Technology

  • May 9, 2019
  • Drop Tank is a small company in footprint–it started with only 22 people–but with an outsized mission to provide loyalty and discount programs to thousands of gasoline retailers. It has been decades since gas stations offered incentives to purchase their products. Last time, in the 1960s, retailers would routinely offer silverware, glassware, and china for fill ups. Alternatively, some would offer Green Stamps–collectable coupons redeemable for merchandise. That was the state of the art for loyalty programs.

    All of these arrangements were relatively easy to administer and there was no back-end data to massage. A customer made a purchase and got a reward on the spot. Those were the days! Today’s loyalty programs often capture metadata from the transaction that credits points to a customer’s account and the customer can determine how best to spend them.

    Drop Tank started out providing single-use, cents per gallon discount cards to customersin 2012. Today it offers the same fuel discounting scheme but also gift cards and combined offers for gasoline plus consumer packaged goods sold in convenience stores that also sell gas.

    Less than five years ago (2016), Drop Tank began designing a back-office system to ride herd on customer gas purchases and the points they accumulated. Any customer could join by adding a phone number which could then be used at the pump to identify the purchaser. The system has been through several iterations in its short life, each time becoming simpler and more efficient and thus better able to support an expanding mission.

    Black box

    When Drop Tank started out, it produced a small black box device that connected to the pumps capturing customer data and purchases for later upload and processing. The device was needed because 65 percent of retailers are independent and have the ability to choose their POS (point of sale) system. This resulted in integration challenges best met by hardware. But less than ten years later, the black box is gone and the latest iteration leverages the Oracle Autonomous Database which enables several important improvements for Drop Tank and its customers.

    Drop Tank’s principal partner is Marathon Oil, a vertically integrated petroleum company that leads in oil refining in the US and runs a large distribution network located primarily in the Eastern half of the US, though recent acquisitions have spread the footprint into the West.

    Although the original black box solution was good for its time, installing those boxes at more than 3,500 retail locations was time consuming and expensive, requiring a visit to each retailer.

    Tim Miller vice president of technology for Drop Tank, was a co-founder of the company and he has run IT since founding so each iteration of the system was his responsibility to develop, deploy, and maintain–all the incentive he’d need to support continuous improvement.

    Over time, Miller has been able to replace the black boxes with server-side software for all of the POS systems popular with his customers, the retailers. Importantly, the evolution of technology in the dealer network mimicked and supported the evolution of increasingly sophisticated services provided by Drop Tank to the retailer and, recently to CPG companies. Consider these milestones,

    Stage 1, 2012

    Initially, Drop Tank functioned as a promotional products company with cards and codes that dropped the price at the pump. Customers didn’t need to enroll in a program to enjoy savings, but Drop Tank had limited ability to leverage data to engage with them.

    Stage 2, 2016

    The original cents off system was built on Rackspace and was adequate for the need. But by 2016 Miller and a small team designed an improvement that would take the black boxes out of the equation letting the retailer simply connect a POS system to Drop Tank’s headquarters using Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. It made sense because it reduced the time and expense associated with deploying hardware from four hours per site to 30 minutes. Now all of the integration and conversion could be handled by software. It also appealed to retailers who wanted fewer devices behind the counter connecting to other systems and printers. So, simplification was good for all parties.

    The dealer network reacted, and Drop Tank’s new retailer signups doubled..

    Stage 3, 2018

    With its system built and in place and connected directly to the POS systems Miller and his team discovered they could gather additional point of sales data that other systems either were not capturing or, because there were so many disparate systems in use, no one could easily aggregate. This was in stark contrast to the way other retailers could capture data and provide it to CPG companies. For example, supermarkets can routinely report to CPG vendors not only what sold but what other items made up the transaction.

    Enabling business analysis with Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse

    Drop Tank discovered that it could collect data that CPG vendors needed and also provide more information to a growing set of CPG vendors. But the company needed a data warehouse that could handle the load while enabling the company to retain its small size, now a 22 people business. So, finding the right amount of automation was critical. That’s when they turned to Oracle.

    While Drop Tank captures a great deal of data in its data warehouse, there are always times when CPG companies might want specialized information that’s not easily available as the system was set up.

