Chief Technology Officer of Guitar Center
Ravi is a digital technology leader with more than 25 years of experience across multiple industries, including high-tech, retail, and SaaS. His retail experience includes serving as Global Vice President, Digital Engineering & Operations at Best Buy, where, among other accomplishments, he defined their Enterprise Cloud Strategy. At Guitar Center, Ravi is responsible for all technology resources across the entire organization. His strong understanding of software products and platforms, as well as foundational systems in infrastructure and ERP, has been driving technology innovation and customer value in support of Guitar Center’s strategic initiatives. Prior to joining Guitar Center, Ravi was Senior Vice President of Technology, Software and IT at Gogo Inflight Internet Company, where he provided strategic leadership and devised the long-term vision for their software technology organization.
We’re extremely delighted to have him part of our series and listen to his insights. Below the clip, you will find a text summary of our conversation.
Listen to our podcast interview with Ravi
What are the challenges that you think retailers will face within the next quarter and within the next year?
Ravi Balwada: That’s is an interesting question. A lot of us are wondering about what the state of recovery is or the shape of this recovery is. We often hear about terms like “is the recovery going to be a V-shape recovery” where things are going to come up steadily, or “is it going to be a W-shaped recovery” where things will come up and go down again? We are very focused on the concept of fractional resumption in a W shaped way. What I mean by that is that it is these types of things that are driving our technology strategy as well because we will see situations where the county or neighborhood level retail will be impacted because an incident happened with someone contracting something and organizations will need to shut down for cleansing.
There will be distribution centers that might be disrupted along with supply chains where we will continue to see some volatility. This is how we are looking at our business to see how in these conditions we can forecast more effectively and figuring out how to build a more agile organization to handle this type of volatility. At the same time, as we go through this model and given how far we have come, we are adapting our businesses
through this model and given how far we’ve come so far, we are figuring how to serve our customers in the different odes in which they won’t engage with us which could fluctuate on a weekly basis depending on how much density is allowed, what people can access, and then we’re building capabilities where it allows we can be multi-model going forward.
Amber Naqvi: I think volatility, agility, and speed of decision making, as you said, are really driving the decisions that we are making today and this speeds up some of the innovation and agility that retail has needed to satisfy the ever-changing needs of the customer, things, you know, retail has needed.
Are you seeing any false market trends being pushed or any market confusion currently, based on the situation?
Ravi Balwada: In terms of false market trends, nothing substantial but there is a lot of talk about the world of retail changing completely where everything is going to go to contactless. I do not know if that is going to happen but I think contactless is a fringe capability that has been built and it might continue to be one way in which customers engage.
Ecommerce, there is a lot of talk about e-commerce potentially becoming the only way in which people will shop but you cannot take a broad-brush approach to that. When you look at specialty retailers, different types of organizations, even things like grocery, etc. I do not believe that the physical store and the experience that people expect to have going into that store such as the ability to select, interface with an expert, have conversations, and learn about products, is going to go away.
There is a lot of confusion just around things such as the predictability and reliability of supply chains. The concept of same day delivery and two-day delivery have taken of backseat these days as people are more focused on consistency and being able to get their goods, but this whole concept of instant gratification is shifting. People just want to know that they are able to get their goods but because of supply chain and logistics, that is just so unpredictable at this stage.
One more thing I would probably add is, of course, anytime something like this happens there are always questions about the sustainability of the physical retail. We are hearing stories about organizations that are faced with that and are looking to financial engineering, etc. but at the same time, this is a rapidly moving landscape. There is a lot of capital and support out there. Companies like us are managing our business in a very granular and meticulous way and we have tremendous optimism that is by no means the death of physical retail.
Amber Naqvi: I like your point about specialty retail being special and how some of the goods and their physical presence in the store enhance the experience that the consumer has, which continues to be irreplaceable. In fact, it provides a unique experience for customers that they will continue to look for.
What are the things that you are doing at your company to come out of this as a stronger business and have a minimal impact on your overall profitability?
Ravi Balwada: Our goal is to continue to have an increased positive impact on our ability to serve customers. Some key initiatives that we had underway, even before we entered this crisis, were focused on the customer and providing more personalized experiences through the life journey of the customer and their pursuit of musical aspirations.
That continues to be a big focus for us, of course, what we are doing in that space has since shifted because now when we talk about the customer, it is not only something that we’re looking to implement in stores but we are also extending these capabilities to channels that are more active for us today, such as curbside delivery and contactless channels such as online e-commerce business. We have obviously started to accelerate our capabilities and enabling them while focusing on serving the customers in those areas, that is number one.
