Seth Earley founded Earley Information Science over 20 years ago. Since then, the company has grown to guide many of the world’s major brands as they improved customer experiences through “integrated enterprise architectures.”
Throughout his career, Seth Earley has shown his passion in stressing the role of information management as modern commerce continues hurtling toward the digital age and accepting digital transformation. Seth has also challenged executives with essential insights that would help them take their organizations to the future. Today, companies that deliver excellent digital experiences to their customers reach the top, or stay there.
Besides Earley Information Science, Seth Earley is also a highly regarded speaker, writer, and influencer. He brings to his speaking engagements his extensive history in teaching and research in the field of industry.
As a speaker, Seth Earley covers several topics. These include becoming an AI powered business, where he discusses the unavoidable role of artificial intelligence in modern industry and commerce. Another topic is disrupting enterprises, where Seth discusses the power of startups to disrupt industries that have been dominated by giant corporations for decades. Finally, Seth also covers digital transformation, where he covers the digital industry landscape, from customers, suppliers, partners, to competitors.
With Earley Information Science, Seth Earley takes pride in being thought leaders in the field of information science. According to the company website, they “contribute 100 new ideas each year.” The company continually publishes works in several industry outlets, while Seth goes on speaking engagements. These ideas eventually become the latest innovations in an industry defined by continuous change and development.
Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Seth Earley: There is a lot of traditional advice about work/life balance for entrepreneurs. For me, I make two things sacred — sleep and workout. I used to go with little sleep and power through it. But there is so much research about how vital sleep is to every aspect of our physical and mental health that I prioritize getting a full night sleep over everything else. It is easy to give your body short shrift and neglect the essentials. Read the book by sleep researcher Matthew Walker Why We Sleep. If there were a drug that provided all of the positive impact on our lives that sleep does — from mood, blood sugar, blood pressure, cognitive function, emotional wellbeing, weight control, even our physical appearance and skin tone it would be a multibillion dollar blockbuster. The old saying is get your beauty sleep. For anyone that has pulled an all-nighter, the alternative should be called “ugly awake”.
I also make sure that I go to my zoom boot camp classes. I don’t like working out but I like how it makes me feel. I take my physical shape for granted after 40 years of training but again, it is something I never sacrifice. People put more maintenance into their cars and physical possessions than their bodies. You can buy a new car, but success will mean very little if you end up with heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes from not dealing with stress and taking care of yourself.
Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Seth Earley: I am grateful for all of the people who have helped over the years. Even though they may have moved on, I appreciate the work and contributions they made during their tenure. I am also grateful that the long-term team members have stuck it out and put up with me over the years. There is one person who was one of my first customers 27 years ago. She sold her business about 17 years ago and came on board to help out. She is retired and does not need to work but has come out of retirement multiple times over the years to help get us through a tough spot. I have had some bad leadership hires (everyone will in business — it is difficult to hire senior people and ensure their success) and Joyce has stepped in whenever we have had a gap. What is funny is she actually had fired us due to a team member who was not being forthright with her (he did not last) and I stayed in touch, came to a wine tasting and we developed a friendship that has lasted all of these years. I am also grateful to my wife who has a strong business background and works with leadership teams. It is very challenging to work with one’s spouse but she pushed me many years ago to prioritize on the right things which made a big difference in the trajectory of the organization.
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Seth Earley: One thing that I have seen is organizations doubling down on the digital experience. One of our services is optimizing the customer journey by fine tuning the supporting data and infrastructure. In order to produce a truly seamless experience, a lot of elements need to be orchestrated — knowledge and insights from across the organization have to be integrated with the customer journey, the correctly structured product information management supported by sophisticated content operations. At the end of the day, it’s all about having the right information for customers when they need it so they can solve their problems and meet their wants and needs. Because the digital experience has to do more than it ever has, reading the customer’s “digital body language” using well designed and integrated technology is critical. Organizations are recognizing the need to invest in the foundation of solid processes and quality data because one cannot support the customer experience through acts of heroics. It has to be through well-coordinated digital machinery. Acts of heroics do not scale. Great customer service has to be engineered into the core experience, not bolted on as an afterthought. Why do people call the call center? Because something is not working. We have to solve those problems at the source.
