Introduction (00:05): Welcome to Achieving Frictionless Commerce, a podcast series brought to you by Vertex, where tax and IT experts discuss how you can create a frictionless buying experience that will better support your customers and drive future growth for your organization—as well as the surprising way that tax plays a part.
Jeremiah Owyang (00:28): Developing a smooth buying experience is a necessity for today's businesses—it's no longer an option. For IT leaders that are challenged with making this happen, the good news is that there is help out there. Welcome to Achieving Frictionless Commerce! My name is Jeremiah Owyang, a tech analyst and entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley, and your MC. Join me and my guests, experts from Vertex, a leading global provider of indirect tax software and solutions, in our six-part podcast series.
Jeremiah Owyang (01:00): Together, we will discuss what the term frictionless commerce means right now, what you can do to minimize any barriers in your customer journey, and the best steps to take that will lead to long-term organizational growth. We will also take a deeper dive into the somewhat surprising ways that tax plays a major role in reducing friction and give you a few powerful examples of at least one retailer who used tax software to do just that.
Jeremiah Owyang (01:28): Today, I'm joined by Robin Allen, Senior Director of Agile Program Management and Digital Transformation & Change Management at Vertex. Robin is with us today to help educate IT experts on how to do a health check of their current [IT] ecosystem to determine their organization's level of friction. Welcome, Robin.
Robin Allen (01:48): Thank you, Jeremiah. It's lovely to be here.
Jeremiah Owyang (01:49): Maybe, you could tell us a little bit about your background and your role at Vertex.
Robin Allen (01:54): As you mentioned, I'm a senior director focusing on agile and digital transformations. My interest in joining Vertex was very much steeped in this opportunity to help evolve and change an organization. I work to enable the business in connecting to the use of technology. I also try to connect this idea of what agility means, both from a business and a technical perspective. Agile, agility are all terms that IT organizations are beginning to hear more. If we didn't hear it before a few years ago, we're definitely beginning to hear it now.
Robin Allen (02:27): And the thing that also that's a part of this, of course—as we go through these transformations—is the change part, the change management part. Connecting people with processes and tools, and those things are probably what I'm most passionate about. Just connecting those dots and bringing it forward for the organization.
Robin Allen (02:46): And then, prior to Vertex, I was actually a Chief Information Officer. So, from an IT perspective, I came up through IT organizations and being challenged with this journey as the world has evolved. So, I have an interesting background to connect as far as my transformational activities that I do today, and then connecting it with my experience working in IT through the years.
Jeremiah Owyang (03:10): I also noted that you have a very well-rounded background with an MBA and degrees focus on emotional intelligence, and you're volunteering on boards. I get the sense you understand people in organizations, which I think really applies to your role that we're going to talk about today.
Robin Allen (03:24): Hugely important. I appreciate you bringing that up Jeremiah because I think from an IT perspective, this idea of “We're transactional, and we get the work, and we install the software, and then we go off”, is that journey that we've all been on. And that conversation—that we've all heard in some way, shape, or form—about what we have to be for our businesses moving forward…and that people are a very big, important part of anything that we do. We can't just hand people technology anymore, it has to be more than that.
Jeremiah Owyang (03:51): Well said, well said. Well, today we want to talk about kind of an uncomfortable topic, but friction. How can an organization determine friction? And boy, in the last two years during the quarantine and pandemic have we felt it.
Robin Allen (04:02): Agreed. We're going to focus on this idea of audit. This idea of a third-party leaning in. There are other types of third parties, but we'll be focusing the series on audits. But also, just thinking about your partners and vendors that you can actually work with to kind of assist and just making sure we're following best practices. Sometimes we feel like we have to recreate the wheel and we really don't (in most cases). But again, we're going to focus a little bit on that idea of an audit, and we'll dig a little bit deeper…but that's a very good approach to assessing the end-to-end when you're thinking about frictionless and what that experience looks like.
Jeremiah Owyang (04:39): It makes sense. It's really hard to self-analyze when you're too deep in the trenches. Bringing in a fresh set of eyes is always a good idea. On that note, what type of audits should IT participate in?
Robin Allen (04:58): Well, I'm going to assert that you should participate in all of them because generally what happens—depending on the org and depending on the degree of technology—there's going to be some involvement from IT. I think most times organizations are absolutely doing some sort of a financial audit, but there's all different types of audits. So, IT should be at the table and should be an active partner in that journey. When you think about access, when you think about data, IT plays a role or technology plays a role by definition and [therefore] IT needs to be there.
Jeremiah Owyang (05:25): When it comes to these audits, whom should participate?
Robin Allen (05:28): The business, of course. I use the example of finance. So, finance (as the business) should be at the table, and then of course IT, and then key leaders. There's always an outcome which we'll dig into a little bit more later—as far as what happens next—but it's a partnership. I'm doing a process to make something better, to automate something better. It's a partnership. Also, keep in mind, Jeremiah, that will depend on the size of the organization.
