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Why AI-Powered Tech is Changing the Game for Wholesale Distributors – The Big Ideas Series
by Shelly Kramer | October 13, 2022

In this inaugural episode of The Big Ideas Series, a production of the Futurum Tech Webcast devoted to companies who are driving innovation and helping their customers do big things, I’m joined by Kathleen Taggart, Intelligent Automation Strategist for DataXstream. Our conversation today explores how AI-powered tech is changing the game for wholesale distributors at a time when they need every advantage they can get.

So much has changed in the last few years for wholesale distribution. With the supply chain in a state of constant flux, the pressure is on for wholesaler distributors to offer fast, agile, nimble, and reliable partnerships. Being able to work efficiently will be key to survival as wholesalers navigate stiff competition. But exactly how do wholesalers do that? If this is on your mind as well, this is one show you’ll want to tune in for. Here are just a few of the things we covered:

  • The complexities of the wholesale process: why is it complex and what are some of the common challenges customers face?
  • What OMS+ is and why it’s a game-changer for wholesalers.
  • How automation functionality can make a big difference for wholesalers.
  • What the integration of intelligent automation into the platform and the launch of OMS+ia means for customers — and why it’s exciting.

Kathleen also shared some customer use case examples to illustrate the power of OMS+ai in action which were pretty cool.

If you’d like more information on DataXstream’s OMS+ai, download the infosheet we developed in partnership with DataXstream here.

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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.

Transcript:

Shelly Kramer: Hello, I’m Shelly Kramer and welcome to the Futurum Tech Webcast. This conversation is part of our newly launched Big Ideas Series. On this episode today, I’m joined by Kathleen Taggart, who’s an intelligent automation strategist for DataXstream, and we’re going to talk today about a topic that is growing in interest, technology in the wholesale process. Kathleen, welcome. It’s great to have you.

Kathleen Taggart: Thanks, Shelly. Thanks for having me today.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. Absolutely. Some backstory, so much of has changed in the world of wholesale distribution. The supply chain, as we all know, is in a constant state of flux and it is extremely challenging to navigate supply chain issues these days. The pressure is on for wholesale distributors. They’ve got to be able to offer fast, agile, nimble, and reliable partnerships throughout their partner ecosystem. Being able to work efficiently, of course, is a key to survival, as their wholesalers navigate increasingly stiff competition.

So, there are a lot of variables involved, and how do wholesalers think about this from a strategic standpoint? What do they do in order to be agile, nimble, adaptable, and those sorts of things, and how can they most effectively compete? That’s what Kathleen and I are going to be talking about today, so I’m really excited to have you on the show. I know this is going to be a fantastic conversation. With that, as we get started, one of my favorite things to do is just tell us a little bit about yourself, Kathleen, and tell us about your career journey. I know you’re a military wife, so I think that’s interesting, but tell us a little bit about yourself and your career path. I’d really love to know more.

Kathleen Taggart: Sure, absolutely. Well, thanks again Shelly for having me on. I’m Kathleen Taggart. I’m working with DataXstream for the go-to market, push for our Intelligent Automation Suite. I started off with a tech background. I studied computer science, and then joined DataXstream as a developer on the original intelligent automation team, and really actually got to see the whole project from its original theory into an actual product. And then, as we began to mature the product and we were getting more interest and more traction, I joined the marketing team to help kind of establish it as a joint product with OMS+. As you mentioned, I’m a military spouse. I’m also in the reserves, so I do a lot of traveling and bouncing back and forth around the country for both of us.

Shelly Kramer: And moving.

Kathleen Taggart: And moving. Yes.

Shelly Kramer: And moving.

Kathleen Taggart: Yeah. Right now. Yeah. That’s kind of a bit about me. I started off in the tech space and I’ve kind of worked my way into serving our wholesalers and distributors with new technologies.

Shelly Kramer: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. You have a good foundation upon which to build and upon which to help your customers, so that’s awesome. Let’s take a moment and dive into that wholesale process. Why is it so complex? Let’s talk about, what are some of the common challenges that your customers face that you see all day every day?

Kathleen Taggart: Sure. As you mentioned, especially with COVID really highlighting the challenges of this industry, the wholesalers and distributors that we work with on a day-to-day basis are truly logistics masterminds. They’re dealing with really complicated supply and demand processes. They’re dealing with inventory, overstocking, understocking issues, transportation, transportation channels, different trucking agencies. There’s a million different problems that they’re handling and conquering on a day-to-day basis that they’re using their ERPs and their data to really optimize.