Secondly, lessons are one of the fastest-growing parts in our business and always have been. With the crisis coming in and the need for physical distancing, we had to pivot very quickly to figure out how we could continue to serve our customers in this new environment. Because we were able to build a new capability in weeks that allows us to deliver an amazing online lesson experience to our customers, it has been huge for our instructors to be able to stay employed and huge for our students who are able to continue their lesson journey. In just a few weeks, we delivered over 100,000 lessons online. The interesting thing about this is that this is not a capability that will go away, we have built something new in terms of a new business that will continue to be an augmentation of the capabilities we have today.
Another area, in terms of us being opportunistic and recognizing how we can better serve our customers in these times is the idea around used gear. We have a very strong business in used gear. People like to buy used gear from us because they can get amazing value and we are able to help our customers upgrade their sound by selling things that they may have not otherwise bought. This is an area that normally you’d have to go to the store for but because we are building capabilities where we can acquire used gear through technologies like video conferencing, providing people estimates, etc. it is making it a lot easier for the customer and even the seller.
The next big area for us is around supply chain. Logic has done some amazing work for us around understanding and identifying the opportunities where we can draw greater value. By unlocking value in our supply chain, as you guys have suggested, all of our brands are able to tap into our inventory across retail online and stores, and is allowing us to better serve our customers because we are able to sell them things even if they do not live in a specific area. This also allows us to fulfill the demands quicker. Thank you to Amber and his team at Logic, your team did great work.
Amber Naqvi: Thank you Ravi. You also put a lot of emphasis on data, the clarity that it brings to companies. You have been helping companies to leverage data which has been an asset in the last 15 years of your professional life;
Any recommendations on how to leverage your data for business continuity today?
Ravi Balwada: I’ve seen organizations that tend to be more intuition driven and that intuition works great in normal operating conditions. In a crisis, when your distribution centers are shut down by maybe a health inspector or your stores are no longer available, you still have orders that need fulfilled and that are inflight, etc. The level of real-time visibility that you need into information and the speed at which you need to make decisions just accelerates. In this environment, we need to stray away from relying on daily or hourly reports and need to move to real-time analytics.
We need to be able to drill down into where there may be a bottleneck. We need to be able to diagnose problems in our supply chain and need to be able to diagnose issues for customers very rapidly. Through this crisis, fortunately, we have been able to pivot a lot of our efforts in the reporting and BI and data insights organization to now start to leverage cloud capabilities. Using technology to get real-time dashboards is something that we are working on everyday, if not every other day. We are always rolling out a new dashboard for some part of our business whether it be around curbside delivery, order allocation, or just having greater visibility into backorders, etc. That is one area that is crucial to how we are making information available in real-time.
The second area that I want to share with you is the idea of clienteling. We have been trying to leverage all the information that we know about our customers to be able to serve them better. One of the innovations that we brought in as a result of the Covid crisis was the ability for our store associates to work remotely while still being able to reach out to their customers and continue to build relationships.
As store associates are building these relationships and growing them, we are helping our customers enjoy their musical aspirations during these times. We have made significant enhancements to applications like our client telling solution as well as our omnichannel visibility as customers are spending more time online. Asking ourselves, “how do we enable our store associates?” Now that we are interacting with customers more over the phone, how are we connecting with what the customers’ needs are to serve them better while coming across as one brand that is strong across multiple channels. In our world, those channels are the online business, the contact centers, and the physical stores which have now become virtual stores.
Amber Naqvi: These are some great examples of overcoming adversity and taking advantage of some of those situations that are coming your way and turning those around in the positives.
What are the top five mistakes that you think businesses tend to make at a time of extreme stress or pressure?
Ravi Balwada: Well, unfortunately, I do not have any great sage wisdom that is my own but there is one quote that comes up very often in how we are operating our business and how we as a technology organization are addressing how the company is are able to succeed in this crisis and it is a quote from Winston Churchill which says, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. There is a lot of insight in that of course, there is no such thing as a good crisis, but it is also an opportunity where everybody is very laser-focused.
The level of coordination that you get and the opportunity that you have to address things that you wouldn’t normally be able to address or that you would be addressing at a much slower pace comes with huge committees. It’s a great time for us to step up and not only mitigate the problems that we have, but also take on the opportunities that we have to drive the improvements, to drive the improvements that we need to drive while finding new ways to service our customers.
Amber Naqvi: We’re looking at this crisis as a challenge that we have to overcome, a problem that we have to solve. The approach we take to solve these problems is collaborating with each other, leveraging the knowledge that we have accumulated over the number of years, and applying it with focus and dedication towards our business. These are the things that I believe will help us come out the other end as a better, more effective business. And as better technology leaders, as a result.
Ruthless prioritization is the key when it comes to navigating through uncertainty. Any words to help organizations prioritize the right initiatives?
