An effective online presence will never obviate the need for a human sales representative, particularly for large deals. It can, however, equip both customers and the salespeople who serve them with detailed product information, white papers that outline common use cases and case studies showing how similar organizations have used a product and more.

CorbinMurakami_Liferay

Corbin Murakami, product manager, Liferay

In my last column for B2B E-Commerce World I noted how terrible the purchasing experience is for many B2B buyers and argued for a more unified selling strategy from vendors and the consideration of new tools like chatbots and plant operation and management (PO&M) software to ease the process. However, I may have been preaching to the choir. Many of those who own B2B commerce at their organizations already understand the problem and are aware of potential tools, services and applications.

The real challenge is that these tools that would improve the buying process require investments executives are often hesitant to make. This is especially true for vendors selling critical products customers will ultimately have to purchase from a limited pool of providers. Think of a large pharmaceutical company that sells vaccines to schools and hospitals. Their CEO may be hesitant to authorize an overhaul of their online product catalog no matter how unwieldy it is. After all, hospitals have to buy the pharmaceutical company’s products—they cannot simply stop stocking vaccines—so why pay more to get the same result?

The importance of experience

However, this line of reasoning is flawed. As customer experience expert Blake Morgan has argued, “in today’s B2B world, things are simply becoming commodities, and there is too much stuff that’s exactly the same. What will make you stand out isn’t your product, but rather the services you offer around that product.” To support her point, Morgan cites a LinkedIn survey that found “B2B buyers are five times more likely to engage with a salesperson who provides new insights about their business or industry.”

In other words, B2B sales are increasingly becoming a “consultative” process with customers expecting salespeople to serve as product experts and educate them on the market rather than simply trying to close a deal. An effective online presence will never obviate the need for a human sales representative, particularly for large deals. It can, however, equip both customers and the salespeople who serve them with detailed product information, white papers that outline common use cases and case studies showing how similar organizations have used a product and more.

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At its best, B2B commerce empowers customers to get more information on their own while giving businesses, especially smaller businesses, a way to compete with digital behemoths on something other than price or functionality. Customer experience and a consultative sales process aren’t just theoretical advantages, they are competitive differentiators that have allowed many B2B organizations to grow and thrive. Citing data from management consultancy A.T. Kearney, the authors of a recent piece on “Why Customer Experience Matters for B2B” in MIT Sloan Management Review note that “when companies provide a personalized, seamless experience, they generate average revenue growth of 8.1%, twice the rate of competitors with less-developed digital platforms.”

 Building trust in the face of disruption

Beyond providing a pleasant and consultative buying experience, successful businesses will be the ones that build trust with their customers. According to LinkedIn’s 2017 State of Sales report, B2B buyers listed trust “as the single most influential factor in the buyer/seller relationship.” This isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, business is a sensitive issue and buyers will naturally want to engage with those they feel will treat them fairly. Here too online commerce has a role to play.

B2B commerce sites can easily be linked to services like SurveyMonkey, to solicit customer feedback, and Intercom, to provide a degree of personalized service. When customers feel that they’re being listened to and have their questions addressed, trust naturally follows. This also jives with the idea of a consultative sales process. While it may occasionally cost you deals to be fully transparent with customers about their options and the pros and cons of your offerings, the customers you do win are more likely to maintain a relationship with your business for many years to come. Commerce sites can further cement businesses’ reputations as impartial advocates by offering tools to show customer ratings and allow for feedback on product catalogs.

Trust is only becoming more important as an increasing number of industries face the threat of disruption. Our hypothetical pharmaceutical executive may feel confident in her near-monopoly today but eventually, her patent will expire and she’ll need to face down upstarts selling generic versions of her vaccine at lower prices. That holds true without even considering the possibility that a fast-moving startup based overseas will bring a drug to market that’s more effective and cost-efficient.

Making the case for investment

Let’s be clear, investing in a revamped digital commerce experience is going to carry a significant cost in either buying new technology or building it internally and in training staff to use the new system. As a result, executives will, rightfully, be skeptical, especially in cases where they do not see their business as directly threatened. It’s up to those who own digital commerce initiatives to make the case to executives that an investment in customer experience and trust will serve as an insurance policy against the rising tide of disruption that threatens to sweep away businesses of all kinds. And that those who successfully harness this medium stand to benefit handsomely.

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Corbin Murakami is a product manager at Liferay, a software company that helps businesses develop digital experiences. He oversees the vision and strategy for Liferay Commerce.

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