Empowering Distributors: A glimpse into the high-tech software market
Software solutions are no longer a wish-list item for most businesses; they are a necessity in a world where efficiency is king. From single source software to e-commerce platforms, the options are plentiful. So, what’s a distributor to do? Research, research, research. No matter where you are in the decision-making process, Print+Promo is here to help. We profiled two household names in the print and promotional products sector. Find out what they offer, where the technology is headed and how you can benefit.
DEMANDBRIDGE SOFTWARE PLATFORM
The term “single source software” means different things to different people. However, there is a common thread to be found in a landscape where clients are more omni-channel marketing-savvy, data-driven and time-strapped. Now, more than ever, marketers are facing business challenges that didn’t exist a few years ago, as customers become increasingly empowered from a brand interaction perspective. Not only do they have the ability to choose when, where and how they engage, they can also compare experiences with similar products and services. The pressure is on for print and promo specialists to evolve into true marketing service providers, which can lead to tougher conversations that go beyond price and meeting schedule commitments. Some questions for distributors to tackle include:
- Can they better help their clients attract and impress prospects?
- Can they create and track multi-level campaigns?
- Can they ensure brand control and efficient management of digital assets?
- Can they deliver analytics that make sense of it all?
So, no matter how you define “single source software,” it is important that your marketing automation platform addresses these inquiries. But keep your expectations grounded.
“Let’s be realistic, there is no ‘silver-bullet’ software product that will ever ‘do it all,’” John Smilko, vice president and general manager of distributor management solutions for DemandBridge, Norcross, Ga., remarked. “By purchasing ‘best-of-breed’ software solutions separately, the burden on integration falls to the distributor. Most distributors aren’t staffed, nor [do they] have the financial resources available, to take on the integration workload. It then becomes extremely costly and time-consuming, and often fails.”
That’s why instead of viewing their industry-specific software as a commodity like Microsoft Office, distributors, Smilko said, should seek out strategic partners.
“I would ask the same questions my key end-user accounts ask of me,” he suggested. “Is my chosen partner viable? Are they in it for the long haul? Do they have expert industry knowledge to help me succeed now and in the future? Is my software provider continually updating their products and adding value-added products to help my company succeed and increase profitability?”
With more than 4 million registered users and 10,000 brands across the retail, health care, franchise, financial, energy and nonprofit verticals, DemandBridge’s platform allows distributors to service customers on many aspects of their marketing and sales efforts—from hard goods to full digital distribution of their content.
According to Smilko, DemandBridge’s primary goal is to keep its customers relevant in the markets they serve, and commonality across most verticals from a software standpoint does exist. While the onus is on distributors to learn the needs of their chosen niche(s), providers like DemandBridge are ready to flex their knowledge of information technology.
“Does a feature need to be added? Does the workflow require a modification for a specific need? Does the end-user need to seamlessly import data on a job-by-job basis?” were a sampling of questions Smilko offered up when discussing his responsibility in the strategic partnership.
Another way DemandBridge keeps its promise to clients is to monitor industry changes and requests and create actionable solutions when appropriate. The growing role of promotional products is a perfect example. Based on Print+Promo’s own editorial research, roughly 80 percent of our print distributor readers also considered themselves distributors of promotional products.
“Companies need promotional items to help reach out to potential customers and clients—it’s just a fact,” Smilko stressed. “This is a very low-cost marketing method to drive growth and allow people to see your brand and remember you.”
DB Commerce, the company’s e-commerce toolset formerly known as DB Enterprise and Q-Net, has enabled clients to order promotional products for years. But, as Smilko pointed out, over time, distributor needs began progressing beyond its intended use.
“While this basic order workflow was sufficient for static inventory and basic print items, it was not particularly well-suited to the complex nature of promotional products with many variations,” he explained. “Distributors wanted ‘batch’ or ‘grid’ ordering for promotional materials.
“What they meant was, first, ‘I need a way to present options (variants) to the end-user (shopper)—attributes like size and color, but not limited to those options and not limited to two categories.’ Other choices could be logo selection, logo placement, embroidery, color, etc.,” Smilko continued. “[Second,] ‘I want my users to be able to add many combinations to the cart quickly and easily.’”
In January 2019, DemandBridge responded with the rollout of DB Commerce Promotional Products Workflow. It spent months programming and perfecting the new solution, designed for multiple variant options (e.g., in text, swatch or image display), and either grid/batch ordering or order by variant selections all from a singular display. Its updated distributor admin interface, consolidated item detail view, intelligent volume pricing across cart contents, robust media library and tagging system, and detailed shopping cart summary are just some of the things that set it apart from the original version.