Ravi Balwada: I believe that as you’re prioritizing, having some sort of a rubric or framework to say, “how are we going to organize our portfolio? How are we going to decide what to work on? What are we going to go slower on?” That process becomes extremely crucial because there is the risk of just having complete chaos and turbulence at a time where you really need to be able to do fewer things very fast and then move on to the next set of things but there is an urgency to get everything done quickly.
We fortunately embarked on this journey with some of your guys advising us along the way. Adopting scaled agile in our environment and adopting processes to be able to manage the portfolio of work that we have has been excellent advice. Those processes have come in very handy for us to one, make sure that we have good methods to be able to estimate the level of effort to have really good methods and two, to be able to do things where there’s a higher risk appetite of working on things like minimum viable products, not letting perfection get in the way of progress during these times because that could take you a very long time. Rapidly prioritizing, executing, and picking up the next set of things is super important. Of course, you can’t do that, particularly as a technology organization if you don’t have tremendous mindshare with your business partners.
I sit on the executive committee of the company and work very closely with my partners that are running the supply chain, that are running the finances, that are running the stores, and that are running lessons and this is the time where we are no longer just a service organization, but we are constantly communicating to see how we can bring in technology to help solve the problems that we are uncovering every day. Partnership, of course, is super-critical and part of those conversations, naturally, is prioritizing based on return on investment with a near-term horizon as opposed to long-term.
We are very confident that things will pick up and will also provide long-term value but the things that we want to roll out today we think of it on a Monday, we start building it on a Wednesday, we get an agreement in real-time by Friday, we roll it out, and then by Monday we have a dashboard showing the value that it has delivered. That is the process we are following which is very outcome-driven and I believe that is super important in these times, in a very compressed timeframe.
What I described from Monday to Monday, one week experience is exactly what we did with online lessons and what we did with ideations and actually getting that business running on the first day of launch (weekend), we delivered 3,000 lessons and that was our beta. Yes, there were some hiccups, but you just need to execute in a way where you launch, lean more towards getting it out there and then perfecting it after the fact which requires partnering all the way down to our store associates, etc. so that we are supporting them in the early life adoption of some of these things.
People during these times are willing to adopt these experiments, willing to adopt these solutions, and they are willing to help you find new ways to serve which is just tremendous and something that you have to take advantage of when the opportunity presents itself.
Amber Naqvi: It highlights and incredible effort in the speed at which you must deliver some of these solutions which will bring a lot of reward. Speaking of return, can you talk a little more about the importance of putting measurements, yardsticks, along the way so you’re able to track that return and leverage solutions in the right way while creating a roadmap to success?
Ravi Balwada: Absolutely, the need for that is more amplified now more than ever before because there is so much that could be done. We are being very selective about the work we take on and when I say selective, we are looking at things that will provide us the biggest bang for our buck. This is the one time where we talk about DevOps but there is an element of ROI with that process itself. As we are designing these solutions, we are designing ways to measure the value and the outcomes that we are targeting to get out of the solution.
When we launch a new capability, whether its curbside pickup or whether it is shipping for a certain brand out of our stores from a different brand, etc. When you look at these things, we absolutely cannot afford to just put it out and wait to hear from the grapevine whether it worked or not. We need to know very quickly what reactions we need to take, what adjustments we need to make. With the idea being outcome-driven and everything we’re doing is with the goal of being able to serve our customers better and maximizing ROI not just being fiscal but also in terms of customer satisfaction and fulfilling people’s dreams around music.
We are very rigorous about not rolling anything out without the dashboards and telematics that will allow us to see what’s working and what’s not working while asking ourselves along the way “are we realizing the results and the outcomes we targeted?” With a near-term horizon, we are literally working on the things where we know we will see the ROI in a small petri-dish type of environment very quickly, within days, and that then gives us the confidence to roll out examples of that in both curbside store, shipping, etc. We will roll something out on a Monday to a set of four stores, by Wednesday we will have enough data and telemetry to be able to measure the ROI which then gives us the confidence to say “let’s get this out to the rest of the stores by Friday.
Amber Naqvi: For those of us who have been dealing with technology for some time know how incredibly speedy that is. I am sure that the tools have evolved to a point that enables us to work at that speed. Ravi, we want to thank you for working with us, thank you for your insight, and your guidance through examples on how others can do and achieve all the success that you have achieved during this crisis while encouraging companies to keep adding capabilities to their business, not just during this time but also the long term.
Ravi Balwada: Amber, thank you for being such a strategic partner. You are at a point where you have much broader visibility into what leaders like me are doing and I get a lot of value in my conversations with you. Thank you for your partnership.