This is the Segment’s Data Council series, where members share stories about using Segment to work with customer data within Enterprise companies. To make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. You can also read a lightly edited transcript of the conversation below.
Whether you align systems, people, or processes in your business cases, this episode has you covered. We’ll make the case to align all three.
Kurt Williams, Global Director of Customer Products at Anheuser-Busch InBev, shares the techniques he used to change the data status quo around the globe for both digital and commercial teams. Hint, bring everyone to the table to discuss customer data in a way they’ve never thought about before.
Over the years as a product manager, Kurt championed hundreds of business case discussions for vendor tools and internal projects—including a few Segment business cases at two different companies. Tune in to this episode for an insider perspective on what it took for a Segment business case to excite stakeholders across an organization.
Create visibility around the gap between where you are today and where you want to go. Use that context to ground your business case and translate requirements for different audiences.
Build a team that understands the value of having a tool like Segment—not only just for your team or adjacent teams, but also the rest of the organization.
“Sometimes, the [business case] ROI is just moving the business in a new direction or a new way of operating as opposed to solely lifting revenue.”
“We were fighting against not necessarily other tools in the organization, but how people thought about the landscape of technology.”
“Showing the [Segment] debugger was actually a miracle case for [stakeholders]. It sold a lot of people right then and there on the value of having a tool like that.”
Kurt speaking at Synapse 2018: Digital distribution 2.0: How Anheuser-Busch InBev delivers beer all over the world
Blog: Growth of Stacks of 2019
Segment University: Debugging and Troubleshooting
Read the transcript:
Madelyn Mullen: I'm Madelyn Mullen, part of the Segment Product Marketing team. I'm joined by Kurt Williams, Global Director of Customer Products at Anheuser-Busch InBev. Welcome, Kurt!
Kurt Williams: Thanks, Madelyn. I’m really excited to be here and to talk through all this interesting stuff.
Madelyn: Kurt, as a longtime product manager, what are the types of products that you've worked on at Anheuser-Busch InBev?
Kurt: At Anheuser-Busch InBev, I've owned a single product in the three years I've been here. Our traditional business is B2B, right? We sell to retailers, who then sell on to consumers, and that's typically our mode of operating across the world.
The product I own is in the e-commerce space, introducing e-commerce into that traditional route to market. So where retailers would typically buy from an individual sales rep or sales agent over the phone, today and in the future they purchase through an e-commerce product that I own. Prior to AB InBev, I owned parts of other e-commerce products, as well as internal-facing, enterprise-style products for other companies.
Madelyn: When you're thinking about your current product and your past products, how many business-case projects would you estimate you've been part of in the recent years?
Kurt: I would say a lot, especially at AB InBev. We work in a zero-based budgeting world, which means every cent that we spend has to be allocated to some purpose or cause and typically has to have some type of ROI on it.
That ROI is usually related to a revenue increase or cost decrease of some sort. Basically everything I do is justified in some way with a business case for why it's important and why we need to do that thing.
Madelyn: What else are they helping you and the broader Anheuser-Busch teams do?
Kurt: We're trying to change the way we operate and think. We approach problems. Sometimes the ROI is just moving the business in a new direction or a new way of operating, as opposed to solely lifting revenue. So a lot of the business cases I'm building have to do with a transformation of sorts internally.
When digital transformation requires your business case
Madelyn: Kurt, would you share some examples of business cases you've worked on that help with transformation for AB InBev?
Kurt: We're a very traditional CPG company. As I was saying, we brew beer, and that's a very physical and labor-intensive process. We have to gather supplies and brew the beer and bottle the beer and distribute it. We're trying to transform a lot of the things we're looking for: both efficiencies in that process but also just fully new ways of doing business.
We historically have looked at our customers on very simple demographic axes, in terms of how to segment them and how to approach them. Then in the end, you just have three blanket approaches for how you want to address your customers in the market. We're trying to evolve a more sophisticated approach to segmenting and viewing and approaching our customers.
If that means that, instead of just looking at their demographics and what type of customer pool they might fit into and giving the same effort to everyone in that pool, it's actually starting to look at customers on an individual basis and asking, “Is this customer high-touch or low-touch?”
