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.
How can manufacturers better serve customers of various sizes? In this episode of The Kula Ring, Melanie Virreira, Director of Global Commercial Enablement at Ball Corporation, talks about how her team created a digital self-service portal for multiple customer segments. She shares lessons learned from mapping customer journeys on the self-service portal, and how her team integrated the portal with sales.
Manufacturing a Self-Service Platform for Customers of All Sizes 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, 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 doing, mate?
Carman Pirie: I am doing lovely, sir. And you?
Jeff White: I’m good. Yeah. Good.
Carman Pirie: It’s good to be chatting today and it’s always good to have another excellent guest on the podcast. I think today, this is a conversation that has evolved, if you will. I think a lot of manufacturers have open questions, challenges if you will, around how to serve customers of very different sizes, and I’m really excited for today’s guest to shed some insight.
Jeff White: Absolutely. Plus on top of that, she also has an absolute breadth and depth of experience, not just more broadly but with the same manufacturer. She has moved through a number of different positions and is currently the Director of Global Commercial Enablement at Ball. Melanie Virreira. I screwed that up, didn’t I?
Carman Pirie: See, this is where we’re gonna have to edit, Melanie.
Jeff White: Yeah. No. I even phonetically spelled it in my damn notebook.
Carman Pirie: Well, that’s how good the notes are. I think we’ll keep this in now, because this way if… This just helps elevate me, I think, so I think we keep it in.
Jeff White: This wouldn’t be the first time my mess-ups like that help elevate you.
Carman Pirie: You know, why lift yourself up when you can step on somebody else’s neck when they’re down?
Jeff White: Brutal. Brutal. All right. I’m gonna try that once more with feeling. See, we don’t normally have a blooper reel. I don’t normally have to edit much of anything out of these, it just works.
Carman Pirie: Now you’re just making the work harder on yourself.
Jeff White: Yes. You’re only doing it to yourself! All right, so joining us today is Melanie Virreira.
Carman Pirie: Okay, Melanie. Did he say that right?
Melanie Virreira: It’s like it’s Virreira, like Meredith Vieira. Melanie Virreira.
Jeff White: I don’t know who that-
Carman Pirie: He does not know who Meredith Vieira is.
Jeff White: I don’t know who that is, so-
Melanie Virreira: No! She was on The Today Show. No?
Jeff White: Yeah. Television.
Carman Pirie: Jeff hasn’t watched television since the ‘80s.
Jeff White: Was she on then?
Melanie Virreira: She’s kind of famous.
Carman Pirie: So, Melanie Virreira.
Jeff White: There you go.
Melanie Virreira: Melanie Virreira. You got it.
Jeff White: I’m just thinking about-
Carman Pirie: I’m not taking over this duty, man.
Jeff White: No, I don’t think you should.
Carman Pirie: But you know, you have it recorded now. If you need to clip me in and edit that in.
Jeff White: That would just sound weird. All right, so joining us today is Melanie Virreira. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Melanie.
Melanie Virreira: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.
Jeff White: Yeah, we’ll just stick with your first name from here on out.
Melanie Virreira: That’s probably smart.
Carman Pirie: Jeff has been challenged in the lead up to today’s episode with his knowledge of The Today Show.
Jeff White: Yeah. Well, I had it in my head, it was something else. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: So, who knew that you were going to be quizzed on NBC morning talk shows? But here we are.
Jeff White: Not really where I play.
Melanie Virreira: That’s what I’m here for.
Jeff White: Thank you.
Carman Pirie: Melanie, it’s a real pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us.
Melanie Virreira: Of course. Very happy to.
Carman Pirie: Let our listeners know a little bit about Ball Corporation and what you do there.
Melanie Virreira: Yeah, for sure. So, Ball Corporation is over 130 years old and a lot of people know about the company because we’re the manufacturer of the Mason jar, but a little while ago we actually got out of the business, so we’re no longer making the Mason jar. We sold that business and licensed our name to still be utilized, and we really wanted to shift our focus to a more sustainable packaging, and that was all metal. We are the largest manufacturer of aluminum beverage cans in the world, and we have been really leading a lot of the conversation around why aluminum is the most sustainable package, and we’re really excited to continue to promote the advantages of infinitely recyclable materials that help with a closed-loop system because the metal can be recycled forever and there’s always value.
We’ve been around for a really long time. We work with a lot of different companies. Historically large soda beverage companies, beer companies, and then probably in the last decade, really expanded to a lot of new categories, starting probably with the craft beer movement. We were really at the forefront of that, trying to make sure that the craft brewers recognized that the aluminum beverage can was actually a better vessel for the beer. It blocked out light and oxygen, which is exactly the two things that can really deteriorate beer, so when you’re looking at a really high-quality beverage like craft beer, it’s important that you have the right vessel. That was our start to helping to elevate the image of the can.