“Items can be configured, assigned to catalogs and created in your back-office system right from DB Commerce, bringing essential functions under one roof,” Smilko added. “The promo item setup ‘wizard’ guides administrators through each phase of the setup, offering previews of end-user experiences along the way. [And,] intelligent item creation streamlines efforts to setup individual products for each possible variant configuration.”
In October 2017, DemandBridge revealed that it was merging with the Reno, Nevada-headquartered software giant e-Quantum Inc. Together, the companies, who bring more than 60 years of experience and growth within and beyond the independent print services industry, planned to evolve and transition products to leverage DemandBridge’s presence on the Microsoft Azure Cloud. Then-CEO of e-Quantum Ross Barker stated that the “combined companies possessed the technological talent necessary to create the marketing execution solutions of the future,” so the deal seemed like a natural fit.
Almost four months later, news broke that DemandBridge had acquired Kramer-Smilko Inc., a software company based in Bel Air, Md. Smilko, who was president of Kramer-Smilko, shared a common vision with DemandBridge CEO David Rich, which was a determinant to sell. With so many moving parts to these transactions, industry pundits and customers alike speculated on what the future may hold. All mergers come with challenges, and Smilko admitted that these were no exception. But he happily provided a status update to satisfy curious minds.
“We have the ‘ONE DemandBridge’ initiative that applies best practices across all platforms,” he said. “From our customers’ perspectives, the most important aspects of this process are software development, implementation and support. We now have one set of procedures and tools in place and an entire staff committed to the program.”
A good example is the JIRA service desk that the company’s teams use to manage such processes. It provides full visibility to management, and customers can get updates on their service requests.
Additionally, gains have occurred through the aforementioned DB Commerce, for which connectivity has been a long-time advantage. Smilko noted that the teams have worked diligently to bring the integration to fruition between DB Commerce and e-Quantum—from site creation to order placement, and KS Distributors connectivity is soon to follow.
“Equally important are a modern look and feel and feature-rich solutions for customization of marketing materials and options for digital delivery,” he commented.
Then, there’s DB Sourcing, DemandBridge’s web-based procurement solution that helps distributors and brands manage quotes and order distribution with vendors and partners. Smilko reported that the tool’s integration with e-Quantum is nearing completion and expects it to be ready for release very soon.
DemandBridge has no plans to slow down because, as Smilko reminded, there are always clear areas for growth for companies that are committed to staying relevant in the markets they serve.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of cloud-based technology,” he said. “With our platform move to [Microsoft] Azure, clients have the freedom to deploy wherever they want, using the applications and frameworks of their choice. This cloud solution gives the industry access to advanced business integration tools and keeps them on the leading edge of marketing services.”
One other territory to explore is data—acquiring it, working with it and using it in smart ways. “Savvy distributors are winning business by talking about improving processes, not just products, and they’re starting to find ways to turn customer data into action,” Smilko concluded.
FOUR51 E-COMMERCE SOLUTIONS
Greg Gill has never been one to wait for trends to happen. The owner of the Apopka, Florida-based distributorship “thrives by bringing order to chaos,” helping businesses create custom and memorable brand experiences that have measurable results. Approximately 13 years ago, he wanted to take his vision of using e-commerce and online services for thumbprint, a print business at its core, out into the print and promo space.
As Tod Ellington, chief operating officer of thumbprint, tells it, such a move predated the widespread adoption of e-commerce tools, so Gill was “kind of taking a shot” when researching options. There weren’t many to choose from back then, but one particular company had already made a name for itself in the industry: Four51.
Founded in 1999, Four51 strives to out-innovate the limitations of e-commerce so that print and promotional product distributors can remove the constraints of manual, resource-intensive business processes and ready their business for the digital demands of their customers. Today, the business has more than 400 enterprise customers that specialize in a wide range of verticals and over 15,000 connected buyers and suppliers, and processes over 25 million annual transactions and more than $5 billion in annual revenue.
“Generally, our customers turn to Four51 when standard, out-of-the-box e-commerce solutions don’t work for their business,” Kayla Bryant, market development director for the Minneapolis-based e-commerce provider, said. “Sometimes, they have a customer threatening to leave if they can’t deliver on their unique requirements, or they’re trying to win a new, highly demanding customer on a tight deadline. Either way, they need a technology partner that can deliver on complex requirements, and fast.”
Bryant explained that prospects might have unique approval rules they need automated, like granting five different individuals permission to approve certain aspects of an order before it is submitted. Or, the customer might use a “team budget”-type of payment method that needs to be set up in the system by a regional manager and assigned to the appropriate location, but approved by corporate before the location can place an order.
