The Secret to B2B eCommerce Success: It’s the People

— August 2, 2018

To successfully onboard your team and your customers to a digital commerce environment, it’s not just important to acknowledge ways that eCommerce can benefit the roles involved in that B2B buying cycle. It’s mission-critical to understand that increasing the productivity of buyers, researchers, technicians, and others within the buying cycles is a key objective of B2B commerce. When the roles that are required for complex B2B transactions are not supported by technology, frustration, and transactional intensity are the result, and the implementation of digital technologies fail as a result.

On the flip side, however, when B2B companies understand the enormous value in both increasing efficiencies by automating low-value tasks, and decreasing the cost of sales as full-service scenarios become more strategic, implementing eCommerce often means extraordinary results. Sure, it’s highly desirable to drive more sales and raise share-of-wallet from an online system. Those results only arrive from implementing digital strategies that are relevant and helpful to the people fulfilling the roles within B2B. In this, like so many other areas of digital transformation, success relies on supporting the human beings intimately involved every step of the way.

The Need for a Hybrid eCommerce Solution

Because B2B commerce can never be entirely self-service, each person involved in the buying process must have a personalized, real-time view of customer activity. This means viewing B2B commerce from a hybrid perspective, one in which customers can be supported whether they’re online or requiring some kind of “full service” help. A successful hybrid commerce strategy is the key to achieving digital transformation that adds value to the bottom line in terms of efficiency, productivity and yes, more sales. But as I’ve stated earlier, to achieve those gains, the system must meet the needs of every role in the complex B2B commerce system.

For that reason, it’s critical to understand the needs of those I’ve classified as The People of B2B. Any experienced B2B commerce professional knows that unlike a B2C transaction, B2B eCommerce interactions involve many different people doing many different tasks. The first goal of B2B online commerce should be to boost productivity and to do that we’ve got to understand how digital transformation should support each role involved with every transaction.

The People of B2B

Typically, there are at many different roles involved within each B2B buying transaction. B2B commerce, particularly for the manufacturers and distributors I work with, involves complex contracts, huge catalogs, and unique configurations. Roles and responsibilities differ not only by organization and by customer, but also sometimes vary by size of the deal, the location served and even the time of year. Knowing how eCommerce can support each role, and make it stronger, based on what may seem like infinite variables is the path to better results, sooner.

Here is a brief outline of the primary roles involved within B2B commerce, and how I believe digital solutions can support, not burden, those people:

The Researcher

The way B2B researchers are conducting their work is changing from a variety of perspectives. Online search has changed the manner in which most researchers work in perhaps the most dramatic fashion. Google’s study B2B Path to Purchase surveyed more than 3,000 B2B researchers and found they typically conduct 12 searches on average before going to a specific brand’s site.

For digital transformation to lead to strong increases in productivity, the commerce environment must be easy to navigate. Data, both requested and generated by the work of the B2B researcher, must be incorporated into the enterprise. Custom catalogs, list management, and other ways to segregate only the information that is relevant to that specific researcher is vital to helping them do their job more effectively.

Additionally, generational shifts are changing the manner in which B2B researchers work. According to the latest research, these People of B2B not only regularly use their mobile devices for search, but over a third of them download information via smartphone or tablet as well, and this trend is rapidly accelerating. The ecommerce system has to have a fully functional mobile app to satisfy this growing need.

The Customer Service Representative

Customer service is the hub of the buyer’s journey, but at the same time, it’s a position that can be tough to retain. Fortunately, this role is one area in which digital transformation via a strong B2B commerce environment can even more dramatically improve task efficiency, boost productivity, and increase job satisfaction.

Before eCommerce entered the picture, CSRs were already dealing with multiple channels including email, phone and fax. With eCommerce solutions, there are even more channels including custom portals for channel partners, promotional landing pages, and online chat. CSRs typically have to manage all of these points of entry while also dealing with the challenges of a hybrid commerce solution.

When the commerce system is fully unified, systems are integrated so that data is shared in a real time, synchronous fashion. Just like any role within the B2B buying cycle, CSRs need one point of entry from which to view each unique customer’s transactional history, contracts, and every important interaction with sales, both online and in person. Strong B2B eCommerce solutions can present that information readily and accurately through a single sign on.

