The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
Customer demand for real-time data is driving manufacturers to build web-enabled systems to share information more efficiently across channels. In this episode of The Kula Ring, John Joyce, Global Marketing Director of Brennan Industries, talks about how he helped his organization make data more accessible to their distribution channels and partners. He shares insights on how leveraging data improves customer experience and the role of the marketing department in implementing customer-facing technology.
How a B2B Manufacturer Leverages Data Sharing to Improve CX Transcript:
Carman Pirie: Really excited to be sharing another episode of The Kula Ring with you today, and in today’s episode, our guest really takes us through the business value of sharing data and implementing a very robust data sharing strategy with your distribution channel partners. And I guess as you listen to it, the thing that really stood out for me, Jeff, they had to almost be pulled into it by customer request, if you will.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: The strategy is in some ways hatched out of a reactive nature to customers are demanding this and we need it. Need to do it. And it struck me in that moment that my goodness, as marketers, if we could just get off of our heels; I think part of the lesson from today’s guest is how great would it be to be leaning into that as a strategy, rather than just simply reacting, if you will?
Jeff White: For sure. And I think the story that the guest tells about how they got into it, and then the fact that they started building upon this data sharing architecture and making it available to more and more customers, and seeing the massive increased business benefit of that, they may have started out being asked for it, but really dove in with both feet to make it a marketing imperative that is really a marketing-driven IT solution for business.
Carman Pirie: Absolutely. Well, look, without further ado, today’s episode.
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, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you making out, sir?
Carman Pirie: I am doing well, and look, it’s another lovely summer day. Good to be chatting with you and doing this recording with, I think, our first Kula Ring guest joining us from Lisbon, Portugal.
Jeff White: Definitely. Potentially the first joining us from Europe at all. I don’t know.
Carman Pirie: I have a great memory, it’s just not very long. So, I’m happy to only stick to my line, which is the first guest from Lisbon. I can stand behind that, Jeff.
Jeff White: Absolutely.
Carman Pirie: But anything else, I’m not so sure.
Jeff White: I know we’ve had guests from China and Australia, but this is definitely the first from Lisbon. So, anyway, joining us today is John Joyce. John is the Global Marketing Director at Brennan Industries. Welcome to The Kula Ring, John.
John Joyce: [Portuguese] No?
Carman Pirie: Look, I can say thank you in Portuguese and I think that’s about it.
John Joyce: Okay, let’s hear it.
Carman Pirie: Isn’t it Obrigado?
John Joyce: It is. Obrigado.
Carman Pirie: Which is about all I have to say when nice people bring me drinks and food, which is about all I do when in Portugal, so there you go. I was actually in Lagos last summer with my nephew.
John Joyce: Yeah, the Algarve. It’s very beautiful.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. We just went down there and did our best to explore every possible aspect of the Algarve nightlife that we could.
John Joyce: Yeah. It’s a great place. Lots of people love to go there, for sure.
Jeff White: Yeah. I was supposed to be in Lisbon last summer. That was on the list. And then when Boeing’s planes completely messed up, my trip got canceled and so I bought a house, instead.
John Joyce: Oh. That works, too.
Jeff White: Not really as interesting as going to Lisbon, but anyway.
Carman Pirie: It’s quite a redirection.
John Joyce: Yeah. Houses are important.
Jeff White: Well, you gotta live, right?
Carman Pirie: Well, John, this is enough of the tourism brochure for Portugal. Let’s get on with the show.
John Joyce: Okay.
Carman Pirie: Introduce us to Brennan Industries a bit and your role there, if you would.
John Joyce: Okay, so Brennan is a manufacturer of hydraulic components, primarily hydraulic fittings, which are the little metal bits that connect hydraulic tubing and hoses together and make things work, and Brennan has been in business for over 65 years and has a presence throughout North America, Europe and Asia, and is really one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of hydraulic fittings.
Carman Pirie: Very cool. And you say, manufacturer and distributors. You work through distribution channels as well, correct?
John Joyce: Correct. We have an entire network of somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 to 7,000 distributors who carry our products all around the world. We also do sell our products directly in some instances with certain OEM-type users, as well.
Carman Pirie: And John, I guess in the leadup to today’s conversation, you succinctly summed up your strategy that we’re going to talk about today around there’s a business cost of not sharing data, and it sounded to me in that moment that really what you’ve… part of the change that you’ve brought to Brennan is to highlight the opportunity that is inherent in the ways data can be shared between a manufacturer such as Brennan and that distribution channel that’s so important. I wonder if we could just start unpacking that strategy a bit, if you could tell our listeners what you’ve done there, and along the way, we’ll see if we can unpack the impact of it, as well.
