Constantly deliver on your brand promise. Your customers are watching your every move, from your social media, to your PR and media interactions, to your customer support experience, to how you treat your employees — especially in today’s climate.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful eCommerce Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Price.
The son of an electrical engineer and a schoolteacher, Kevin Price is Senior Manager, Marketing, for Canon U.S.A., Inc.’s laser printer business. In his current role, Price oversees marketing execution through several channels of distribution, both B2B and B2C, but with a heightened focus on eCommerce, where he is additionally responsible for driving results for the Company’s document scanner and large format printer lines. He enjoys leading teams, attacking new business opportunities and seeking to influence positive cultural change. Price is an avid traveler who is looking forward to jet setting with his wife, Christina, so that they can make up for lost time discovering what the world has to offer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Like many people, during undergrad, I was initially torn between career fields — in my case, pursuing either journalism or business. While sadly not much of an athlete, I’m fanatical about sports and would read every such article I could get my hands on growing up.
But I also spent probably as much time going through all the box scores and developed a fascination for numbers as well. And then, through sports radio and other forums, I started to find myself interested in the business aspect of sports almost as much as the games themselves.
With the rise of the internet, it became clear that journalism was going to be significantly disrupted. Plus (and Jerome, you’ll probably disagree, ha!) I was concerned journalism might be a bit repetitive for my blood, constantly trying to rush out content with making deadline a top goal. Whereas business drew me in with its mix of parallels to sports — it fuels my competitive fire, it’s a team game, it requires a mix of skills to win … although, of course, the deadlines are still there!
Once I pursued my MBA, I knew I made the right choice. Being surrounded by smart people with diverse backgrounds in an environment where you’re constantly challenging one another — that’s how teams (and organizations) win.
What has made your company thrive for so long?
For a company to thrive for as long as Canon has, I do think there are some key takeaways for younger businesses, those in a growth stage in particular. Canon started as a camera company and has a history of patent leadership, but I believe the key to its success is its ingenuity in taking core competencies in fine optics and imaging and extending those outside of the camera / B2C market to develop massive B2B and industrial businesses. Canon is constantly pursuing new markets, more recently in areas like medical imaging and security, and this business diversification provides critical financial health during turbulent times. Of course, from a channel perspective, the decision to invest in eCommerce has resulted in a key growth segment.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
So I wrapped up grad school in 2008, meaning I was looking to re-enter the market in the midst of the Great Recession. I think this will resonate with folks who are in an even tougher position now trying to find the right fit in the midst of a global Pandemic/Recession.
Coming out of grad school, initially you may think you’re going to waltz into whatever position you want, but life smacks you upside the head and typically isn’t that easy. I submitted well over a hundred resumes, and before coming in to Canon, went through four or five company interviews over the course of probably four or five months through the ebbs and flows of a corporate hiring freeze. While I was prospecting, I threw myself into exercise and fitness to keep my mental health and drive.
Then when I joined Canon U.S.A., I was asked to memorize all of my group’s product specifications. I spent countless hours doing this and was frankly pretty bored by it. I’m the person who in school embraced problem-solving, and hated memorization tasks. Worse yet, I became known as the “Spec Guy” with my sales team. I’m a marketer at heart, and that was NOT the professional brand I was going for. So I made it a point to demonstrate my value in (more important) areas at every opportunity, to expand my role and shed that label which I found undesirable.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Well, as the Company’s business has evolved, I think I’ve been able to help influence its direction and to some degree shape my role by taking a greater internal role in eCommerce. Canon is a large, somewhat traditional, company, and our B2B business has a very long heritage, and strong future, that is much owed to our business partners, including our authorized dealers and resellers.
At the same time, the market changes (of course accelerated and influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic) we are seeing are real, customer behavior is changing, organizations will be faced with a new normal and so it’s time for us to adapt, which we have been doing. My least favorite phrase is “that’s the way it’s always been done.”