The Field Service Representative

Field service technicians often experience losses to productivity in the course of doing their jobs. The amount of time it takes to diagnose and fix a problem is often multiplied exponentially by the effort to identify, locate and order the necessary materials. In addition, pricing contracts and procurement processes often need to be validated before moving forward to resolve a ticket.

Because the tech works mainly onsite at a customer location, it’s important to have a robust mobile experience that can handle complex information and ordering needs. Unfortunately, many eCommerce initiatives view mobile as just an extension of a responsive website. When the mobile strategy stops here, it is often the field service technician who is left with a cumbersome website, multiple portals, and often an ordering process that fails to recognize their unique needs.

A strong hybrid B2B commerce solution should deliver a fully functional native mobile app that provides these and other services: user-specific product catalog, pricing and product searches and recommendations, re-ordering capabilities and barcode scanning.

Field service techs can be empowered by a mobile experience by eliminating phone calls to the office, finding parts information with robust search mechanisms and ordering with just one click. When techs are empowered, it leads to more satisfied customers. When they have information about renewable warranties and suggested service tasks, it can also result in more revenue.

The Buyer

We’ve examined how the roles that support the buying journey can benefit from digital transformation. The role of the buyer is at the heart of the customer experience. A B2B buying scenario often involves multiple buyers. You may have a buyer who can initiate an order, but does not have the ability to approve purchases. Another buyer may approve the purchases, but is not involved in the actual buying transaction. Different buyers may purchase different items, and may even use different channels to initiate that order, from sending an email to using an app on their mobile device.

For that reason, buyers need to see information that is specific to them, from their approval authority to the business divisions or groups they buy for. B2B commerce differs widely from B2C eCommerce in this area, as buyers need to see custom catalogs that include only the products that are relevant to them, at customer-specific prices.

The best user experience in the world will hold little value if the B2B eCommerce solution doesn’t provide a buying environment that is customized for that specific buyers’ needs, from products to pricing, and all the tools that support the order process.

The Accounts Payable Representative

Accounts payable is often at the intersection of eCommerce and the entire supply chain mechanism, particularly for distributors. Returns, shipping and handling, and multiple delivery locations can all add another layer of detail to an already complex payment scenario.

For that reason, B2B solutions that can handle customization by customer, and don’t need to be modified substantially to accommodate unique processes, are particularly helpful in reducing task times and increasing efficiency for accounts payable representatives.

Accounts payable reps must have synchronous communication between the ERP, multiple accounting systems, customer portals and the eCommerce solution. This may include the need for real time calls to validate pricing, terms, and logistics like delivery. The ability to have this information updated and available within the system at any time without checking multiple contracts (or spreadsheets) is an enormous boost to productivity.

The Salesperson

In 2015, analyst firm Forrester caused a stir by predicting the “death of the B2B salesperson.” Although a new report two years later tempered that prediction, B2B salespeople sometimes still view eCommerce as their competition. This is usually due to a disconnect between eCommerce systems, and companies’ overall digital transformation strategies.

The sales team is usually tasked with introducing and inviting customers into the new digital buying experience. When they feel that eCommerce is the “competition” or that “their” customers will have a bad experience, sales may be reluctant to encourage adoption of the new online paradigm. B2B sales does not become irrelevant when eCommerce is introduced.

Successful eCommerce initiatives will transform the sales role in ways which include freeing sales people from low-value tasks like order taking, empowering sales people to provide consultative expertise to customers and providing a holistic view of customer details due to a fully unified commerce environment.

In this environment, the role of sales doesn’t disappear at all. In fact, in an ideal world this role is elevated to that of a consultative business advisor. Manufacturers and distributors need to be ready for this change not only by including sales in the planning process, but with a commerce environment that keeps them apprised of all the activity occurring within the customer buying cycle, whether it’s happening directly or within a digital transaction.

Rewarding the People of B2B

When implemented poorly, a new B2B eCommerce solution adds simply another channel to manage, particularly when it comes to sales and CSR’s. This additional burden is one of the primary obstacles to successfully onboarding customers onto a new online system, and it’s a primary reason so many new B2B commerce systems fail.

From the field service technician to the B2B buyer, every role in the complex B2B buying cycle has to be positively impacted by eCommerce. Without the buy-in from the internal team, you’ll never gain more “buying” from an external customer.

A version of this post was originally published here.

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