    It’s a common problem. For years data warehouse users have tried to build a perfect warehouse containing every kind of data and every possible analysis, but that’s not real. So, Miller took the company in a different direction. Today he says, “Don’t try to build a data warehouse that’s perfect, instead, leverage the power of the Autonomous Database,” which he does.

    When a CPG customer makes a special request, Miller says that, thanks to the Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse, Drop Tank can simply spin up a new database automatically in about an hour without the traditional overhead of building, tuning, and maintaining it. “Spinning up a traditional database and tuning it can take days or weeks. Within an hour I can have the database running, within 4 hours we can load data and then within another hour we can have answers. That’s as difference-maker.”

    Topping off

    Oracle technology has enabled Drop Tank to grow in several ways. Oracle PaaS and IaaS have enabled the company to run its IT in the cloud using a service-oriented architecture (SOA) that helps the company reduce overhead and save headcount. Oracle Autonomous Database enabled the company to branch into providing information services to CPG companies from its starting point as a loyalty program provider. And, Oracle automation has enabled this small company to remain small in headcount but to continue to grow its services while significantly increasing productivity.

    Published: 6 months ago


    Disruptive innovations are only disruptive for as long as it takes competition to develop and thus create a market. Worse, for the disruptor, the niche it created can also spawn other niches. Social networking provides a vivid example.

    First, there were networking sites that could help you find a job or a sales lead, then there were social sites whose purpose was simply, well, networking. Sites like Facebook and Twitter had no trouble achieving explosive growth, in large part because they were free. But lately the user/consumer has come to realize that free ain’t exactly free. The strings attached cause users to give up privacy and submit to psychological manipulation most often without their consent—a high price to pay for somewhat glorified email.

    Social media’s problems have been well documented so there’s no reason to review them here. But hidden in the headlines are some nervous technology companies that jumped on the bandwagon early to make their wares all social, all the time. Exhibit A in all this is CRM. There’s no CRM company that doesn’t leverage social media to support customer centric business processes. From sales to service and marketing, CRM’s benefits include a lot of value from providing significantly lower cost business processes.

    Social CRM

    But now the vehicle for all that goodness is in trouble and while no vendors that I’ve spoken to think they’ll be abandoning their links to social media, some are getting nervous. A recent story in the New York Times documents how consumers in Illinois filed a suit against Facebook for violating a state privacy law. The suit alleges that Facebook used facial recognition software on users’ photographs without permission. In response, the social media giant is trying to invalidate the action saying that no harm was done and harm beyond simple law breaking is needed to enable a consumer to sue. Seriously.

    Meanwhile, Facebook is in freefall. Grassroots movements encouraging people to quit Facebook, and other social networks, are gaining traction—enough that the company has doubled the waiting period for people to actually leave and have their accounts expunged from 2 to 4 weeks.

    A new niche

    Leaving the law suits aside, this ongoing drama is opening a new social media niche and there are vendors queuing up to enter. The new niche attempts to provide the goodness of social media including—the immediacy, bi-directional communication, low cost and broad distribution—without the vendor shenanigans. Actually, there may be two potential niches, call them Facebook lite or Facebook nice, and notifications.

    The first option would strip away Facebook’s propensity to mine other people’s data but from a commercial standpoint omitting data gathering and analysis would leave Facebook looking bloated and silly. The second option might be a Goldilocks solution because it admits users fairly easily and offers a communications regimen that’s not too much, not too little, but just right. That’s notifications but they aren’t for everyone.

    People using notifications dispense with the small talk—no baby pictures, cats or dogs or birthday reminders. With notifications people are always in the middle of a conversation not trying to hit the reset button because thousands of followers need reminding.

    Social scientists tell us that typical people can maintain between 150 and 200 or so relationships; it’s called the Dunbar number and more than that leads to confusion. Common social networking makes it possible to go way beyond Dunbar though the relationships maintained often look not much different than what you get with broadcast advertising.

    I think there’s a future for notifications and it’s possible that notification technologies will disrupt social networking. As with most disruptions the older technologies won’t necessarily go away but their market reach and importance would decline. Notifications in CRM would give you a just the facts ma’am vendor customer communications stream.