Jeremiah Owyang (05:53): Right.
Robin Allen (05:54): A thousand-person company—and how the business is set up and how IT is set up—is very different from a 10,000-person company.
Jeremiah Owyang (06:04): Which line of businesses do you think are usually best to bring to that audit?
Robin Allen (06:28): Finance, definitely. And again, it will depend, so [with] a SOC audit or even a SOX audit, finance is generally at the table [and] IT. Other areas would be like on a SOC audit. [For example] Vertex is a company that provides software to our customers. Our engineering team, our operational team, if you think of production support or operations because what happens is generally the roles people play will kind of depend on who comes to the table or who participates. But those are some of the groups and IT is a general umbrella.
Jeremiah Owyang (06:42): Got you. I've actually participated in some audits when it comes to digital transformation. So, it's been an interesting process to see, but I've got to tell you, sometimes leaders and even the business units get a little frightened of that word. Do you have any advice on how to really win them over in this type of project?
Robin Allen (07:01): One, the audit itself…it's a choice. We could decide not to want to be SOC 2 Type 2. So, the business is making a decision, and sometimes it's required (a regulatory thing). A public company has to do X, Y, and Z versus a private company. But remember you're paying the auditor for a service. You're asking them to engage, to tell you something, so maybe they're telling you things that you may not want to hear, but I think as leaders we need to know what those things are. We need to know if there's exposures; we need to know if we have data that is exposed to the internet somehow, and guess what? Our customers would not be happy to find out.
Jeremiah Owyang (07:42): Oh, no.
Robin Allen (07:43): And we have to report when those things happen, and there's branding that comes along with a knock. I can remember my own experience where I was in Target and the cards were compromised and they had to tell the world that had happened, and that's a common thing these days. So, I think it's just leaning in accepting that it's a good thing. Like I say, "Audits are good. It tells me what I don't know sometimes." Leaders should want to embrace it.
Jeremiah Owyang (08:09): Very good advice. For those that are planning audits, how much time should they plan for this?
Robin Allen (08:15): With any vendor, they're going to come with a framework or their approach to it. Most times, they're very standard. Typically, it's three months or so. Factors that may come into time that take longer would be availability of resources, response from either IT or the business, lack of documentation. Many times, we inherit things, and everything is new. Finding out why we did things the way we did it is not always the easiest thing five years ago, ten years ago. But typically, three months is a good kind of bookend of when you should get started, and then when it should be done. My definition would be, done—meaning, you have something to review, and they've given you something to say, "Okay, this is what we found” —and then, you go from there. Not done, meaning everything…but, just to say, “We've assessed”.
Jeremiah Owyang (09:05): Yeah. It sounds like that's just the start because there's always things to improve on.
Robin Allen (09:09): Always, always.
Jeremiah Owyang (09:11): Speaking of that on what could be improved, maybe we could talk about specifically what we should be analyzing from the IT perspective.
Robin Allen (09:18): Anything that we're buying or building or creating, IT professionals should have in the back of our mind, those “ilities”—reliability, scalability, elasticity, efficiency, performance. There's certain things that—as we're providing services to our customer, whether it's externally facing or internally facing that—we should be thinking about. Ease of use, performance…when I talk about these things, I always bring it back to my own experiences. If I go to a webpage and I go to do something and the webpage doesn't load within whatever certain period of time in my mind works, I tap out and I move on, and I go to another website. So, we have to think in terms of what happens from a user's experience, right? And, those “ilities” help us to create boundaries and guidelines to what that looks like. And if I want a frictionless experience, I'm going to be honest…if I can't pay for it, when I go to the shopping cart as an example, guess what? I'm out.
Jeremiah Owyang (10:23): That's right. Tap out, like you said, I haven't heard that used in that way, but that's exactly right.
Robin Allen (10:27): You kind of do, right? Again, always go back to your own experiences.
Jeremiah Owyang (10:31): How many minutes is a customer going to wait? None, it's seconds.
Robin Allen (10:35): It's seconds at this point. Yeah.
Jeremiah Owyang (10:37): It's seconds. Robin, what KPIs and metrics should we be looking at to determine friction?
Robin Allen (10:42): So, Jeremiah, things like cart abandonment rate. If customers are putting a bunch of things into their cart and they're essentially leaving that cart with the items in it, you should be looking at that. Number of returns, in the sense of "I've decided to purchase something and I'm returning it." Tax calculation errors. As a customer, I'm buying something and you're charging me tax, that tax better be correct. And you need to understand if there's any errors, and also the longer-term effect of what errors do. Collecting tax better be right.
Robin Allen (11:14): And then just performance. Jokingly, we said before this idea of going to a website and tapping out. To make something frictionless it's not just about the commerce part of it, but it's also performance, ease of use, my experience. All of those things go into making sure that I want to be engaged as a customer. And as an organization you should be monitoring how performant or not performant something is. And, these are again, cart abandonment, tax calculation errors, or just some of the ideas…but you should know holistically what's going on with your environment. If something is down you should know, and the customer shouldn't have to tell you.
