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August 30, 2022

[Step by Step] How Do I Choose the Right Technology Partners?

In this episode of Step by Step, we’re learning how to choose the right technology partners to help make a sound investment in a differentiated online experience for your customers. From state and local tax information to selecting the right vendors, we break down what you might miss but still need to know when selecting tech partners. Listen now!

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A Blendification of Brands

  • State and local governments have continued to rely on sales tax as it is one of the three pillars that governments rely on for income. 
  • Retail invoices have a lot of key components because SKU, price, and tax all have to be correct. Recently, Michael is witnessing more retailers demanding more and more precision.
  • Believe it or not, over the last 30 years, the sales tax base has actually shrunk. State legislatures have written bills to minimize what can be taxed. In turn, governments can only raise tax rates on discretionary income.
  • “You always want to select a vendor that will grow with you and can actually meet your needs.” - Michael
  • The biggest challenge that brands face is selecting the right vendor and not having the right systems to troubleshoot in the wake of a crisis.
  • Retailers of all sizes come to the table with different billing systems. Pick a partner who can move smoothly between systems.
  • Services overlooked when choosing a vendor are self-service ability and flexibility, so you can have the option to move your dollars around easily.
  • “The voice of the customer should be the customer.” - Brian
  • If brands want to differentiate themselves they need to find software that allows them to be a part of the process.

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Phillip: [00:00:11] Step by Step is brought to you by fabric. fabric is a leading modular and headless enterprise commerce platform helping brands and retailers to innovate and scale. Learn more about fabric today at

Brian: [00:00:37] Hello and welcome to Step by Step, the podcast by Future Commerce presented by fabric. I'm Brian.

Phillip: [00:00:43] And I'm Phillip.

Brian: [00:00:43] This is Season 8 of Step by Step, and you're listening to Episode 2 of 5. So if you're just jumping into the series midway through, we suggest you go back and listen from the very beginning because there's a lot more good stuff in the previous episode. In this five part series in Season 8, we'll break down exactly what you need to do to make a sound investment in differentiated online experiences. And we're bringing it all to you Step by Step.

Phillip: [00:01:10] Yeah, that's right. We are going to answer some big questions this season. But the biggest of all is how can I, as a business operator, make the business case for my brand to invest in experience? And Brian, you know, sometimes getting brands to invest in experience is different than getting them to invest in technology. They are not synonymous. They're not one and the same.

Brian: [00:01:35] They aren't one and the same. But often you need technology to be able to provide that experience.

Phillip: [00:01:41] Yeah.

Brian: [00:01:42] And so making good decisions about the types of technology you invest in can make a big difference. And that's a hard thing to make a decision about.

Phillip: [00:01:53] If that's true, then it stands to reason that the opposite is also true, that if you make poor decisions in technology adoption, you could have bad outcomes. And we've certainly seen that in the world.

Brian: [00:02:05] Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, well, first of all, we see a lot of blandification of brands. That all unto itself is one thing. But we even see worse than that sometimes where the customer experience ends up being disastrous and uncomfortable. A bad experience.

Phillip: [00:02:21] Yeah. And think about the kinds of things that sidetrack you as a business. There's nothing worse than getting your focus off of your core competency and shipping product and creating great products and great experiences for your customers and then worrying about technology. And that can be a multi-year distraction for a lot of businesses. You and I have seen it firsthand, and I'll tell you, nothing's been more distracting in our industry than a lot of talk around headless or composable or mock. And you've probably heard about all of these and you've probably heard a bunch of acronyms and there just seems like there are so many choices in that commerce just keeps changing. So if you are in that driver's seat today and you feel like you don't know which path you're supposed to be taking and you're overwhelmed, well, we can get you set on the right path today here in this podcast series. This is the one for you.

Brian: [00:03:14] This is for you if you're a growing or mid-sized brand and you feel like your website looks like just, you know, your competitors or everyone else's. Also, if you're in technology and you're concerned about choosing the right platform and being able to give your marketers the power to be able to create those experiences and do it in a really efficient way, this series is for you.

