A Top 25 Business & Marketing Podcast
Get to know your customers and build your brand; How the VP of E-commerce at Conn's HomePlus takes what he learns from customers to make a better user experience

October 20, 2020

Get to know your customers and build your brand; How the VP of E-commerce at Conn's HomePlus takes what he learns from customers to make a better user experience
Play Episode

In this episode, host Ryan Alford talks with VP of E-commerce at Conn's HomePlus, Satya Sivunigunta.


What's up?! -- And happy Tuesday! You're listening to the latest episode from THE RADCAST! 

This episode tells us business people something we should consider more in our e-commerce strategies -- the user's experience! In this episode, host Ryan Alford talks with VP of E-commerce at Conn's HomePlus, Satya Sivunigunta. Satya entered UX design and management before it was even considered UX designing. He's worked at Nike, Microsoft, JC Penny's, and more.

One of the key take-aways from this episode, are the steps to better understand your customers. Ryan and Satya discuss working with big names, navigating e-commerce strategies through the holidays in a Covid world, the important parts of brand management, and more!

Follow along for more radical happenings in the business and marketing world... visit us at theradcast.com | Follow us on Instagram @the.rad.cast |  Follow our host on Instagram @ryanalford | For more information about Conn's HomePlus, visit their website here | Connect and follow with Satya on his linkedin here |

Transcript

Ryan Alford[00:00:55] Hey guys, it's Ryan Alford, welcome to the latest episode of the Radcast. We are in the middle of our e-commerce series that's been going really well. We’ve been bringing a lot of great content and a lot of great guests. We brought yet another one today. He is the VP of ecommerce at Conn’s HomePlus; a lot of you have heard of Conn’s HomePlus but not Satya Sivunigunta. Good to have you, man. You got me there on the day you won the contest. Do I do okay?

Satya Sivunigunta [00:01:25] OK, now you're spot on and I think you can't really go wrong with that name. But I'm glad to be here. Thank you for having me. 

Ryan Alford[00:01:39] You bring a lot of good experience which I want to get into here shortly before we just dove into the standard stuff. I mean, you guys have been hanging on through Covid-19. But how is Conn's as a workplace? I know it's somewhat of a new role for you. But how are things going on? 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:01:58] Things are fantastic. I think Covid-19 has brought a lot of new challenges that none of us has anticipated. So it's my job to help. Can't get to the next level on the e-commerce space and cons as a whole, as a great company. So how do I bring that level of e-commerce, intelligence and e-commerce talent and team and agility and nimbleness and all of those to continue what I'm here for? Being with the company only for almost six months now. So there's a lot of good stuff that we've done. But there are another 24 months of hopefully phenomenal stuff that's coming down the road. 

Ryan Alford[00:02:40] Well, so let's start with telling everyone your background and where you've been and what led up to where you are today. 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:02:56] So I come from a product design background. If you look at my career, I started as a designer in the user experience space before it was even called UX. So all we called it was graphic design or marketing design back then. But the one advantage that I had for me was I came from a product design, like a physical product design. So touching, feeling something and sort of experiencing the usability of anything that you build was super important. So when you're designing a coffee cup or a mug or a pen or whatever, you tend to build a prototype in foam or clay and touch it and feel it and make sure that that's usable. That's where I was. And then when I got hooked onto the computers and in 3-D modeling and animation, that's what pushed me into the computer space. And then once I got into it, I said, well, I don't have to go wear a dirty t-shirt and keep working with foam and cleaning all day long in a workshop. I could do all that on the computer. So what was the trigger? Me on my digital journey. And I got my first gig with Nike as a designer on that, on their marketing team. And I was part of the team that took Nike Dotcom, which was a marketing site to shop that Nike Dotcom, which was the e-commerce site of Nike. So very grateful to be part of that team, built out the entire experience, the taxonomy, navigation. How does a product details page or out of the transaction work and all that? But that's where I got my bearings in 6, 7 years.

Nike has been one of the most phenomenal companies that I work for. I work for some great folks like Microsoft, but Nike really grounded me. There are some amazing, talented folks that were there that I had the fortune to work under, get trained under and learn and grow from, which would sort of set the foundation of how I operate. Even till today. I mean, all credit to Nike for where I am today for sure. 