John Joyce: I’d like to start with some of the objections, just because this is where manufacturing a lot of times is coming from when they’re presented with something like this concept of sharing data, sharing product information, which is fear, in all honesty. There’s a knee jerk fear reaction that prevents the sharing of information, information that breaks down barriers to doing business, information that makes it easier to buy your products, and I think it’s like a little bit of a black box fallacy or whatever you want to call it, where people don’t understand the system and so they’re afraid of it.
They don’t know, you can’t possibly understand everything about a complex system, and so they’re worried the data will get into the wrong hands or somehow be misused. I think one of the first things you have to overcome is this concept of we don’t want to share our data, that sharing data is dangerous. In this day and age, to do business you need to share data. People want things quickly. Even in a relatively stalwart sector like manufacturing, industrial manufacturing, people want things quicker. In order to get things quicker, they need more access to information faster. A big part of this is doing that.
Carman Pirie: Let’s just give our listeners some texture and what we mean when we say data, because of course data can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What are you talking about when you say it?
John Joyce: From a marketing standpoint, data is information about your products. You’re always trying to disseminate information about your product. It could be anything, from what does it look like, to how big is it, to what is it made out of, to how much does it weigh, does it violate this restriction or that restriction, or have these import controls, or export controls, or is it made of any material that might be considered dangerous in any circumstance? There’s a whole variety of that type of product data, and then there’s also up-to-the-second data, which might be how many of them do you have on hand, where are they in your global network of distribution centers or profit centers, and how much do I pay for that in my specific circumstance, not just a general list price or something.
People want the most granular and specific information that they can get about products. It also might include things like .cad files, or high-end engineering documents that really help somebody to implement that product in their assembly, or whatever they were going to do with your product. Our product goes into other people’s products.
Carman Pirie: Is it when you get to that more almost, if you will, advanced content, that you find the fear kind of sets in a bit? I mean, it would seem like the specifications and things of that sort would be a bit table stakes, and people understand the importance of that. Or just the fear of tying these systems together?
Jeff White: And are they generally afraid of competitors getting this information? Or is actually even customers and distributors receiving this information that they’re afraid of, do you find?
John Joyce: I think in general people are afraid of competitors having too much information about their products, you know? But the fear I think overall is that once you let the information cat out of the bag, you can’t control it, which is true. You may be giving information to somebody who’s more or less trusted, but you don’t know what they’re gonna do with it and could purposefully or accidentally overshare it, let’s say. But the reality is I think all of those kinds of fears are unfounded anyway unless you’re giving away something that is some sort of a trade secret, that you want your information to be in the hands of customers. You want your information to be out there in the marketplace. There’s more harm that would come from preventing that information from being out there in the sense of loss of business, by a very unforeseen cost and hard to quantify cost of it’s harder to do business with us, therefore we get a little less business. It’s hard to quantify on the front side of doing a project like building a system to share information with your distribution network. But that cost is still a real cost.
There’s a pain point to that cost, and people don’t see it, but what they see is, “Oh, if this information gets out, maybe a competitor will know where our products are. How many of them we have. Where we may have less than we should or more than we should.” Even price lists, they’re published most of the time, but still, people want control over that or don’t want the entire catalog of data being shared, just like little subsets because it’s safer.
Jeff White: Yeah, it would also seem to me that the bigger concern, rather than competitors getting ahold of this information, assuming of course that none of it is a trade secret, is distributors like Amazon getting ahold of that kind of information, where they actually have some of those business practices of replicating product and creating their own when they see a category that’s actually on the rise. You don’t necessarily think of them as the enemy in this case, but I think in terms of releasing data, they’re probably more dangerous than most and have the ability to go after it if they wanted to.
John Joyce: Amazon has been making a concerted effort to push into the industrial space over the last, I don’t know, several years, and the reality is they’re somebody we work with just like anybody else we’re working with, so we’re honestly actively pumping our data into their system, just like probably so many other people are. In reality, you can’t do business out of fear of sharing product information. You have to make sure your products and your business have actual unique advantages in the marketplace, to bring something different to the market than just data that reduces your product to a commodity.
Carman Pirie: Well, you’ve obviously helped the organization get past that fear, so John, is it… Are you just a good sales guy? Is the person that you report into particularly visionary here? They just trust you implicitly and we’re off to the races? How did you get to where you’re at? How did they get moved past it?
