The new normal of B2B Commerce: digitize without losing the "human touch"
The new role of the sales force to improve buyers' experience
Canceled trade fairs, reps who can't visit their customers and prospects, and on-site maintenance reduced to a minimum due to safety concerns. Covid-19 has changed, and inevitably continues to, interactions between companies and buyers, accelerating the digital transformation of sales & marketing processes in B2B environments.
While the journey towards a 24/7 digital trade fair may already have been in progress, lockdown suddenly forced companies to optimize or implement solutions to engage buyers and to offer digital sales of their goods and services.
But what are the priorities of B2B companies in protecting their business continuity in the new normal?
of Italian B2B companies with turnover > €20 million are active in digital sales with their own e-commerce site or B2B marketplace [Source: Netcomm]
of Italian buyer companies with turnover > €2 million use digital channels at least once during the purchasing process, primarily to search for and evaluate new suppliers [Source: Netcomm]
The first step is to inform buyers of their offering, by providing an extensive and up-to-date digital catalog for consultation. It is thanks to PIM (Product Information Management) that info-commerce becomes reality: in-depth product information sheets and optimized management of product information flows, enrichment and onboarding of new products, in order to obtain a product data master database which improves time to market and allows the company's offering to be presented to new customers and markets, regardless of the network of agents, distributors or POS it may own.
Info-commerce, meaning a company web portal centered on its catalog but without the possibility to finalize the transaction online, is indeed more important in B2B than a complete e-commerce presence. The great value of e-commerce is primarily as a customer services hub, even more so than as a tool for concluding the order process, thanks to:
- The new role taken on by the sales force who literally support customers in online purchasing, accompanying them each step of the way through web meetings or in “on behalf of” mode, finalizing the order on their behalf.
- The integration between the back-end, ERP, CRM/ SFA and e-commerce systems, to name just a few, and synchronization of the order management and supply chain management processes. Obtaining a single view of the orders from the different touchpoints through which the customer can complete their order, allowing the buyer's requirements to be met in an omni-channel manner, for the best possible customer experience.
- Improvement of the customer service and aftersales thanks to a complete view of the customer and their orders which allows both call-center operators to provide timely responses on the order status if the customer calls them and the customer to view their account and obtain the same information in real time, without the need for live support. Two different methods with the same goal: building customer loyalty.
Nearly 90% of sales pass through a videoconferencing / telephone / web sales model, and although a little skepticism remains, more than half of companies believe that it is equivalent to or more effective than the sales models used before COVID-19. (Mckinsey)
B2B ecommerce and digital catalog to inform about the offer and reach new customers
There are, however, concrete and measurable advantages in proprietary B2B e-commerce within an omni-channel strategy, which naturally make it an essential step in the digital transformation of a company which wants to be reactive and customer focused:
- Facilitating and speeding up the opening of new markets through direct engagement. We should, indeed, not forget that in this context, e-commerce is above all a marketing and lead generation channel
- Selling on the digital channel both directly and through agents and/or distributors (B2B2X)
- Reducing selling costs, by minimizing the effort expended by human resources on simple transactions, thanks to automatically managed reorders, reducing travel for the sales force etc.
- Helping account managers and distributors to choose and market products
- Customizing the offering according to the customer and trends, also in support of sales, with conditions of sale and price lists managed specifically for each customer
- Managing new business relationships with direct end-customer contact
- Analyzing behaviors deriving from sales data, navigation, and the response to marketing activities, to reduce the loss of customers
In a digital-first context, in which traditional face-to-face interactions are reduced or entirely absent, maintaining a human touch is key: sales through videoconferencing, webinars, phone calls, webchats etc. must remain customer-centric, with methods which combine info-commerce or e-commerce with collaboration solutions (webex and teams first and foremost). Technology allows the sales team to concentrate on more strategic activities than processing repetitive orders from the same customer, so that they can dedicate themselves to customer relationships, search for new customers, delineate cross-selling strategies and therefore concentrate on the added-value services which are crucial for customer retention.
Having a digital sales channel not only allows expansion of a company's presence in an ever-more global market, but also helps you quickly understand market trends and the requirements of your target, thanks to the use of Digital Intelligence tools which “listen to” and analyze conversations on the web.
Big data, AI and Machine learning, e-commerce allies from the beginning, are key in the automation of repetitive processes and optimization of operations and time to market: both during the product search phase with product recommendation functionality, thanks to behavioral analysis on websites and predictive logic, and in pre- and after-sales support, exploiting atural Language Processing, with AI assistants and AI Chatbots to provide useful support during peak demand.
A new customer-centric model is becoming ever-increasingly entrenched, with new processes and governance, in order to provide the sales force on the one hand the ability to perform new interaction methods and new roles, and the B2B customer on the other with the best experience.
In B2B too it is the customer who must choose the channel and the method of interaction. While it is true that maintaining human-centered relationships even remotely is key, many stakeholders in the process need to have information or instructions updated in real time through the digital channel: on-site maintenance technicians, for example, want to use their mobiles while they work to purchase the necessary spare parts or receive instructions from experts via chat.
Other key stakeholders for B2B2B companies are naturally the distributors: on the one hand, companies must manage the need for a digital presence which does not create problems with their relationships with distributors, instead making the most of them, providing them with visibility on the info-commerce site and assigning sales on the basis of location-based logic. The fundamental role of the distributor along the supply chain will thus be emphasized by the digital channel, leading to a snowball effect across the whole sales channel from a true omni-channel point of view.
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