Ryan Alford[00:05:54] That's great, so we started at Nike. Was Microsoft next? 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:06:01] No, that's a chain. Every interview that I go to, people typically ask me, oh, why did you move right there? There's a single common element in my journey of my going from job to job. It is that I’ve been recruited by somebody or I've followed somebody that I work with. Same story with Nike. I had a fantastic boss. She moved to Microsoft to lead their e-commerce team and she said, “hey, we need you to come be part of my team”. Call it gratitude. Call it loyalty. The fantastic team that she built. I followed her and several others from Nike to join Microsoft to lead their product design team and UX team. I was part of the Microsoft Azure cloud and then also the Microsoft commerce platform. Microsoft was trying to sell stuff online. They still do today in my team's responsibility was to sort of build-out that entire e-commerce experience along with that, a few other things. But yeah, mostly it's just e-commerce. And then from there, I went to Ogilvy, which was, again, a phenomenal move. I moved all the way from Seattle to New York City. Again great role, a great team followed somebody that I had worked for before, led banking, retail and health care, primarily product teams. So we would typically go solve problems for clients and try to understand the problem, empathize and quickly come up with some digital solutions. From there, I moved to Chicos down in Florida. Let their e-commerce teams, then JC Penney work for two leaders. These were phenomenal leaders and I learned a ton from them, then went up to Detroit to work for a private equity firm which bought art van furniture and then finally to Conn’s HomePlus, back in Texas.

Ryan Alford[00:08:45] Being an agency owner and the time you spent at Ogilvy and anyone that's listening that knows the agency world there's a zero to it may have started and ended with David Ogilvy in some way, shape or form. But an interesting perspective being client-side as much as you have, but also spending six years on the agency side that probably maybe talk a little bit about that, that perspective probably armed you pretty well, I imagine on the client-side, understanding the agency tactics. I'm sure most of the size companies you've been working with, you've probably had an agency that worked with you. How was that dynamic? Having myself been the CMO on the client-side as well? It's been interesting and eye-opening playing both sides of that fence. But any perspective there? Do you empathize with your agencies a little more? 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:09:52] I do. Actually, it's both for sides. So every time I bring in I've got multiple agencies today, no matter where I go, the internal team feels like the agency doesn't have empathy towards the brand. They don't spend enough time knowing the brand. They know who you are, what pains you go through. You are high-flying hotshots. Do you think you could come in and solve all my problems? That's the internal team's marketing team or whatever, though, right?  You think you can solve a problem in like 12, 16 or 18 weeks. 

Ryan Alford[00:10:38] And you and we've been spending 20 years doing it. 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:10:44] On the flip side, I think the agency is what taught me is the agility factor. You move really fast. You've got very little time. You've got to understand the problem. You've got to empathize. You've got to come from the other world, empathize. And then you've got a prototype and then you've got to test to validate, iterate and then go back and build another prototype. And then finally, you're sort of ready to go get in front of the customer. That typically takes quite a bit of time if you live on the brand side, because brands and companies move very, very slow and given the red tape and all that, that sort of exists within an organization, I think that's where the agencies come in and are able to seamlessly navigate and empathize with everybody but really mission-focused and getting things done. That's what I learned. If I have to distil all my six years with ugly is learned agility, how to move fast, how to how to be nimble and then get your message across within the 30 minutes that you have with the client, even within 30 minutes, you really got five minutes to make an impact and then that's it. So I totally empathize. 

Ryan Alford[00:12:15] What got you into e-commerce and where is there obviously doing user experience. Customer experience is obviously a national transition as digital from a digital perspective. But was there some natural, innate curiosity in e-commerce, just a natural progression of the career? 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:12:40] So Nike was the beginning of e-commerce that gave me the taste of what ecommerce looks like. But this was 1999 0r 2000 when e-commerce wasn't the way it is today. Microsoft wasn't e-commerce. What Ogilvy did was give me three choices. I've got a path. Now I could go down the health care path because I work with folks like Cardinal Health and some of these bigger health care clients. I can go down the banking path or I can go down the retail path, and I work for JP Morgan Chase on some of the other products and Amex. I really like the speed and the pace that retail moves, there are days that I absolutely hated it. I regret every single decision that I have to get in retail. There are some days, but most days I love it. The fact that I wake up in the morning, the first thing that I do is look at the hourly reporter, the nightly report that comes in from a revenue standpoint, from my product teams. What are we pushing out? What are we changing and what was the impact – So KPI-driven, the amount of impact that you could potentially have by doing a very small change is enormous in retail, given the amount of traffic that we see. And that's where I want it to be. That's what I love. I really love being in retail.