We’ve been really excited with a lot of the movements that have happened. Wine has been one of the things that I’ve had the really exciting opportunity to help grow and introduce the can to, so you’re seeing a lot more canned wines. Certainly, spiked seltzers and some of the other categories that have really boomed have recognized the benefits both in quality and in the recyclability of the can. And then my role is Global Commercial Enablement, so I’ve been through a lot of sales and marketing roles throughout Ball, and recently we stood up a department to help address the customer experience and try to use technology and process and data improvements to really help ensure that our customers are getting what they need in order to run their business.
Jeff White: Well, I can say as an outdoor enthusiast who likes to bring craft beer for post-ride enjoyment, I really appreciate your move to getting everyone-
Melanie Virreira: I love it.
Jeff White: … cans, because you never want bottles in your backpack.
Melanie Virreira: No, you don’t. They’re so heavy and they break.
Jeff White: I know, I know.
Carman Pirie: I didn’t really realize at first how alcohol-centric today’s show going to be.
Jeff White: He’s doubled down on his interest now.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, I am fully leaning in as the kids say.
Jeff White: Can you do an old fashioned in a can?
Carman Pirie: They do!
Melanie Virreira: That is a big trend right now, is mixed pre-cocktails, so yeah, that’s a big, big movement. Very tasty.
Carman Pirie: So, look, Melanie, thank you for that background. I know that we had spoken earlier about the foray into the craft beer market being one of the early forays into serving a much smaller and a much different type of customer that has very different requirements through that customer journey. Not just from a scale of ordering, but even the type of information they need to have to be coached along the way. I just think that’s an interesting experience to unpack a little further, if you will. Can you talk to us about how you kind of bent to the task of changing the processes and operations around serving those smaller customers and what you’ve learned along the way?
Melanie Virreira: Yeah. You know, we historically have been partners with a lot of the largest beverage companies in the world and remain really strong strategic partners with those companies. And that was always the intent, and we also really recognized and appreciated the enthusiasm of all of these other, smaller, emerging categories. Not just because of the fact that they have amazing products, and amazing brands, and the fact that they want to use the aluminum can is something that we’re really proud of and we want to support them in that, but also they recognize the sustainability credentials of the can, which again was really important for us to try to get that message out, because I think we just over the years have not done the best job of communicating those benefits, and a lot of these smaller companies really understood those benefits and wanted to put that as the forefront of their own marketing and brands.
We started to receive and appreciate this business from these smaller customers, but to your point, it is a very, very different type of customer engagement, because they are smaller. In some cases, they’re brand new. They’re startups. They don’t even really understand the beverage industry. And it took a different type of approach. We were working with a lot of larger customers who have been in various types of packaging, been in cans for decades, and there wasn’t a lot of education that you had to give for those folks. They understood cans, they understood how to handle them, the shipping, the filling. They were on it. It was more of just the complications of the number and volume of orders.
But when you get to folks that are new to cans, or like are used to working with glass or some other package, you’ve really gotta do a lot of pre-education, because even something as simple as the fact that the inventory is committed, that is very unique to cans. We print the cans in line when we’re making them, so if you’re making cranberry juice, it is your cranberry juice forevermore. You can’t relabel it, really. Not without shrink sleeving or doing some other sort of post-secondary labeling. It’s gonna be cranberry juice. That’s a different sort of preparation, even for larger companies that were just used to working with other packages.
And then with small companies, it’s just like getting the minimums and things like that that they’re just not used to, and so we really had to step back and say, “How do we service all of these customers?” Making sure that we’re servicing in the way that they actually get the information that they need in order to be able to make good business decisions. And so, really approaching them somewhat differently and somewhat the same way, because again, sometimes they need the exact same information, just receiving it in a different way.
Jeff White: Yeah. You had mentioned that in a lot of cases, your sales teams were having a lot of the same conversation with each customer, and there’s obviously an opportunity to be providing more information to them more proactively that’s going to help them along their journey, eh?
Melanie Virreira: Yeah. I think what we recognized was especially for folks that are new, new to cans, new to packaging, that there’s just basic information that they needed to get in order to figure out what to do to move forward or how to make the business decision to move into cans. What we found is we have a limited sales team. I think in most manufacturing companies it’s the same way. It’s we don’t have a mass number of people sitting in a room just answering phone calls. What we found was that a lot of our team members were just having the same hour-long conversations with folks really believing in the brands and wanting them to get the information so that they could streamline through the process, but what became difficult was making sure that we had enough time in the day to respond to every phone call that we were getting because they were just… We had so many customers that were interested in cans that we couldn’t get back to them quick enough.
