Sonepar wants to bring its 200 industrial supplies distributors into digital commerce, but each comes at it from a different point of technology experience, says Jochen Moll, chief digital officer.

When Sonepar hired Jochen Mall in 2015 as the international industrial supplies distributor’s chief digital officer, he was charged with overseeing a new emphasis on digital commerce across more than 200 separate businesses in 44 countries. The Sonepar companies are in different stages of incorporating or enhancing the online commerce channel of their industrial supplies businesses, making the task all the more challenging, Moll said.

Digital is important, but you can’t push it too far.
Jochen Moll, chief digital officer
Sonepar

Jochen Moll, chief digital officer, Sonepar

But embracing digital commerce isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, Moll told attendees in the B2B Workshop Tuesday at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago. “All of them are at different stages and it’s a combination of traditional business and digital,” he said. “There always will be traditional, personal sales. Digital is important, but you can’t push it too far.”

Moll is working to introduce some of Sonepar’s companies to e-commerce and move others ahead. Even those who are highly adept need to continually improve the ways they serve their customers by combining the skills of sales and customer contact personnel with B2B e-commerce tools. Sonepar companies in the U.S. include Crawford Electric Supply.

Sonepar’s top management is behind the transformation to digital commerce, but everyone in the organization needs to understand it’s a journey, not a one-time project, Moll was quick to point out. And although there is corporate-level support, funds are limited. To make resources available to Sonepar companies large and small, Moll and his digital commerce team established digital competence hubs around the world where individual companies can receive coaching from colleagues who have experience in adding digital commerce. Through the hubs, companies can have their capabilities and needs analyzed and get direction on how to implement new technology and processes, he said.

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“It’s starting to work, we’re seeing the benefits” of the hubs, he said, but didn’t provide any metrics.

As Sonepar discovered, marrying traditional, personal sales strategies by sales and call center reps with e-commerce is a challenge most B2B companies face today, said Andy Hoar, principal B2B analyst at Forrester Research Inc., who interviewed Moll while sharing the stage with him during the B2B Workshop.  Data derived from research conducted earlier this year by Forrester and B2BecNews indicates 68% of buyers prefer to research products online on their own rather than through a salesperson. That rate is up from 53% in a similar study in 2015. That doesn’t mean all sales will move online, but it’s an indication of a shift, Hoar said in the joint presentation with Moll.

“Many think of digital as ‘either-or’ regarding selling online or selling offline,” he said. “At Forrester we see it as a spectrum. Customers sometimes want to talk to someone, but companies sometimes lean too far away from self-service.”

Some distributors are steadily tipping the sales channel balance toward e-commerce, Hoar said, including MSC Industrial Supply, which conducts more than 60% of its sales online, and W.W. Grainger, with more than half. Manufacturers also are looking at new ways to reach customers, including selling directly online or through B2B marketplaces such as Amazon Business and NeweggBusiness.

As a whole, however, B2B companies have far to go regarding incorporating e-commerce, Hoar said. For many, the biggest challenge is getting the message through to top management that e-commerce means serving customers in new ways. “Digital is here, it’s like gravity,” he said. “It is about transforming your business.”

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