I think resilience is in large part consistency of vision, naturally adapting it as you learn — seeking evidence not just to influence others but to keep yourself honest — but ultimately standing up for what you believe is right even in the face of adversity.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I was fairly sheltered growing up — I never left the Eastern Time zone until I was in my mid-20s. But that changed in a hurry. Shortly after joining Canon, I flew out to CES on one of my first business trips. I was only a few months in, and definitely a rookie. And so I grew rather terrified when I was told to be prepared to speak to a journalist who “has frequently interviewed [one of the most well-known titans of tech].” It didn’t help that I was still learning the product.
I begged my then-manager to join for the interview — he looked at his watch and said (with a straight face), “Sorry, I have an important meeting with Mr. Saké.” I’m sure I looked like a deer in headlights.
The interview never materialized (as is often the case with CES, plans changed), and I think it was only then (when I could relax) that I burst out laughing at not only a very funny joke, but an important teaching lesson. I learned in that moment that I was wound way too tight.
No college or university can perfectly prepare you for the workplace, and I see a lot of young people come in intimated and afraid to speak up. I try and seek those people out now when I can, but my advice includes: “Have confidence! Speak up! Challenge others! Be wrong! Learn! Spark change! Life is too short to let fear dictate.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Canon definitely stands out for the diversity of businesses it is in. Of course most people know Canon as a camera company, and businesses know Canon as a copier company, but Canon competes in consumer segments, corporate segments, industrial markets …Canon offers medical imaging products and surveillance services, and even launches satellites.
The best demonstration of this is at the quinquennial Canon EXPO event. Canon’s R&D arm is massive and inspiring. In the past, the EXPO has showcased many products that Canon had developed, but not yet launched, for all sorts of markets, including 3D printing, web conferencing, virtual and mixed reality, high-end displays and more.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Let me give two here.
One of my earliest Ah ha’s was Embrace Change.
Although society would label me an Older Millennial, I distinctly remember before computers started to become mainstream, and later the introduction of the internet. It always struck me how so many people in then-older generations were entirely resistant to, and disinterested in, learning and incorporating new technology. My generation, and those that follow, have learned to adapt to change. Every generation can benefit from learning from those that follow it as much as those that precede it. If you don’t learn something from everyone around you, you’re missing out. The good news is, it’s never too late to embrace change.
My second piece of advice is Know Who You Are and Nurture Yourself.
My father used to say “you need to figure out if you want to be a specialist or a generalist.” My parents were both specialists, but I chose the latter, so I try and take the approach of identifying my greatest weakness at a given time and pushing myself to improve on it. As a generalist, I think focusing on weaknesses can make you a better leader, so you can adapt to any scenario, coach any kind of talent, and pivot when the situation calls for it. Likewise, if you’re a specialist, you need to constantly nurture your strength and never rest on your laurels.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Our retail partners have quickly adapted — for example, pushing BOPIS (buy online, pickup in-store) via curbside delivery, which offers customer convenience to many while also serving as a method to reduce retailers’ shipping costs, and forming, or expanding, relationships with delivery app companies for local market delivery. But I think the biggest impact from the pandemic is that essentially “every” business is an eCommerce business now. For example, there’s a good chance your favorite local restaurant started online ordering and/or delivery this year. Some of our traditional independent copier dealer partners are newly focusing on Print-as-a-Service offerings, with an increase in online customer acquisition, and remote service and logistics to support customer IT needs related to employees working from home.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
What is your brand doing that your customers really love? Whatever that is, perfect it!
For certain, it can feel like the cards are stacked against both established, traditional retailers as well as more recent upstarts who are trying to break through in a crowded marketplace. DTC companies based in China have strengthened their marketing muscle and their higher margins fuel their ability to reach more consumers than brands operating more thinly.
It can be tempting to focus on strategies to compete on price, and, for certain, companies need to consider more critically than ever that all of their investments from personnel to infrastructure are sufficiently worthwhile in their contribution to the value chain, and make cuts where that threshold is not met. I think, however, the key is focusing on customer experience (at every touchpoint) and ensuring you are delivering a brand that customers love — these interactions deliver dopamine releases that keep customers coming back. That’s worth more than their weight in gold.
Established and up-start brands need to be honest with themselves about the customer-facing elements of their business, understand deeply what keeps their base coming back, and focus on delivering experiences, products and services that motivate these ambassadors to share with their friends and family. In a crowded marketplace, recommendations from people we know and trust can really stand out, and of course, social media can amplify compelling brands very quickly and cost-effectively.
