TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Raj De Datta, CEO of Bloomreach and author of the new book, “The Digital Seeker: A Guide for Digital Teams to Build Winning Experiences,” about the book and winning in the e-commerce space. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Karen Roby: I want to start with one of the things you say, “This is about serving the seeker, not the customer,” which is definitely something I want you to expand on, what you mean by that. Or also, as the CEO of Bloomreach, certainly, a lot of this coming from your experience with your company. Talk about the inspiration for this book, and what you mean by serving the seeker and not the customer.

Raj De Datta: Karen, I’ve had the good fortune at Bloomreach, of us being the software platform behind almost a quarter of e-commerce in the U.S. And the U.K. And we get to see what everybody’s buying. We get to see what people are not buying. A lot of these companies, big companies would come to me, and their boards would come to me, and say, “Hey, you see all these great brands who are succeeding on the Web, and the ones that are not, so tell us why they’re succeeding, and tell us the ones that are not, why they’re not succeeding.”

I sort of marshaled my experience running Bloomreach, as well as my seed investing here in Silicon Valley, and out of that came this really stark realization that the winning companies really serve the seeker. They’re built for the seeker, they’re not built for the customer, which is really counterintuitive, because for 15 or 20 years, we’ve been hearing about how important customer centricity is and how important it is to serve the customer really well. And so, out of that, I wrote this book because I wanted to share that experience with everybody else, and give people a very practical playbook for how to win big in digital.

Karen Roby: And winning big, Raj, in digital, I think for a lot of different industries, that can mean different things. And so many companies are on different ends of the spectrum when it comes to where they are in their digital transformation, too.

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Raj De Datta: That’s right, and we work with big brands like Williams-Sonoma or Pottery Barn. This is a catalog retailer that sells culinary stuff, and sofas at Pottery Barn, and the like, and today, three-quarters of their businesses is e-commerce and digital. But then, we work with plenty of other companies, many of them in the B2B manufacturing space, where they’re really just getting started on the digital journey.

But what I can tell you is, it doesn’t matter what your business is. Digital is transformational, it’s at the center of how you speak to your customers, your seekers, and ultimately, how you transform your business. It matters to everybody. People are just at different places in the evolution curve.

Karen Roby: Raj, never has that idea been more solidified than 2020, when we were all stuck at home, and those who had no experience buying. I mean, my parents, for example, who refused to buy things online, and now, that’s all they basically do because they were forced to do that.

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Raj De Datta: That’s right. And we saw that in our own data. Basically, e-commerce grew almost 100%, year-over-year, last year. And it happened because your parents and my parents started shopping online in ways they never did before. In certain categories, like grocery and autos, these were all things that people never really bought all that much online, and they started really buying online. And so, we think that trend is there to stay. And so when you look at that, if we double-click on what it means to build for the seeker, what it really means is you have to build for the underlying motivation of the customer.

Imagine that you’re out trying to organize a vacation for your family. Well, you’re a customer of a car rental company, of an airline, of a tour excursion, perhaps, of a hotel. You’re a customer of 10 different things, but really what you’re a seeker of is just a really memorable vacation for your family. And so the company that builds for the memorable vacation rather than just the car rental ticket, and the plane ticket, and the hotel reservation is the one that wins big.

We see that with big winners, like if you take Airbnb, or if you take an Uber, Uber isn’t a taxi company, it’s a company that just gets you from point A to point B. It serves where you seek. And included in that is the mapping, included in that is the transportation, included in that is the billing, all the things that come along with getting from point A to point B. So, if you build for the seeker, you end up having a highly differentiated digital experience.

Karen Roby: When we talk about the tech behind the tech, and what it takes to move companies forward in the best light possible, what are we talking about there?