It’s quite hard when you have, again, a very physical process and the labor-intensive one, where you have to cascade the sales approach down through a sales force and not just a handful of enterprise salespeople. We are talking about small businesses and thousands of sales reps who have to go out into the field.
How do we make them smarter, and how do we make them more equipped to handle different customers based on their needs on an individual basis? A lot of what we're trying to transform is that simple approach to the market and trying to make it more sophisticated but still efficient.
Madelyn: Specifically from your product perspective, how do you think through those company challenges—and your desire to transform—and then shape that into business case requirements?
Kurt: Historically, on the product side for us, we’ve been moving activities online and starting to transfer some of those things from the offline world into our product. You always try to start with the biggest value-add items and then move towards the more marginal things that might be useful.
A lot of it was taking the transaction off of our sales reps’ hands so that they could be more valuable to the customers and moving some of those administrative activities that take up a lot of their time online. That's why e-commerce is such a helpful tool in that place.
Our product managers are often focused on replicating—but also enhancing—some of these offline tasks that have been going on for years. Then we focus on freeing up our sales force to then start doing more value-added activities for our customers when they actually see them in person.
Madelyn: What does that buy-in process look like when there's an idea you want to build out for folks?
Kurt: There's no shortage of ideas. I think that's generally the case for any larger organization that has a product team.
Ideas come from all over the organization: from outside of the organization, from within the product team itself. I always think of product not as an idea-generation group, but as an idea-selection group. We're taking inputs from all over the place and trying to identify which ones add the most value.
Sometimes the ones we select aren't necessarily the ones that stakeholders within the company have valued as highly. So those are the ones that often need a business case. The big thing we've tried to move towards, obviously, is using data to make those decisions as opposed to feelings or inklings about what's going to add the most value.
Madelyn: Kurt, you've had great exposure to different types of business cases, and you just mentioned the data. What experiences have made you a product manager who’s really focusing on data and using that data to drive transformative change?
Kurt: Before I got to AB InBev, I was previously at The Knot, XO Group, where we were building wedding planning software.
When I got there, I had data at my disposal the likes of which I had never seen before. And it's funny enough: The Knot, I believe, was [business plan contract] customer number one for Segment. So while I was there, I became very attuned to the idea that you could gather data on almost anything a user was doing. We had our product analytics tool that we were piping that data into. And I was able to run analyses that I wasn't able to in any previous job I had before.
Before that, I was running SQL on limited sets of data. This was at a new scale, and it really piqued my interest about all the things I could see and then include in my analysis and start to improve my decision-making. That really grounded me in the idea that data was so important. You get into these philosophical debates sometimes around how you want to approach a problem, or what you want to build.
Data became my best friend at that time because it helped us make better decisions and pick a path and then analyze the success of that path and then go from there. It really helped me to navigate a lot of conversations. So it really proved its value to me and became a staple of how I want to approach problems.
Madelyn: You mentioned that, in some of your team's projects at AB InBev, you’re supporting both digital and offline activities. When you arrived at AB InBev, what was the data stack and data culture like?
Kurt: I would say there's almost no shortage of tools in a company the size of AB InBev.
Again, it's got a massive geographic breadth across the world, business units that operate quite independently from our global headquarters group. With that, you find technology that bubbles up in different pockets for specific use cases in a country or in a market. Then you also have technology that comes top-down not necessarily from the executive group but from our technology group and the leaders there.
The data landscape for us was broad but not necessarily very deep. And so we had a lot of different BI tools that were used for proper commercial reporting. When I got here and inherited the product, there was some GA tagging, but it was very sparse. Trying to understand the health of the product at that point was quite hard. It was important for us to take initiative and start to implement a lot of that stuff.
Read more about customer data tools in 'The Growth Stacks of 2019.'
Evolve intuition with data to leave convention behind
Madelyn: Kurt, as you took initiative to get global buy-in while also working on implementing ideas, how did your product team balance data and intuition?
Kurt: Intuition can be really tough. With a lack of data outside of the commercial stuff, intuition was the way we approached technology in a lot of regards. In everything we tried to do, we tried to avoid making a case on intuition. That’s really difficult early on, especially when there is a lack of user data coming out of the product. So we did have to build cases on intuition, but more so making a case on convention. We’d look to the market and at other e-commerce platforms that people were comfortable and familiar with, and we’d show where our product was potentially diverging from the convention those companies had set and try to make a case on that. Otherwise, you do get into this war of feelings or ideas when you don't have the data in place to back up decisions.
