Once upon a time, business as usual was good enough. No more. Where we’re going- or actually, where we already ARE- is dead. The way we work will never be the same, the skills we need are being redefined. Winning or losing is happening faster than ever before. Businesses now must drive change, and not be driven by it. Up until the last 5 years or so, digital transformation in the more traditional B2B world was seen largely as a way to improve operational processes. Company websites were often little more than online brochures that did nothing to promote ease of purchase. And while sales teams cope with deals that stretch longer than ever before and often involve multiple decision makers, they often lack or don’t how know to apply the analytics needed to guide this process towards a successful sale. But now, B2B owners and leaders are embracing the digital revolution, and their eye on the prize is simple: Improving the customer experience. I’m hearing this from clients in industries ranging from telecommunications, health care, financial services, manufacturing, even construction. Industries which have traditionally sold through field sales/inside sales or through wholesalers, resellers and other distribution networks are now looking inward and considering adding their own ecommerce channels to sell directly to the customer. And enhancing the buyer experience is the name of the game in BtoB digital transformation. According to a survey by CPQ software company FPX among B2B’ers who are currently engaged in digital transformation, 95 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree that “digital transformation funds are best spent on improving the buyer experience.” A whopping 98 percent say “enhancing the buyer experience is the best way to drive sales.”
Companies that wish to attain competitive superiority in this new wave of BtoB digital transformation are going to need more than just the “will” to succeed. These are some of the areas that should be at the forefront of developing an effective holistic, omnichannel BtoB strategy:
BtoB Digital Transformation and Technology
The force that is largely driving BtoB digital transformation are the B2B buyers themselves. Already armed with greater information, comparative reviews, and other market data long before they make a purchase, they want to engage with brands that are providing the tools and resources for this new form of “self service” that makes the purchasing experience easy, in the same way they’re accustomed to buying consumer products online. Acquiring and deploying the right technology to make that happen is key, particularly in more complex B2B environments where products are engineered to customer specs requiring more detailed product information and education. Companies are increasingly having to go outside the organization to hire the IT expertise they need or turn to cloud-based infrastructure, managed solutions and industrial automation for these more advanced customer-facing technologies. In the same survey by FPX referenced above, an overwhelming 93 percent of respondents said that B2B buyers “want the ability to research products and receive quotes without ever speaking to a sales representative.” If that doesn’t speak to the need for cutting-edge technology, nothing does!
It isn’t just the customer-facing aspects that are at the center of all this BtoB digital transformation. New technology is fueling changes in how products are manufactured and distributed. The supply chain and logistics components of the business must provide a positive delivery experience, or everything you’ve done on the front end falls flat. Post-delivery customer service becomes the last link in the chain that should match the overall customer experience. Automation and integration are streamlining processes and driving improved efficiencies, from robotics in the warehouse, linking platforms with the front end. and improving packaging methods. And don’t forget category management services as well as agile procurement practices that can help identify your best suppliers.
In the world of direct-to-consumer, you hear a lot about how “content is king”. You hear that less in B2B. But that’s now changing as a result of BtoB digital transformation. In the same way that content and storytelling fosters brand recognition and builds loyalty in B2C, B2B’ers are discovering that the creation of a clear content program can establish their organizations and their leaders as subject matter experts in their particular field, enabled through more personalized content and messaging (which BtoC’ers have been perfecting for years). The best B2B websites I see use content to define all the necessary decision points that new and existing customers need in order to make purchasing decisions. This includes, but is not limited to, the nature of the product, its function, specifications, availability and other product information that fully informs a purchasing agent or other buyer who is considering a purchase.
Today’s B2B organizations must meet their buyers where they are, and that means facilitating their interactions to make it easier for customers to do business. The pressure is on to create experiences that engage and provide top notch customer service. The pay off is indisputable: Making it easier for customers to interact with a B2B brand builds additional brand loyalty and it keeps their best customers coming back. That’s all the more important given the “made to order” nature of many B2B businesses as to product specifications or specific engineering requirements. I like to use this food analogy: If chicken is the meat, then customer experience is the sauce. Another important consideration when it comes to delivering an optimal customer experience is omnichannel integration. Interesting fact: The average B2B customer uses six different channels over the course of their decision-making journey before a product is ever purchased, so providing a seamless and streamlined experience across all customer touch points must be delivered in order to achieve a similar level of experience for the consumer with consistent branding.
