How eCommerce Impacts Every Person in Manufacturing and Distribution Companies
Supporting every role within the complex B2B commerce cycle drives successful digital transformation for manufacturers and distributors
Understanding Customer Expectations
Customers are buying differently but many manufacturers and distributors continue to sell the same way. Companies are either ignoring the customer’s desire to self-serve or are missing the mark by building commerce systems that cannot accommodate the complexity of B2B processes.
When the roles that are required for complex B2B transactions, like CSRs, sales, and technicians in the field are not supported by technology, frustration, and transactional intensity are the result. Because B2B commerce can never be entirely self-serve, each and every person involved in the transactions must have a personalized, real-time view into customer activity.
To onboard your team and customers to digital commerce, it’s important to understand how eCommerce can benefit every role within digital transformation. Understanding how things have changed, not only due to technology but also because of changes in generational behaviors is the key to systems that not only launch efficiently but enjoy strong, rapid adoption from both employees and buyers.
eCommerce for the People of B2B
A successful, hybrid commerce strategy is the key to an effective digital transformation. In order to see true gains though, the system must meet the needs of every role in the complex B2B commerce system. In what follow we will illustrate how the right eCommerce platform and strategy can benefit the roles of the:
- Customer Service Representative
- Field Service Technician
- Accounts Payable Representative
How eCommerce Impacts the B2B Researcher
While B2B Researchers often work behind the scenes, they’re crucial to successful commerce transactions. Although researchers are still sometimes viewed as office-bound, desktop users, this characterization is quickly becoming obsolete and B2B commerce must adapt.
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.
A study by Google titled 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. Google also found that over a third of B2B researchers search for a product name or capability, not by looking for a specific manufacturer or distributor. Nearly half of those surveyed reported they discovered entirely new brands simply from using a search engine.
Additionally, generational shifts are changing the manner in which B2B researchers work. According to the same Google study, these People of B2B not only regularly use their mobile devices for search, over a third of them download information via smartphone or tablet as well, and this trend is rapidly accelerating. To map a unified B2B commerce system to the evolving ways B2B researchers are conducting their work, a B2B commerce system has to handle:
- Search capabilities that the business user can fine tune so the researcher can get the results they need.
- Sample orders for complex goods that might be part of a larger industrial environment with customized specifications.
- Price requests that may need to be aligned with previously negotiated contracts and procurement arrangements.
- Product information and custom catalog request specific to the customer’s unique needs within one specific buying scenario.
It’s important to understand that different B2B researchers have different needs. A researcher looking for finished goods, for example, will conduct different research than a contractor needing a part on a job site.
Different product research also requires different levels of information and research. Research needed to find the right component to repair a furnace will differ widely from the data required to select a specific medical product.
A heating technician will need specific information about parts sent directly to their mobile device in real time. While a subject matter expert (SME) may be focused on research that helps provide the statistics needed to support a larger purchase. And a buyer may have specific criteria that funnel choices into the correct selection. Increasingly that may even happen via algorithm rather than human analysis.
For digital transformation to effect strong increases in productivity, the following must exist:
- The commerce environment must be easy to navigate
- The mobile component has to have full B2B commerce capability, not merely be responsive
- Data both requested and generated by the work of the B2B researcher must be incorporated into the enterprise
When a B2B eCommerce solution supports the basic functions of B2B research right out of the box, time is available for customizations that can map to the true buyer’s journey where this role is concerned.
How eCommerce Impacts the Customer Service Representative
Customer service is the hub of the buyer’s journey and yet 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.
In this new age of the customer, we’re expanding not only the number of ways but the actual number of touchpoints that come in on any given day. And our CSRs are expected to juggle all these contacts and have the historical contract and transactional knowledge to solve any problem, at any time. As channels and orders increase, the transactional intensity also increases, sometimes exponentially.
eCommerce solutions that don’t have strong B2B capabilities simply add more channels without connecting any of the information. In many cases, CSRs don’t have the tools to manage these requests from a single point of entry.
