In this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast, Interview Series, my guest John Bruno, the VP of Strategy for PROS, and I are having a conversation about the ever-changing state of B2B commerce. Today’s business customers are expecting more and more from companies in terms of not just product quality, but also customer experience. And a large part of customer experience is providing compelling offers in a way that is fast, consistent, easy, and transparent, and offering relevant prices to make the ordering process an efficient, hassle free one. That’s a lot to ask at the end of a global pandemic. The good news is that smart technology solutions exist that can help.
Our discussion centered on the following:
- Trends in the industry, including our research in the 2019 B2B Digital Buyer’s Journey, indicating that some 80% of B2B buyers have eliminated traditional buying cycles and 63% said their business and tech requirements would never go back to pre-pandemic levels.
- The shift in customer expectations over the course of the last eighteen months and how this has impacted what we’re seeing in the digital buyer’s journey.
- Challenges organizations face with their omnichannel ecommerce strategies.
- The nuances that organizations must navigate with their pricing strategies.
- The critical role that pricing plays in successful ecommerce strategy.
- How prices can prices be delivered so that buyers can have the best experience possible transacting via eCommerce.
- The shift by PROS to SaaS offerings as part of their platform and how PROS Smart Price Optimization and PROS Smart Configure Price Quote are being used by savvy customers.
John shared some customer success stories as part of our conversation, illustrating the PROS platform in action and the specific ROI customers using pricing optimization technology are realizing.
John shared some customer success stories as part of our conversation, illustrating the PROS platform in action and the specific ROI customers using pricing optimization technology are realizing.
You can watch our conversation on video here:
Or stream the audio on your player of choice here:
Don’t Miss An Episode – Subscribe Below:
Disclaimer: The Futurum Tech Webcast is for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this webcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded and we may even reference that fact and their equity share price, but please do not take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We are not investment advisors and we do not ask that you treat us as such.
More insights from Futurum Research:
Shelly Kramer: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast. This show is one of our interview series discussions. I am thrilled today, we’re going to be talking about the state of B2B commerce and how a change and customer perceptions, and what customers are looking for in terms of their shopping experience.
Not only product quality, but actually having a great experience along the way. Really, how that whole world is changing, especially, in the B2B space. I am joined today by my long-time friend and super smart guy, John Bruno. John is the VP of Strategy at PROS. John, welcome.
John Bruno: Hey, great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Shelly Kramer: It’s always great to have you. This is one of those nerdfest conversations that I know that I enjoy so much because we have so many similar interests. I know it’s going to be a great discussion. Tell us a little bit about yourself before we start though.
John Bruno: My name’s John Bruno, I’m Vice President of Strategy at PROS. Although, given your introduction, I might change my title, the super smart guy. I think I like that a little bit more.
Shelly Kramer: You can write me a check for that.
John Bruno: I’ll be sure to make sure you get all the royalties. For me, I’ve had a really interesting background. A lot of people look at me and be like, “He’s not that old guy with gray hair. What’s he doing talking about B2B?” For me, it’s actually in my blood, that’s how I was born and raised.
I’m a Bostonian, even though I’ve tried my best to mute the accent. Born and raised in Boston. I was born into a family where my father was the founder of a regional paper distribution company. Of course, you can insert all your Office and Denver Mifflin jokes wherever you want.
For me, it became a passion at a young age. After graduating college, I said, “Get me out of here. Let me try something different.” Did consulting for the federal government, worked in the Pentagon, hated the public sector. Then, found my way back into technology at companies like Forester Research and Pegasystems.
Getting more and more into technology, and technology to facilitate B2B interactions, where most recently, prior to PROS, I ran the product organization at e-commerce platform based out of Vancouver, British Columbia called Elastic Path.
Shelly Kramer: Awesome. This is one of my favorite parts of any conversation that I have because I just always learn, even though you and I have known each other for a while, I always learn something new and interesting. I am a transplanted New Yorker. I remember when I first moved to the Midwest, working very hard to remove things like orange in Florida from my lexicon.
I just thought, you know what? I think it’ll be better if I just work on in that middle of the road accent, and it’s hard. It’s very hard.
John Bruno: It is. Well, unlike you, I didn’t have a problem in removing things, I had to add things back most notably the letter R.
