Interview

AITech Interview with Aurelien Coq, Product Manager at Esker

In the SaaS industry, competition can be fierce. Explore the interview to find out how to stay ahead of the competition.

Aurelien, could you elaborate on how your professional experiences and background have contributed to your current position as Product Manager of Esker?

Prior to my current position as Product Manager of Esker’s Customer Service solution suite, I managed Esker technical support teams both in France and the US. I wanted to use the customer knowledge I gathered while helping Esker customers and bring my contribution to providing better products that fully answer customer needs. That led me to becoming a Product Owner within Esker’s R&D department, following the Agile Scrum methodology. I then became a Product Manager for a predictive lead scoring startup where I developed the necessary skills to position and market a new product, aiming at helping marketing and sales professionals develop their businesses. 

I then came back to Esker as a Product Manager where I can combine my technical background with my many years of business and technology experience to deliver solutions that relieve Customer Service professionals from time-consuming tasks and enable them to develop new skills.

What is Esker’s overall vision and mission as a company? How does the organization strive to make an impact in the market or industry it serves?

Esker’s mission is to create a better business experience: businesses face uncertainty and need to build stronger relationships with their employees, as well as their customers and suppliers. We want to enable all stakeholders in the ecosystem to generate value together and never come at another’s expense. This is what we call the Positive-sum growth. 

With our AI-powered cloud platform, we want to make an impact by automating finance and customer service processes, ensuring team members are more productive and engaged and eventually strengthening the business ecosystems of our customers.

As a Product Manager in the Order Management domain, what are the key challenges you face in delivering a successful SaaS product? How do you address these challenges?

The first challenge that I face is actually not specific to the Order Management domain but rather generic to all product managers: how do you make sure that you identify the most important problems and pains for your users and how do you make sure that you address them and provide value. In a nutshell, you need to remain close to your users and keep this user-centricity when developing your solutions. But I’ll come back to this topic in the following answers.

Then, as our solution targets B2B companies and each company operates slightly differently, another challenge consists in identifying the common needs that can make our product better globally, and not only for a niche of customers. But at the same time, sometimes, we want to provide features that mostly make sense for a given industry (such as pharma, medical device, or building materials), because there is a pain that is not answered by the market and we cannot only rely on the customization capabilities of our consultants to bridge the functionality gap. So, finding the right balance between adding generic and target industry-specific ones is a challenge.

Finally, we actually do not have a lot of competition for our Order Management solution that automates the data entry of orders in the ERP. This is both a good and bad thing for us because we spend a lot of time educating the market, conducting research and for instance get limited help from IT Analysts who don’t know very well our specific market, and focus more on the Supply chain (what happens after the order is in the ERP), or the B2C customer service (while we focus on B2B customer service automation). This research, market education and positioning takes more time and effort for this solution than for others in our portfolio in the Invoice-to-cash or Source-to-pay markets that are much more established and defined.

Gathering customer feedback is crucial for product improvement. How do you ensure a continuous feedback loop with customers, and how do you prioritize and incorporate their suggestions into the product roadmap?

Effectively, user-centricity is key when improving products to ensure new developments answer market needs. Our goal is to do UX research and remain close to our users by talking to prospects or customers regularly and understanding the daily job, challenges or aspirations. To feed my thought process for product enhancements, I speak to a potential user at least once a week: this can be through presales calls with prospects, follow-up meeting with customers, virtual and physical user groups in our different countries, or analysts who speak themselves to a lot of potential customers. 

Sometimes, we put a specific emphasis on UX research and design to explore a specific area or improve specific features that could answer better customer needs. We are usually involving external partners for this research and design projects, who are specialized and can bring us their expertise when interviewing prospects and customers to gather their needs or testing ideas and prototypes.

Our prioritization process is based on the alignment of a given feature or set of features with the vision and strategy that we have defined for the solution, as well as the number of customers that could be interested, the value that we would bring them if we can partially or completely solve their pain and also the technical feasibility and solution that we can propose. For instance, we recently added the ability to process free-text orders and automatically extract key data such as the shipping address or product quantities from unstructured orders received in the body of an email. This is something we had to set aside for a while because we did not have an appropriate technology to answer this need. But thanks to AI Large Language Models (LLM) such as ChatGPT, we can now understand natural language and have been able to implement the automated capture of key data from those free-text orders. 

Can you elaborate on how Esker on Demand, What specific features or capabilities does the platform offer that contribute to this streamlined experience for your customers?

We aim at making it easy for our users (the Customer Service Representatives of B2B companies) to use our solutions, and typically easier than the ERP systems, so that they can be onboarded quickly, feel comfortable using it and can advocate for the deployment in other divisions or countries.

For instance, our solution features easy-to-use collaboration features allowing CSRs to have tracked conversations on any orders, both internally with coworkers in sales, supply chain or finance and also externally with customers and partners. 

Also, as our solution relies on a lot of AI technology, we put effort into providing users with transparency, allowing them to understand what technology is used and how the system works, which increases their trust in the solution and facilitates user adoption.

As a Product Manager, you need to make decisions about prioritizing features and improvements. What frameworks or methodologies do you use to prioritize product enhancements?

We use agile methodologies at Esker for the product developments and our R&D uses the Scrum method with 2-weeks sprints containing small functionality increments, defined via user stories and organized in a prioritized backlog. Actually, at Esker, this is rather handled by our Product Owners who are part of the R&D department, and work hand-in-hand with the Product Managers who are part of the Marketing department. This scrum backlog allows us to have short-term visibility, at least over 2 or 3 sprints (so 2 months), but usually not more than this.