One of the unique features about the wholesale distribution industry is that they’re operating generally on really, really tight margins, so everything is about how efficient can you be, how accurate can you be, how customized can you be. And as our customers become more agile and as they’re becoming more savvy, especially as they become more tech-savvy, they’re doing their own research, they’re doing their own price comparisons, it becomes increasingly important to really serve them with a truly customer-friendly experience and a really customized experience toward their industry, what they’re looking for, what deals are really going to draw their attention to your business. So, I think one of the things that COVID really highlighted was how critical the industry is and how delicate it can sometimes be once processes are put in jeopardy or kind of-

Shelly Kramer: Any little thing that happens that chips supply chain, those processes, any little thing I think that… I’m always looking for silver linings that have come out of a global pandemic and things that we learned that we didn’t know before. Some of those things relate to business continuity, and business resiliency, and supply chain resiliency, and just some of the many things that we took for granted that a pandemic showed us that we can’t take those things for granted. We need to plan for and around and through them.

Kathleen Taggart: Absolutely.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. So, it sounds like what you’re saying is that part of your focus at DataXstream is not on developing one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter approaches, but instead, really understanding your client’s unique needs and their unique situations and bringing a solution to the table or helping from a strategic standpoint that really serves their needs. Was that fair?

Kathleen Taggart: Absolutely. Thank you, Shelly, for bringing that up. Yeah, very good conclusion. OMS+ was designed and has always been designed very much around the customer. That’s part of our delivery process is that we work very closely with the technical teams and with the business teams, to make sure that the order processes that we’re implementing are designed around your order processes and the industry that you’re serving and the industry you work within.

And then, intelligent automation and the features that we’ve built in for our machine learning suite are really customized because they are built upon the customer’s data. So, there really is no one-size-fits-all because even though we have the similar processes and similar algorithms that we’re going to be using to serve that customer, it’s built upon their data and it’s going to evolve with their data, with acquisitions, with the specific vendors that they’re working with, with the customers that they’re working with, with the history that they’ve had in the past. So, those insights are going to be really tailored to their specific business, to their industry, and even to their customers. As they’re moving forward and as they’re transacting, that profile is really going to be customized to their data and to their customers themselves.

Shelly Kramer: Well, that’s cool. I’m thinking about, do I… I spent some time talking. I’ve done a couple of different interviews with your CEO, Tim Yates, and we’ve taken some deep dives into OMS+. For our viewing and listening audience, I will include a link to that prior conversation, so that it’ll have some additional information in there. Is there anything about OMS+ from a solution standpoint, from a functionality standpoint that we didn’t just touch on in the answer that you just gave me, as it relates to the challenges and that not a cookie-cutter solution? Is there anything that we didn’t touch on in terms of what the OMS solution actually is and provides for customers?

Kathleen Taggart: Yeah, absolutely. I can just give a quick refresh on the conversation with Tim, which by the way, he really appreciated the work with Futurum, so thank you guys for being great partners in that. Really, OMS+ is a tool designed to help with the unified commerce platform. Unified commerce being, you have your single sales channel, you have your multi-sales channel, you have omni-channel, and then you have unified commerce really being the sum of all of the best of the parts. It’s the one master resource, the one master data set that can be used to serve the customer throughout the whole channel, throughout the whole customer journey, so that their experience is both customized and accurate and reflective of everything else. So, that they’re not getting a discount over here, but it’s not available to them over here. They don’t hear a message over here, and then it’s no longer… It’s this inconsistent customer interaction.

It just provides a really smooth and seamless and easy process for them because if it’s difficult to do business with you, that’s immediate degrade on your reputation with the customer, even if you have good products. So, we really help with that. And then, on the technical side, being an embedded solution means that everything that we present in the platform and all the data that we work with is a one to one of what’s reflective in the ERP system. So, it’s not bolt-on. It’s not embedded. It’s integrated into the SAP Business Technology Platform architecture, so that every transaction, every permission, every interaction that you have with a customer or with your data is actually directly reflective and represented by what’s going on in SAP. So, if you did a transaction in SAP, it would immediately reflect an OMS+ and vice versa. So, rather than it being an addition to SAP, it’s really an extension of the core architecture of what’s already going on with your ERP.

Shelly Kramer: Oh, that’s awesome. I’m sitting here listening to you talking about, don’t make it difficult to do business with you. And it’s sometimes, even the simplest of processes, you find yourself going through it and you’re just like, “Ugh.”

Kathleen Taggart: Yes. We’ve all been there, right? You’re trying to do that one thing, and you can’t add to it.

