As it migrates more of its business to self-service ecommerce from EDI, email and phone orders, distributor Royal Brass & Hose is following a roadmap for a new digital ecosystem.

The first website feature ecommerce manager Misti White wanted to immediately fix was site search—and from there, her employer, industrial distributor Royal Brass & Hose, would hit several other online features on its way to better serving customers.

Our customers really like our personal service from our sales reps, but the website was the missing part.
MistiWhite-RoyalBrassHose

Misti White, ecommerce manager, Royal Brass & Hose. Photos by Casey White

“Our search engine was our No. 1 problem,” White said in a recent interview about her company’s roadmap to a new digital commerce ecosystem. The legacy search function, she said, “was too simplistic” and incapable of providing site visitors with the many specifications Royal wanted to show for the more than 90,000 parts it offers from hundreds of its main suppliers.

On the new RoyalBrassandHose.com that Knoxville, Tennessee-based Royal is launching in a pilot project, a much-improved site search, built into the distributor’s new ecommerce platform, is now a critical part of how the distributor is upgrading the way it serves its customers. When original equipment manufacturers come to it for the exact type and size of an industrial hose or accessory for equipment they’re manufacturing, for example, they’re more likely to quickly find what they need to get their job done.

‘This is not retail’ – but a roadmap for B2B

“This is not retail; customers are not ordering just one part—they’re ordering multiple variations of products, and we made ordering for our customers pretty seamless,” White says.

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But identifying site search and deploying it as a crucial component of satisfying customers was just one of the many steps Royal took as it set out a roadmap for designing and building the kind of ecosystem it needed to satisfy customers. The right strategy would also help to migrate customers toward broader use of self-service digital commerce and less reliance on traditional channels of EDI, telephone and in-person orders.

The process Royal followed touched on the many steps B2B companies take to ensure they’re putting together the best mix of technology—ranging from the ecommerce transaction engine and customer-facing content to sales tax collection and marketing automation software—that works well together and provides the interactivity with customers that builds long-term relationships and flowing streams of revenue and profits.

Planning the way forward with customers

An initial entryway into this process is often getting input both from customers and a company’s own employees and department heads, identifying the expectations of each group, the gaps in service and technology, and the areas where improvements can be made. In Royal’s case, it worked with its systems integrator, Ntara, to survey its internal and external stakeholders and identify the route it needed to take.

“Our customers really like our personal service from our sales reps, but the website was the missing part,” White says. “When we surveyed them, this is what was missing for our customers.”

And when Royal decided to relaunch its pilot site on a new ecommerce technology platform, “we built it in the way we do customer service—we built the site for customers based on what they asked for,” White says.

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That meant making it easier and faster for customers to find the particular products they needed, along with related items they also may want to consider purchasing. The all-important deployment of a new site search tool, however, was not an isolated project.

New platform and plug-ins

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Drew MacDonald, CEO, Royal Brass Hose

Working with Ntara, which works primarily with Microsoft .Net technology for digital applications, Royal decided to replace its legacy ecommerce platform with the .Net-based Virto Commerce technology platform. The .Net infrastructure alone was attractive, says Drew MacDonald, CEO of Royal Brass and Hose, whose father, John MacDonald, founded Royal in 1949. “The Microsoft ecosystem is huge; with .Net you get a lot of additional plug-ins that might not be available” in other digital technology systems, he adds.

One of the compatible plug-ins Royal had its eye on was Elasticsearch, which it had identified as a site search application that would provide the level of search functionality Royal’s customers need to find the right products by various specifications. “Virto has Elasticsearch built in,” says Robin Smithson, Royal’s marketing manager. “We’re happy with the new site search application.”

To make its new site search and navigation system operate at top performance, however, Royal is continuing to tweak it to produce useful results for customers, MacDonald says. On Ntara’s advice, Royal also opted to host its data center on Microsoft Azure cloud technology, which includes built-in site search technology that provides for faster data transfer between technology applications, he adds.

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Royal also needed to upgrade its ability to manage product data and display web content. The Virto platform is designed with a large number of application programming interfaces, or APIs, for integrating numerous applications and comes with an effective content management system, Smithson says. “It gives us the functionality we need to run our website,” he says. “But we also need a good PIM.”