Phillip: [00:03:40] Yeah. Before we get into today's episode, I thought it would be really important for us to sort of draw out some topics here because we're going to actually do something really interesting in that one of the partners that are going to come and talk about how you navigate certain challenges within a certain domain space can set you up for success or can set you up for a world of hurt or failure. And before we get there, I thought maybe we could tease out some qualifying factors in the way that you choose technology partners or what are some differentiations in a bunch of these crowded spaces. Because when you buy software, you know this and I know this, when you buy software, you're buying into an ecosystem. And most often there isn't one point solution to rule them all like a clear de-facto winner for something like, I don't know, email or for SMS or maybe for reviews and ratings, or maybe even something like tax solutions. You're going to have to vet multiple vendors in your journey. And so part of your buying into an ecosystem is making really good decisions on who is who and who can best service your business as a technology partner.

Brian: [00:05:00] Yeah, I'm really excited about the interview we have ahead because I think it dives into that in a really fantastic way and brings up a really clear-cut example of that for one part of the tech stack. This is important across the whole tech stack though. And choosing partners can make or break your business. I think that if you invest in a piece of technology, and when I say partner I actually mean technology, there are types of technologies where it's pretty much plug and play. But there are other pieces of technology where you have to interact with either the vendor themselves or with some sort of implementer or some sort of expert, maybe it's internal, maybe it's external, that actually has to work on and in that platform all the time. And so being able to understand what kind of support, what kind of growth path there is, what kind of product roadmap there is, these types of questions are going to make a huge difference as you go to make that investment and not all investments end up with the same outcome. I've definitely seen that approach before. It's like, "Well, we just need to get something in there." That doesn't work.

Phillip: [00:06:20] Well, let's actually start then at one of the key decision factors, and that is the maturity of your internal team's capability to run the software that you're buying. I think one of the largest factors for success in eCommerce, we were talking before the show, it's like you can look at ten brands that all have identical tech stack and they're all playing in identical space and they might even have fairly undifferentiated brands from one to the next. And they're all targeting the same customers, with wildly different degrees of success. And I think it comes down to if you ask a VC, they're going to say product market fit. I would say that team technology fit is up there as being one of the serious make or breaks. Sometimes you buy software that's not right for your team's architecture or for your maturity as a business.

Brian: [00:07:16] Yeah. And you can buy up or down on that. I think that oftentimes, I've seen this where teams will buy something where the technology is actually not sufficient for their team's capabilities. Their team has more expertise. If they had picked a different tool, they had the team to leverage those tools in a much better way. We definitely see the flip side of that where you buy a tool and it's way overpowered. And I mean, I think we all know that happens.

Phillip: [00:07:48] Oh sure.

Brian: [00:07:50] All the boxes are checked. But no one has the ability to actually use them or even cares about using them because they just don't even understand their value. Yeah.

Phillip: [00:08:01] Another thing that comes to mind when you're thinking about a technology is maybe your ability, maybe your team has to learn to use this piece of software. Maybe you're looking to hire and retain people that are really qualified in operating that software, to begin with. So how pervasive and successful or quote unquote successful a piece of software is, you know, some hallmarks there might be are there qualified professionals that have gone through some sort of level of certification or demonstration of their proficiency? Has it been in the market for long enough that people have multiple years of experience on that platform and they've kind of felt out the rough edges already so they can bring that expertise to your business? And I think the other part of, and this is software qualifying, but I think one of the things that validate that software is worthy of buying is is there a healthy agency or implementer market that surrounds and supports that technology and the ecosystem? If you don't see specialist agencies that only are implementers and certified implementers of that software, maybe it's something that's not mature or ready for primetime for a certain team makeup and size.

Brian: [00:09:18] Or maybe it's just new and cutting edge and it just has... If you're willing to take those risks if you have the team that can handle something that's new like that, and what it has to offer you is actually really compelling, maybe you can take it on. It's just knowing your team and knowing the types of projects they can handle. And I actually, to your point, I think the SI ecosystem is also essential.

Phillip: [00:09:51] System integrator.