Jeremiah Owyang (11:51): Let's talk about frequency. How often should a company conduct an audit?
Robin Allen (11:55): At least annually. There could be things in place—regulatory or the type of industry that may require something more often—but annually is pretty much the standard. You do it once a year and it comes quicker. I always tell people, "It comes quicker than you think", so once a year. And, then it comes, and it becomes an event. And the other thing I would say is, treat it not like a special event, treat it like it's a business process. It's another thing. Just like giving someone a laptop, you’ve got to have an audit every year and you have to be prepared. You have to go through it and then you may have to fix some things. Make it part of the normal business.
Jeremiah Owyang (12:32): Make it expected. I have a kind of a pop quiz question here. When it comes to the folks in IT, who's best to lead this audit process?
Robin Allen (12:40): You always need someone that is good at—like a project manager—of some sorts. It is lots of activities, coordination, keeping-track-of, and somewhat contingent upon also the systems in your technology. You should always have a point of contact. You should always have someone that is working directly with the auditor that you selected, [to ensure] that they have someone to go to. Because sometimes you would think that would be the easiest thing and, it's always actually not the easiest thing…it's kind of like documentation. But that single point helps to manage the actual audit and then also helps to coordinate obviously with the business.
Robin Allen (13:17): I always say a good project manager—a lead of some sort, having oversight of an audit—helps in so many different ways. Because if not, the auditors are just going to be going to people in the org and you're not going to know what's going on. You're not going to know what's being given. You want to be clear about the materials that are being shared and how it's being shared. Think of it as an event that you can manage like a project so that you can have some agility as you go forward.
Jeremiah Owyang (13:43): How does IT know if the audit was a success?
Robin Allen (13:46): You always get kind of a scorecard back from the auditors. That's part of what you're getting, and that's what I was saying earlier. That's kind of the end of the audit. They give you a score card. They categorize things high, medium, low, so that helps you to prioritize what has to change or maybe what you may choose not to change if the business accepts the level of risk. But they give you a report, so when you're engaging you know at the beginning, what the framework is, and you should know what the outcome is. And it's generally a written…some sort of a described, prescribed visual of, "Okay, this is what we saw. This is what you need to improve. This is a major exposure, and this is not so good, but you should probably work on it."
Jeremiah Owyang (14:30): That's my next question for you. You brought up that this is just the start of something. How should the business take this forward once that report is generated?
Robin Allen (14:37): Definitely sitting and reviewing and understanding, and those highs, as I say, are generally things if an auditor has categorized them as high or things that you probably need to work on pretty soon. You need the business to understand [that] you may have to prioritize work differently. This may become a priority over other things. And the business has to connect to that and understand that… "Well, maybe we can't do this because this now becomes the priority."
Jeremiah Owyang (15:01): I think this is a wonderful process and not only does it give you a state of what is, but it also tells you what you need to go and do. It's really a roadmap in a way, right?
Robin Allen (15:10): It is. And also, Jeremiah, I would ask you even what your future looks like.
Jeremiah Owyang (15:14): Exactly.
Robin Allen (15:15): Past, present, and a little bit about the future because hopefully by going through this process, you also think [about] the next time you do something. Maybe you don't build it the same way, or you don't think about it the same way. And you do it differently because you know that these are things you maybe should have done before.
Jeremiah Owyang (15:29): And building off that point, some of my friends who work in IT, they're always concerned about being categorized as a cost center, but if they can show that they're making improvements to the business and it's documented in a quantitative way, this can serve them in a big way.
Robin Allen (15:44): I always subtly say this as an IT executive [it’s important] to understand that transition. From this very tactical operational type [of] organization, to the value-add strategic business partner. And it feels so foreign sometimes because it's so very different, but that's the journey that we want to be on right for the business because that's where the organization can gain the most from its technology investment.
Jeremiah Owyang (16:12): I love that business partner…I'm sold. So, how can Vertex help?
Robin Allen (16:18): You know one thing to do here, if we think about Vertex, you know, exploring our products. [For] example, our cloud product is SOC 2 Type 2 compliant. Making those choices as an organization…what you want to do and what you want to buy, or [who] you want to partner with. So, you don't have to do everything yourself, but partners like Vertex can help with our products to take some of that burden off of IT departments.
Jeremiah Owyang (16:44): A big thank you to Robin Allen for being our guest on the show today and sharing her knowledge on how to determine your organization's friction. Listen to our next episode where we continue the discussion with Robin by reviewing how you can use what you know about your organizations’ friction to create an action plan that will lead to a better customer experience and retail business growth. Subscribe now so you don't miss it. I'm Jeremiah Owyang, and thanks for listening.