MSC Industrial Supply finds the human touch mandate grows, even after 17 years of e-commerce.

If MSC Industrial Supply Co. has learned one key lesson about e-commerce since launching online in 1999, it’s that people still play a critical part in sales and service. “Digital is great, but we still need people,” Mike Roth, senior director, e-commerce, told attendees last week during the daylong B2B Workshop at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago.

MSC, No. 74 in the B2B E-Commerce 300, distributes business and industrial products ranging from metal-cutting tools to electronics equipment and janitorial supplies. The company has learned to blend the strengths of its e-commerce site, MSCDirect.com, its 3,000 sales reps and its customer care employees to serve customers how and where they choose. “Everything is not going digital,” said Steve Baruch, senior vice president, chief strategy and marketing officer, who joined Roth in a workshop presentation. “Digital is critical, we just don’t think it’s sufficient. As more things go digital, the more you need people,” he said, particularly for such services as answering questions and resolving problems.

Baruch and Roth described three keys to combining digital commerce and personal service.

1—Know your audience. MSC has learned over the years that understanding its customers’ needs requires communication. But it’s not so easy to communicate with 12 million customers, Baruch said. About 1 million manufacturing customers comprise a subset of that base and by examining their purchasing habits and patterns, MSC found that many lessons it learned applied to other customers, he said. Out of that information MSC built customer personas, or composites, which help sales reps “have unique conversations with their customers.”

MSC has linked data stored in its customer relationship management and other back-end software systems to its website, providing sales reps access to more data on customer buying behavior. For example, MSC sells parts and equipment to the aerospace industry and one day a sales rep saw a report indicating one customer also buys personal protection supplies, Roth said. Such information provides a foundation for a new conversation with the customer.

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2—Listen and respond. MSC’s customer interaction methods have grown over the years, since the days of including a customer comment card in all packages, Baruch said. New “listening posts” include online and phone-based surveys, among others. Then MSC took that feedback to another level. “We were listening but didn’t realize how powerful it was to take that listening post and reach back out to the customer,” Baruch said. “We’re in the early stages but how you listen and who you listen to are important.”

Gathering customer data from multiple sources paid off when MSC realized it was “getting bombarded with shipping questions,” Roth said. “We hadn’t changed but customers had, and they wanted shipping information in real time.” Customers were not happy that they had to send an email asking where their order was. Once MSC upgraded its website with shipment-tracking, customer satisfaction scores improved, Roth said.

3—Build loyalty by winning your customer’s trust. Anticipating customer needs is like keeping the kitchen pantry stocked at home, Baruch said. “Customers are looking for creativity and they trust us to bring them real savings,” he said. For example, MSC has some very small customers and their desired communication method is through the website, for order management, inventory control and other information. “But when they had a real need to speak to someone, they didn’t have the benefit of a dedicated sales rep,” he said. “So we made a customer care team available for them.”

Providing a phone number is an example of how MSC evolved its view of balancing e-commerce and personal contact. “There was a time when I told customer care to suppress that phone number and send customers to the website,” Baruch said. “I was very wrong.”

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