Source: Unsplash @jwimmerli
Madelyn: As you made this shift to be able to have not a case on convention or intuition but on data, who were some of your biggest supporters to help build out these internal business cases?
Kurt: It was my boss and my boss's boss, I guess. They both played a role, and they continue to model servant leadership. They brought me in to build out the product organization and prove the product, and they put full faith in me to do that.
The first pitches I made were to them, and I was able to get their buy-in very quickly. Once they were on board, they became champions and sponsors to the rest of the organization to move things throughout. My boss's boss had been in the company for years and understood how to navigate getting different projects and initiatives sold-in. Together, we navigated the space quite well.
Tailoring the Segment business case
Madelyn: Thinking about Segment, what was it like when you were building out that business case and giving your first pitch to your bosses?
Kurt: I said to my boss, Jason, at that point: “Okay, great. Let's look at the product, and let's look at areas for improvement.” Going back to the convention thing, there were some clear divergences from there, but I didn't want to use that as my case.
A lot of people would have thought our GA tagging was fine and that it would've gotten us all the data we needed. But when I looked at the GA stuff, there wasn’t a lot there. So my first thought was that we needed in-depth user data so we could properly analyze the flows of the product and where its deficiencies and strengths.
That was a very easy sell at that point, because Jason was also from a product background. The next step was taking it to his boss who has less of a technology background but is quite adept at picking up concepts and learning and trying to understand what our options are in the market for tackling a certain problem.
That was the first real instance of having to shape a message that had seemed so clear to me in pulling in a tool like Segment. Everyone had this desire to be more data- and customer-centric—which is great—but the means and depth at which you do that wasn't very clear to them. We had to say: “Okay, Segment is an abstract concept in some cases. How do I make this concrete for this individual?”
At that point, it was about talking through the depth of the data that we could collect. It wasn’t just observing users where X% go here, Y% go there, and Z% percent check out; it was actually discussing the way in which we could start to look at individual customers and how they progress through different flows and transact with us. It's really important to base all of these things in context and in reality, because context is key.
If you think about our business, you have sales reps who have a set of customers they visit on a weekly basis, so they have a really good relationship with them. They know them at that level. You move up the sales organization, and most sales reps, managers don't really understand their customers at that depth, because they're less connected to them. And then you move further and further up the sales organization where you’re really just looking at customer groups that fit certain demographic profiles.
The ability to assess a customer on an individual basis becomes really, really hard. So the idea that we could start doing that digitally and understanding users on an individual basis at great depth became the selling point for pitching it to my boss’s boss.
Madelyn: How did you navigate the ups and downs as you progressed in the internal selling process?
Kurt: Any business case is always about grounding in reality but then shifting the message to the audience. We also had to sell our traditional IT group on the project, so that conversation was a little more technical. But nonetheless, we still had to take a tool like Segment and relate it to other things. In that case, what you're talking about is individuals who understand the technology landscape as it has been for some time—but not necessarily where the landscape was going.
So the conversation then becomes: "Here are other tools that are in the market that you're familiar with. Here's what they provide us. Here's where we want to go, and here’s why those tools won't get us there and what they're missing." Then you're starting to talk about where Segment starts to move us forward or close the gap. But it's always understanding where we are, what tools we have in place, and why they don't quite close the gap to this future state.
Madelyn: You've worked on business cases for other vendor tools and internal projects. How has the Segment business case been the same or different?
Kurt: On the same front, it's the idea that your message has to cater to the audience. That can be the depth of the message or the style of the message. Is it a PowerPoint presentation? Is it actually looking at the tool? Is it going over architecture, depending on the group that you're talking to?
It’s also the level of detail that you're using. Towards the end of the sell-in job, a lot of our audience were executive leadership. We weren’t going to go in there and talk about architecture at that point or the nitty-gritty details, but we were going to show them loads of data coming in and what we could potentially do with all that data over the long run. It moved from a very detailed, technical thing to more of a visionary selling job at that point.
Capture stakeholders’ hearts and minds
Madelyn: Kurt, you mentioned the nitty-gritty, technical aspects. What was most helpful doing the internal business case for Segment?