In the old days, most customers experienced B2B brands the first time through brochures, by attending events, or being contacted by a company sales representative. These days, their first experience is pretty much almost always on the company’s website. Developing and improving the website is a constant work in progress as a way of capturing data, qualifying leads and boosting customer engagement as well as serving as an additional tool for sales and marketing, all with the ultimate goal of driving more growth and top line revenue. Here is some interesting research by the big consulting firm McKinsey: 90 percent of B2B buyers use a mobile device at least once during the decision process. So, B2B ecommerce now must factor in mobile access and interactions such as apps into the buying process.
Many of the BtoB companies I’ve conducted searches for do not have much of a social media strategy. In fact, in many job descriptions, it isn’t even mentioned. Social media in the B2B world is still viewed in the same way artificial intelligence was maybe ten years ago: They don’t really know what to do with it. There are also questions around how to measure it and optimize it for maximum gain. But that is changing. For those that do use social media, LinkedIn remains the platform of choice. But other more mainstream platforms are starting to play a role, mostly notably Facebook and Instagram. Which platform is used depends on the industry and the target demographics for their products. Amazon Business is now used by approximately half the Fortune 100 that sell products on the world’s largest ecommerce platform. YouTube is another prime platform for placing ads, and some B2B clients I work with are even experimenting with the use of product influencers to help spread their brand message
Organizational Considerations in BtoB Digital Transformation
BtoB’ers are adapting to this technology-driven change by creating new jobs with new titles, and these new additions are bringing about internal structural changes. Chief Digital Officers are now common among large media companies, retailers and other industries and have taken charge of digital transformation across the enterprise. They, in turn, are bringing on user experience experts, designers, analysts and others who together are embedding a new innovation mindset within the culture. Not an easy task, as I have witnessed first hand. Traditional businesses with deeply ingrained practices and processes are not always easy to transform, as any digital leader will tell you. In fact, many don’t succeed. The commitment to achieve effective change management must come from the top, with all senior leaders rallying around a shared a vision. One of the most exciting things I see with my clients is watching how a designer, a technologist, a business leader, a marketer, legal, finance, all the different department heads come together and engage in rapid conversation with the common goal of, “how do we push this thing forward quickly?
Analytics and Business Intelligence
Everyone talks about capturing data, and while data analysis is essential in helping decision makers determine where and how much to invest in processes, people and technology, it can lead to data overload. Being data rich but intelligence poor is not where you want to be. Data analytics initiatives require two considerations: A clear understanding of the objectives they’re put in place to achieve, and the resources that are available to implement them. And of course, there are privacy issues to consider. The EU’s GDPR directives as well as new state laws (particularly California) require a need for B2B’ers to distinguish between the collection of raw data, business intelligence and privacy.
The future is clear: Companies that fail to evolve run the real risk of falling behind. Each of these pillars are now becoming critical to the success of B2B’ers who want to nuture profitable customer relationships, grow overall net sales and increase brand loyalty.
Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC, is one of the nation’s preeminent executive recruiters in ecommerce, digital and omnichannel marketing. Jerry has been recruiting and placing marketing professionals for more than 33 years. With more than 200 published articles on his blog and LinkedIn profile, and widely quoted by leading business publishers including Bloomberg, AdAge, AdWeek, DigitalCommerce 360 and Target Marketing, Jerry is the “voice” of best practices in the recruitment and hiring of ecommerce and digital marketing professionals. Jerry is also the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing,” on Amazon, and participates in many leading digital marketing and ecommerce conferences and webinars. He is also a vetted member of the Clarity.fm faculty of experts, specializing in the fields of digital commerce. Check out Jerry’s other insights on the Thought Leadership section of the Bernhart Associates website.