Brian: [00:09:52] System integrator. Yes. For the unfamiliar. It's essential, and picking the right SI, once you do find that that software has that, picking the right SI can also be well a make or break moment in your experience with that software depending on how involved that SI has to be in supporting you and growing your team and how much you have to rely on them as well. That's another thing. Sometimes talent markets are so hot that SIs own all the talent.

Phillip: [00:10:26] Yeah.

Brian: [00:10:26] So you might have to understand if you go into this ecosystem, you're going to have to rely on an SI in order to leverage the software because you're not going to be able to hire and retain and honestly probably don't have the expertise in-house to be able to manage a team that takes on that software build.

Phillip: [00:10:45] And I would say maybe the third one, and this comes out in our interview, another thing to watch out for is there a vibrant user base, a vibrant user community of people that are consumers of the software professionals that operate in that software every day where they are externalizing their learnings in other channels? And that could be in a bunch of different places. A lot of technologists turn to Twitter. Sometimes there are dedicated Reddit channels. Sometimes those folks wind up on like user forums that are hosted both on and off the business's site for user support. Or maybe there's a dedicated Slack group just for partners. And if any of those things exist, you can pretty much guarantee that there is a network effect of people who are willing and desire to help each other solve problems before you're having to turn to the business itself and go to the technology company itself for support. So rather than waiting around for support, you're connecting with other people in the community to help support you and solve common issues.

Brian: [00:11:55] Well, and I think even on top of that, and this is like a really good indication, is the technology company engaging that user base? Are they inserting or are they taking their opinions and their feedback? Have they created formal channels for connecting with that user base? Those are also great indicators. And we'll hear more about that in the episode as well. Again, this is... I cannot wait to get into this episode.

Phillip: [00:12:20] Yeah, there are certainly some thorns to be had in choosing technology, but none more so I can think of then one of the surest things in life, and that is taxes. You get it wrong and sometimes some people go to jail. I don't know, maybe it's an important thing to make a decision around. If you've got your eye set on one particular technology platform specifically around tax and tax automation, know that there are actually quite a few in the market these days and more popping up every day with a bunch of the sort of growing mid-market eCommerce brands that have one click solutions to install apps. You don't want a one click install of something as important as your tax automation and compliance. And so you've got to really think through it. And sometimes thinking through that requires you to have to think through how you qualify any technology partner. And there are some parameters there you can learn and apply to the way that you adopt other technology too. What if we treated every technology decision as seriously as we treat things like tax? That would be something else. There's a lot of diligence that goes into it. I can't think of anyone better to speak about it than our guest in this second episode here. And that is Mike Bernard, who's the VP of Tax Content and Operations and Chief Tax Officer at Vertex as he helps us demystify qualifying partners and choosing technologies as it concerns tax and many other things so that your team can deliver unique online experiences. Today we have Mike Bernard, the VP of Tax Content and Operations, and the Chief Tax Officer at Vertex, who's joining us on the show. Give us a little bit about yourself, and welcome to the show there, Mike.

Mike Bernard: [00:14:17] Glad to be with both of you today. Yes, I've been here at Vertex now for almost four years. I manage a global group of tax professionals, about 120 of them. And what we do is we produce a global content library. And what that means is it has all the rates and rules for if you want to sell anything in the world, whether you sell something in Seattle or you sell something in Germany, we have a tax rate for you, and it goes across many different types of industries. For example, it can go across telecom, leasing, retail, and a number of those things. And so glad to be with both of you here today and look forward to visiting with you.

Brian: [00:14:58] Thanks for joining us.

Phillip: [00:14:59] We really appreciate it. I thought maybe we could start now because sometimes folks see that we're going to talk about tax and they immediately sort of like, ooh, it seems like scary. We were talking before the show. You were telling us there are some really interesting developments happening right now that are going to impact a lot of retailers and especially a lot of changes, both regulatory at the state level, and economically, we have a lot of challenges ahead of us at the moment. Could you maybe catch us up on the state of the state as it might concern a retailer in 2022?