    Testing the idea

    Right now, I’m part of a beta test of a notification product in stealth mode. Compared to Facebook, you might say it’s bare-bones. There are no apps, no profile database for the unscrupulous to mine, just a list of my peeps, what I’ve called their attention to and what they’ve sent me (along with our comments). Sometimes I ignore the incoming flow for lack of time and it’s a good indication that I’ve reached my personal Dunbar number.

    If there were ads and offers in the stream, I’d ignore them too because I’m good at understanding my needs. With so little data emanating from the user you might logically ask how a vendor is supposed to train an algorithm. The simple answer is that you hire people, perhaps subscribers for a time to share their data. That would be more than enough to ethically capture use data and train algorithms.

    Not long ago, Esteban Kolsky and I ran a survey. As with most market research studies the hard part is getting people to take the survey. Ten years ago, it was relatively easy, you just bought a list and invited people and there were usually enough responses for statistical reliability. But lately no one wants to be bothered and market research has taken a hit.

    The good news, though, is that the situation has opened a niche. Database vendors compile lists of people with specific attributes and pay them to take surveys. We researchers pay a fee to the consolidators and we get our answers. Most importantly, the responses come from people with the exact attributes we specify.

    My two bits

    There will be people who say that social media can’t or won’t be effective with a payment model to which I say that’s not my experience. Social media has tapped into a rich vein of information and access shouldn’t rely on subterfuge. It generates huge profits and there’s no longer a reason (if there ever was one) for sneaking around the user database for insights.

    So those are some of the niches opening up in the shadow of social media. Notifications and a pay as you go model for research that’s above board and gives consumers what they need. I think CRM vendors are paying close attention and the current war room mentality companies like Facebook are exhibiting is not helpful and could lead to an unnecessary crisis in social and maybe CRM. We don’t need this.

     

     

    Published: 8 months ago


    I’ve recently been writing a lot about platforms. Not any one in particular but about the importance of platform to the future of what we all do in CRM and beyond. Platform provides a level of abstraction between machines and humans who must get useful work out of them. Inventing the platform was like inventing the power loom or the printing press. It was a way to separate the creative effort from rote production. I’ve gone so far as to say that the platform-based CRM system has become a big demonstration project for the platform. If it can support this, what can’t it do?

    On a more prosaic level, one of the things that platform is proving to be very good at is providing an engagement layer on top of older and more rigid systems of record. Older systems are really good at storing data but not necessarily at telling us what the data means, its information content. We still talk too much about data, about the orange when what we crave is the juice.

    At the engagement level Salesforce has been taking big steps to add CRM values to healthcare through its Health Cloud. At the HIMSS 2019 conference in Orlando this week, one of the big health information systems conferences of the year, Salesforce unveiled new capabilities that borrow directly from CRM to support healthcare.

    In the process, they are helping to change the model of healthcare in this country from a break-fix model that’s been around for more than a century, to a wellness paradigm that seeks to prevent illness. W. Edwards Deming would be proud. New Salesforce offerings include,

    Social Determinants of Health. I’m not completely sure how this works but it looks like a way of capturing a broader data set on patients like economic status, ability to drive or access transportation, and ability to read and understand treatment instructions we all go home with these days. Those are things not typically captured in the conventional medical record but without them, it will be hard to raise the bar on treatment success rates.

    Mobile-First In-Home Care Collaboration. This looks much like an application of field service management to patients and it uses Field Service Lightning for Health Cloud to do the job. As any CRM people know, successful field service is all about bringing resources to bear at a remote location. But that means much more than having a well-stocked truck or toolbox. It means being able to access others to deliver service. This collaboration product enables dispatchers to bring together specialists by ability and location to support traveling care givers.

    Personalized Patient Journeys. As you might expect, this one brings in the Salesforce Marketing Cloud to apply journey mapping and execution. Simply put, any treatment situation from recovering from surgery to managing diabetes has a predictable trajectory but individuals might not always stay on their trajectories. A wound might get infected, someone’s blood sugar might be hard to stabilize, but even those exceptions can be built into a journey map along with standardized care regimens. More likely a provider might want to keep a stream of information going to patients managing similar issues such as all Type 2 diabetes patients between 50 and 60.