Kurt: Looking at the nitty-gritty stuff, you're trying to base it in terms that other people understand. We were fighting against not necessarily other tools in the organization but against how people thought about the landscape of technology.
You have the larger organization that works with other really big technology providers, and their understanding of the landscape is what marketing has told them the technology stack for a large enterprise should look like. Often, that looks like one or two vendors that solve 80% of your needs. And the [marketing] material for that stack is like, "We do everything." Or, "We solve this need and that need." The depth of the material isn't great. So people come to believe that if they have this tool, and that tool, their needs are covered.
When we're having those more technical conversations relating the novelty of Segment to other utilities (like ETL), going through the Connections area of the Segment application really helps people understand that. We're going to tag our platform once, we're going to extract that, we're going to transform it, and then we're going to put it in other places.
You’re showing the iOS or Android or web app and how you’re collecting data from there. And then you can connect it to all these different tools. That's really helpful. The debugger also proved to be really helpful, because you're showing all these small data points both at the event level and then the properties below it that are really vital to the business and its desires to understand more about its customer. So those parts of the tool really, really helped us in setting the stage for why Segment was different.
Madelyn: What else did you have to do to move the business case forward?
Kurt: Beyond the nitty-gritty and the technical side of things, you're starting to talk about the vision for the product or the vision for the organization and what it's trying to accomplish. And this is where you draw attention to the fact that you have reps to understand customers on an individual basis, but the rest of the organization is lost on that information. It's almost anecdotal at that point.
Going back to the debugger again, we built a presentation that showed a video demo of the application with someone clicking through it. Then to the right of it, we had a debugger recording real, live data from our proof of concept. Data was just flowing and flowing and flowing into the debugger at a rate that no one had ever seen at the company.
We were so used to getting sales data at the end of the day—or even the next day, sometimes—but this was real-time. It wasn't just, "Look, a customer placed an order, and here's the revenue.” It was like, "They bought this product at this quantity and this price, and they also clicked and looked at this product, and they were in this part of the application." The debugger actually became a miracle case for them. It sold a lot of people right then and there on the value of having a tool like that.
Madelyn: Who are the roles that you had in that magical demo?
Kurt: We had our entire senior leadership teams: our executive team and our business unit presidents from across the world. Most countries have a president who runs the local unit there. Those individuals were also present for other junctures across that we did to sell on the project.
Madelyn: Kurt, to wrap up our discussion, thinking about breaking through the status quo with the right internal business case, what are three takeaways you'd like the listeners to have?
Kurt: When you work in a really large organization, it's about understanding where the influence lies. Our product group reports into our sales structure, and the company is traditionally very sales-driven. That was a big benefit sitting in the "sphere of influence" already. Then, finding those champions within that sphere of influence is really important. In some regards, we were really lucky to have leadership on our side that had some knowledge of the technology landscape. But it was also very keen on moving our technology stack forward and being a more innovative group. And that helped us find partners across the organization who were also keen on that kind of advancement.
The second takeaway is about creating visibility around the gap between where we are today and where we want to go. It’s important to ground things in reality so everyone's starting from the same place. You have to give them context on our landscape as it is today and the deficiencies in it. You have to explain why we’re in a particular position today and why the current plans don’t quite get us to the end-state we’re envisioning. It’s important to detail out those capability gaps between either the incumbents or other tools that were being assessed versus Segment.
Finally, you want a team that is keen on advancement generally. As we started to build out the product organization—which for us encompasses product management, design, and analytics—we're looking for individuals who thought in a very similar way about technology stack and ways to approach product management. We found individuals who had worked with Segment previously at other companies. But it wasn't necessarily just working with Segment, it was understanding the new way of developing tech stacks. It wasn't looking for a CRM, but it was looking for a CDP. And it was understanding the value of having a tool like Segment and what it provides not just to product management and not just the analytics group, but also to the rest of the organization. We needed people who understood how to implement it in an efficient manner and then leverage that data and disseminate that data to other groups that they also bought in. So it was about building a team that thinks in a similar mindset and then sells the rest of the organization on it with you.
Visit the Segment for Product Teams.
Madelyn: Kurt, thank you so much for sharing how you use context, vision, and of course data when you're building out business cases, especially for Segment.
Kurt: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Madelyn!