Shelly Kramer: And I will tell you, just as a consumer, there are many instances when I’ve abandoned a purchase because I’ve just been too irritated. I’ve been too irritated by the fact that it’s just too clunky, too cumbersome, too frustrating. There’s a good and terrible when you’re very knowledgeable about tech and technology solutions, and it’s like, “I know better. I know it doesn’t have to be this way, so the fact that you’re making me slog through this, tells me that you don’t understand how important serving up great customer experience is.” Just whether you’re in the B2B, whether you’re in the B2C space, it doesn’t matter. Those are the people that I regularly choose not to do business with, so you don’t want to be that person. You want to be the company that makes every part of buying, handing over your money… Let’s make it easy. Let’s make it easy.

Kathleen Taggart: It’s so frustrating when you’re working a product like that and it’s not working.

Shelly Kramer: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. Now, what’s happening though is that you’re taking OMS+ to the whole next level. So, it’s OMS+, plus intelligent automation. So, I love seeing… I cover the automation space here at Futurum Research, so I love seeing light bulbs that go off when organizations understand the power that automation brings to all of the things that they do, and when they understand. There’s a difference between automation and intelligent automation, and intelligent automation is a complete and total game changer. So, tell us a little bit about some of these new features that customers could take advantage of with OMS+ia.

Kathleen Taggart: Absolutely. I think the best way to break it down is really into three components that are used to create the whole intelligent automation workflow. You have the core OMS+, which has all of your order management features. It has your order history, your customer, and account data all presented in this really clean aggregated platform for your customer service rep to use, utilize, and interact with the customer for. Again, that’s going back to that customized process or that customized experience. When you have that data, you can tailor your selling to them.

And then, the second part to that is the automated document processing. This is why it’s called Intelligent Automation, because we’re integrating intelligent technologies into the workflow, so that certain components can be automated where machines can bring in unique advantages. That automated document processing phase allows the OMS+ platform to take in a PDF or a Word document, or really any kind of document where a purchase order or an RFQ is stored, or really any other kind of sales or transactional document.

That document flows in via email or through manual entry or some other kind of automated receiver. If you’re not receiving it via email, maybe you have another way of getting those documents. It’s just going to take that and run it through text ID, text scraping, and optical character recognition to pull out the key features of that document, which are your text data, your words. In addition to just the words, you also get the relational and the spatial data that goes with that text. So, this is close to this. That word is above these words in a table. This is highlighted. This is bolded. I can see that there’s a table and this is how it’s organized. So, unlike some other kind of text scraping and OCR capabilities to grab all the relational data necessary, and compile that into a package that goes to the third process in this step, which is the predictive machine learning analytics.

We’ve got the OMS+ product, the automated document processing, and then the predictive analytics. The predictive analytics takes that package from the document processor, and it runs it through multiple machine learning pipelines to identify what is most critical, what is most important, and uses natural language processing to identify customer description, or pardon, customer IDs. It means, customer information like billing, or shipping, delivery information, and then also material information, such as the description, the quantities, the prices that they’re expecting, any other kind of critical data that would be needed for an order to go through.

And then, once it runs it through those predictive models, it’s actually going to take that and turn it into an order in your ERP. Or if it’s a request for quote, it can do the same thing where it’s just going to pull that from your ERP, automate it into a document that your CSR can view in the OMS+ platform, and it’s going to integrate it with inventory data, with availability data. Maybe there’s a material that they’re requesting that you don’t have fully stocked right now, but you’re getting a new delivery at Monday. It’s going to present all that information to you, so that the CSR can make intelligent and informed and empowered decisions with the data to say, “Okay, I need to call the customer. I’m going to ask them if they want these things delivered now or if they want it the next week. We’re getting a new delivery of this soon.” Again, it all goes back to kind of tailoring that experience to the customer, but because it’s automated, you get so many less errors and it’s really empowering the CSR to do their jobs to their fullest.

Shelly Kramer: I was going to ask you next about how automation functionalities can make a difference for customers, but you’ve really just told me that.

Kathleen Taggart: I wasn’t trying to jump to the chase, but-

Shelly Kramer: No. I mean, I can’t think of anything else over and above what you just touched on, that customers could expect. I mean, streamlined, efficient, I feel like the heavy lifting of the quoting process, the order process, that sort of thing is taken care of by this intelligent automation.

Kathleen Taggart: Right. Right. And that speed and that accuracy is really game changing for when the CSR is trying to serve the customer. Essentially, it comes down to, instead of fighting with their system, they’re working with the customer to accomplish the customer’s goals because all the technology is already working on their behalf.