Ryan Alford[00:14:43] In your job, I would think it would be hard thinking about transactions versus branding like our customers because you typically think of banking as you think of transacting and it's not that the banks don't have a brand. I don't want to say that at all. They most certainly do. But in your role, is it purely how to drive more transactions or are you charged in any part of the brand lifting? 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:15:41] The way I would answer that is in today's world, in the last 2-5  years, the brand has sort of blended with a transactional relationship. A brand that you love and you aspire to versus “this is some this is some company that I just go buy stuff and I've got no relationship with” that has really come together. These no longer are two separate marketing metrics. Commerce metrics and brand metrics are very close. There's quite a bit of overlap. With Conn’s, the challenge or the problem we're trying to solve is – people know that we do offer credit and financing, people know that we do sell appliances, electronics, mattresses and home offices. When you come to Conn’s, we've got your back, no matter what your credit profile is. I think that's the level of messaging from an e-commerce standpoint. So it's no longer about them transacting with you. But I really love the experience, the customer experience and the end-to-end experience you provide. So the biggest challenge that I have is how do I make these transactions frequent and marry that with our brand. Because 95 percent of the people that transact in stores started doing it online, especially after the pandemic. People start online at Conn’s.com and then walk into the store. So if I can't leave an impression on them, then I actually essentially set the entire company for failure because they're not going to even be able to walk into the store. So there's a beautiful analogy that I had in the last couple of years: “People think e-commerce has a store”. In most traditional companies you have certain stores. We've got 100 plus stores. so a digital platform becomes your entry to every physical store. 

Ryan Alford[00:19:22] But customer experience is “a brand” itself? 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:19:26] What you experience, what you feel, what you see, what you experience is brand. It's no longer what we say, what we play for you, the music, the colors, it's just one. 

Ryan Alford[00:19:40]  That makes a lot of sense. And it's interesting because we've had a couple of other guests on the income side, and they battle the franchisees or the individual stores, depending on the model of the business thinking of “dot (.) com” as competition. And, I don't know if you guys battle that, but the reality is that the customer journey starts there and you can have friction over that or you can accept it and leverage it to complete the customer journey wherever that ends. 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:20:20] So the first time that I experienced animosity was at Penney's a little bit. There was always this friction in stores, but because of the compensation model – as it's not a commission-based business. It's salaried. There are some KPIs, but a majority of the store folks are salaried. But when I move to the private sector, it's mostly commissioned by the sales staff in-store, meaning if you don't pick your numbers, you're probably going to make minimum wage at the end of the day. And the downside is a little bit of a similar model. The downside is if you don't sell, you're not going to make any money. But the upside is if you sell a lot, you're a rock star performer, you make a lot of money. So there's been the perception in the industry and I've talked to a lot of people in the furniture industry and especially in this type of model where they see e-commerce as the enemy. And I've had to go through several District manager-level meetings with the store folks in my previous life where we would go in and we'd say, “this is what we're trying to do to drive traffic. I know I can't convert 95 percent of the people that come to the site, but if I can send 10 percent of those 95 percent that come to the site, to a store, you guys went right”. So I think the whole omnichannel concept is a big one at Conn’s. We're trying to really push that. And I've got a tremendous partner for retail business. He was there for almost 15, 17 years. But we believe that it's omnichannel. I know that word is slightly stale and overused and all that, but at the end of the day, you're going to store it for us. You go online. We're here to sell, build confidence and sell a product for you. You buy online, you buy and store. Doesn't matter. I think what we have to do on our site is do a better job of sort of connecting the dots so you're not starting from scratch. If you go into a store – a seamless, elegant handoff you build your credit profile, you build your application online that we do that. By the way, today you build your credit application, and you can go into a store. So you're not having to spend a few minutes trying to fill up your credit application. But you can do that online. But then you can just take that and go into a store and buy. 

Ryan Alford[00:23:07] When you put the customer first, a lot of these things tend to follow the wayside because the customer doesn't care what your internal problems are. The customer doesn't care about what you argued about. Seamless, frictionless shopping experience from online to in-store. If you put your stock, better stay online at that exact store and you’d be able to start an application and pick it up. 20 years ago, the expectation was set for the convenience factor for the customer. 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:24:12]: I think somebody said if you can make an appointment online, a ten-dollar appointment for a haircut, I don't have a problem. 

So, I mean, you could do that five years ago. So if you can do that online, you should be able to know where an item is in a store-level inventory. “Is this item in store or online?” “Can I get it today or buy it today?” “Get it by when?” These are becoming conveniences, but are table stakes for me. And if you can't get to that level of clarity with inventory or our promise, it’s futile. I think that all of that is just table stakes now. And if you can level the playing around, you're out of the well.

