I tend to be kind of mission driven and so this has been an ideal assignment.

Carman Pirie: That’s… I hesitate, in some ways, to end the conversation because I want to keep it going, but I feel like that’s about the best place to end it.

So, I think with that, John, I’m going to thank you for joining us on the Kula Ring today. It’s been a fascinating conversation. I’ve really enjoyed the exploration.

John Perry: Thank you. It’s been a great, great topic and a great discussion. I appreciate it.

Carman Pirie: All the best.

Jeff White: Thanks, John.

John Perry: Thank you.

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