Managing complex product data

RobinSmithson-RoyalBrassHose

Robin Smithson, marketing manager, Royal Brass & Hose

Enter its new PIM, or product information management system, from inRiver Inc. The PIM system gives Royal the ability to manage information on products, along with their many variables, and ensure that product data is accurate, up-to-date and consistent across marketing and sales channels. For an industrial hose, for example, the PIM system enables Royal’s website to link it to all compatible items including spring guards, hose fittings and crimpers, which are accessories used in protecting, connecting and shaping hoses. Royal’s client manufacturers install such items as part of large equipment and machinery. Royal plans to have its PIM system manage consistent data for all product suppliers. It also plans to begin pushing its product information out to third-party online marketplaces.

In the past, problems with maintaining product data resulted in a poor customer experience. Royal’s customers and sales reps would use both printed product catalogs and its website to view product information, but with inconsistent data. “There were discrepancies with the product data; it was not consistent at all,” White says, adding: “It’s critical to have a PIM to push product to our sales channels and customer service reps.”

“Now all product data is consistent with a single point of proof inside the PIM,” MacDonald says.

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Helping customers manage orders and shipments

Royal’s new ecommerce platform also supports additional applications the distributor has identified as important to how it interacts with customers, he adds.

The new website platform is designed in several ways to promote self-service activities, such as letting customers log on at any time to track order status and check order and payment history. “Customers can see order status regardless of whether they ordered by fax, phone, online or in-person,” White says.

One of the biggest things for customers, she adds, is their ability to see how much they can add to their online shopping cart, which can be open for weeks at a time without losing carted products, to reach their freight limit under terms of their prepaid freight contracts.

Royal is also deploying OrderTrakker, a mobile app from Longwell Technologies, which Royal’s customers and its sales reps can use to enter product information to place and manage orders, then receive emailed notifications of order status and confirmation.

To better manage sales tax duties in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wayfair ruling, which extended more power to states to require online merchants to collect and remit sales tax, Royal is integrating into the Virto Commerce platform sales tax processing software from Avalara.

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Royal is also deploying technology from BlueFinity to support a “rapid development environment” to build out more mobile tools to more easily access product and customer data from back-end ERP applications in Royal’s MasterPack enterprise resource planning system.

Catering to EDI customers, too 

With many of its customers still transmitting order documents via electronic data interchange, Royal is using Conexiom software for converting purchase orders and related documents compatible with Royal’s EDI system for customers who want to transit orders that way. “Any customer can generate any document through Conexiom,” MacDonald says.

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A hose-crimping machine at Royal Brass & Hose

Other things Royal is planning to better connect with customers are chatbot customer service software and marketing automation tools, which will automatically trigger email or other marketing messages to customers based on their website browsing activity and contract status.

The flexibility and scalability of the new digital technology platform, MacDonald adds, is crucial to meeting future needs as they arise. “It’s the new way ecommerce sites need to be engineered now,” he says. “Virto is more flexible to make changes; you don’t have to break the version of Virto we’re running, or change the source code, to add new functions.”

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“Over time, nearly the entire customer service experience will be done via Virto Commerce,” White says.

More applications to come

Meantime, there are more application integrations to come for mapping out Royal’s ecosystem. In the first quarter of 2020, for instance, the distributor expects to roll out a web portal from Billtrust that will let customers access and manage Royal’s invoices “any way they want,” MacDonald says.

MacDonald notes that Royal, which does about $70 million in annual revenue, expects to spend more than $1 million for its overall digital platform for serving customers. He perceives a return on investment within two to three years.

Royal faces competitors ranging from “smaller distributors like us,” he says, to larger distributors for such major manufacturers in its industry as Parker Hannifin Corp. and Eaton Corp.

But MacDonald figures his digital ecosystem is putting Royal in a strong competitive position, regardless of the competitors. “When we’re done, we’ll rival anything,” he says.

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This article is one of several news features about companies involved in digital strategies compiled in the report, “Roadmap for Disruptive Innovation in B2B.”

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