Mike Bernard: [00:15:36] Sure. I think retailers, obviously, beyond the things that have happened with COVID for the last couple of years, just in terms of the channels that they've had to develop and enhance, particularly moving brick and mortar or our marketplaces or their own websites where they're selling. One thing that we've seen a lot of is that the states and the locals have continued to rely on the consumer and particularly on retailers, for collecting or omitting sales tax. And if you think about it, sales tax is the one tax besides income and property tax that is one of the three pillars that states really rely on for funding. And what we've seen over the last, say, 60 years is that in economic downturns, normally what happens is a sales tax will go down more quickly, but it comes back more quickly than income or property taxes. And the reason is that, as it would make sense to most of the folks listening on the podcast today, is that because we're a consumer-driven economy. And so what that means is, particularly as it related to the pandemic over the last couple of years, is retailers and our company, we had to update our sales and use tax rates almost in record fashion. Looking back almost ten years, there were a record number of cities that actually put in a city sales tax. There were a record number of districts that put in a district sales tax. So those could be parks, it could be police areas, fire districts, all of those things that really, really suffered from and needed additional funds. And now that has exploded. And obviously, the amount of granularity that goes into selling something in the retail space has increased dramatically.

Brian: [00:17:23] So such an interesting time. I can imagine, especially in states, as you're saying, income and property taxes don't necessarily bounce back as fast. But Phillip and I are both in states, Florida and Washington, that don't even have income tax and are 100% focused on sales tax.

Phillip: [00:17:43] Yeah, I was like, "What's a state income tax?" {laughter}

Brian: [00:17:46] {laughter} So our taxes are going to swing wildly very quickly since so much revenue is dependent on sales tax. As you said, we're a consumer-driven economy. And so this is a challenging time as retailers look at how to handle these situations. What are some of the ways that you've seen that can help mitigate some of this?

Mike Bernard: [00:18:10] Sure. I mean, I think more than anything, what retailers are always concerned about is whatever they sell, that it's properly rated. And what I mean by that is when they produce that invoice, that invoice has a lot of key componentry to it. It has to be sent to the right person. The SKUs have to be right. The extended prices have to be right. And yes, tax has to be right. And the thing that I think we've seen more than anything is that retailers have demanded more and more precision. So the granularity of what we call a tax engine, and a tax engine just basically is a place where you make a call to a piece of software, and that software is going to tell you that a say a refrigerator, whether it's sold in Connors, Georgia, it may be subject to 8% tax or it's sold in Seattle, Washington, and it may be subject to 10% tax. But the precision around that call and the proper amount of tax that's collected and remitted is actually key. And so that's what retailers have been mostly concerned about. The second thing that they've been really concerned about, too, is because they're selling at such a fast pace, particularly in the eCommerce space, they need to have what's called tax reporting or tax returns. So if you think about it, when you file your tax return, your own individual return and you file it once a year, you file it hopefully before April 15th. And so what these returns, though, in the sales and use tax space is you have to file them every month. So you don't wait till the end of the year. And so when they sell something in January, they have to remit, collect and report on and return all of that information in February. And so the pace that goes with that is that has to really be automated. And so not only does it take away from any kind of errors, but you also get the precision around the proper amount of tax and that the return goes improperly. So you're not subject to any fines or additional penalties. So those are some of the challenges that they've really had in the retail space.

Phillip: [00:20:15] There was a detail in there that I think is really interesting is that the levers that a consumer has, let's say that you're sort of a middle class, middle income family who rents. Your levers for tax liability are governed mostly by how much you spend. So you may not make a big purchase that has... Or you might align your purchases around tax holidays. We just had one for back-to-school here in Florida. We had an extended back-to-school tax holiday. We have them around hurricane season for hurricane prep as well. Definitely, the implication of how much tax you spend from a sales tax perspective has a real impact on the way that consumers spend their money. So if more consumers were in more control of how much tax they actually are liable for because of their purchasing habits as opposed to something that they can't control, like the cost of their home or their relative market rate for their home on which other types of taxes might be based, how might that be playing out and is that a shift that's realistically something that we might see in our lifetimes? I don't think the government works very quickly on these fronts.