Shelly Kramer: I’m thinking about my daughter and I have been watching this random episodes of Survivor. Of course, Boston Rob is a big character in Survivor and Robin Amba, so very, very funny. Yes, it’s a small world. Actually, I’ll be in Boston next week. Maybe I’ll see if I’m going anywhere near where you live and we can hook up.
John Bruno: It’s the best time of the year on September. Get yourself a lobster roll before season’s over.
Shelly Kramer: Lobster. What we’re going to talk about today, again, going back to the B2B commerce space. PROS, the company that you’re with is doing some really interesting things. Tell me just a little bit before we get started and before we dive in a little bit about PROS.
John Bruno: PROS is probably one of those best-kept secrets. The company’s been around for a little bit more than three decades and really grew up solving some of the most complex revenue and pricing problems for airlines. PROS is pricing a majority of the world’s airfare right now.
You might not know it, but when you book via Airline.com or an aggregator, or a travel agent, PROS is handling the most complex of those pricing problems. Over the years, PROS has transitioned and moved into the B2B space as well. There’s complexity in pricing for airlines.
Well, they’re also a lot of complexity in the way B2B organizations work with their customers. We’ve supported everything from how organizations structure their pricing strategies to bringing AI into the fold. As we’ve evolved, we’ve really expanded the portfolio of solutions to not only include how you price, but also how you sell.
Through solutions like configure price quote, and e-commerce, PROS plays a pretty active role in helping B2B organizations really embrace all things digital.
Shelly Kramer: I think that’s one of the things that’s the most interesting to me and part of it is because I’m married to a guy who works for a Fortune 100 company and he’s in sales. When you can look at both sides of an equation from a marketing strategy and a sales strategy, and I think that those two things have to work together.
One of the things that I’ve learned from my husband over the course of the last 20 years is just the frustration that sales teams have when pricing complexities get in the way of them serving their customers, selling more things to more people, doing their jobs, and that sort of thing.
I think that serving up a great customer experience on the front end is super, super important. Empowering your sales team is you equally as important. I think that’s one of the things that makes the PROS solution so incredibly attractive to me.
John Bruno: Absolutely. There’s this really interesting end of the spectrum for B2B sellers. Many of them can operate based on gut feel or instinct and be really responsive and be accommodating to their customers. At the same time, run the risk of doing things that are unnatural or unhealthy for the business.
Now, on the flip side, when there’s a lot of governance and everything needs to go through approvals and get certain sign offs and escalations, well, you might be doing things that are good for the business, but run the risk of having really poor customer experience.
It’s about striking that balance to give the proper empowerment to deliver a great customer experience.
Shelly Kramer: Talking about customer experience, one of the things that we’ve seen over the course really, of the last 18 months, probably certainly in many ways, pandemic-driven, we’ve seen a shift in customer expectations. What are your observations on how this has impacted what we’re seeing in terms of the digital buyer’s journey?
John Bruno: It’s interesting because I don’t think we’re seeing anything terribly novel or new, but the pace of which the world we’re living is changing is just remarkable right now. If you go back in the past 10, 15 years, you started seeing really cutting-edge B2B organizations embraced digital part of the buyer journey.
What we saw over the last 18 months is that as the world largely shut down face to face interaction, buyers were forced to embrace digital technologies. The interesting dynamic that presented itself was buyers did a really good job acclimating to that digital world.
It’s a lot easier for buyers to acclimate to it because there’s a lot of optionality out there. For folks in the selling side, embracing digital is not as easy as opening up your web browser and hitting a Google search, you’re talking about core technology infrastructures, implementation, configuration, getting your data in order.
Every organization knew they needed to do this, but was always the second, third, or fourth priority in the list, and all COVID really did was make it the number one priority. Actually, made it the number one, number two, and number three priority.
Shelly Kramer: I think that we’ve seen that across the board with digital transformation in general. Many things that people thought would be nice to have, or we’ll put this on the list, or whatever. One of the things that I try to for when we’re talking about a pandemic, this has been a horrible thing in many, many, many ways.
I try to look for silver linings. One of the silver linings I see is that this has caused a rapid pivot in so many instances and has brought people into a new age and a new way of doing things. One of the things that we did some research on the B2B digital buyers journey recently, we found that 80% of our survey respondents, they’ve eliminated their traditional buying cycles.