Shelly Kramer: Right. Well, that’s really cool. One of my favorite questions to ask is, can you share with us any… I love to know real-world stories. I love to know things from customers that this is the problem that we had. This is when we started using this. This is what we experienced. Do you have any of those little insights to share with me today?

Kathleen Taggart: Sure. Well, I think it goes to show that this project originally started from the request from a customer. We were doing an OMS+ delivery with them, and they mentioned offhand, “By the way, we have an internal team working on an automation tool, but we can’t quite seem to get it to work. Would you mind taking a swing at this?” That’s really how this whole project evolved, and-

Shelly Kramer: So, we owe them.

Kathleen Taggart: Right. Right. Yes. They’re the ones who gave us the insight and gave us the… Also, their team was also really involved at the beginning. We worked with their data team. They kind of transferred what they had been working on. They were using a classifier or a hierarchy system to try and organize materials into almost this dichotomous key. I can remember that from third grade biology. So, that you can narrow down and navigate a classification system to find the desired material, which works in simplified data structures, but it’s not really a realistic solution for a enterprise ERP.

There’s too much data. It’s too complicated. You have too many vendors. You have too many customers. You have too many material features. You have different catalogs half the time. So, you’re dealing with mergers and acquisitions. There’s so much data to process that you need a really complex data structure. So, we were able to use natural language processing and a few other models to really look at the whole picture of their data and apply that in a more general practice, what we’re seeing other professionals do when they’re building out classification systems and when they’re building out search algorithms, and kind of apply that to the problem of the customer.

Back to the use cases, there was this customer. There was another customer who said they were being outmaneuvered. I think that’s a really perfect way to summarize the critical need for it, and I think there’s also plenty of industry research and industry discussion right now about this topic. I mean, there’s a lot of new language that’s coming around with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some people are kind of calling it this shift to the intelligent future, where we’re going to have an intelligent enterprise that’s integrated with all kinds of machine learning features.

Shelly Kramer: By the way, that’s not an if. This is already a reality, right?

Kathleen Taggart: That’s right. Yeah. I’m sure it’s come up in some of the publications and the research you guys have done. I know that Gartner’s been doing a lot of research, and I think somewhere between 85% and 90% of the CIOs that they were interviewing and surveying said that they were working on AI initiatives or had thought about it. But truly, I think there’s still this barrier of entry because many of the companies that are looking to take this initiative are either hesitating or they’re doing pilot projects, but they’re not ready to commit to full implementations. So, I think the thing here that we’re seeing, that when companies make the jump, when they make the investment, when they’re ready to dedicate the resources to building out the data systems, they do see return on investment with accuracy and efficiency, and those data accuracies reflect and ripple throughout the company.

Shelly Kramer: Right. Two things. One, I’m going to give you a hard time because she comes on my show and she quotes Gartner and Forrester. I’m not going to hold that… No, I’m not going to hold that against her because I love Kathleen, but I will say that we too have done lots of research as it relates to automation and the adoption of an integration of automation and intelligent automation, into business systems and processes and organizations. This is something that we’ve seen. Our recent research has shown that, again, another silver lining of a global pandemic, sped up the adoption of automation and intelligent automation. We had to move more quickly. We had distributed remote workforces. There were lots of changes that we had to navigate through, so that was an important thing. But the reality of it is we are in a transformative age, and when you stop and you think about, “Oh, my gosh, look at how much…”

It’s funny. I’m watching a series on Prime Video right now that came out in 2014, and I didn’t know that when I first started watching it, but in that show, people are using their BlackBerrys and their flip phones. It’s so funny because it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, that was not that long ago, and that was the state of technology.” But my point here is that technology has evolved at a rapid pace. The pace at which it is going to evolve moving forward is going to be even more rapid. So, this becomes… You mentioned a customer who felt like they were getting outmaneuvered.

This is indicative of business success today. You have to be thinking about how can we integrate technology like intelligent automation capabilities into our processes? How can we evolve? How can we manage this massive influx of data that we have? How can we use technology like intelligent automation, machine learning, natural language processing, all of these things? How can we use this technology that isn’t new, by the way? But how can we integrate this into what we’re doing, so that we don’t have to work at the pace of humans?

