As Warren Buffett said: “If you don’t find a way to make money while you sleep, you will work until you die.” In fact, in an era where consumer expectations are being redefined, if your business can’t find a way of delivering “always-on” service, it’s likely to kick the bucket long before you do. Fortunately, that way already exists; it’s called ecommerce. If you are running a B2B firms that hasn’t already considered it, it’s probably time you did – before your competitors inevitably steal a march.
In the consumer world, ecommerce is all around us. If we want to buy something, our journey frequently ventures online where we can shop at any time. Nowadays, our purchasing decisions are influenced as much by availability and speed of delivery as they are by price. And if we need some help deciding, more traditional channels are open to us. Because ecommerce has not killed the High Street, it’s simply encouraged retailers to redesign services in line with a changing world. This “omnichannel” approach is considered the domain of B2C. But it’s a world to which B2B firms should aspire. And fast.
Theory of evolution
Common sense and evolution dictates that B2B companies must apply B2C logic to thrive in the new economy. After all, our customers may wear professional uniforms, but we’re all consumers underneath – and we’re beginning to wonder why our B2B experiences don’t replicate those we enjoy elsewhere. The B2B application of ecommerce has been a slow burner. Some companies have questioned its appropriateness for the sector, while others have tried it with mixed results. Yet change is inevitable. Like King Cnut, you cannot hold back the tide forever – because if you let your competitors get ahead of the game, the rest will be history.
So to ecommerce or not to ecommerce? That is the question. Clearly, the nature of your business is a key determinant, but if you’re a distributor of widgets, customers can base their purchasing decision on the constituents of price, availability and delivery. But the world isn’t black and white. There are lots of businesses that don’t just sell widgets, but a hybrid of “goods”. Such firms require, at least in-part, a consultative sales and after-sales service. Exactly like the High Street, if a purchasing decision requires advice, consultation via traditional “people” is still available. Even then, that dialogue can be strengthened by ecommerce, notably the visibility of previous online engagement that’s held within the system. And once a purchase is made, it forms the basis for future orders.
Often, customers of B2B firms want to make quick transactions that fit with their busy routines; like the bakery that orders its ingredients at home after hours. Time is a precious commodity. However, many SMEs force customers to go through inefficient purchasing processes that rob them of that time. This could be the telesales call that’s lost in translation and results in an incorrect order or the unnecessary one-hour rep visit that culminates in the same order as last time. Customers would be better served by more familiar online tools.
And businesses benefit too. Integrated ecommerce goes beyond improving the customer experience – it can fuel productivity and efficiency gains. And an effective ecommerce platform can highlight a clear point of differentiation against competitors; the ability to respond quickly and accelerate delivery can be a valuable weapon against the overseas distributor who’s beating you on price. Moreover, the kudos that comes with being an early adopter of innovation can do wonders for a brand.
The strategic addition of ecommerce functionality can transform B2B operations. The most effective solutions fully integrate with your CRM and ERP/accounting systems. This is essential to ensure client records integrate with stock control, accounting and supply chain operations to guarantee seamless service. Typically, CRM and accounting systems operate in silos. This often leads to gaps in information that can disrupt order processes, blight communications and compromise the customer journey.
So the questions for B2B firms are simple: do your customers operate online? And, if they do, could you improve their lives by giving them the kind of service that mirrors their experiences? If you won’t, it’s highly likely that at some point soon, your competitors will. Because in the fast-changing high street of B2B stores, there’s a diminishing role for the traditional corner shop with the old-fashioned cash register and the “closed for lunch” sign.
Andrew Ardron is MD of ProspectSoft.