Although thumbprint uses Four51’s e-commerce ordering platform for the front-end, Four51’s role doesn’t stop there. In fact, the company is very active in the full cycle of thumbprint’s sales and production process.
“Behind the scenes, there is a logistics piece of Four51’s platform that allows us to connect our suppliers and automate the orders going through the back end of our world,” Ellington explained. “So, our customers interact with an e-commerce experience on the front end, which is important to us because automation reduces labor. But on the back end, the process is also automated—orders are processed, sent to production and then out to the client, and then the loop is closed by communicating order tracking and closing out the order.”
When asked what business challenges Four51 helps thumbprint overcome, Ellington talked about providing automation and logistics for the distributor’s space within print, promo and apparel, and was quick to mention the system’s ease of use.
“For sure, the ability to [speedily] create variable products on the site is the most powerful [feature],” he emphasized. “Other people also use a similar architecture like Pageflex as their base, but the way that Four51 has made it easy to apply that and integrate it with other standard creative tools like InDesign, for example, the overall process with Four51 is very simple. Whether people have web technology experience or not, they can come in here and learn how to put those products together and make it very flexible for our client.”
Bryant provided some insight to Four51’s onboarding program, which includes personalized, on-site training, as well as web-based training.
“Customers get access to an e-learning portal, an extensive knowledge base of resources and a case system for interacting with our support team,” she shared. “Customers are really well taken care of.”
Strategize to Optimize
Four51 is known for more than its e-commerce or web-to-print software. The company becomes its customers’ strategic partner, accountable for changing the economics of their businesses. To make this happen, Four51 uses a consultative strategy to uncover customer pain points as early as the courting stage of the relationship.
Bryant said that ongoing distributor feedback is a big part of what drives Four51’s technology road map and decision-making process when it comes to developing updates and upgrades to platforms.
“We’re keenly focused on listening to our customers, constantly working to understand and forecast what they’re going to need next from a feature standpoint, integration capacity and service orientation,” she said. “For many of our customers, keeping up with marketing-savvy, more data-driven customers of their own with aggressive growth accountabilities means keeping up with new technologies and services that can continue to improve the online ordering experience.”
Four51 hears many requests for enhancements and evolution to the customer experience—things like chatbots, personalization, loyalty programs and data-driven analytics.
“Our customers avoid extensive development costs and lengthy timelines because our technologies are API-first, making it really easy to integrate with other applications that specialize in these applications,” Bryant said.
“Four51 has been a great partner for us over the years,” Ellington acknowledged. “They are really doing a better job now than they did originally of communicating with us, the distributors, letting us know [about] the things they are working on in their pipeline. That used to be a weakness for them, and now I believe that it’s one of their strengths. ... They [value] our opinion and ask us, ‘Hey, do you think this will help you? If we do this, how do you see it impacting your business?’
“We’ve taken looks at the competitive landscape with other software platforms, but we found at the end of the day, even if there are one or two features that maybe another platform has, there’s a relationship and a legacy that we’ve built with Four51,” he continued.
“Historically, the main focus across the print industry from a web-to-print standpoint has been the ability to enable digital self-service order entry, or, in other words, the ability to move your order processes online and put your customers in charge of the order,” Bryant observed.
The future looks more exciting, with opportunities far exceeding self-service order entry. According to Bryant, the print and promo distributors who are getting ahead are using technology to solve all kinds of workflow issues that happen both upstream and downstream of the actual print project. To think of the project at hand, and nothing else, would be a mistake, as that is only one portion of a larger workflow.
“What we do is help our customers think beyond just the print and automate the complex, manual processes that get the distributor operating more efficiently,” Bryant said. “Things like connecting and simplifying the supply chain by integrating suppliers, and setting up rules to allow an extensive line of approvals to take place on every order are some common examples. By doing this, we’ve seen our customers increase their revenue per employee, eliminate manual order errors and win big, new customer deals.”
Ellington agreed and encouraged distributors to be open-minded outside of the e-commerce piece when evaluating vendors, because anyone can build a simple storefront, shopping cart and checkout experience.
“To be able to be dynamic and to make sure you’re sticky as a partner to the client requires the ability to be able to help them with their logistical processes, increasing their efficiencies,” he noted. “When you’re looking at these platforms, I wouldn’t just look at the front-facing, or the client-facing, piece; I would also look at the back end and how it integrates with your current processes and systems from an order processing, production and project management [standpoint].”