Raj De Datta: Well, really, I call it the three As. Once you decide to build for the seeker, it’s about ambient, it’s about [artificial intelligence], and it’s about APIs. To put it really simply, if you’re going to serve the seeker, first, you’ve got to know what they’re seeking. And that’s where really the ambient interfaces, the mobile devices, the [Internet of Things], the sensors, you collect all this data, then you feed it to the AI, who makes sense of it to really make sense of, “Well, what do we put in front of this person right now that’s going to engage them in a way that’s really compelling?” And then finally, you’ve got to connect with all kinds of other systems in order to marshal the data and marshal the experience together, and that’s where the APIs come in. And so those three As, we think are at the heart of the tech for seeker-centric companies.

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Karen Roby: Raj, do you think when somebody picks this book up, or let’s even say some of the companies who are looking to gain more traction when it comes to their presence digitally and that kind of thing, do you think people will be surprised by some of the things that you’re saying or should most of this be common knowledge? I mean, how do you feel? Like, what’s the temperature, as far as people that will be reading this?

Raj De Datta: Yeah, I think it’s pretty transformational in many ways, because still so many digital organizations, it’s sort of like, the IT team on the side, doing digital. And that’s not how it works anymore. When digital is at the forefront of the experience, you are almost reorganizing your own company. You’re putting digital at the center. You have digital marketers. It’s not just about the tech, it’s technology, it’s development, it’s marketing, it’s design, it’s product management, it’s all of the different piece parts that have to come together in an organization to put the seeker at the center and deliver these great digital experiences.

There’s an organizational dimension, and you’ve got to rethink how you’re going to make money as well, because it’s no longer just, “Hey, I’m in the…”. It takes somebody like a Peloton. They didn’t just make the exercise bike, they coupled it with a subscription, coupled it with a spin class. All of a sudden, it’s a completely different business model for fitness than we’ve ever seen before. And that’s what it takes to win.

Karen Roby: I’ve just over the course of the last year, talked to so many CIOs and CTOs, especially who say, “Yeah, now, I’m like pretty much the most important guy, or the most popular guy in the boardroom, and when I’m talking to other executives, because a lot of people who maybe didn’t see it before, now understand that it has to be built around the tech.” I mean, tech is involved in every single piece now of what we do.

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Raj De Datta: That’s right. And indeed, I think, I often believe that the great teams in digital are really product-centric. They’re almost organized like Silicon Valley companies, I think. There’s the famous quote that software is eating the world. And indeed, that’s true. Every business is at some level a software business, trying to get these digital experiences out there.

And what’s key to that is not to think separately between what I’m making and how I’m selling it online. It used to be, “I made sofas, and now, my marketing team sold sofas online,” but now, it’s all integrated together. The product is as much the website selling the sofa, or the mobile app that makes it possible to find the great sofa as it is the sofa itself. Those are all parts of the same product.

Karen Roby: You know, Raj, let’s just say, you got in an elevator with someone, and you told them what you do, that you just wrote this book. If you had to say, if somebody said to you, “OK, well, Raj, we’ve got 15 seconds in this elevator, tell me, how do we win digitally? How am I going to do this?” How can you pack that into just a really short little bit of what’s so important that people need to understand?

Raj De Datta: Rebuild the business for the seeker, not the customer. Don’t just listen to what the customer’s telling you, figure out what they deeply want inside of them, and build a winning digital experience for them.

Karen Roby: Excellent. I put you on the spot. That was perfect. Now, Raj, I was asking you earlier, this is the first book that you’ve ever written, and you explained earlier about your inspiration behind it. Do you see this being something that you will do again, maybe take a little break? I mean, what was the process like for you?

Raj De Datta: The process was really enjoyable. I mean, I had the great pleasure of interviewing 100 great business leaders from places like the Gap, and Southwest Airlines, and on and on and on, great companies that are revolutionizing digital, and then so many startups here in Silicon Valley that were doing great work on the technology front. And so, it was a pleasure to write the book, and most of them, but the real work starts now. What I’m most excited about is for this to be the playbook for every digital team that’s out there in the world, trying to go compete in this really noisy internet, where all of us are trying to break through.

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Raj De Datta, CEO of Bloomreach and author of the new book, “The Digital Seeker: A Guide for Digital Teams to Build Winning Experiences,” about the book and winning in the e-commerce space.
Image: Mackenzie Burke