Mike Bernard: [00:21:27] They don't. But I think one of the things you identified, Phillip, was really important. There are really kind of two... there are four components that mostly consumers spend their dollars on. They spend them on, as you identified, housing. They do spend it on energy, and transportation. And then the last one is health care. And if you take a look at that, depending on where you live, those four expenditures can amount to up to 60 to 70% of what the consumer is actually spending. And so a lot of sales tax is actually on discretionary income because if you think of what's happened at least in the sales and use tax space... And so health care and housing since are not subject to tax, that's why you've seen over the last say particularly the last 15 years, the rate of sales tax has gone up and it's at an all-time high today, a combined rate of almost over 10%. And it's going to stay high. And it's probably going to go higher for two reasons. One is just because of inflationary problems and issues that states and locals now have today for paying people, retaining them, and for the products and services that they actually have to pay for inflationary. So they're going to continue to need more money to pay for those things. But the other piece of it is, over the last, say, 30 years, the sales tax base has actually shrunk. So what I mean by that is state legislators have continued over this time period to give more and more exemptions around the sales tax. So if you think about when you go to the pharmacy, you don't pay it on prescription medications, you don't pay it on unprepared food or groceries and things like that. So the amount of exemptions that are actually in there has continued to escalate. And that at the same time, the only way the states and the locals can make up for that is to make the rate go higher. So I think, as I said in my previous comments, I think there's going to be more pressure on consumer spending and that will continue to drive obviously higher tax rates and it's just going to become a higher cost of whatever people acquire.

Phillip: [00:23:41] Don't these things sort of shift around too by category? Pretty quickly, I think we just saw Colorado dropped sales tax requirements on feminine hygiene products. And so this is like a moving target by category and by region all the time. It's not sort of a set it and forget it. It's not only nuanced it's it's like a moving target, right?

Mike Bernard: [00:24:03] Most definitely. And the the example that you cited was precisely correct. In fact, this year in most state legislatures, that's what a lot of the state legislators were exempting were consumer goods, particularly as it affected feminine hygiene products and particularly food is where you saw a lot of exemptions. And historically, groceries have been exempt, but now prepared food is being exempt as well. So they continue to give relief. I think one of the states that gives the most relief is California. And their base has shrunk the most. Hawaii still has a very expansive base. And South Dakota still has a very expensive base because they rely on those types of taxes.

Brian: [00:25:41] You mentioned accuracy is really important to brands, retailers coming up here, merchants. I mean, that is probably always true with tax, I would imagine, but particularly as things start to swing more and more. What are some other things that merchants need to consider as they pick a partner to assist with that accuracy? What are markers of the types of tool sets that they're going to need in this time? Both in tax, but they're making a lot of decisions around a lot of tools in this time, but specifically coming from your area of expertise, I would imagine that content's a big part of that given that you're the VP of Tax Content and Operations. That's probably a pretty big part. I'll let you answer, though.

Mike Bernard: [00:26:27] Sure. No, no, but it's a very good question. I think not only just with tax, but in a broader sense, if you think about it, you always want to select a vendor that can actually grow with you and that can actually meet your needs. In the tax area, that's if you're going to sell expanded services or products, you want to make sure that that vendor, that tax vendor has an opportunity to provide that granularity of selling across different lines. And so for example, one of the things today that is sold quite often are what are called bundle transactions. And so bundled transactions means if say you go into a store to purchase a new phone, not only are you purchasing the phone, but you're also probably purchasing a service contract. You're also purchasing some insurance. You might have another kind of contract that is associated with it. And so you want to make sure that your vendor can actually pull all of those components apart and actually make sure that they're taxed properly. And so that's the thing that we're seeing a lot today. And I would say the biggest challenge that most... So from a business perspective, you want to make sure that your businesses are understood by your vendors and that they actually have the capability to service those vendors, whether they're selling different things today, which is a bundle transactions, or whether they're going into new geographies. And the other thing I would say too that's happening in the tax world is you want to make sure because services are becoming a larger component of what's subject to sales tax, that's going to be something else as well. I'll mention one other thing, and this is kind of like the number one issue as it relates to retailers. For whatever reason, retailers come to the table, they can be a small retailer or they can be mid-market or they can be large, but sometimes they're using different billing systems to sell things on. I would just say whatever you do, make sure you can pick a partner that can actually take that data and move it smoothly through, whether it's a tax engine or through it's a billing system. But they can move all of that commerce very quickly and very frictionlessly. And that would be the main thing that I would tell you. And then lastly, I would just make sure that whatever happens that the vendor that you select has a solid consulting group behind it, so that if you run into problems or if you need support, they can troubleshoot that business very quickly and obviously get you back up and get your moving wherever you're trying to sell or you're trying to move those things. So just a few tips on that.