Karie Daudt, VP of Marketing and Customer Experience
When eCommerce is done right, it relieves the CSR from managing so many disparate transactions. Multi-tasking becomes the responsibility of the B2B commerce system itself. Instead of being left out of the customer experience conversation, CSRs are acknowledged and incorporated into the hybrid, omnichannel environment. This is one of the ways that eCommerce can transform the organization by creating an opportunity for new processes to emerge.
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 a single 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.
Instead of trying to access multiple systems to respond to customer queries, (which can include tedious tasks like pouring through long email chains or reviewing manual spreadsheet orders) strong B2B eCommerce solutions can present that information readily and accurately through a single sign-on.
A commerce environment that is fully integrated with the organization’s backend systems like CRM or ERP can extract correct, current data in real time. In one Insite case study, customer service personnel saved more than 10 hours per week once the system took over these low-value functions. And that’s just one example.
Creating a unified commerce environment, and a customer experience that can be connected whether they’re dealing with the brand digitally or in person means that problems can be resolved more quickly and efficiently. Transactional intensity is managed no matter how complex the omnichannel. Most importantly, customer service representatives are valued and supported by a strong B2B commerce solution that increases their job satisfaction, and ultimately the company’s bottom line.
How eCommerce Benefits the Field Service Representative
Like the customer service representatives, field service technicians are often overlooked when it comes to implementing eCommerce initiatives. However, they have a lot to gain from a unified commerce strategy.
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 unified B2B commerce solution should deliver a fully functional native mobile app that provides at a minimum:
- User-specific product catalog
- Pricing searches and recommendations
- Product searches and recommendations
- Re-ordering capabilities
- A user experience that mirrors the buying journey
- Thumbprint login
- Photo searchability
- Barcode scanning
- Voice-to-text capabilities
Extending critical information to the app itself, not just through a responsive site, enables greater productivity and efficiency for field personnel and drives higher adoption and engagement. The technology exists and it’s not as expensive as one might think – the Insite solution, for example, includes a customizable native app at a fraction of the cost it would take to build a custom mobile solution. It’s easy to visualize examples of how this might work.
It’s easy to see how a strong mobile experience designed with the tech in mind can make their job easier. A rich mobile experience allows techs to avoid searching through giant databases of information for parts numbers or flipping through a print catalog because the search takes too long. It means fewer phone calls and makes it easier to place orders.
It’s not just productivity that increases when the eCommerce solution supports the field service tech. A good mobile experience can provide alerts that identify when a warranty might be nearing expiration, so the tech can suggest a renewal.
Or, equipment information can include notices that indicate when additional maintenance is needed. The field service tech can suggest this activity be done now, while they’re on site. Needs like these that are identified in real time, can often convert into additional sales (not to mention stronger customer service.
Of course, success is only possible when the native app is fully integrated with data from backend systems. When designing a fully unified B2B commerce environment, it’s vital that field service technicians have a real-time view into all the information they need, from custom catalogs, to warranty information, to transactional histories, to customer agreements and pricing policies.
Field service techs can be empowered by a robust 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 and even more sales. Focusing on the role of the field service technician is one way to increase productivity and increase post-purchase sales.
How eCommerce Empowers the B2B Buyer
Thus far we’ve discussed how the roles that support the buying journey can benefit from the digital transformation. Now we’ll go straight to the heart of the customer experience to the role of the buyer. We define the buyer as the person placing the order from a manufacturer or distributor.
One distinction that B2C eCommerce vendors often get wrong when it comes to B2B commerce is that although B2B buyers are always buying, they’re not usually shopping. In some cases, the item being purchased is not complex, say for example janitorial supplies. In this scenario, the buyer may be empowered to shop for the best price. But for the most part, the B2B buyer is purchasing something they were instructed to buy. The task of finding and researching solutions has already been performed by the B2B researcher, and procurement has likely already determined the contractual and pricing terms of the purchase.
Jon Greene, SVP Customer and Partner Success
“When the strategy is designed by those who truly understand B2B commerce, hidden productivity “boosts” emerge for the buyer.