John Joyce: All of the above, of course, first of all. And then on top of that, what really I think pushed this off of the ground is demand by partners, demand by distributors. More and more, distributors refuse to not have this kind of data information, this product data, this even inventory data at their fingertips. Once they start realizing we could have this, they start demanding it, and then they hold you accountable to whether you’re up to providing it or not. For us, customer demand was the biggest driver, but there were reservations obviously going into it, but the reality is it’s been well worth it. Honestly, we built our internal system for sharing this kind of data specifically for one distributor at the very beginning, and it has just multiplied. Over the years, we’re just adding additional people to the system, and now there’s probably I think about 20 different distributors that are attached to this system with over 2,000 different distribution locations using it on a daily basis to get product data without having to call, without even having to go to a website. Just getting direct access to your product data as easily as possible.
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Jeff White: Let’s talk a bit about, because you’ve built some of these connections yourself as a marketer, if I recall correctly, and let’s talk a bit about kind of what sort of things you’ve put in place in order to make that data accessible by your distribution channels and partners.
John Joyce: If you want to get a little technical, yeah, it’s a system that I built and it is a web-enabled system, so basically it provides what you would call an API endpoint. A point out there on the internet where we can connect two ERP systems together, essentially. That’s the short version of it. So, I just put a gateway out there and a system behind it that’s customized to a partner’s ERP system, and its ability to go get information in real-time over the internet, like SAP for instance has modules for being able to tap into feeds of information. And so, we built a comparable endpoint for them to tap into.
And depending on the customer, they all have different systems. This one’s using SAP. This one’s not. This one’s using something else. This one has a homegrown solution. For each one of those you have to build a little adapter layer to customize it so that it works exactly with their system and gives them just the data that they’re looking for, exactly how they want to get it. And that’s kind of how the sharing happens. It’s all done over the internet. It’s tightly controlled and it’s not just open to anybody, but it’s customized and tightly controlled. Don’t know if that answers your question.
Jeff White: We’ve certainly done a fair amount of ERP connections, building APIs for those things to access Ecommerce platforms and other stuff like that.
John Joyce: Exactly.
Jeff White: I think that’s actually one of the potentially biggest future trends in manufacturing marketing, is just this ability for different systems to talk to one another using some consistency of platform between them, of the way that they share data. It’s certainly the case that the complexity of these systems and the volume of them is not going anywhere. We’re all adding more and more to our martech stack all the time and the ability of these systems to talk to one another is going to be one part of the recipe for success for all business in the future.
John Joyce: I agree. I think I mentioned this to you guys when we talked previously, but I had a conversation with a marketing director of a very large corporation, a multinational corporation, and we were talking about this exact circumstance. They wanted to implement some sort of a system that would pipe into their distributors a feed of information about their products, and we were just talking about how it’s becoming more important for marketing to drive some aspects of IT in the development of things like this because marketing represents the voice of the customer. Oftentimes for an organization, also in terms of electronically, marketing is often responsible for customer-facing technology. Things like websites, apps, and electronic tools like that often fall under marketing, but this kind of an endeavor is one which is a marketing-IT hybrid, and I think more and more the marketer of whatever organization needs to be thinking about and actively driving the IT department to reach these marketing goals that these customers have. And able to step into that role and just say, “Look, IT department, we need to build this thing if we don’t already have it. We need to build it and find a way to bridge these gaps.”
Because it used to be they were happy looking at your catalog. Then they were happy looking at your catalog on your website. Then they were happy on your mobile app. Now, they don’t even want to look at it. Now, they just want that information pumped straight into their brain organizationally. They don’t want to have to call you, or go www.yourcompany.com, hit the search box, none of that. They just want your information in their face, in their brain, automatically.
That means we, as marketing people, have to do all the work for that and make it easy, so they have to do nothing. Honestly, that’s a lot of what marketing is already doing anyways. We’re trying to make it as close as I can possibly be to sticking that product in your hand and you don’t have to do anything, and this is what we’re trying to do, but just using a technology channel instead of a paper channel or a website channel.
Carman Pirie: It’s not lost on me, the connection between that sentiment and the fact that it was customer demand that drove the organization to adopt the strategy overall. We’re just coming at it from two sides. It’s interesting to me, you’ve mentioned it a few times, this notion of not having to call, not having to connect with the organization in order to get the information. They can get it themselves or they have it already. And that notion of saving of service time, and if you will, has there been a quantifiable decrease in the amount of time it takes to service those distribution partners that are connected to you in this way?
John Joyce: Yeah. There’s been two things. There’s been a quantifiable decrease and a quantifiable increase in the amount of information and interaction that we’re seeing from them. Not only is it easier to answer their questions. Because it’s easier for them to get the answer, they’re more likely to ask the question. When we look at the activity log, let’s say, of what’s being handled by the system, it’s eliminating approximately a thousand phone calls a day, and we know that’s a thousand times people hit the system asking for information.