That 63% of those people said that those business requirements and their tech requirements are never going back to what they were. It’s like when you experience something really amazing and you see how well things can work for you when you embrace the digital landscape and really awesome technology solutions.
Why would you ever want to go back? It makes no sense. I think that, again, that’s a silver lining that I look to as it relates to the pandemic that I think we all benefit from. I want to talk a little bit about omnichannel e-commerce strategy. We know that a lot of B2B organizations have an omnichannel e-commerce strategy.
Some are good, some are not so good, and they aren’t foolproof. Can you talk with us a little bit about what you and your team see in terms of the challenges organizations face with their existing strategies?
John Bruno: I think you’re a little generous, to be honest. Some are good, some are not so good. I don’t know if some are actually good.
Shelly Kramer: Many suck.
John Bruno: Many have room for improvement. There’s a ton of challenges if I harken back to that silver lining piece for a second, I think the silver lining is even greater because organizations now have an opportunity to think about digital more pervasively as it affects all aspects of their business.
Of course, there’s websites and e-commerce, but what about the salesperson and how their role is changing given this pandemic because they’re not going to go away. They’re still going to have a role. When I think about omnichannel in the B2B world, it’s riddled with complexity.
In the B2C world, you typically have the online experience and the brick and mortar experience, pretty cut and dry. In the B2B world, you’ve got in-person sales reps. You may have the brick and mortar distribution facility. You may have indirect channels where your customers predominantly procure your product through a channel partner.
You’ve got websites, you’ve got marketplaces, you’ve got call centers. The hard part about handling commerce in today’s day and age is not supporting one of those channels, it’s making sure that when you support them, that it’s consistent. That your customer can have an expectation of what the experience is and have the experience, not only live up to it, but live up to it across each of those channels.
What’s really important in that, and what I think a lot of organizations who don’t get it right take for granted is data. Everything is data. The relationships that you built with your customers over decades, some companies we work with have been in business over 100 years and been working with the same customers.
Even though those interactions may have been offline, that’s data. It’s relationship, it’s agreed to pricing, it’s the products they normally buy. How do you take all that information data and leverage it in such a way where you can start to use that, to provide that consistency and personalization across wherever your customer might interact with you with?
Shelly Kramer: I think in addition to data, the thing that sometimes organizations don’t think enough about, or maybe take for granted is perceived patience level of customers.
John Bruno: What patience?
Shelly Kramer: All of us are, even in the B2B space, we’re also consumers of B2C goods. We bring the B2C experiences that we have to be experiences that we have when we’re trying to do our jobs. When we don’t have those quick, seamless, efficient, intuitive experiences, we get really frustrated really quickly.
As I was thinking about this conversation, I’m thinking about you know how you’re used to going to somebody’s website and looking for something that you want to buy, and then you make your way to some website, and instead of it being an easy experience, somebody put their online catalog on their website.
You can’t see the pricing and it’s PDF files or whatever, and you’re thinking, “How quickly can I get out of here?” I think that’s happened to a lot of people, but the patience level, you really have to keep that in mind, because I think we’re living in a time of commoditization and everything is commoditized.
What have you done for me lately? What problems can you solve for me today? How quickly can you solve them? That’s the mindset that customers bring into these relationships. Time really is of the essence, and not taking your customers patience level for granted, I think is an important thing.
John Bruno: Internally, we always talk about time being the most valuable currency. Now, especially for B2B buyers, because they’ve got other parts of their job they have to attend to. If you rewind the clock back 15 or so years, it wasn’t hard to do a compare and contrast in B2C and B2B and say, “Well, I’m working with this one brand and this one brand only has 200 skews.” I get that.
In B2B, we’re talking about tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands. I understand it’s more complex. I don’t want to beat the dead horse that’s out there, but when you have an interaction via a marketplace like Amazon, now you’re talking the magnitude of tens of millions of products. They change prices all the time.
Their data is more complex than anyone else’s yet at the same time, every experience they deliver is instantaneous. Now, the comparison is B2C experience more complex than B2B, and it’s instantaneous. Now, I’m working with one brand that’s less complex than Amazon, why can’t the experience be just as easy and just as fast?
