B2B E-commerce and the Customer Experience with Rupesh Agrawal, CEO of Amla Commerce


The following was transcribed from a recent interview on The Agile Brand with Greg Kihlström podcast. 

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Today we’re going to talk about the current state of B2B ecommerce and what lies ahead for brands. To help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome Rupesh Agrawal, CEO of Amla Commerce, makers of Znode, an enterprise B2B ecommerce platform and Artifi, an ecommerce product customization platform.

[Greg Kihlstrom] We’re here to talk about B2B e-commerce and what brands need to understand not only about its current state, as well as what they need to plan for in the near Future. So from that standpoint and from your perspective running e-commerce platforms, what are some of the challenges that brands face with the more traditional set of B2B e-commerce tools?

There’s so many answers to this, but the main few that I would say, based on my experience, are really around flexibility. You know, the commerce world continues to evolve and change and grow rapidly. I like to call e-commerce as commerce because a much higher percentage of business even in the B2B world is going through online now. And to support those rapid changes and rapid adoption, it’s critical that these platforms offer flexibility and several business models, right? They can’t be just a standard, “Here are several standard B2B features” because those are outdated, right? And a lot of these platforms that are out there, they were written a decade ago, you know, some even 15 years ago. And then they got acquired and so on, and no innovation has happened. And that’s the biggest lack in the marketplace that some of the organizations that want strong B2B b e-commerce toolsets are stuck with the old technologies that are not flexible enough.

Because of these technical challenges, what are brands missing out on? What could they be achieving if not for some of the lack of flexibility?

Yeah, so the biggest thing is reaction, right? So, for example, when COVID hit, right? Brands need a technology stack that is allowing them to react fast to the customer needs, right? You know, I give an example all the time. Now nobody goes to banks and tellers and so on, and drive-thrus, right? You do everything on the phone. It’s one-stop shop. You know, brands need to sort of be able to take their e-commerce technologies and make that same exact thing for their customers, right, to develop that loyalty and so on. So, yeah, the biggest thing is that they’re missing out on reacting fast enough.

Your product, Znode, offers some interesting things to B2B e-commerce. So how does it differ from some of the more traditional platforms that have some of those challenges we just discussed?

Yeah, so again, when I joined Amla Commerce and started Znode, we rewrote the entire platform in 2017, 2018, and continued to evolve it, right? And it’s the next generation platform that provides extraordinary flexibility. And it’s more of an Amazon model, you know, API first, but at the same time, we provide all the toolsets and the accelerators ready to go out of the box for our customers and brands to be able to launch things, react faster, and more of, you know, configure and launch. If it becomes an IT project to do that takes two years, nobody’s interested. So the platform, you know, my vision was always, with Znode, is a platform that is low code, high configuration, and “Here you go, Mr. Customer, you can go turn things on and off right through the console.” And that’s what we are offering.

we’ve been focused on the direct customer of the e-commerce platform. But what about the end customers that are buying through these e-commerce platforms? How does a more flexible approach help those customers have a better experience when they’re purchasing?

You know, that’s a very, very important point. Customers build all these experiences, and brands build all these experiences, but the brands that are successful, the organizations that are extremely successful are the ones that keep their customers in the entire journey at all times. They keep them in mind. So if these organizations develop customer experience based on customer needs, versus their opinions, then they’re successful, right? And a platform like Znode allows them to curate and create those experiences exactly to what their customers might need. And different industries require different experiences. Somebody ordering large millions and millions of dollars of orders every month might require easy bulk ordering capability. Somebody who’s ordering small quantities but very high dollars, and the payment terms are optional and so on, they require different experiences. So the customer personas are key while developing these. And that’s where you can create better customer experiences and create those loyalties.

Flexibility is definitely key to those that are dealing with multiple suppliers, multiple audiences, multiple systems that need to integrate. So one of the things you recently released was dynamic schemas for your platform. And so some of the more technical listeners may immediately see the value of what that could provide, but could you explain a little to the marketers and maybe some of the non-technical listeners what exactly dynamic schemas means and the value that it provides?

Dynamic schemas have been around for a decade or so on the product information side. Because every product is unique and could have its own schema of definition of that product. So an iPhone could have, you know, iPhone size and iPhone model and so on, versus Airpods, you know, they have different ways of defining themselves. And we call them the product attributes or product feeds, in the product merchandising world. So far the platforms have done that well with PIMs now. They’ve evolved to that. But our platform, you can do that dynamic schema around all entities. And again, these are some of the technical jargon, but hopefully it makes sense. 

So, in order to be flexible, it’s critical that we allow flexibility around data models for other entities as well. And that allows us to be always true on the headless aspect, as well as allow customers to easily take updates and consume updates as we release new features, because they’ve not had to modify the database structures for some of these other entities that don’t offer dynamic schemas. So one of the things we did was, in order to support this ease of updates and consuming of updates and allowing customers to still have flexibility, we released this, and it’s one of the strongest features, I would say, for brands to be able to consume.