That’s how many times they’re hitting the system. Now, would they have really actually called every single one of those times? Okay, they probably wouldn’t have. We know we’re eliminating calls and they’re getting more information, so they’re actually calling less and getting more information. And that, I think, is a win-win, right? We know they’re getting easier access to information and we also have to do less. There’s less human CSR-type contact. I mean, they do talk to CSRs when they need to talk to them, and the CSRs will call them if they need to call, so the human element is not gone, but it’s only there where it needs to be. It’s not a have to have the human element for super mundane things I do literally a hundred times a day to find information about where a product is.
All those things are streamlined down to just milliseconds of technical systems talking to each other.
Carman Pirie: That’s one of the benefits that I guess going into this initiative would be hard to quantify, and you mentioned another, that notion of the missing out on business. How do you quantify the business that you’re missing on by not doing it? The business cost of not sharing the data? Have you been able to ascertain that, as well?
John Joyce: We haven’t attempted to ascertain it, honestly. It was essentially a, “You have to do this,” from our customers, you know? I think had we not done it, or had we not been in that position, could you ascertain a difference? I’m sure you could. But the position we were in, there would have been a massive loss in business if we had not done it, because then we would have just said to some of our biggest distributors, “We’re just not really interested in doing this for you.” And that would not go over great.
But the reality is if you’re listening to this and you’re a marketing guy in any kind of organization, and your customers aren’t asking you for this yet, or aren’t flat out demanding it from you yet, okay, that day is coming. People don’t want more work to do ever, right? Everything is going towards faster, easier, and this is faster and easier for everybody, and so it’s inevitable, like you said previously, Jeff, I think it just is the direction things are moving. It’s the next version of, “You need a website,” is you need to be able to share your product data in real-time with anybody who wants it, quickly and easily, as easily as possible. And of course, none of this is easy. It’s a massive technical undertaking. But once it’s done, then it’s easy.
Carman Pirie: How does this, because we’ve acknowledged it’s in some way a new role for marketing, and a lot of the manufacturing marketers listening to this show will not necessarily be there yet. I’m wondering, how has it changed the priorities in the marketing organization overall? Or has it just simply been a net-new addition of responsibilities? How has it shifted how you support those partners longer term, as well, or think about how you resource against that?
John Joyce: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think for us, it’s been an addition. It’s just been a whole new area that didn’t exist whatsoever before, which now occupies actually an ever-increasing amount of time and budget, because like anything, once you turn the faucet on, you can’t turn it back off again. This is the beginning of something you don’t stop, at least not for the foreseeable future. Maybe someday technology will be beyond what we can even do like this, but it’s been for us a whole other add into the marketing mix. I look at it as the replacement or the modern version of channel pull, when you talk push and pull in a channel, like the push is you’re out there, at least for us in our model, we’re out there raising brand awareness, trying to generate leads. The pull is greasing the slope of the business on the back side.
When that customer comes in the funnel, there’s nothing, there isn’t one little bump or hiccup that’s gonna slow down our partner’s ability to do that sale, make that sale, or get the information they need to make the right choices for our customers on our behalf.
Carman Pirie: John, this has been a fantastic kind of discussion and overview of this approach. I’ve really enjoyed it. I wonder, I guess having a bit of the benefit of hindsight, if you were having a conversation with yourself before you started this, and you were gonna give your past self some advice, what’s the one thing that you maybe got wrong or you wish you would have done differently along the way so far with this?
John Joyce: Yeah. That’s actually easy. I would have thought bigger. Thinking too small at the outset, and then I’ve had to re-architect for instance our system two different times to make it more scalable because I didn’t think big enough. It’s more popular or there’s more uses for a system that enables the ability to share all this kind of data easily. There’s more and more uses for it. And you find, and other people find uses for that system, and you just keep expanding,so I would say to my previous self, “Don’t think small.” Think like this is actually probably going to replace all the other electronic marketing systems that you have now, whatever they may look like, with your most important clients. Like with your most important distributors, your most important partners, this is gonna become the website replacement, the mobile whatever replacement. It’s gonna replace actually calling. It’s gonna replace emailing 90% of the time, and it’s gonna become like the primary channel.
On top of that, you’re gonna find 20 or 25 new ways of using it that you haven’t even thought about, so think big would be what I would tell myself, and be prepared to make it, whatever you build, make it flexible.
Carman Pirie: That’s a lovely bit of parting advice and thank you for sharing that. I think it’s a wonderful challenge that you’ve put out in front of folks and something to look into, for sure.
John Joyce: Well, thanks. And thanks for having me on, guys. It’s been great talking to you.
Carman Pirie: Been a pleasure.
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