Shelly Kramer: Well, and I think a standard answer that we might hear to having bringing Amazon into the discussion is, well, it’s Amazon and it’s a multi-billion dollar company. Of course, they have all the money in the world to spend on the technology that drives their processes.
The reality of it is that the technology’s out there, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. You just have to find it and that’s part of the reason we’re having this conversation today. One of the things I will admit that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about before I started working with you and your team at PROS was really pricing.
I wasn’t thinking a lot about pricing and all of the nuances involved in pricing and how complex, how many of them there are, and how complex it is. Talk with us a little bit about why pricing is so important to the e-commerce strategy?
John Bruno: If you boil it down to its most simplest form, we think of things in terms of what’s the least common denominator? In every interaction, regardless of channel of, there were a couple of things that always remain constant, the product and the price.
Sure, you’ve got things like promotions and how you might surface things in different channels and the place aspect of it, where do you want your products to be found, but products and prices are everywhere. It’s paramount getting that right. If you do a little compare and contrast with what I believe is a fairly complicated B2C example.
You take your favorite beauty retailers, they’ve got products that range in dozens of different color palettes. At the end of the day, they’re dealing with between 30,000 and 40,000 skews. That’s not insignificant for a retailer. If you take a modest, a modest distributor that has roughly the same product catalog, but now they’re selling to thousands of B2B customers.
Each of those customers have different uses, different purchase volumes, and therefore many of them have different contractually prices. Then. for those that don’t, and you’ve got these different channels, do you want to do anything from a strategy standpoint to start driving more customers to more self-service experiences?
How do you want to price for your different channels? The same set of products can go from on one hand between 30,000 and 40,000 unique price points to over 2 billion in a matter of seconds, just give them the level of complexity.
When you’re dealing with that much data, it’s important to recognize the fact that humans alone or humans even with rudimentary tools, pick your favorite spreadsheet aren’t enough to keep up with the dynamics that are going on. Especially, in a world where so much information is transparent and readily available.
How do you take that data? How do you take those relationships? Digitize those and really optimize the end to end process of making sure all that squared away, so that when somebody sees that product on your web page and they click on it, everything shows up it’s contextual. It’s their price and it’s transactable in that moment.
Shelly Kramer: That is a perfect lead in to your PROS smart price optimization and PROS smart configure price quote, both of different technology solutions, but solutions that address being able to serve up this pricing information and this database pricing information in a really quick way. Talk with us a little bit, if you would, about each of those offerings from PROS.
John Bruno: Over the past five or six years, we focused on a new strategy for PROS and really embracing this notion of a platform, the PROS’ platform. Both of these applications think of them as more delivery mechanisms for capabilities of the platform.
Now, on the smart price optimization and the management side of things, there’s different levels of maturity to different organizations. We provide a full end to end gamut of everything from how you leverage business rules. Think of things like conditions and calculations, and things like that to structure your prices.
Not just your priceless, but your customer-specific pricing, or even how you negotiate your pricing workflows. From there, we provide a whole suite of analytics, so how you model different scenarios of what might happen if you change price from X to Y.
Over the years, we’ve taken a lot of our knowledge and know-how from the airline space, specifically with regards to artificial intelligence, to really put more control around automation, around optimization in the hands of today’s pricers. Always setting the right price, but price is only so good as your ability to get it where it needs to go.
We talk about the world of e-commerce and you talk about kind of the instant gratification. You’ve got some pretty unique capabilities where we offer contractual SLAs around our ability to deliver any of that complexity and pricing to that moment of truth for the customer.
We believe wholeheartedly the world’s moving digital and in that belief, everything needs to be instantaneous. In B2B, not every purchase is going to go through e-commerce, so we have the smart configure price quote side of the platform, which really provides a whole host of tools for either sellers or buyers to really facilitate that interaction.
How sellers add products to a quote, potentially even configured complex products and even handle guided negotiation for those spot deals. For our customers that are pretty cutting-edge and innovative, we’ve actually architected the solution where that configuration capability or that guided selling capability can be put right in the hands of the customer.