Can you give an example of how a customer is able to use dynamic schemas, where more traditional solutions may not support?

Absolutely. And I used to be in an agency world and did a lot of these implementations in the past. You know, as soon as the customers go through this journey of new e-commerce platform and their agency partner or their internal teams are doing the discoveries, one of the definitions they have to do is, “Hey, how is our customer data stored in ERP?” And they try to match it or map it to the e-commerce platform’s customer record. And immediately they realize, “Here ERP has these seven more fields, but the e-commerce platform does not offer these fields, so where are we going to store this data?” So what they end up doing is they go to the core database, add these seven fields manually, override the data structure, and now they’ve completely shut themselves off of the easy upgrade. And what happens is, Greg, but at the time they need to get the project done, so there’s no other option, right? So they end up doing that, whereas in Znode, you could go into the Znode admin and say, “I want these seven more fields that are available in ERP,” right in Znode, and we allow you to do that from the admin without touching the database.

What do you see as some of the biggest opportunities on the horizon that B2B e-commerce brands should be keeping in mind?

So the big thing, the biggest opportunity I would see is really understanding the customer buying patterns, how they buy, and giving them those tool sets, right? One good example for me is we have a customer on Znode and they cater to HVAC contractors. And these contractors, they don’t have big platforms and ERP systems and whatnot. They’re small, five-people companies. So they love our customer’s e-commerce portal because they use that as their ERP. Because, as they place orders, every order online, and go pick them up, now they’ve built a history for all the jobs that they did in the last several years. They can look up warranty right there. So that’s just an example. And what our customer has been able to do is create that stickiness with these contractors, because now these contractors are using these tools, not just to place an order but also to manage their own customer base, manage their own things. And this is just an example. So, to me, every B2B business and brand has opportunities like this. They just need to find them and then build their tool sets around that.

it seems like flexibility is kind of the theme of our conversation today. Do you think that really is the future? generally, there’s always going to be large platforms and kind of the monolithic platforms, so to speak, but flexibility and composability seem to be things that keep coming up more and more, at least in my conversations. Do you think that really is the trend?

Yeah, I mean, to me, Greg, I look at all these things as jargons, right? And every company is now claiming that they have all these things. I think what customers need to be able to do is take their use cases and say, “Hey, can I do this or not,” period. There is no other explanation, right? So you’re absolutely right. Flexibility and being able to react faster is the platform you want to be in.

I would also say you’re talking about being adaptive, as a platform and as a company yourselves, to the customer experience. I mean, you mentioned the HVAC contractors. So how are you listening to customers and adapting and responding to them and their needs? And how does that influence your product roadmap?

Yeah, it’s amazing, Greg, how much I have learned with just my digital agency business, and with Xnode now. Every week we meet a new type of prospect and learn about their business model. And it’s amazing to see how these billion-dollar companies do these unique sales of products and how they’re in business and how they’ve grown to that, right? And I love that part of my job because I learn so much. And with that, Greg, I also learn as much as I can as to how their customers are interacting with them. And believe it or not, in the B2B world, it’s unique around. You know, everyone says, “I want a site like Amazon.” Well, that’s not what you need, you know, in the B2B world. You need what your customers want and how they interact with you to do business with you. 

So to me, we try to be close to our customers and prospects. We have this concept of QBRs, quarterly business reviews, with our customers. When I was running an agency, none of the products that we implemented did that. They only came for license renewals at the end of the year, you know. And that’s something we’re very proud of at Amla Commerce. We religiously meet with our customers quarterly, learn how they’re doing, what challenges they’re facing, and we try to learn their customers and try to keep a roadmap aligned with that.

About the Guest

Rupesh Agrawal is a successful business leader with extensive experience in helping organizations develop & execute eCommerce & digital strategies to grow their businesses. I excel at bringing inspirational leadership, developing sales & marketing strategies, & executing on the growth PLAN to take the organization to the next level.

About the Host, Greg Kihlström

Greg Kihlstrom is a best selling author, speaker, and entrepreneur and host ofThe Agile Brand podcast. He has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations oncustomer experience, employee experience, and digital transformation initiatives, both before and after selling his award-winning digital experience agency, Carousel30, in 2017.  Currently, he is Principal and Chief Strategist atGK5A. He has worked with some of the world’s top brands, including AOL, Choice Hotels, Coca-Cola, Dell, FedEx, GEICO, Marriott, MTV, Starbucks, Toyota and VMware. He currently serves on the University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Advisory Board, was the founding Chair of the American Advertising Federation’s National Innovation Committee, and served on the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Marketing Mentorship Advisory Board.  Greg is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified, and holds a certification in Business Agility from ICP-BAF.


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