What if Amazon Bought your Company?
An Exploration of Technology and the Customer in the Pacific Northwest
Seattle Chamber of Commerce Digital Panel
Customer centricity was top of mind at the Digital Business Panel held by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce on September 20. Moderated by Sappington’s Tim Goggin, panelists Howie Wu of BECU, Mark McKelvey of Brooks Running Company, and Curtis Kopf of Premera gathered for an honest conversation about the ever-changing nature of digital transformation and its influence over customers.
Tim Goggin opened discussions by acknowledging that, while the Pacific Northwest is home to the world’s two leading cloud companies (Amazon and Microsoft), many of the region’s established brands weren’t born in the cloud. They came of age when businesses operated under traditional models, technology was simply just another tool, and the customer experience was largely a physical one. But a lot has changed over the years—digital disruption went from being futuristic abstraction to a business reality, sending companies scrambling to provide the digital experiences their customers crave. “So,” Goggin asked, “how are you guys responding?”
“It’s not technology that’s disrupting business, it’s the customer. Technology is simply the enabler.”
- Curtis Kopf, Premera
“Digital transformation for us,” said Howie Wu, “is letting your customer define what your business is. Our aim for banking, which has traditionally been this destination that customers have always had to go to, is to make it an ingrained part of everyday life…We’re always asking our customers what they want and if we can do better—a total outside-in approach. It’s important to challenge status quo to meet your customers where they are.”
Where customers are today, the three panelists agreed, is online. And for a non-tech company like Brooks Running, meeting customers in digital spaces—through online platforms or mobile applications—has meant blending old practices with new approaches. “Because of retail disruption, we’ve lost several points of distribution and navigating that has been challenging… We’re on Amazon now—which is what customers want—but it’s not the best place for us to tell our story and the premium science behind it. So, we’re balancing that with supporting our own platform and retail partners,” said Mark McKelvey. “Disruption has really allowed us to focus on our brand and what we stand for.”
Evolving to meet customers’ constantly fluctuating expectations—and meet them where they are—has always been a pillar of business, but the panelists agreed what happens behind the scenes is equally as important. “At Premera we’ve been evolving our culture and capabilities to accommodate digital disruption,” said Curtis Kopf, who is a former Amazon executive. “Which is challenging because suddenly you need new core skillsets in the workplace—you need data scientists, programmers, analytics, et cetera. And these new skillsets require new tools to do their jobs, which is really disruptive. So the core of transformation is how companies manage change.”
When asked about lessons learned from their own digital journeys, and any advice they have for the audience, it all came back to framing the concept of digital transformation. “It’s not technology that’s disrupting business, it’s the customer. Technology is simply the enabler,” said Curtis Kopf, adding that leaders might do well to imagine how they’d treat their customers if Amazon suddenly disrupted their industry or took control of the company. Howie Wu said “Stop waiting around to be disrupted. Try to evolve with your customers and really listen to them.” Mark McKelvey added another layer of practicality by advising “Don’t get distracted by shiny objects. Define your strategy first, then build technology around it.”
Finally, Tim Goggin ended the conversation offering a great distillation of what it means to be a digital business: “At the end of the day, digital business is just doing business. And embracing technology and customer-centricity are two critical components in today’s modern business climate.”
Key Thought Exercises
Take a step back and evaluate your company’s technology strategy and investments: is it more about the tech itself, or does it truly serve customer needs?
What if a major disruptor like Amazon suddenly emerged in your industry, as they have done in the areas of entertainment and grocery stores? How do you think your company’s culture, business models, and behaviors would change where it relates to technology and customer-centricity?
Digital transformation doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the tactile realm behind—many businesses still rely on retail locations, physical products, and interactions with customers. Consider how your company is blending digital and analog. Are these areas supporting one another for the greater good of the company?