What ended up happening is by giving a really great experience to some people by having an hour-long conversation with them and making sure they understood what to do, we were really creating a delay in getting back to everyone that was needing information to get started. And so, that was somewhat of the foray into our… We did I guess a pilot or sort of a test case, where we pulled together what we called an onboarding portal, and it was really a fact-finding aspect and helping them get set up in the system by giving them the information that they needed when they needed it. Still having people in the background that were there to answer questions and support them, but trying to provide them with more of a self-service opportunity, so they weren’t sitting around waiting for a Ball salesperson to call them back, but they could get started and then just push specific questions back to the team when they needed help and assistance.
And we really found some benefits in the work that we did, learned a lot. We used a lot of that information in our future endeavors, but it helped show that there’s a need for that type of activity and our customers were really appreciating it, because they could progress forward, not just be waiting for an individual.
Carman Pirie: I like that this didn’t really seem to stem or at least if it did, you’re very good at messaging otherwise. It didn’t seem like it stemmed from a cost concern or a concern that, “Oh, well, we’re wasting salespeople’s time.” It was more quite like it’s just hard for us to actually keep up with the volume of demand and interest here-
Jeff White: And give everyone a good experience.
Carman Pirie: And give them the experience they deserve, and that’s what I just really like about your approach here, Melanie, versus a lot of companies really approach it as kind of, “Okay, you’re a smaller customer, therefore you’re worth less to us, and if you’re worth less, then you get less in some way from us.”
Jeff White: Well, and using digital channels for that as if they’re of lesser value.
Carman Pirie: Right.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: And I think one thing you said in the lead-up to this show, that every customer needs self-service. It’s just what type of self-service do they need and that digital self-service applies across the board, and I just love that you haven’t taken that siloed approach, I guess.
Melanie Virreira: Yeah. I think… And Ball from a culture standpoint, maybe is unique, but we’ve been in business for a really long time and a lot of our employees have worked at Ball for over 15, 20 years, and we really do believe in what we do. We really love the can. We really, really get excited about the brands that are going into cans and we want them to do well, and it gets really difficult for our folks internally who love what they do and love our customers to be in a position where they can’t respond quickly. And I can say personally that I felt that way when I was in business development. Not being able to respond in what I believe to be a quick enough manner was… You know, it was stressful for me, and what we recognized in doing this is to your point, it wasn’t necessarily about saving money, because I don’t… We aren’t really necessarily saving any money at this point. We’re just trying to get information to the customers when they need it.
And the point that I was making earlier is that all of our customers, regardless of size, need information. And they need information when they need it. They don’t need it when someone decides to call them back or to answer the email. They need it in the moment when they’re trying to make the decision. And so, when we’re embarking on really this expanded customer portal that we’re working through developing today, the whole intent is to provide all of our customers the opportunity to get the information that they need to run their business when they need it, and that we have a team of people at Ball that are there to support our customers, and to have conversations, and answer questions, but not be a barrier to them running their business. And so, while the information may vary on when they need it or how they need to get it, but ultimately they need that information and so we’re trying to make sure that the journeys match the type of experience each of these types of customers is looking for and hoping for and expecting.
But ultimately everybody wants some level of self-service so that they’re not waiting on somebody, and so that’s really what we’re trying to do, is make sure that we’re getting all of our customers the information that they need in order to run their business.
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Jeff White: How hard was it to get this information together in a way that was usable for you to create this platform for your internal team to use to serve your customers? That couldn’t have been simple in a company this size.
Melanie Virreira: That is… Yeah, so this is kind of how it goes, is we envision what this self-service portal will do, and what it will look like, based on feedback from our customers, because they’re telling us in these various stages of the customer journey, here’s the information that we need, or here’s the kind of activity that we’d like to initiate via the portal. So, we’re like, “Great.” We have a pretty good idea. We have these great plans and then what ends up happening is that’s when you start to learn what parts of your data and process need to be worked on. You end up with a lot of individual projects internally in order to get everything to a place that you can facilitate that activity on a portal.
And certainly designing the portal, like that stuff is hard. Anytime you’re trying to do user interfaces and getting data in a place and a way that the customer needs it, that stuff is hard. But I wouldn’t say that it’s nearly as hard as actually trying to fix all the band-aided and systemic things that you have created over the years trying to use our manual processes, and Excel spreadsheets, and sort of dated systems to generate that information. I mean, you’re kind of doing an overhaul and you’re prioritizing it based on what you’re trying to do via the self-service portal.