We can work at the pace of technology. Understanding how important that is and understanding how important it is, not only to embrace transformative journeys, but to also understand that, that’s a journey that never ends because technology continues to evolve. It continues to improve. It continues to change. That’s something that we humans aren’t particularly historically adept at, but I think that’s the key to success today and in the future is understanding that the technology-driven intelligent enterprise is the organization that is primed for success, and for being able to compete, survive, and thrive in today’s market. It really is as simple as that. You can choose not to do those things, but it’s only going to be a matter of time before you’re going to pay the price for that. I mean, that’s a very harsh reality, but it is truth.

Kathleen Taggart: Yeah. I think we are seeing really significant gaps in results, and like you said, quoting Gartner, and of course they have lots of evidence to show those results, but really it’s not even Gartner. It’s everyone. Everyone in this space is saying that those who are making the jump are seeing significant results.

Shelly Kramer: Significant benefits, yeah, and in a pretty short period of time. That’s the thing about doing this, is that time to value. Generally speaking, when you’re looking at an ERP implementation or if you’re looking at something that is sometimes a longer timeframe, sometimes that time to value is a little bit longer.

I think that the time to value in integrating something like OMS+ AI is significantly shorter, and that’s, to me, what’s exciting because when you can get these implementations working and going and your team can start seeing the benefits, it’s just like, “Oh, my gosh.” Even the naysayers will be like, “Okay. I was wrong and this is amazing, and we need some more of that right now.” That’s what makes, I think, working in this space, doing what I do, doing what you do especially exciting because we know the results. We know the bottom line benefits that technology solutions like this can deliver, and when we get an opportunity to actually show that, there’s no going back. It’s just really excitement about, “Oh, my gosh, what can we do next?” I mean, to me, it’s an exciting way to spend my work life, right?

Kathleen Taggart: And I think… Oh.

Shelly Kramer: No. Go right ahead.

Kathleen Taggart: I was going to tag onto that. I think it’s interesting because the customers also are speaking for themselves. It’s not just that the businesses are seeing the numbers or they’re seeing the efficiency or they’re seeing these statistics. It’s that the customers are now flocking to the businesses, to the vendors who are supplying them this kind of experience. I think it’s like somewhere between 85% to 90% of the time, the customer will go with the top fastest vendors.

So, if there’s a quote or if there’s an order and that’s returned to them within minutes, the customer… Especially a customer on a tight timeline or on a clock that has a deadline and now they’re a day behind because they had to go get that new order and they had to do that part, and then this was backlogged, if they’re on that timeline and you are serving them immediately, that’s immediately recognizable. I think that’s what we’re seeing with our customers is that their customers are appreciating that fast and responsive and customized, that really valuable customer experience. So, again, it’s about the results and it’s about the data, but the customers are speaking for themselves. They’re voting with their money. They know that this is the best experience and the technology proving itself.

Shelly Kramer: Well, they don’t want to wait. I mean, I know very much. I’m kind of many things within our research organization and our family of companies, but when I’m ready to buy something, I’m ready to buy something. I don’t want to fool around. I want to get it done. I want to get moving. I want to hand it off to the people that I need to hand. You know what I’m saying? So, I think that speed plays a very big role here. I think too, as you said, customers are savvy. They do their homework. They kind of go into this knowing some of the value propositions, some of the benefits. So, I think that’s incredibly important is not to forget about how important that quoting speed and response speed is. That’s what this solution helps you do.

I know that we have developed a short research briefs. We call it an info sheet that kind of lays out some specifics about OMS+ AI, and I’ll link that here in the show notes. But Kathleen, tell us where customers can go, where people who are listening to this or watching this can go to learn more.

Kathleen Taggart: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re interested in learning more about intelligent automation or what we’re doing here at DataXstream, you can visit us at dataxstream.com, and under Solutions you can find additional details about OMS+ and the Intelligent Automation Suite that we’re now offering. We’re also listed in the SAP app store, so you can find us there, and of course our company has LinkedIn and Twitter, which you can follow for more details to get insights and additional details. You can also find me on LinkedIn. Feel free to reach out with any questions or any additional tidbits if you have anything you like to add.

Shelly Kramer: Well, awesome. I’ll include all of those links, including the link to Kathleen’s LinkedIn profile. So, if you want to stalk her, probably the best way, on LinkedIn. You can do that with ease. With that, I think that we’ve got a wrap. Thank you so much Kathleen Taggart for spending time with me today. Fellow data geeks unite, right? But these are conversations I always enjoy having so much, and I really appreciate you sharing your insights and I’m really looking forward to seeing OMS+ AI in action.

Kathleen Taggart: Yeah. Thank you so much, Shelly. This has been wonderful.

Shelly Kramer: All right, my dear. Well, thanks again. We’ll talk soon.

About the Author

Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”