Open all hours


Yet a surprising number of B2B companies have the metaphorical ‘closed sign’ in their shop-windows at times when customers are poised to make a purchase. It stands to reason that eventually those customers will find somewhere else to buy their milk.

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’re a B2B company that hasn’t already considered it, it’s probably time you did – before your competitors inevitably steal a march.

Great expectations

In the consumer world, eCommerce is all around us; it’s immersed in our culture, embedded in our behaviours and pushing our expectations of service to unprecedented levels. 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. The most successful brands deliver consistent, joined-up customer experiences across all their channels and, in the process, sustain customer loyalty. This ‘omnichannel’ approach is considered the domain of B2C. But it’s a world to which B2B companies should aspire. And fast.

Theory of evolution

Common sense and evolution dictates that B2B companies must apply B2C logic if they’re 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 their sector, while others have tried it with mixed results – often because of flawed methodology. Early adopters are triumphing, but for many, the natural default is to stick to the tried-and-tested. 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; if you’re an agency that sells a service, your clients are unlikely to close a deal via an online transaction; but if you’re a distributor of widgets, customers can base their purchasing decision on the constituents of price, availability and delivery – and eCommerce easily meets their needs. But the world isn’t black and white.

There are lots of businesses that don’t just sell widgets, but a hybrid of ‘goods’, combined with ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit services’ – like a company that sells machinery (the ‘goods’) with advice on which machine is best (the ‘implicit service’), and that also sells the installation of that machinery, as an ‘explicit service’. Such businesses typically require, at least in-part, a consultative sales and after-sales service – but this shouldn’t close the door on the eCommerce opportunity.

Exactly like the High Street, if a purchasing decision requires advice, consultation via traditional ‘people’ channels – field representatives or telesales – 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 (such as repeat orders, spare parts and consumables) that can be quickly actioned via eCommerce mechanisms until a new consultation is required. This provides a better customer experience without sacrificing the personal service.

Customer benefits

Often B2B customers want to make quick transactions that fit in with their busy routines; like the bakery that orders its ingredients at home after hours, the exec that buys office consumables in between meetings or the budget holder that remembers an urgent purchase at 3am, the day of going on holiday. Time is a precious commodity.

However, many SMEs force their customers to go through unwieldy and inefficient purchasing processes that rob them of that valuable time. This could be the telesales call that’s lost in translation and results in an incorrect order; the unnecessary one-hour rep visit that only culminates in the same order as last time; the mispriced invoice that occurs when face-to-face agreements don’t correlate with the details in the CRM or ERP; or, when a customer visits outside trading hours, the onerous web form that leads to a duplicate conversation with telesales the following morning. In all these scenarios, customers would be better served – and have greater certainty in their purchase – by more familiar online tools.

Business benefits

And businesses benefit too. Integrated eCommerce goes beyond improving the customer experience – it can fuel productivity and efficiency gains. For example, with the online channel taking care of product purchases, sales resources can be more effectively deployed; telesales executives can be trained to provide more consultative sales support, whilst field-based personnel can focus on business development rather than technical consultancy. eCommerce also reduces the administrative burden of order processing – often an unwanted part of a sales team’s remit – helping to further optimise resources. Better still, those efficiency savings can help reduce the cost of service – either driving profitability or enabling greater pricing flexibility.

An effective eCommerce platform can also 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.

Strategic implementation

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 that client records – detailing engagement across all channels – 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. Accounts-integrated CRM and eCommerce solutions can fix these gaps to assure continuity and consistency of customer service – and deliver a unified omnichannel experience. Moreover, by connecting CRM, ERP and eCommerce systems, companies can go beyond a standard ‘web shop’ that presents fixed prices, to an offering that provides differential pricing based on customer history, value or preference, as well as credit terms and other account services. It’s another significant value-add.

So the questions for B2B organisations 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 consumer 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 in the window. You really need to be open all hours.

Andrew Ardron, Managing Director, ProspectSoft