Ryan Alford: We've got a big holiday season coming up keeping in mind the post-covid scenario. Is there anything you can share with what that's doing to your planning and what kind is going to try to combat that? And still what makes what's a super important time period for any retailer? 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:26:37] I think playing by the rules, the biggest challenges that we're trying to encounter or solve are the social distancing factor for us. You're not going to see lines, hopefully, if you do see lines, hopefully people are maintaining six feet social distance or at least wearing masks or protecting themselves in some way or the other. It's about the promises. The inventory promise, i.e. making sure that if you place an order with Conn’s dotcom, getting it, getting the item on the day, on the time that we promised to you, that's one level of promise. Also, we're doing all this other stuff with a driving sense of urgency. But what we're trying to do is give that convenience for the customer to be able to actually just buy online. And then we're doing online exclusives, but we're also doing in-store exclusives for people that really want to go into a store and buy. Given that I'm only here for six months and Conn’s is doing tremendous investment into e-commerce, it's about stability for me. So the technologist in me is once a stable peak, a site that doesn't go down, coupons that work, you might consider my e-commerce sales and support team is available 24*7 for that week that we're supporting customers, placing orders online, getting the items delivered to you quickly. Like it or not, inventory challenges are real across the globe, and we're not. Because of the Covid, it's not that we're not unique to that situation, just playing with the inventory and making sure that the customers get the item keeping the promise or saying, that's my goal. I think it's just about keeping the promise for me at this point. 

Ryan Alford[00:29:08] And that's admirable and most are focused on how many sales they can get. But delivering on the promise is the long game in the long game win. So and that's branding in itself, because if you start delivering on those promises that you make and there's going to be a lot of people that probably won't deliver on those promises, because if you focus just on the urgency in the sale and the product, what you're going to do, I'm sure you're going to have that as well. As you said, it's time period specific, but keeping the promises are pretty key. So as we kind of wrap up, you've worked with some of the biggest and best companies in the world. I mean, what's an accomplishment or two that sticks with you is things that you hold out there that you're proud of? 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:29:58] I would say the best accomplishment that I can truly tell my friends and family is yet to come. Let me just say that, right? That's how I feel. 

Ryan Alford[00:30:18] OK, we are yet to climb the mountain!

Satya Sivunigunta [00:30:21] It's a journey, right? And so the best accomplishment is yet to come, but I've learned a lot. So, I can't discount what I've learned, but there's a tremendous amount of learning that I've done. But I haven't climbed Mount Everest yet. 

Ryan Alford[00:30:49] Well what does success look like for you then? Like you've been successful. I mean, what does it mean do you see yourself? Obviously, you're just getting started second. I mean, you're six months in and on your way there. Do you see it? Hey, I want to write a book, I want to know I'm going to start my own company one day like any aspirations out there that are there or you take every day as you go. 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:31:23] So personal aspirations are –  I'm a private pilot – I want to finish my pilot certification. Not commercial, but my instrument rating so that I can actually fly on top of the clouds or underneath the clouds. So I think the biggest goal. So that's my personal aspiration. I and my wife have a six-year-old. So to focus on both my wife and the daughter is another goal. And we want to have a certain lifestyle with the planes and just get out there every Saturday morning, fly to a nobody's tiny little airport, get some breakfast, spend a day there and come back. These are a lot of fundamental things for me. 

And then but from a professional side, one thing that I really am learning is to be a good manager. I. Since 2005, I've led teams like started with one person to 200 people. So the biggest accomplishment for me would be to be a great manager. Because it takes humility, awareness, compassion, thick skin, firmness and all of that to be one. It's very tough to be a manager that would be a leader. Let me just say that a leader of a team, a leader of an organization, that's where I would see that's where I want to be as I grow and go up in my career. 

Ryan Alford[00:33:35] I love it. That's great. And I really appreciate your time, man. And work if people keep up with you. So people want to follow you along. Where they can follow your journey and keep up with everything happening at Conn’s?

Satya Sivunigunta [00:34:15] I tend to be more active on LinkedIn just because you can write and post thoughts. I've done quite a bit of that in the past with every new job. People can follow me. I'm happy to connect with people and all that. I'm too less active on Twitter than on LinkedIn just because the amount of stuff that I want to say is a lot more than what Twitter can let me. So I think LinkedIn is fantastic.

Ryan Alford[00:35:03] The links to all that in the show notes everybody can find you, Satya. Really appreciate your time and appreciate you coming on the Radcast. 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:35:13] I appreciate your time and thank you for having me. It's been fantastic chatting with you. 

Ryan Alford[00:35:23] Of course. Go shop Conn's home plus this holiday season and tell them the Radcast Center and we'll see you next time. 

Satya Sivunigunta [00:35:35] Thanks, Ryan.  

Ryan Alford[00:35:36] Really enjoyed the sit down with Satya the VP of e-commerce at Conn’s HomePlus we really covered the gamut across e-commerce. And the interesting aspect with this and our e-commerce series is the perspective of customer experience and how that builds brand in times like now, not only with e-commerce growing but during a pandemic the expectations of consumers. Really fascinating hearing his perspective, both at Nike, Microsoft and now as he transforms Conn's into a major e-commerce player. Really enjoyed this in our e-commerce series. And I hope you'll continue to listen along.

Satya Sivunigunta

VP of E-commerce at Conn's HomePlus