    All of this brings into sharp relief the issue of containing healthcare costs. Unlike almost any other industry you can name other than education, which has a lot in common with healthcare, costs have remained stubbornly high and have continued to escalate. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Anything that can be manufactured can eventually achieve benefits from economies of scale, but healthcare and education are not manufactured.

    Every hot appendix has to be removed by a highly skilled and trained surgeon; every diabetic needs to be diagnosed and monitored. There are few economies of scale but we can do a lot to improve prevention and when that’s not enough, we can bring systems of engagement to bear so that we waste as little resource as possible. CRM principles like systems of engagement are changing the healthcare equation by capturing more data and moving information around to inform care decisions at every level.

    My two bits

    Applying CRM to healthcare is a big deal but let’s be careful what we mean by that. The stove-piped CRM of a decade ago wouldn’t be helpful here. It’s only since the addition of social networking ideas, analytics, and machine learning that we’ve been able to see ahead of the customer and now the patient. We know where they are in a journey based on probabilities derived from thousands of past actions and we know logical next steps for the same reasons.

    Healthcare also has an important bias working in its favor—people want to be well and to get better in the vast majority of cases. You can’t say that about customers in a purchase situation because the motivators are more nebulous. You can’t even say that all students want education. It’s nice to think they do but how many do their homework regularly?

    We might have entered a golden age of CRM with all the platform additions of the last decade beginning with social networking. But it’s disappointing to see the fear and disappointment emanating from scandals about misuse of social networking and the fear of AI, and machine learning eliminating jobs. I guess that’s what you get in a maturing market. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of good being done by CRM platforms and healthcare is a good example that will have far-reaching effects.

    Published: 8 months ago


    Guest post

    By Cary Fulbright

     

    Recently Denis wrote about the state of document management systems, including the licensing pain point that is slowing wide adoption within the enterprise. Digital transformation and the move to digital document management has become crucial to organizations of all size and across all industries. One impetus for the shift to digital is the use of cloud technologies. It allows instant, always-on access to the most recent version of documents, reducing errors and enabling employees to be productive throughout their day.

    Without efficient document workflows, simple tasks like creating, sharing and signing documents can become both challenging and costly. One report from IDC estimated that document challenges are costing organizations more than 20 percent of overall productivity. The firm put that cost at nearly $20,000 per employee every year.

    This need to recoup productivity costs and increase business agility are driving the digitization of document management. Not only are employees within an organization often collaborating on documents and sharing via email, Slack or other channels, they are working with partners, customers and other third parties. It is important that all relevant parties can collaborate on a document, comment, verify changes, access particular versions, and view or change who has access rights. One prime example of this need is contract management.

    At the same time, this data must be secured. Not only from data exfiltration via headline-grabbing breaches, but from tampering and manipulation. This is an emerging threat to businesses in all industries. One study predicts that, by 2020, 50 percent of organizations will have suffered damage caused by fraudulent data and software. A recent CNBC story points to the increasing importance of data integrity.

    In November, we saw an altered video of a CNN reporter grab headlines as Americans began to understand that even video could be faked to spread misinformation. Perhaps even more frightening is the “deepfake” AI technology that can digitally manipulate videos to make a new “perceived reality.” As a result, the potential to undermine trust and spread misinformation increases like never before.

    Last year, Japan’s third-largest steelmaker admitted falsifying product quality data which could have far reaching implications for projects using inferior copper, aluminium and steel products. This month, the Guardian, among other UK media outlets, reported that dozens of criminal cases are being overturned due to alleged widespread data tampering. A UK forensics lab had manipulated forensics data, affecting more than 10,500 criminal cases since 2014. The investigation has led to a total of 41 drug offense criminal cases overturned, and further 50 investigations dropped.

    These cases underscore how an integrated data integrity solution is crucial for organizations. Companies today must safeguard the chain of custody for every digital asset, in order to detect and deter data tampering. For assets such as supply chain audit trails, legal documents, tax records and more, document management systems can ensure data integrity by digitally notarizing any type of data with a product like our Cryptowerk Seal. It enables users to seal that data at the time of creation, and then automatically verify the authenticity of data and digital assets such as a legal document, a scan of a shipment ID code or an e-commerce transaction.