It’s good because it uses the customer feedback to prioritize that work, so we’re listening to the customer, they’re telling us this is most important, and that’s what we’re working on, versus a lot of times you have that inside-out approach, where you’re like, “Well, I think this is most important, so I’m gonna go and spend our time doing this.” And it doesn’t necessarily add any value to the customer. I think we’re on the right approach in terms of how we’re prioritizing the work internally, but I would say the biggest and hardest lift is all of the stuff that we have to do behind the scenes just to get it into this really simple dashboard for the customer to use.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. And it’s so easy to underestimate that work at the outset of the project.
Melanie Virreira: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. You don’t know what you’re gonna uncover. You really don’t. It’s like Pandora’s chest. You open it up and it’s like, “Okay, I guess we’re fixing all these things.”
Carman Pirie: One of the things that you mentioned around the… for instance, craft brewers and others that may be new to cans is that that early information that they require is a very different part of the customer journey than some of those larger organizations I guess that have been the mainstay of the business. I’d be curious as you look at the customer journeys and the various different journeys that you’ve mapped out from the craft cocktail, or wine producer, through to the larger orgs, have there been other kind of surprising differences in the customer journey? Or kind of things that maybe weren’t initially obvious to you as you started that work that just kind of like you stepped back and said, “Huh, that’s kind of odd. Never really thought that they would either both require the same thing at the same time or be so vastly different.”
Melanie Virreira: I’ve been in a really unique and I would say lucky position that I have gotten to manage our larger accounts and also done business development on the very smallest, and so I’ve been able to be exposed to that wide spectrum of needs of those customers, and so it’s been very helpful. I would say that-
Carman Pirie: You’re saying it’s hard to surprise you, is what you’re saying.
Melanie Virreira: Well, I just… I have a better intuition about what everybody needs, just because I’ve heard it directly from each of these types of customers. What I find interesting is that there’s certainly a lot of that sort of fact-finding that our smaller customers need more than our larger customers, like our larger customers don’t really need to do a lot of research about cans because they kind of understand it. But a lot of times they need like can handling guidelines, like we always say if it’s between the pallet of cans and a forklift, the forklift always wins.
Well, that’s not always the case in other packaging, and so we try to… You know, there’s a lot of guidelines that we try to give customers, and even though there are large customers that have been handling cans for a million years, they still have ongoing trainings that they do. They’ll go in and they’ll get the information that we have on can handling and they’ll provide it to their teams to be able to do training. So, while it may be just different instances, a lot of times the materials are actually utilized across the board.
The ordering is a little bit different, because just the way we manage our larger customers, the volume of orders that are coming in, changes that are coming in, it’s just a little different than how we manage our smaller customers that are more consistent and they order relatively small numbers of items, and so you really… So, those journeys sort of depart slightly, but the data objects are the same, like we’re still trying to capture the PO, we’re still trying to capture quantity, SKU, so when you look at it more from what is the same, it makes it a lot easier to create that baseline experience via data and process and other things, and then divert where it’s needed, so they’re making sure that you’re attacking the real critical pieces and not just going and creating wholly different things that create lots of different processes that are difficult to manage internally.
That’s been I think one of the key things that we’ve had, is rather than continuing to perpetuate these massive differences in the way we handle everybody, and kind of moving everybody in different directions, and all the internal teams just have to know through tribal knowledge this is how you support these customers versus those customers. How do we create somewhat of a consistent experience and then depending on the type of things that each customer needs, we can divert that process. We can add different data elements that they need to run their type of business. That makes it a lot easier to tailor than to just do a holistically new and different thing for each customer. Because they don’t really need it.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, that makes sense to start from the backbone of commonality, if you will.
Jeff White: But I have to think too, and this is maybe a little bit of a diversion on this point, but I mean we’ve worked with a few craft beer producers, I have some friends who’ve started breweries, as well. I mean, this has to be the most organized part of their day, because everything else is just like hair on fire constantly with most of these guys. I have to think that it makes the experience of working with you so much better for… and I’m just wondering what kind of feedback you’ve heard from the smaller producers and larger producers about that experience.
Melanie Virreira: Well, we have a long way to go, like I’m not here to pretend like we have solved this nugget, because we’re really in my opinion on the beginning of this journey. I think we have recognized that over the years, as cans have grown in popularity, we had systems and data and processes in place that were built to support our larger customers. And then when you start bringing on tons of small customers, I mean tons, just the number of customers that you have to service makes it really difficult. And then on top of that, so we’ve got this massive complexity just by the sheer volume of customers, then our larger customers are taking advantage of technology that’s allowing them to get quicker consumer feedback. They’re doing test markets and pilots. They’re changing their graphics every week to make sure they’ve got the promotion.
