A survey shows purchasing agents expect to buy more online, and in more categories, but many still value the expertise of a sales rep. B2B sellers speaking at B2B Next described how they deploy their experienced salespeople to complement their ecommerce sites.

Sometimes business buyers don’t want to speak to a salesperson: They just want to go to a supplier’s website, select the items they need and purchase them. Other times, they want the guidance of a sales rep. At least some B2B sellers aren’t getting rid of human salespeople as they expand ecommerce, but using those reps to complement their websites.

All three panelists in a session at this week’s B2B Next conference in Chicago made clear that salespeople still have a big role to play in the digital age.

“Sales reps often know our customers personally,” said Brittany Zielke, program manager, ecommerce, at computer products seller CDW. “They’re a key foundational aspect of our customer service.”

It makes the conversation a little easier if they navigate the site together.

Brian Fricano, CEO and founder of industrial products distributor Sustainable Supply, likened the combination of an ecommerce site and sales reps to “a one-two punch.” An experienced rep is especially important to Sustainable Supply because the site sells over 1 million products, some of which require configuration. “We aim to provide a great web experience and technical people that can back up that experience,” Fricano said.

Gregg Walker, vice president of ecommerce at commercial lighting distributor Bulbs.com, says sales reps can browse the Bulbs.com site along with logged-in customers. “When they’re on the phone, they’re also on the same site,” Walker said. “It makes the conversation a little easier if they navigate the site together.” He said Bulbs.com also uses sales reps to follow up with customers who abandon a shopping cart.

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The value many business buyers, even those shopping online, attach to knowledgeable sales reps came through in survey results reported to the B2B Next session by Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst at Digital Commerce 360, a partner with consulting firm Paradigm B2B in organizing the B2B Next event.

While purchasing agents ranked self-service tools as the most important component in a positive B2B customer experience, knowledgeable sales reps were right behind.

However, the survey, conducted in August 2019, made clear that B2B buyers are purchasing a lot online—and expect to purchase more from websites in the future.

One-third of the buyers surveyed said they were making at least some of their business purchases online, and seven in 10 said they expect to buy more online in the coming year.

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They also expect to be buying a wider variety of products online. 65% said they would be buying online in more categories in the year ahead, while only 3% said they expected to purchase online in fewer categories.

How B2B companies view Amazon Business

Amazon Business easily topped the list of online marketplaces where buyers research and purchase. Amazon’s B2B marketplace was cited by 72% of surveyed buyers as a site they visit, well ahead of China’s Alibaba.com at 41% and computer technology seller Newegg Inc.’s Newegg Business at 30%. And 55% of respondents said they expect to purchase more on Amazon Business.

But none of the three sellers on the B2B Next Panel are heavily invested in selling on Amazon Business. CDW does not sell on Amazon at all. Sustainable Supply and Bulbs.com both sell some products on the Amazon marketplace and say they’ve gained incremental revenue, but not a lot of new customers.

“Amazon shoppers seem to be Amazon shoppers,” Fricano said. “They’re loyal to the platform, not to whatever superstore they’re buying from on the platform.”

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Said Walker: “We see no signs our core customers are shopping at Amazon Business.”

When consumers shop B2B sites

A question from the audience brought up an issue that the three panelists all had faced: How to deal with consumers who want to buy on sites designed for business buyers. The speakers agreed that such shoppers often place small orders, require a lot of customer service and rarely return to buy again.

Walker noted that Bulbs.com used to advertise itself in online ads as “the web’s No. 1 lighting superstore.” But when those ads drew too many homeowners—rather than commercial customers—to Bulbs.com that slogan “went out the window.” Sustainable Supply adjusted its search advertising strategy so that it does not bid on queries that include terms such as “home” and “residential,” Fricano said.

Bulbs.com also instituted order minimums to deter consumers. In some cases, Sustainable Supply raised prices on items that were attracting consumers in an effort to drive those shoppers to other sites.

Meanwhile, all three have worked to better serve their core business buyer.

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CDW.com has started developing website banners geared to particular segments, such as education, government or construction, and showing those banners to visitors whose history suggests they are in those categories, Zielke said.

Bulbs.com has invested heavily in product and category videos “to feel like the voice of the sales rep,” Walker said. He said those have been particularly useful in boosting sales of new products. Facility managers can also track the lighting they buy by location to make it easier for them to buy those products again when bulbs burn out.

Fricano said SustainableSupply.com has added to product pages for equipment information on the repair parts that go with those products. To do that, the distributor had to collect a lot of information from parts suppliers, and not all are able to provide accurate data.

Nonetheless, the feature has provided “a nice revenue boost,” he said. “Those little things are not as buzzworthy, as something like AI,” he said, “but they can move the needle on conversion.”

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