Q&A: Keep things simple for customers, even when you’re using the newest ecommerce systems, says Bob Howland, chief digital officer of Dawn Foods.


Bob Howland, chief digital officer, Dawn Foods

Bob Howland, chief digital officer at bakery ingredients manufacturer Dawn Foods, explains the critical importance of focusing on customer needs as B2B companies deploy the latest ecommerce technology.

Howland is a speaker for the June 21 “Why We Chose Headless” session at the EnvisionB2B 2023 Conference & Exhibition in Chicago.

Launching an ecommerce platform from scratch touched every part of the company. We launched on time, on budget, and on strategy.

DC 360: What is driving B2B companies like Dawn Foods to expand online?

Howland: Two things. First — the customer. Our customers are already online and routinely order supplies from Amazon, Walmart, Costco, and more to help run their businesses. They have been asking for online ordering from us for years, and we are the first bakery ingredient manufacturer and distributor to launch an ecommerce platform. Second — our competition. We feel that building an online product catalog enables our customers to see the full scope of products available to them. We are now moving from online ordering toward full end-to-end digital experiences. All of these new tools and services give us a clear competitive advantage.

DC 360: What are your biggest internal and/or external barriers?

Howland: At the highest level, this is a digital transformation project across all of our main functions. The lift to get the organization’s business processes documented and our systems readied so that we could build the ecommerce platform was Herculean. We are now focused on breaking down silos and helping key functions build their ecommerce muscle so that we can collectively operate as an ecommerce business. It’s a tall order, yet the benefits of automated business processes, building modern infrastructure, and creating remarkable customer experiences are clear.


DC 360: What are the chief gains you’re realizing?

Howland: This may be a less traditional answer, but a clear gain is organizational pride. Launching an ecommerce platform from scratch touched every part of the company. We launched on time, on budget, and on strategy. This achievement drove a huge sense of accomplishment and a renewed sense that, together, we can move mountains. Of course, you are looking for business and financial gains. We have seen gains in customer retention, increased basket size, and overall engagement. All measured through our robust Voice of the Customer program.

DC 360: What is the most valuable piece of advice you have on how to launch online B2B sales or increase them?

Howland: Two things. First, it’s critical to really understand the customer perspective. We launched a beta platform in two markets to get direct customer input, which was invaluable. And we ran the beta for close to a year so that we had a real-time pipeline for customer feedback as we created the user stories which served as the backbone for the build.

Second, it’s important to realize that launching online B2B sales for the first time is a huge transformation exercise. This requires executive alignment and a company-wide effort. I’d suggest an organization hires someone that has done this before and can articulate a plan across people, processes, and potential technologies to own the initiative in partnership with the broader change-management work.

DC 360: Looking back over the past few years, is there anything you wish you had done differently in ecommerce?

Howland: We are a 100-plus-year-old company. I’m proud of the business for how well we’ve adopted ecommerce and appreciative for all of the top-down support. While we launched our first ecommerce platform in 2020, we are very much still in the early stages of our digital journey. Much of my time is still focused on the massive change-management effort. The pace of change is slower than I’d like yet some of this simply needs to happen organically.


DC 360: What excites you the most in new digital commerce technology?

Howland: Where do I start! This is an exciting time to be in digital and technology in general. The shift away from monoliths to a more modern, composable architecture really liberates ecommerce leaders and allows us to create ecommerce platforms which we can control, and which can really be nimble in responding to customer and market dynamics. We’ve been early advocates for MACH (for Microservices-based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS, and Headless), and have been involved with the MACH Alliance from its inception to be an agent of change across the board.

DC 360: Going forward, what do you see as the most significant commerce challenges and opportunities?

Howland: There has never been a better time to be a digital leader. The opportunities ahead are virtually limitless. The caution in all of this is to constantly sift through the noise and shiny objects to ensure that you have both the simplest solution possible and maintain a laser focus on customer utility. Ultimately our customers come to our sites with a job they need to do. This is especially true within the context of B2B organizations. Most sites ignore this fundamental dynamic and overwhelm the customer. Respect the customer — each individual customer — and work hard to keep things simple.

Jim Daly is a DC360 contributing editor covering digital business technology and strategy.

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