Think of like a B2B organization selling HVAC units, you’re off the street customer might not be totally familiar with what is the right product for them, but imagine walking them through a couple of quick, simple, layperson questions, and getting at the exact right solution, no matter the complexity.
Shelly Kramer: Well, which is great from a sales enablement process. It’s equally great from an end customer process. I think about it’s so interesting to be in a situation as a consumer B2B or B2C, it doesn’t matter when you’re here, you have my budget dollar, I have my money in hand, take my money.
Why should I have to wait so long to get a quote? That’s really, I think what we’re talking about is let’s speed up this process and make it easier and better, and more efficient for everybody. I think that’s really exciting.
John Bruno: I think one of our last conversations we were talking about the retail world, one of my favorite examples of retail is The North Face. They’ve got so many different products and different lines. Personally, I don’t know what the right one is for me. One of the cool things they did is they put a guided selling workflow in there.
They ask you what the normal temperature of the climate that you’re going to be in. They ask you if it’s humid, if it’s rainy, if it’s dry, a couple of basic questions and they get you to the right jacket. If they can do that from a B2C example, why can’t a tools’ manufacturer or a manufacturer of earth-moving equipment?
Somebody in the automotive space ask you your own set of questions to get you to your own product? That’s the world that we’re starting to live in now.
Shelly Kramer: It is. It is absolutely the world we’re start you live in now. I think that to me, the exciting part of this is that the organizations who get this, there is such who understand this. There is such an opportunity to develop a competitive advantage and to be able to leverage that.
When people have great experiences, they like to talk about them. They like to share them. They like to refer customers. What customers are looking for today is vendor partners who make their lives easier, who make their companies more success as full who really, they feel like are with them.
As a true partner, not just a one and done sale, I could go get that from Amazon. I think that’s also an interesting part of this whole equation is that smart businesses tap smart vendor partners and develop long-term relationships with a mutual goal of happy customers, happy sales teams, success, speed efficiency, expedient, all those things.
I think that’s where we are, that’s where we’re headed. To me, the companies who really understand this and put these kind of technology tools, these technology solutions, technology platforms into play have really great things ahead.
John Bruno: The way we think about it is we know that today’s B2B buyers crave more control, they crave more autonomy. What can you do to make sure it’s still healthy for the business, but give them as much control and autonomy over their own purchasing destiny as they so choose. I think you can hit the nail on the head.
If you are able to deliver a great customer experience for your buyer, you’re able to deliver a great sales experience for your seller onboard. If a customer can walk off the street in complete, in a more complex purchase from you in a matter of minutes, you can bring in new capable sales people, or we’re able to get up to speed and get onboarded and even less time than that.
Shelly Kramer: I think at the beginning of our conversation, you touched on, “I’m not a middle-aged gray haired guy, a B2B sales guy.
John Bruno: Well, I’m fortunate that the grays tend to hide a little bit.
Shelly Kramer: Well, I’m older than you are and definitely middle-aged. The point I wanted to make here is that I think that it’s really important to not lose sight of the fact that we’ve got the oldest millennials are turning 40. You’ve got millennials, you’ve got gen Z in the workforce.
You’ve got people, who in many ways, are digital natives, who understand how to navigate technology and the web and embracing, and living in the middle of technology. If you are not serving up platforms and solutions that allow them to get what they know is available and the experience they have elsewhere, they’re going to look somewhere else.
I think that’s really important from a strategic brand strategist here, strategic business foundation that you need to keep in mind that our workforce is multi-generational and these solutions work across generations. Again, this customer knows what they want.
They know how to find it. They don’t want you to get in their way. They want you to be a partner that makes their experiences good ones.
John Bruno: If I go back to that example of my father’s business, he hired a team of people to input orders via green screen applications. He’s in his 70s now. Even though the majority of B2B buyers do fall into that millennial generation, he wouldn’t probably qualify himself as technically savvy.
The pandemic has shifted him to ordering his groceries via Instacart and ordering his coffee ahead and just walking in, and picking it up. If you were to ask me two or three years ago, sorry, dad, if you’re listening, if I thought he could be capable of that, I probably would’ve said no.
Shelly Kramer: Some of it is you don’t know what you don’t know until you know. That’s really high brow, but it’s a life truth and we didn’t know how convenient some of these things are until we tried them. I remember not using Apple Pay for a long time. Then, I started using Apple Pay I’m like, “Why would I ever carry a handbag again? Why would I ever not pay for every single thing.