Actually, for the mid-term roadmap and long-term vision, we use other tools: we have defined our vision and strategic axis for each solution and review those at least once a year, first between the Product people, and then with the whole Esker leadership. This vision and strategic axis help us define the 6 months to 1 year roadmap where we place the big epics (set of features that are all related) or goals that we might to achieve. For this roadmap, we are currently migrating from an internal tool developed in-house to a product management solution that will help us gather the customer or internal feedback, the feature requests, and then generate the roadmap, tying the items to the associated requests and strategy axis, and providing more visibility both internally and externally, for instance with the ability to easily share our 1-year roadmap to prospects under NDA, analysts or customers.

In the SaaS industry, competition can be fierce. How do you differentiate Esker’s Order-to-Cash solutions from competitors, and how do you maintain a competitive edge in the market?

As mentioned earlier, we actually only have a limited number of competitors for our customer service solutions and mostly for order management automation. We have a lot of competitors globally on the Order-to-cash cycle, but the vast majority focuses only on the Invoice-to-cash piece of this cycle, meaning what happens after the invoice is issued and how it is paid and how this payment is allocated. There is an Invoice-to-cash Gartner Magic Quadrant that analyzes this market, and we were actually named as a leader this year. 

Going back to how we maintain a competitive edge in our solution, we first differentiate with our use of AI technology embedded in the solution. We’ve actually been innovative on AI for a very long time as we started introducing machine learning data capture algorithms 15 years ago (we recently obtained a patent for this technology, but we actually submitted the patent request 12 years ago and it took a very long time to be granted). So, we’ve had an edge on the technology over competitors that have more basic solutions with standard algorithms that cannot automatically learn or handle a vast diversity of order layouts and want to keep this edge by continuing to invest. Also, the technology that we add to the solution always answers users’ needs and brings them value, we are not driven by the marketing power that AI currently has in the market.

The other differentiator is our will to automate from end-to-end and provide a system that integrates with the IT infrastructure already in place, also not forcing our customer’s customer to change something in their process. To provide an example of the end-to-end automation capabilities for our Order Management solution, one of its main capabilities is that it can quickly and accurately extract order data, but there is a lot more around managing orders, including in the exception cases: we allow CSRs to manage all orders, not matter the type (email, but also EDI or ecommerce), we provide collaboration capabilities to clarify internally and/or externally an order, we integrate with the ERP and CRM systems, and can also deliver order confirmations and ship notices back to customers, according to their preference (email, EDI, portal). Then, we propose other Order-to-Cash solutions that integrate seamlessly with our Order Management solution as they are built on the same platform and use the same technology. This suite of end-to-end solutions allows our customers to start by automating one process of the cycle but then automate other areas and improve the efficiency.

Finally, even though this is not directly related to our product but rather to our company, we provide exceptional customer support thanks to our global presence, by setting the right expectations in presales, providing reasonable implementation timelines and proactively supporting our customers post-go-live via their account manager and an online forum to learn best practices and connect with the broader user community.

Can you discuss any upcoming projects at Esker that you are particularly excited about?

We have recently launched our Customer Service solution suite to automate all tasks of B2B customer service departments: new orders, but also requests for quotations, change orders, return orders, claims and general inquiries. This is exciting for me because it really expands the scope of our historical Order Management solution that was mostly focusing on automating order data entry, and we start to have more customers using those new capabilities and seeing benefits for their businesses. 

Associated with this expansion of scope, the AI technology advances such as the ChatGPT and the Large Language Models in general are also very exciting as there is an alignment of powerful tech capabilities that answer important needs that we could not necessarily solve before. Those advances open a new field of possibilities and could help us position and market our solutions better.

Esker’s product portfolio might expand over time. How do you ensure that the Order Management solution aligns with the overall product strategy and contributes to the company’s long-term goals?

In the past 3 to 5 years, we have released multiple new solutions to complete the Cash Conversion Cycle, both on the supplier (Source-to-Pay) and customer (Order-to-Cash) sides. Within the Order-to-Cash suite, we created a Customer service suite by adding Customer Inquiry Management and Claims Management to the more mature Order Management solution. So, for the mid-term, my goal is to improve our existing solutions and ensure they provide more value rather than launching new solutions. This objective aligns with our global strategy that consists in automating customer service and finance tasks and relieving back office users from tedious tasks so that they can focus on more value added activities.

Can you share your strategy or proposed measures to streamline the process and ensure a more seamless and satisfactory customer experience?

For our Customer Service solution suite, our vision is to help B2B companies offer the best customer experience possible, with personalized interactions, easy ordering, fast shipping and simple returns. We then defined the 4 following strategic axis: 

  • Answer quickly and appropriately customer inquiries, with AI assisting the CSRs and proposing them relevant responses.
  • Improve the order and other other sales documents automation: such as the free-text unstructured orders, or the request for quotations (unstructured free-text emails or semi-structured PDF or Excel document)
  • Facilitate the Customer Service collaboration internally with sales, supply chain or finance departments or externally with customers and partners.
  • Increase the customer Self-service by providing more options on the portal such as the ability to create and view inquiries, view and accept quotes, place new orders and make down payment, track the order shipment or trigger returns.

Aurélien Coq

Product Manager at Esker

Aurélien Coq is Product Manager at Esker’s headquarters in Lyon, France, where he is responsible for Esker’s Customer Service solution suite. Using his many years of business and tech experience, Aurélien works to relieve customer service professionals from time-consuming tasks and enables them to develop new skills by automating Order-to-Cash processes. Prior to Aurélien’s current position, he managed Esker’s technical support teams in both France and the U.S. and also held various positions as Product Manager and Product Owner at Esker as well as at a predictive lead scoring startup based in Nantes, France. Aurélien earned an engineering degree in telecommunications from INSA Lyon.

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