While executives say they’re investing in the digital tools they need to engage customers, many of them are overlooking an effective customer-serving mix of self-service ecommerce and digital tools for sales teams, a new report from Elastic Path says.

Most B2B companies figure they’re investing in enough resources to improve how they digitally engage with their customers, but at the same time, many say they’re worried about not keeping up with digital commerce trends and nearly half say they’ve lost customers seeking better online purchasing options, a new study of 300 companies says.

The study, “Solving the B2B Commerce Puzzle,” found that 91% of companies say they’re investing enough in digital commerce. But it also found that 45% of companies say they’ve lost customers because of poor online customer experience, and 80% or more say they’re worried about losing their ability to acquire and retain customers without improving their digital commerce operations. The study was conducted in June by Elastic Path, a provider of digital commerce technology and services, in conjunction with Walker Sands, a research and public relations firm.

A major point the study makes is that many business-to-business ecommerce technology platforms simply try to copy the ease of shopping common on retail ecommerce sites, but that they fail to accommodate the relatively complex purchasing needs of B2B buyers through a combination of self-service ecommerce and salespeople equipped with digital tools that help them help customers.

Treating salespeople as ‘first-class citizens’

In many cases, senior executives at B2B companies appear to be out-of-touch with how buyers and salespeople both need a useful digital commerce platform to smooth out the purchasing process, especially for complex purchase transactions, the study indicates.

“One of the things that stood out to me is that there’s still a pretty harsh divide within B2B organizations, between their senior-level decision-makers and individuals on the front line, the salespeople,” says John Bruno, vice president of product management for Elastic Path.

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“If they treat salespeople as first-class citizens,” and provide them with sales tools with access to the right product catalog, and the right pricing for each customer, “then the digital transition we all know is coming will be easier to carry out,” says Bruno, who is a former e-business technology analyst for Forrester Research Inc., where he covered digital tools used by salespeople as well as self-service ecommerce. “If salespeople have the right tools, they’ll always be adding value” to customer relationships.

“The world of B2B buying and selling is almost nothing like its B2C counterpart,” the report says. “In addition to longer sales cycles and multiple channels of interaction, B2B organizations have unique needs for product assortment and payment options, often driven by contractual agreements.”

In addition, B2B sales agents need tools tied to such information as available inventory, shipping and payment options, and customer account activity and shopping history both online and offline, in order to predict customer needs and add value to the customer’s purchasing process at any stage of their buying journey, the report notes.

Without such connections, B2B buyers using ecommerce sites designed for basic retail purchases are often unable to complete purchases in ways they’ve been accustomed to, such as in organizing purchases for particular projects. “Nuances like contract-based pricing or project-based ordering—activities traditionally handled over the phone with a rep—have not been accounted for on digital channels, leaving buyers frustrated and confused,” the report says.

The report adds that a B2B buyer purchasing products for multiple and quickly developing projects may need the flexibility of placing products into multiple online shopping carts dedicated to each project, so that orders are properly organized for each project.

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Keeping buyers from switching to Amazon

When online sellers fail to address such purchasing needs, B2B buyers may be more likely to search elsewhere on price or other available services such as fast-shipping. “And given how easy it is for today’s buyers to switch to competitors, including Amazon, companies cannot afford to get the customer experience wrong,” the report says.

Bruno says that many senior executives at companies apparently figure they’ve provided salespeople the tools they need through such traditional applications as customer relationship management (CRM) tools that help sales reps track the correspondence and meetings with customers. But without extending such tools to include digital technology that enables salespeople to help customers research products and complete purchases, companies are missing out on ways to keep salespeople better engaged with customers and increase sales, he says.

Among the study’s data points, the following list shows digital commerce technology applications manufacturers in the study have implemented to improve customer experience, with the percentage of respondents having deployed each application:

● Account-specific buying agreements, 50%

● Self-service checkout, 46%

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● Flexible pricing models, 34%

● Automated reordering, 31%

● Commerce-enabled internet-of-things ordering, 30%

● Online price quoting, 30%.

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