Deep Dive: How Sweetwater Builds Software and Personalized Experiences
Sweetwater by the Numbers
- Founded 1979
- Served over 1.5 million unique customers in 2020, up from just under 1 million in 2019
- Crossed $1 billion in revenue in 2020
- Added over 400 new jobs in 2020, increasing employee headcount by nearly 30%
In-House Tech Advantages
Developing its own in-house tech may not be an easy solution, but it offers many advantages in the competitive retail industry.
In developing its own customer software, Sweetwater is able to lean on fewer vendors. It also utilizes open source tooling, so it is less expensive as compared to license solutions that leave a retailer with little control or customization.
“The competitive advantage to developing custom software is there is a faster turnaround in delivering new features and gaining feedback on them from users,” notes Johnson. “Overall, this provides us with more flexibility and allows us to better personalize our online experience for customers.”
Developing a robust team to manage such a feat has been crucial to Sweetwater’s success. The retailer forms small teams it calls “pods,” which evolve around major business units with Sweetwater.
“The pods are led by delivery managers, who are part product managers, part process engineers, and part project managers,” he says. “These delivery managers work with departments to deeply understand their challenges and opportunities and craft software solutions based on them. Those pods are staffed with a development team that can bring those solutions to life.
“We have found extreme success in teaming small groups of highly focused and passionate people, and keeping them focused on their areas of ownership. We give those pods a great amount of empowerment to solve their customers’ (the department) problems. The developers and delivery managers can often be found working in the department side-by-side with their teams to really quantify and figure things out."
DEVELOPING CRM IN-HOUSE
As previously mentioned, in-house tech is one of the secrets to Sweetwater’s rich, personalized customer experiences. When talking about its customer relationship management (CRM) application, Johnson says Sweetwater improved its customer experience by deeply integrating its processes into the software.
For example, when Sweetwater has an internal customer service case on a customer, every employee that touches the subsequent order to fix the problem – perhaps a damaged product or shipping error – gets a simple popup explaining that situation. This allows employees to be able to present their best self to that customer in that moment.
“The popups are simple,” he says, “but building our own tools and platforms allow features like that to flow in the employee’s experience while doing their job. It can speed them up and it can slow them down at just the right time so our customers can have the very best experience.”
While the benefits to developing in-house software are many, anything of this scale requires coordination among many people and teams at Sweetwater, he notes. The most challenging piece of that is always coordinating all the facts and ideas together to come up with a real solution to the problem.
We often say, ‘We can build anything. Do you know what you want?’” says Johnson. “That becomes the challenging part. We understand what we want the customer to feel when they interact with us, but how do we get that done? Our greatest asset is being able to shift. We have so many processes that look nothing like what we had on day one. They have grown and changed as we matured over the course of the last year.”
Johnson’s advice to retailers looking to develop software in-house is to follow the best practice of getting your development teams to embrace the mentality that they are "owners." "Owners know their business and embrace the good and the bad, and spend time and energy wisely," he says.
Additionally, retailers should focus on prioritization in the process of building in-house software, which helps break down complex problems and provides clarity in the face of uncertainty.
“Lastly, retailers should be bold – take risks and don’t be afraid to fail fast and pivot. Figure it out, ship it and iterate.”