Established retailers need to re-imagine differentiation through their fixed assets or find creative ways to sell them off, and speed in doing so is absolutely critical. Up-start brands have the luxury of doing it right from scratch, and speed-to-market especially in new categories is critical, but these companies should ensure their end-to-end experience is perfected (and scalable) and that there is a plan to acquire repeat business before going big. Where possible, a focus on services — using local geographic factors to advantage — to create inimitable elements to your business can also be advisable.
Finally, consider zigging when the market zags — for some companies, it may make sense to explore new global market opportunities — especially in booming economies — where luxury or premium products are desired by consumers.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Two things come to mind.
Your company needs to have an exceptionally strong “reason for being.” “This looks like a big growing industry, I want a piece of it,” doesn’t meet that definition. There are a lot of businesses out there that deliver online marketplace brand protection services, and it can be quite difficult to tell most of them apart. That might be okay in the short term, but as we saw in the .com bubble, history tells us that typically only the strong — and differentiated — will survive.
The other, perhaps more focused on brands that sell products online … don’t try to grow too fast. Don’t sell “too many” products until you get really good at selling a few. Focus on defining your audience, carving your niche, knowing your costs, ensuring inventory fulfillment. You see it on a popular, business-oriented TV Show all the time — if you can’t deliver the experience your customers expect from you, you won’t make it.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Marketers today spend a lot of time and money on selling (customer acquisition, site experience, digital content, checkout process, cross- and up-sell techniques)…but what’s often lost is how the brand can easily win or lose based on the quality of the actual products themselves. Winning brands learn from their customers to manage their product roadmap — offering long-term supply of the cash cow products customers love while taking critical feedback to develop star products that drive sustained and accelerated growth.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
Social listening tools remain highly valuable, to help keep brands aware and honest about what their customers think of them and their competition, and to better inform “where” their customers are having conversations, to help shape their marketing strategy. Heat-mapping tools are also critical to help fully understand their customers’ site journeys to and ensure brands are delivering the right blend of engagement, education and conversion.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Beyond obvious factors like price, promotion, availability and free and fast delivery, key is simplifying the buying decision for your customers. There are countless ways to achieve this. Studies have shown that when you shop in a supermarket, fewer choices can actually result in greater conversions, as our minds can only process a limited number of decisions daily. Of course, many online retailers offer expansive selection, but simple tags like “#1 best-selling” or a site’s “Recommended” badge can help to quickly focus a customer’s energy, and in many cases, accelerate the customer journey / check-out process. Of course, eCommerce staples like “Customers also viewed / Customers also bought” apply here as well, to a degree.
Another method is offering products in multiple quantities. Consumption-oriented products may have heavy, medium and light buyers, as well as customers who are coming in with a price expectation or budget in mind. More such options on popular (not all!) products with the appropriate level of simple education to inform the shopper on which is right for them, can help convert more shoppers who might otherwise leave and seek out a competitor.
For more expensive purchases, educational buying guides can help increase conversion. It’s likely these items are things customers may only buy a handful of times in their lifetime, so helping to educate “how” to make a decision can be as important as explaining the features of the products themselves.
Lastly, subscriptions! The highest-converting items are the ones that place orders with little or no customer interaction whatsoever. Developing a subscription infrastructure can certainly be an investment, and needs to be backed by a strong business plan (ideally including testing and validating in advance that customers want to subscribe to your product), but the more you can automate the process, the lower your acquisition costs, the faster your inventory turns, the more predictable your revenue streams.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
The key here is to place as much, or, in my opinion, more of a premium on the post-purchase experience than on the pre-purchase experience.
First off, nail delivery. Meet or beat your shipping expectations (perhaps easier said than done during the Pandemic), ensure product packaging protects product in transit and when inevitably something does go wrong, make it up to your customers by going above and beyond the norm. Where possible, deliver unexpected surprises — one of the things my wife loves about shopping on one of her favorite sites is that periodically a seller will toss in a freebie or send her a personalized note. Even small knick-knacks can go a long way in this regard. And well-placed free samples can introduce customers to new products that may keep them coming back for more.
