Thule Inc., the U.S. arm of Sweden-based manufacturer Thule Group, is known for providing innovative, high-end products like ski and bike racks that can lock onto cars, and in recent years it has expanded into making items ranging from horse trailers to baby carriages designed to be pushed by runners. But until recently one area where it lagged in innovation and quality was in offering a good business-to-business e-commerce experience for its customers.
Because it didn’t make it easy for its wholesalers and dealers to order online, only 10% of Thule’s North American business customers did so. The rest routinely flooded the company’s call center with questions about how to place orders and qualify for discount shipping rates. As a result, a company known for quality products was getting a reputation among its commercial customers for slow responses from customer service reps.
That led Annie Scopel, director of North America customer service, to suggest that the company build a new and more user-friendly e-commerce site designed to attract the other 80% of Thule Inc.’s B2B customers into self-ordering online, with the hope that would relieve pressure on her customer service reps. The best way forward, she advised her senior management two years ago, was to replace the company’s 7-year-old B2B e-commerce site with one that, among other things, would make it easier to find products, show updates of available inventory and the launch dates of new products, and let customers track shipments.
Scopel was pleased to learn that top executives quickly approved her suggestion, but surprised when they directed her—with little experience in e-commerce technology—to spearhead the launch of the new site. She began by defining her most important goal: getting customers to go online to both answer many of their questions about orders and completing their orders. That, she figured, would free up her customer service team to focus on what they do best, advising customers about the technical details of installing and operating Thule’s products.
“We’ve always been in the forefront with products, bringing innovation to them, and now we’re bringing innovation to our dealers so they can have the greatest tools to do business with us,” says Karl Wiedemann, who manages Thule’s communications and sponsorships of sports teams and events.
Thule went with an e-commerce platform from Insite Software, integrated with a content management system from Sitecore. The manufacturer also chose Nish Tech Inc. as web designer and system integrator. The new e-commerce site integrates with Thule’s back-end business operations software, including accounting and inventory management, from Oracle Corp.
The new B2B site, ThuleConnect.com, launched in November 2012, Scopel says. Since then, Thule has gotten about 80% of its B2B customers—up from 10% two years ago—to place orders and check the status of shipments online instead of through the call center, Scopel says. That has resulted in a 45% improvement in the response time of Thule’s customer service reps, she adds. Although Scopel declines to note the actual average response time for her customer service team, she says it’s steadily improving and on track to be close to 30 seconds—the industry standard for the outdoor recreational equipment industry—within a year.
In addition to constant updates of available inventory, more comprehensive product details and the display of information regarding order value thresholds for getting free freight shipping, the new site also features content in both French and English and prices in Canadian as well as U.S. dollars. That led to a particularly fast adoption of the new site by customers in Canada, where the number of B2B shoppers doubled within the first two months of the site’s launch, Scopel says.
While the old B2B site made it difficult to find products, giving customers another reason to call customer service reps, the new site lets them search by product description or item number, or by clicking the logo of the Thule Group brand they want to purchase, such as Thule, Chariot baby strollers and UWS truck-mounted racks used by tradespeople. The site also supports more cross-selling among Thule’s multiple product groups; as customers log on to ThuleConnect.com, they can now see items from categories they don’t usually purchase.
Thule is still trying to get more of the 20% of customers who order via the call center to move online. To elicit feedback on what those shoppers want in an e-commerce site, it’s been asking its dealers through an e-mailed online survey what would make ThuleConnect.com easier to shop. To motivate participation in the survey, it’s giving participants the chance to win a Thule roof-top automobile cargo box, an item that can cost up to $1,000. One early suggestion was to move the pervasive shopping cart from the left side, where it appears now, to the right side of each page, where it appears on most consumer-oriented retail sites, Scopel says.
The new site is also designed to make it easier for use by Thule’s customer service reps. Rather than having to manually calculate customers’ shipping price discounts based on the order volume for different product lines, for example, the reps can view freight prices automatically calculated based on the volume of the entire order.
Scopel sees more improvements ahead, including improved site search and navigation. “This is an ongoing work in progress,” she says.
As a privately held company, Thule doesn’t comment on sales or the effect on sales of its new B2B e-commerce site. But for Scopel, the return on investment has been strong in both the morale and effectiveness of her customer service staff, as well as in customer satisfaction as shown in Thule’s own surveys. Thule’s last peak season—from May through August 2013—“was our strongest season for the past seven years, yet our customer service reps said they were happier and not overwhelmed,” she says.
Industry analysts say the cost of running a web site on a B2B e-commerce technology platform can vary widely, based on such criteria as sales volume, number of SKUs, and the extent of integration with accounting, inventory management and other software. B2B e-commerce software alone can start as low as $25,000 to $30,000, analysts say, with additional costs for integration and other services typically bringing the total for mid-sized companies into a range of $75,000 to $250,000, with some unusually complex deployments running up to $1 million.
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