Phillip: [00:29:17] One of those I think it's sort of a key piece there that we often overlook is that in choosing software, at least in the modern era, a lot of it has really come down to self service and to the point that we don't expect any kind of service whatsoever in choosing a software vendor. A lot of the criteria for selection, and Brian and I know from our consulting background many many years, RFP is very, very frequently really just focused on fit and function and tactical execution. Very, very often what actually resolves problems and what the length of the long term nature of the relationship is how can you help me solve problems directly over time that are outside of my realm of expertise? I want to sell candy and cookies. I want to sell goods online. I don't want to have to be an expert in tax or in the technology that drives my tax. From a services perspective, what are some of the services that are typically overlooked when choosing a vendor that you come up against?

Mike Bernard: [00:30:28] Well, you've identified one, Phillip, that's extremely important. The service end of it is self service. And so what we've seen from our customers, particularly over the last say five or six years, is that they want a self service model, so that they don't have to incur large fees around actually trying to troubleshoot some of the issues that they've had. And so then they use those self service models. So you have to have a really robust customer community portal website where you can go and you can actually fix those things. The other thing I would also look for is look to see if there's a robust community within that portal of where customers have an opportunity to dialog against each other. So where somebody might have an issue in one space, you may have the same issue as well. And so oftentimes that community actually self service itself. So I would say those are two things. The other thing too in support is look for something that has some flexibility in it. In other words, that you're not in a contract that is a stated amount of dollars every month. But if it is one of the best models that we've kind of seen out there and we're implementing this as well, is you pay a certain amount, but you're able to move those dollars around between support and maybe licensing and some consulting. So I would look for some flexibility in terms of when you're paying your vendors, that you can actually move your dollars around to fit the needs that you might have. Could be on a monthly basis or yearly. But I think that's also really attractive as well. That's kind of what we're seeing today, and we're seeing a lot of retailers like that model as well.

Phillip: [00:32:12] Brian, have you ever heard of a technology company before saying that they have a community that actually is valuable?

Brian: [00:32:22] I mean, I can think of one. Or two or three.

Phillip: [00:32:26] I find that to be interesting because there's so much conversation around building communities. But in reality, the thing that you just mentioned there, Michael, that like really opened something up for me is communities can help each other self service and to answer and support each other if given the opportunity to they just needed like an open, transparent forum for that to take place. And while I think a lot of consumer brands have gotten really high on their own supply in talking this way as if people buying yoga pants want to help other people buy yoga pants, I do believe that there are people that have fundamental issues in their business that do find and connect and solve problems together in customer forums that are open, transparent, where they can connect with each other, that take the burden off of the software vendor, and that at the end of the day actually results in sometimes a better experience because this is another intangible that comes along with choosing a software that would never make its way into an RFP. I find that to be really fascinating. Brian, I had a lot of presupposed ideas coming into this conversation that have all been subverted at this point.

Brian: [00:33:39] It's interesting.

Mike Bernard: [00:33:42] Well, then one thing I was going to say, too, is when you look at that kind of model, though, that model actually demands an editor or a subject matter expert within that company who monitors that forum, and I think both Phil and Brian you know that, that you have to have somebody who's actually in there kind of mediating or moderating or adding additional expertise to that forum. So it just can't be something that's out there. And then everybody kind of talks to one another. But the most successful ones that we've seen is where there's a subject matter expert who is dedicated at the company to actually monitor and add content to that forum as well. So look for that as well.

