Throw out old assumptions about customers, websites and sales reps, and innovate to win at the “omnichannel” B2B game, Forrester Research says.

Business-to-business buyers often want the “omnichannel” experience of purchasing any way they want online or offline with consistent customer service. What’s the best strategy for sellers?

Throw out old assumptions about customers, websites and sales reps, and innovate to win at the omnichannel B2B game, Forrester Research Inc. says.

John Bruno, senior analyst,
Forrester Research

Not that going omnichannel is easy. “B2B buying is still riddled with complexity, like purchasing as a buying team, configuring complex products or bundles, and negotiating for best possible price,” Forrester says in the report, “Make Omnichannel Real in B2B Commerce,” by John Bruno, senior analyst covering e-business and channel strategy, with input from other Forrester analysts. “Since your customers have unique purchasing needs, your digital strategy should be flexible and act like a ‘choose your own adventure’ for your customers to buy in a fashion that is most comfortable for them.”

That means figuring out how to balance self-service e-commerce with full-service treatment from sales agents, and making the omnichannel experience valuable to all involved, the report says. When a customer needs to transition from self-service buying on a manufacturer’s or distributor’s website to getting help from a sales rep, the rep must have access to all of the buyer’s purchasing activity to provide helpful, value-added service.

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“The greatest pain occurs when context is lost, specifically the buyer’s perception of how knowledgeable the rep is and the rep’s ability to add value beyond their self-service work,” the report says. “Firms that place digital and traditional channels in silos will never be able to support their omnichannel customers.”

One helpful approach is to maintain records of customer purchasing history across online and offline channels in a single online data source, allowing sales reps as well as customers to quickly access records of past purchases and check current order status; another is training sales reps to use that information on mobile devices along with their product knowledge to advise customers while also encouraging customers to place more of their basic orders and re-orders online.

The report advises companies to find ways to differentiate from their competition through innovation, or be left on the sidelines.

“The pace of innovation in B2B is at an all-time high, as firms are looking to pull every possible competitive lever at their disposal,” Forrester says. “All of the businesses that currently and cohesively support self-service and assisted sales with their omnichannel strategies are already experimenting with ways to innovate and enable new channels. Whether it’s wholesalers supporting ‘endless aisles’ at retail locations or manufacturers enabling mobile applications for their sales reps, these businesses have developed a culture and a technology infrastructure to support their next supported channels.” (Wholesalers and other suppliers can develop “endless aisles” by deploying in-store online kiosks that let shoppers order from the supplier’s full inventory beyond what’s available on store shelves.)

The report also recommends that sellers think of new ways to provide incentives to sales reps who encourage customers to place more basic orders online, which can lead to a net increase in sales while freeing up the reps to focus more on helping customers with more complex orders. It notes that some companies work out ways to compensate sales agents for digital orders. In one case, Forrester says, a company provided bonuses to agents who helped customers sign up for an e-commerce account, resulting in hundreds of new accounts and thousands of online orders.

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Bruno will participate as a B2B e-commerce workshop leader at the B2B Next conference in September in Chicago.

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