This component can reduce the time it takes for a customer to buy from a manufacturer or distributor. Researchers can create lists for buyers so they are aware of the items already approved for purchase. Plus adding lists to the workflow, especially when multiple buyers are involved, can accelerate the purchase by applying business rules like contract vendors, location and other factors that may impact the total purchase.
B2B buyers often use a web-based application or PunchOut catalog to browse items and purchase them directly online. The ability to place orders through the commerce system via a customized catalog, but automatically integrate that order information with the ERP system streamlines the buying process without losing important real-time order and tracking data.
The ability to easily re-order – the “rebuy” if you will – is critical to improving efficiency. So much of the B2B buyer’s job is not about placing new orders, it’s about re-ordering items from a manufacturer or distributor. This could include parts regularly used to manufacture automobiles on the assembly line, or plumbing supplies that field technicians frequently need in stock. A strong B2B eCommerce solution gives the B2B buyer the ability to reorder varying quantities of the same item quickly and efficiently.
Steve Shaffer, CEO
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.
eCommerce Impacts the Accounts Payable Representative
B2B commerce doesn’t end once the purchase is complete, and in fact, the accounts payable representative often faces a rather burdensome set of tasks.
Unlike B2C scenarios, there are a tremendous number of variables within B2B commerce, not to mention seemingly endless payment scenarios.
For example, prices may vary depending on the customer, or fluctuate even within a customer based on the size of the order. Payment mechanisms differ as well, from credit card payments that carry a surcharge, to invoices with varying payment agreements. The accounts payable rep must not only understand all of the variables associated with each customer’s unique contract terms, but they must also ensure the customer is adhering to them. Add cross-border payments to the mix (or even blockchain) and things get even more complicated.
A strong B2B solution has to accommodate all of these scenarios and incorporate complex, custom business rules for payment and payment approvals. When the system can handle this type of variation, the role of accounts payable becomes much easier.
A strong B2B commerce system increases the productivity of each role within the buying cycle, and it’s important not to ignore the tasks that happen during the post-purchase section of that cycle.
For people within the accounts payable department, and within accounting as a whole for that matter, the complexities of B2B are magnified exponentially not just due to contractual complexities, but because of the different logistics involved.
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 the 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.
Strong B2B commerce solutions rely heavily on smooth integration with backend systems. 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.
In many cases, it’s the accounting department that sees the most increase in productivity when the right eCommerce solution is implemented. The ability to access and pay invoices online, with the system providing all the updates to backend systems and reporting, can represent a massive improvement for many organizations bogged down by manual checks and balances in the accounts payable department.
eCommerce and the B2B 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.
We often see statistics that show less than 15% of new eCommerce systems are meeting their goals, and the problem is usually the lack of customers’ adoption into the new system.
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. However, the role is certainly transformed in more ways than one.
Successful eCommerce initiatives will transform the sales role by:
- Freeing sales people from low-value tasks like order taking
- Empowering sales people to provide consultative expertise to customers
- Giving sales people more time to guide customers to the right buying decisions
- Removing sales people from re-ordering tasks or simple purchases
- Providing a holistic view of customer details due to a fully unified commerce environment
- Providing real-time information through synchronous data
It’s important to remember that sales needs to be considered throughout the entire commerce cycle. When sales is brought into the planning phase in terms of digital transformation strategy, the role of the sales representative can evolve to dive much more deeply into true business development. Sales can spend their time building strategic relationships with customers where the ROI makes sense to do so.
In a truly unified B2B eCommerce 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.
Summary: How eCommerce Benefits Every B2B Person
Beyond meeting the transformed needs of the customer, organizations must face the fact that to achieve real gains in terms of digital transformation, they must also meet the needs of every role involved in the complex B2B commerce cycle.
From the field service technician to the B2B buyer, every role in the complicated B2B buying cycle can be positively impacted by eCommerce that goes beyond a website.
The B2B eCommerce market is crowded and information is everywhere. How do you know your information is reliable? You consult the experts.
Critical questions distributors should be asking as they build their eCommerce product content strategy and deliver better customer experiences.
People are at the heart of manufacturing and distribution businesses. They give company’s their legacies. To build upon the company legacy for the next 100 years, people must be taken care of. That means adapting to new ways of doing business.