Not long ago, if a salesperson complained to the boss about making the tedious rounds of his customers’ stores, the likely answer was that “it’s just the cost of doing business”. After all, there is nothing for free. However, the cost of doing business has risen from a few hours of boredom to contracting a potentially deadly virus, and it’s a price not many are willing to pay. The solution that many have found is to change the definition of “doing business”.
Pretty much everyone is aware of the global shift to retail e-commerce, but the surge in inter-company e-commerce is under the radar. According to Forrester, U.S. B2B e-commerce will hit $ 9 trillion by the end of 2021, compared to less than $ 3 trillion for retail. The face-to-face business of the past few years is over – nowadays business is done with a click of the mouse instead of a feather handle.
A change that was necessary – and wanted
Like many other online shopping trends, B2B e-commerce was on the rise even before the spread of COVID-19.
“I think it was very obvious that it was vital for suppliers to build a digital relationship with their customers,” Mitch Rose, senior vice president of sales for B2B payments company Billtrust, told Modern Shipper. “COVID just took it to another level.”
When the pandemic broke out, customers of B2B suppliers could no longer go to stores to speak to representatives and find out about products. While digitization used to be just a trend, it had become a necessity, and Rose’s company saw this firsthand. From March 2020 to March 2021, Billtrust (NASDAQ: BTRS) saw B2B web sales for its e-commerce customers increase more than 463%, while the average order volume nearly tripled.
An ecommerce platform – and a good one at it – is essential for B2B businesses today to place and fulfill orders, and buyer behavior almost confirms this. According to Gartner, 43% of B2B buyers would prefer not to interact with a sales rep at all, be it in person, on the phone, or via email. And according to McKinsey, around two-thirds of shoppers prefer remote human interactions or digital self-service when buying from or interacting with B2B companies. The shift to ecommerce wasn’t just out of necessity – buyers like it too.
The new way to do business
But what does B2B e-commerce look like? Just like in store, consumers would prefer to find things for themselves online. An Infor survey from 2021 found that 71% of distributors prioritize a self-service shopping experience for their customers.
“If you have a search bar, [online shoppers are] trying to find their own answers, ”Michael Campbell, digital marketing director for B2B distributor Lee Supply Corp., told Modern Shipper. “And I know we are talking about the digital world, but when you compare it to the analog world, when you walk into a store, you don’t want to be like ‘how can I help you?’ be welcomed. You want to try to find it yourself first. “
But as much as consumers want to shop for themselves, some of them want guidance from the seller. For a distributor like Lee Supply Corp. One of the biggest challenges of digital transformation has been data collection that would enable more accurate product information, better consumer insights, and customizable product recommendations.
“You don’t want your customers to have to call the store to ask questions when we can provide answers right on the site,” said Campbell.
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Campbell’s company was one of the many B2B distributors who switched to e-commerce before the pandemic, but even then finding ways to collect rich data was a challenge. Lee Supply Corp. chose not to use an external data collection service because, as Campbell says, “having hundreds of thousands of SKUs doesn’t do everything.” Instead, the company developed its methods in-house.
With analytical knowledge, Lee Supply Corp. track what users are buying from its ecommerce platform and what they are looking for, helping them recommend the right products to the right buyers. It has also given the company more transparency about its product information management, which means better accuracy in product images, descriptions and specifications. On the Lee Supply Corp. website For example, recommendations appear directly below the product image – just like on Amazon.
In addition to data analysis, B2B distributors have turned to new tools and technologies to make the transition to digitization smoother. One such innovation are platforms like Billtrust, which make online invoices easier. Another is the barcode scanner, which Campbell says was one of the biggest drivers of user adoption for his company.
“While your sales rep goes into his customer’s warehouse and spends three hours searching their inventory to place an order to replenish their shelves, we use a barcode scanner to print our own barcodes,” he said.
The death of the face-to-face deal
There is some bad news for sellers who like the personal listings from the past. B2B has gone online and will likely stay that way. Ecommerce is like a drug and the B2B industry got a taste of it – now it can’t get enough.
“This ghost doesn’t go back in the bottle,” said Rose. “Now it’s just getting more and more important and the industry is talking about it a lot.”
The same demand for simplicity and convenience that has inundated the retail ecosystem has overtaken B2B as well. Business people are people too, and many hate long drives and tedious marketing calls as much as the next person. According to Rose, this is the “cornerstone” driving B2B e-commerce, and all that remains is the use of technology to replace the practices of years past.
“Now it’s about the technology – the product information management systems, the personalization, the referrals, the SEO optimization – and making sure the suppliers have the right tools to drive the adoption of their e-commerce sites further.”
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