Brian: [00:34:30] I think one thing the community can sometimes do is it can drive people towards similar solutions because as someone who's really vocal in the community can actually bring about sort of uniformity to some degree. How have you seen the companies differentiate as they look at these partners? They're looking at their communities. What are some ways that they can leverage the tools available to sort of stand out? And is that even a good thing to do right now? We've talked about this a lot during this series. What it means to enter into an environment like this and how to differentiate whether that be like through saving money or building experiences that are different from your competitors.

Phillip: [00:35:27] If the IRS is hiring 87,000 new agents, I don't know that I'd be wanting to stand out too much these days. {laughter}

Brian: [00:35:33] From a tax perspective, maybe the way to do is make sure you're hitting all the right notes. You're not outside the herd.

Phillip: [00:35:41] Yeah.

Mike Bernard: [00:35:42] Well, I guess what I would say to you is our work at Vertex and I think this is something you should look for in any vendor, is that as it relates to software, you should be picking vendors who are allowing you to build their software together with you, the consumer, and also with them. And if you think about traditionally what happened for years and years, software vendors or partners took in a bunch of information and they would produce a product or service or software that they thought was going to be helpful and useful to whoever was buying it. And today, that point of view can't really exist anymore. There's just too many people out in companies who are selling things who are really, really intelligent and have some expertise that can really be used by some of these partners that you're utilizing. And so one of the things that a lot of these companies have moved towards, and we've heavily relied on this, is what are either called customer advisory boards or there are boards that they can sit on with minimal type of time commitment to it and maybe they might meet two or three times a year. And you can come as a consumer and say, "Hey, look, there's a feature that you are missing in this software," or "Hey, why can't you add this service?" Or, "Hey, I really like what you're doing here. Can you guys expand this a little bit more?" So I would look for some place where the consumer actually can be involved in the development of that product or that service or that software. I think I can tell you this right now, companies and I think both of you know this having been around for as long as you've been around, you know that is some of the most impactful, thoughtful ideas that can come forward. And actually, what we have found actually in our company is that a lot of our customers are willing to lend in either co-developing them or contesting them or or giving us or laying out really what their vision is of what something can be or should be. And I would say always look for something like that as well. I hope that answered your question, Brian.

Brian: [00:37:56] My gosh, no, that's exactly... That was the best answer that you could have given because I love the idea of having the voice of the customer literally be the customer.

Phillip: [00:38:11] This is like so up Brian's alley from a student of philosophy perspective right now. Fourcault is just, you know, getting all the warm feels at the moment.

Brian: [00:38:20] Opening up discourse. I love it. What a great way to leave this too. I think that's a great punctuation point or an exclamation point to this conversation. If you want to differentiate right now, you need to find software that allows you to be a part of the process.

Mike Bernard: [00:38:40] Correct.

Brian: [00:38:40] That I think is a different way to look at things and maybe hearkens back to some of the open source world that we've come out of. We've moved to like such a black box type pieces of software that software vendors are just pushing on you. Instead, why don't they pull on you and why don't you work together? Well, thank you. Thank you so much, Michael, for joining us. It was an incredible conversation. I learned [00:39:12] things. I think you hit on all the right notes and what a great way to wrap up this season of Step by Step. [00:39:21]

Mike Bernard: [00:39:21] Oh, well, thank you for the invitation. And it was great to be with both of you today.

Phillip: [00:39:25] Thank you so much. Thank you so much for listening to this season of Step by Step. You can find more episodes of this podcast and all Future Commerce properties at You can sign up too to get invited to any of our events that we have coming up. We have so many amazing events, everything from happy hours and get togethers around conferences to our salons. You can get on the list and you'll get our newsletter that comes out twice a week, The Senses, that's everything that you need to know about how brands and people intersect and how commerce happens. That's called The Senses. Comes out twice a week. You can get that and more, including your invitation to all of our events at Thank you so much for listening. Remember the future of commerce is what you make of it. Commerce will shape the future and we can shape commerce.

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