John Bruno: Pretty sure Apple Pay is the reason why I wear this.
Shelly Kramer: Exactly.
John Bruno: Certainly, during this pandemic, so it’s got to be Apple Pay.
Shelly Kramer: Then, you find yourself getting irritated your point of sale systems aren’t updated enough so that you don’t take Apple Pay or any other kind of pay system. It really is you don’t know what you don’t know until you know, and then I’m not going back. That transcends all age groups.
I’m not necessarily an Apple fan girl, but you walk into an Apple store and I was in there recently replacing a teenage daughter’s phone. I looked around and all of the heads were gray. I’m thinking like, “These are savvy people who are using technology, all different kinds of technology.
We can’t put people in buckets regardless of their age, younger, middle-aged, older, people are getting it. Speaking of people who get it, I would love to hear if there are any customer success stories that you could share with us.
John Bruno: There’s a whole host to choose from. One of my favorites though, is a glass manufacturer out of France. That whole theme of is it sales enablement? Is it buyer empowerment? They hadn’t really gone to the end of the spectrum and said, “We want to make this as simple for our buyers as possible.”
What they did is leveraging PROS smart configure price quote, they had built a configuration experience. If you’re building a home or replacing a window, you’re going to need to know things like dimensions. You’re going to need to know things like glass types, tint, all of that.
What they did was slick UI on their website, which allowed people to go in and say, “Well, I need this width. I need this height. I need this shape. I need this thin. Great, that’s what it would be.” They had done that about two to three years ago.
Remember pandemic kicked off March of last year, we’re talking 18 months. They thought this would be a really great experience and they built this experience mostly for their sellers, but they exposed it on their website.
I think one of the really cool things about that is because they did have this foresight in terms of what the future might look like, they were able to go from 10% of their revenue occurring online to 80%, seemingly overnight, as soon as the pandemic started, because they had thought about that.
They had prepared for it. We talked about priorities before and how digital and self-service was three, four or five for most B2B organizations, it was number one for them. They reaped the benefits of it significantly.
Shelly Kramer: I remember early on in the pandemic in one of our webcast shows here talking about examples of businesses who prepared for it, nationwide insurances, another company that they were focused on digital transformation five years ago. They were focused on resilience and business continuity.
Being able to support remote work and hybrid work, and everything else, so when the pandemic happened, they were like, “We’re good. We’re good because we planned for it.” I think the message here is two-fold from a strategic standpoint, you definitely want to be thinking about, what does the future look like?
I think it’s also important for those of you who listening, who didn’t happen to predict that a global pandemic would be something that we would still be navigating through. It’s never too late to explore technology solutions that can take you from where you are now to really having pricing optimization and quote optimization, and those kind of things in place. I think that’s an important takeaway here.
John Bruno: I think if I can add on to that, the one thing that I would tell the audience is plan for uncertainty. You don’t need to know that there may or may not be a global pandemic or any other kind of macroeconomic movement, but know that the world tomorrow is going to look different than the world today.
Earlier we talked about lowest common denominators. Things like pricing your products are still going to be pervasive no matter what the next experience might look like. Consolidating that information, being ready to deliver it to whoever it might need to go.
If you’ve got all of those ducks in a row, you can feel pretty safe that no matter what the next customer expectation or macroeconomic movement might be, that you’ve got the two most important puzzle pieces figured out. Now, you just push it into that channel and you’re good to go.
Shelly Kramer: I think that’s great advice. On that great advice, we will wrap our show. John, I knew that this would be an interesting discussion. I always so enjoy talking to you. Really, appreciate you coming and hanging out with me today.
John Bruno: I appreciate the invite. It’s been a blast.
Shelly Kramer: Well, to our listening and viewing audience and to our LinkedIn audience, thank you so much for hanging out with us. Actually, we’ve done some research, we did a report in partnership with PROS. I will link that in the comments here.
We have some other research that talks about PROS new SaaS editions of its pricing platform that I think you’ll want to know about. Anyway, so there’ll be some resources for you there. Thank you so much for being with us today. We’ll see you next time.