I mean, so now you’ve got our larger customers that were traditionally much more consistent and simple, they have now grown in complexity. Now you’ve just got complexity upon complexity, and they always say growth is a good problem to have, and I think that certainly from a business standpoint, growth is always good, except there’s so many difficulties that can come along with growth and we are not in any way immune from that experience, because as complexity grew, we continued to try to muscle our way through it. You start to feel those impacts as a customer, as an internal employee, because again, the customer needs information, they need it quickly, they need it really in the moment they need it. And we have difficulties due to more dated systems and data accessibility to be able to answer those questions with the speed that they need it.
I would say that we have really struggled to live up to the expectation that we believe that our customers deserve and that our customers are asking for, and so my whole job in my opinion is to recognize what our customers need and put in things that remove Ball as an obstacle to their growth. I mean, the industry itself is out of cans, and so there’s that complexity on top of everything else, but what can we do to give our customers proactive information so that they can make the best decisions in their business?
There’s always situations that are gonna happen in manufacturing, where you thought something was gonna happen, the line went down, the truck got in an accident, but the quicker we can give their information, the quicker they can respond. And I would say that we have struggled in the past to be able to deliver that in a way that we believe is the right time and ability and level of detail, and we, all the way up to our CEO, are committed to the activities that myself and my department are putting into place to rectify that. And we have a long way to go, so I don’t want to pretend like we have solved this problem, because it’s a hard and long problem to solve, because again, we’ve been operating this way for a lot of years and we’ve done various things through the years to try to kind of band-aid it, fix it, and now we’re just holistically upending the entire thing and using a lot of the information that our customers have provided us as that directive on what we need to fix first.
And so, I’m excited. I think it’s the right thing to do and I think our customers, based on the feedback that they have provided us, had agreed, and we’re at the beginning of the journey. We’re still lining up to bat and trying to get off onto first base.
Carman Pirie: I love that. It was an amazing visual in a comment that you just gave around trying… You know, we thought we could muscle our way through. It was just so visual to me. It’s exactly what happens, like this increasing, increasing complexity of dealing with this huge number of much smaller customers that have different requirements-
Jeff White: Well, surely a little bit of elbow grease will fix this.
Carman Pirie: Right, right. It’s like that.
Melanie Virreira: Yeah. It’s when working harder, that strategy doesn’t work anymore. There’s not enough people to work any harder.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, it actually requires some level of emergent problem solving, which means that the solution isn’t what we’ve done before and it isn’t what’s already known currently.
Jeff White: And it’s not clear.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. That’s just lovely to be at that part of the journey, frankly, for Ball. I think this is an incredibly interesting time for you to be there. I know you’ve had lots of evolving roles in the organization over the years and it seems like in a fantastic way, the best is yet to come.
Melanie Virreira: Yeah, and I think it’s really, like it requires a commitment from the highest level of leadership I think to do this level of transformation because you have to backfill positions because you need your subject matter experts out of the day-to-day grind and firefighting so that they can help envision the better way because they know. They know what our customers need. They’re on the front line. You have to have a commitment to backfill, to hire, to spend the money to fix all those little projects. They add up in terms of cost, that you have to have a commitment that you’re gonna really go after the root cause, making sure that you’re using that customer feedback as the driver of what you’re gonna focus on and where you’re gonna spend the money, and I can say that we’ve got full focus and energy behind this because our leaders really believe in what we’re doing and they want to be a market leader in customer experience and in cans.
It makes my job a lot easier knowing that I don’t have to fight for that, like that everybody recognizes the value that comes from the work that we’re doing.
Jeff White: Oh, man. Not being the instigator internally of starting these fires to get everybody on board is certainly a better place to be.
Carman Pirie: It takes some of the politics out of the job, which would be helpful.
Melanie Virreira: Not to say there are no politics, but it definitely makes it a lot easier to know that you’ve got leadership behind you. Yeah. Exactly.
Carman Pirie: Well, Melanie, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us and our listeners today. It’s been a real pleasure.
Melanie Virreira: Oh, I sure appreciate it. It’s been really nice to kind of talk about what we’re doing, and especially about where we’re going in terms of sustainability and the aluminum can. It’s a great time to be in aluminum packaging, for sure.
Jeff White: Well, we’ll have to put you in the books for a year from now and find out how things progressed.
Melanie Virreira: Oh, please do.
Jeff White: Yeah. We’ll do an update show.
Melanie Virreira: Oh, that’d be great. I’d love that.
Jeff White: Very cool. Thanks again.
Melanie Virreira: All right. Talk to you guys soon.
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