In addition to putting more human resources in customer service and support, there is increasing automation using intelligent virtual assistants. Unfortunately most bots are dumb and damage the customer experience. But those organizations that understand how to apply knowledge engineering to bot design are seeing significant cost reductions while improving service. It’s not a quick, cheap or easy approach, but the benefits are there if done correctly. The key is to be very narrow in functionality, be clear with the customer about the capabilities of the bot, and always be able to quickly, seamlessly escalate to a human agent.
Jerome Knyszewski: Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Seth Earley: They can compete. As I discuss in my book, The AI-Powered Enterprise, they can do so by listening very carefully to their customers and anticipating what they need. Think of the best sales person you ever dealt with. They knew you and your style, your preferences, your budget, what you valued. They called you when they had something they knew you would like or when there was a sale. They listened. They were knowledgeable. You trusted them. They cared and wanted to please you.
In situations like that, price may not be the most important factor. Think of the fact that two physical stores can carry the same merchandise but have a completely different looks, feel, and experience. Lighting, displays, shelving, aisle layout, naming, themes, product curation, support, service and more make the difference.
We need to have the same level of understanding of customer’s needs and preferences, and respond in real time as they go through their experience. It is a cliché to talk about understanding the customer and everyone nods their heads about understanding their customers. But how customers actually interact and behave is removed from the technology and architecture. By making that crucial connection, retail and ecommerce companies can serve their customers at a higher level and in different ways than their overseas, low cost, and behemoth US competitors.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Seth Earley: Innovating at a pace that is faster than they can adequately operationalize. Being able to operationalize is the key — that means documenting code, testing use cases, investing in data quality, building governance processes, measuring baselines. It does not need to be heavy weight. But it has to be there at some level.
Someone once said to me while discussing information architecture “we don’t have taxonomies, we use agile”. Those are two unrelated concepts. One is a design element and the other is a development approach. Conflating the two as mutually exclusive illustrates a lack of understanding of a foundational element that organizes information. It’s there whether it is intentionally designed or is created by happenstance.
Not intentionally designing things that are at the core means that everyone develops their own ways of naming and organizing things. That means there is no common model that people can work around. That leads to a mess. Adding too many new tools and developing at a pace and with an ambition will incur a larger technical debt load than the company can handle. Creating minimum viable products that have to be supported while trying to develop new functionality or adding new tools will slow the company down when it tries to scale. Not having enough process discipline will ultimately impede growth and adaptability .
Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Seth Earley: The basic blocking and tackling. Integrating systems, maintaining systems, conducting ongoing testing of the experience, installing governance. It’s the stuff that is not exciting or sexy and no one gets glory for it.
Jerome Knyszewski: One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
Seth Earley: That is a difficult one that defies a purely technology based approach. One can apply sentiment analysis to identify emerging problems and the only way to address it is to listen to the customer and respond, attempting to solve or rectify the issue. In some cases, people are just cranky or they may be doing something for some other motivation and there is no appeasement. In those cases, kill them with kindness or kill them with quality. Publicly if possible. Or do something else for the brand giving back to the community that will build good will. A little can go a long way especially with some creativity and thoughtfulness — especially if the gesture is visible to the malcontent.
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Know your audience. I built a personalization architecture and at the end of the process, the marketing department could not come up with differentiated messaging because they knew so little about them
2. Focus. Trying to be all things to all people will not serve anyone very well. Once you understand that target, be laser-focused on catering to those detailed needs you have identified in item 1
3. Don’t skip the hard parts. Whether this is market research, user research, or documenting code and setting up governance know what is enough and don’t give it short shrift
4. Get the foundation right. This includes data quality and carefully designed product, customer, content and messaging architectures. (Yes, architectures, plural)
5. Be realistic. Understate the expected results. Overstate the expected costs. As I have told other entrepreneurs, have at least 6 months of runway and expect things to take twice as long and your results to be half what you estimate.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Seth Earley: My website and social media are:
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!