When a business wants to innovate and capture a different market segment, that might involve some big changes. For some, this also might mean changing from a direct-to-consumer approach and targeting your product toward other businesses. What are some elements and surprises to consider in order to make a successful switch? Cox Communications Product Lead Kelly Hoople shares how her path led her to a product leader role, and what it takes to be successful when moving a business from B2C to B2B.
On elements and surprises when moving from B2C to B2B
When a company decides it is time to make a switch with some or all of its products, there will be some areas that are different when comparing a B2C plan with the B2B world. There also could be some surprises along the way, as Kelly shares some of what she experienced when Cox moved to a different sector.
“Consumers behave one way, and Cox Communications was a very good cable provider, taking care of our communities and our residential customers, providing video services, and always growing and investing in the network. But switching that over and now wanting to serve businesses, businesses have different demands and different risks. We quickly saw that significant change of the consumer demand versus commercial, customer demand, with reliability being so critical. When your services work, they’re fine, they’re happy, it enables their businesses, but the minute they stop working, those businesses are losing dollars every minute and they can’t afford to. So that was a big factor in moving from B2C to B2B that can’t really be underestimated.
For some of the surprises, I was shocked at how important it was that we understood the regulatory environment we were operating in. We came into the business at a time where regulatory agencies really wanted competition to bring down the cost of telecom services. The cable companies like Cox Communications were becoming competitive access providers, and those regulations really did open up some doors for us to go in and get our feet wet in competing for businesses. The other surprise was, who is going to take a risk on putting their big telecom services with a cable company? Cable companies had a reputation for serving the homes and serving them well, but the companies were not used to the idea of using them for their critical infrastructure services.
Within the surprises were that we actually were able to win over some of the municipalities. Initially, it was maybe one municipality I worked in the Virginia region for most of my time here at Cox, and can’t say enough about the Hampton Roads region. All of them, the municipalities that took us on, helped work with us during that time. Municipalities and the health care organizations were tremendous partners early on. Some of the banks, as they grew over time, became equally great partners. Within the surprises was an element of these were not customers who were just trying you out, these were customers that were going to be long-term partners. To this day, we continue to build our relationship and our services around what the municipalities need from us, and how we can have a win-win relationship.”
On moving from a small, innovative team to a B2B product that scales
You can have innovation and people who are passionate about it, but how do you move the mountain in a visible way? There are a lot of things to take into account during the early stages of moving from B2C to B2B, and in the end, you want a successful B2B product.
“It’s definitely a challenge. In the early days, we found that we had a product that fit just to us was a small group of companies. The healthcare companies were getting larger and larger as they did acquisitions, there’s only so many municipalities in an area, and even banks were going through acquisitions. When you run out of those, you have to look to other businesses to scale what you have going on. Our business had to change and to change that, you have to be open to adding new features and functionality and listening all over again.
It really can take you back to the beginning to a time when you were figuring out how was this business going to run, and you’re talking to your customers and building something that works for them. Now you have to look to an expanded customer base. Within that, you have to assess, can we still be competitive? I don’t think we talked that much, about how we move from the time of freedom and support to a time where you have to become profitable. That does eventually happen. It’s nice to have the freedom and support to take an innovation to something where you decide that you’re not going to fail fast, you’re actually going to succeed fast. This is going to be something that the company does want to do.
When you get to the point where you’re going to succeed, and you want to grow that further, you’re continuing to look at the profitability and the numbers, and making sure that as you expand, you’re continuing to do it in a way that it’s either efficient, something you can do over and over again, or you can find things that can be automated and fit enough customers to scale.
The truth is not everything we do is going to work. I remember our company trying something three or four times and if the environment wasn’t correct, whether that was the regulatory environment or something else, then that particular idea wasn’t the right fit for that time, or you didn’t get it quite right, or the competitive environment wasn’t right. How do you repeat that success story of innovation? I think you have to try a lot of things. Your work environment needs to foster a place where you can try things within that safe environment because the innovation needs to foster it. … You incubate within the freedom and you have the support to do some of those failures. And out of some of those ideas will come the successes that you look at and say, ‘Hey, we have something here,’ and now let’s start to put the structure around it slowly. That’s when you begin to scale with that particular innovation.”
On what it means to be a B2B product-led company
For a product-led company, whether B2C or B2B, the focus is on the individual roles and how it all comes together to produce the best product. Kelly uses the analogy of an orchestra, which best illustrates this concept.
“When I joined the company, there were about 10 of us trying to figure out this commercial services thing. Was it going to work or not going to work? I remember a coworker of mine talking about her job as the order management person, but she also cleaned the bathrooms. You do whatever you have to when they are only people there. You’re probably not going to have a product person when you’re only 10 people strong, per se. But as the team grows, and everybody gets a chance to specialize a little bit more, that’s when it becomes more obvious that maybe we should have a product person.
Another angle on this for me was when the product role really started to become necessary. Within our small organization, as an operations person, I had a perspective on things from engineering and operations to how to run the network and why were my salespeople just selling all these things. At that time, my general manager handed me a Harvard Business Review article on the natural tensions in an organization. He said that’s exactly the way you should feel as an operations person. It is designed that people in their functions will represent a concept from their expertise area, and you all come together with your diverse ideas. Because of those natural tensions, respectful arguments, and bantering, you’ll get to a better answer. That speaks of what the product role grows out of, as I see product roles.
The best analogy I have is really the orchestra conductor. The person in product is representing the customer from the large macro-scale of ‘I’m running this orchestra, I know the vision of how this piece is going to be played out, and I need to conduct all of these organizations to do their thing, but we have to play together and produce beautiful music for our customers.’”
About the host
Nikki is a cloud and software product Director who works with a global team of talented engineers and architects in designing and implementing innovative solutions from product inception to production. After spending over a decade working in product engineering and management for multimillion dollar technology and start-up companies, Nikki believes what truly drives innovation is not only a commitment to technological breakthroughs but also people’s passion in improving everyday lives by building products that leave a lasting impact, disrupt the industry, and are vehicles of change, while providing the best user experience. When Nikki isn’t working on her next big product release or entrepreneurial endeavors she is spending much needed time with friends and family discussing the latest politics, or simply the meaning of life. She’s an adventurous traveler who also enjoys capturing moments through photography. Nikki also holds a B.S. in Computer Engineering , M.S. in Electrical Engineering and has a corporate innovation certificate as part of the LEAD program.