Also, find a way to engage with your customers post-purchase. Early-stage companies especially should make an effort to reach customers personally to gain product feedback, and not just through automated, impersonal survey tools. This can be difficult to scale over time, but even reaching one of every 1,000 customers through personal touch can help maintain brand authenticity, and deliver an element of surprise, while acquiring invaluable insights to help ensure you are continually delivering on your brand promise.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
Without your customers, you don’t have a business. The key here is empathy. Learn from your customers. Thank them. Explain what your product was meant to accomplish and who it is best designed for. If you offer another product that best addresses the concern, use the opportunity to educate. If their feedback will improve your future product, share your plans. Then follow up — if possible, invite them to be among the first to try your re-designed product at your cost (if possible, as a beta to help make sure you got it right before rolling out broadly).
Responding to unfair reviews can certainly be more difficult. You need to find the right balance between standing up for what is right and not apologizing unnecessarily, while at the same time being careful not to criticize the reviewer. It does depend on what was said, and what your company does. In some cases, it could be as simple as clarifying misunderstood information. In other cases, especially if your customers are already marking the review as “unhelpful,” it may not be beneficial to respond. If a customer is irate, it may be best to encourage the customer to reach out to you so you can better understand their point of view (but you should treat that conversation as if it will go public). Finally, if the review is unfairly attacking things like your company’s integrity, spreading incorrect information or the like, you may need to respond forcefully, and this is where it’s particularly beneficial to have a loyal customer following, as they may jump to your defense.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful eCommerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Focus on gaining customer reviews immediately (before launch ideally). Products don’t take off and you will struggle to rank organically until they start to hit. I have seen launches fail or success delayed 3–6 months when logistics take too long, especially when reviews on new products aren’t acquired before key buying seasons. Meanwhile, your product’s market window is closing.
- Develop “attach” strategies to increase basket and familiarize customers with more of your offering. Through our direct website and our partner sites we have worked to offer fulfillment ease and often savings when an initial toner cartridge is purchased up-front with one of our printers.
- Coming from a brand standpoint, have a healthy channel diversification strategy. Don’t put all of your eggs with one retailer, no matter how large they are. In past years, we’ve been able to achieve sustained growth in a declining category by partnering with many key customers while also increasing our direct business. Seek to deliver a consistency of brand experience, but partner with retailers to offer unique value that is core to what they do best.
- Test, test, test — whether it’s CX, audience, content, or advertising strategy, winning at eCommerce today means continual refinement. If you’re like us, you’re probably getting better at designing user experiences, delivering compelling and useful content, developing niche advertising strategies — but data delivers unexpected surprises all the time. You need to test and refine everything you do, and if you do this, you’ll know when it’s time to start cooking with gas.
- Constantly deliver on your brand promise. Your customers are watching your every move, from your social media, to your PR and media interactions, to your customer support experience, to how you treat your employees — especially in today’s climate.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It’s not a revolutionary answer, but … speak with people you don’t agree with.
Technology and social media have unquestionably created digital echo chambers whereby most of us “see what we want to see,” “hear what we want to hear” and “talk to those we want to talk to.” Algorithms primarily optimize towards engagement, and engagement is generally maximized when it delivers “positive reinforcement” (of what we want to see and hear). As a result, technology and media have created a vicious cycle that has increased polarization. And so in this sense, I believe our digital reward systems are inherently flawed, at least in terms of their contribution to society.
Whereas tech and media have created — or perhaps worsened — a problem — I think there is an opportunity for the industry to offer solutions. Namely, how can we re-design reward systems to better incentivize collaboration and compromise rather than create a dichotomy, with the goal of finding common sense answers to important questions that represent the interests of, and improve life for, the whole of our society? How can we achieve better social outcomes while still delivering upon business interests? How can we, as business and marketing leaders, promote the benefits of this approach to encourage consumers to participate in it?
Naturally, consumer psychology is a complex science, and maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but I still believe there is more that unites us than divides us, and that technology can be a bridge to bring us closer again.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!