    As digital transformation continues to drive businesses forward, the number of workers with digital document management tools will continue to rise. As the number of users grows, organizations will need to better protect those documents from manipulation — or suffer what could be crippling consequences. Document management software vendors should be helping their customers to meet this need and protect against data tampering.

     

    Cary Fulbright is Chief Marketing Officer of CryptoWerk in San Francisco

    Published: 9 months ago


    Office printing, a key part of any business’ IT strategy, is slowly declining mostly due to better printing options. Better, higher capacity printers, networked throughout an organization are often cited for small declines in printing activity in part because taking printers off desktops causes people to consider whether a printout is worth a trip to a printer.

    That’s more or less organic decline and the question is why print at all? Are there ways to avoid moving information from computer to paper only to return new information back to a computer?

    Keith Kmetz, program vice president, IDC’s Imaging, Printing, and Document Solutions research says, “Print remains a huge and very relevant piece of an organization’s overall IT strategy,” which seems to imply that printing will be important until it isn’t. In other words, the emphasis still seems to be on printing but printing more efficiently when the need is increasingly to avoid printing all together.

    Strategies for avoiding printing, like locating printers away from users so that they have to walk to pick up their papers, are qualitatively different from moves to eliminate printing completely through process redesign. The latter can have bigger impacts on a business beyond savings in printout supplies.

    Business processes that avoid printing are different in that they remain in the digital realm rather than committing information to paper. Digital processes operate at computer speeds while the same process involving printed matter becomes a prisoner to the speed of manual transport.

    For instance, a process that captures a signature, perhaps through the mail, is relegated to the speed of the postal system. In contrast, the same process mediated by an eSignature paradigm operates much faster even when considering that such processes are often asynchronous meaning the people on each end of the transaction are not necessarily waiting around to receive a document.

    So why print at all when digital processes are so attractive? There are many reasons, some social or psychological but none of them stand up.

    1. Force of habit. Some employees will just print documents regardless of whether they have more efficient technology at hand. For them a walk to a printer might be a motivator for changing behavior.
    2. To have a “hard copy” in case, you know, the system goes down, or just to have. Advances in IT have made this reason obsolete when compared with the costs of printing.
    3. To take to a meeting. Lots of people still print documents for evidentiary purposes but the arrival of good, fast corporate Wi-Fi and portable devices from phones to tablets to laptops, means any document can be available anywhere in the building. And for meetings at remote locations, often the same is true but certainly sometimes people just need the hard copy. But using hard copies should be much rarer than it is today.
    4. Some employees lack the necessary software to access and save documents electronically or to circulate them for signatures.

    The last item deserves some comment. Document management or productivity has long passed the point where it could be considered optional in a host of industries that live on documents like healthcare, insurance, and finance. While virtually all employees in these industries have access to office productivity software like word processing, many still lack access to document management systems. The irony is that these employees can create documents, but they can’t effectively manage them once developed.  So, the papers grow.

    Organizations determined to do something about their printing consumption find that they can’t simply press a button or flip a switch. There’s a bit of process re-engineering to do before the business can change paradigms. Usually change management is one of the most important jobs associated with changing the print paradigm. But the effort is highly worthwhile.

    Businesses that implement document management for all find they can recoup the cost of their new systems based on drastically reduced printing costs and improved employee productivity and morale. Just imagine how much more productive anyone can be without taking trips to a remote printer. And even if one has a printer on the desk, avoiding printing means higher productivity, lower costs, and more engaged personnel.

    There’s never been a better time to fully engage in document productivity. Even businesses that bought productivity systems decades ago are finding that costs of automation are now much lower and that it’s practical to ensure all employees are covered by the technology.

    The key to successfully transitioning isn’t simply picking a software or hardware vendor any more. It’s picking a vendor that understands change management and that can put a plan in place that automates your specific processes and gets your users engaged and active. There will still be employees that prefer to print but they make up a small percent of your population. Over time even they will see the benefits of working digitally over dealing with printers and supplies.

    Please join me on October 18, 2018 at 11 AM EDT for a live discussion and demonstration of modern document productivity from Nitro Software.

    Published: 1 year ago