As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, B2B manufacturers are grappling with new challenges. Supply chains and market demand have been disrupted. Legacy processes, such as in-person selling and call-center customer service, are no longer viable as employees work from home.
For manufacturers who’ve already launched B2B ecommerce, the coronavirus pandemic forces a fuller, more agile transition to digital processes. These manufacturers are fortunate to have put B2B ecommerce in place before the pandemic.
For manufacturers who haven’t yet embarked on their digital journey, B2B ecommerce enables a pivot to digital processes—as long as the new channel doesn’t require too much work from your IT team (more on that below).
Whichever boat you’re in, here are 6 keys to successful B2B ecommerce during the coronavirus pandemic:
1. Take this opportunity to get closer to your customers
The National Association of Manufacturers reports that 53.1% of manufacturers anticipate a change in operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while 35.5% are already facing supply chain disruption.
In these times of uncertainty, it’s essential that manufacturers maintain closeness with their customers—and get even closer where they can. Manufacturers should pursue closeness with their customers in two critical areas:
Offer more transparent post-order care
As supply chain disruption leads to delayed orders and increased customer service inquiries, manufacturers must offer increased transparency in post-order care. This is best done with a B2B ecommerce solution that offers order history for all orders, even those placed through other channels, as well as shipment status and integration with major carriers for tracking numbers.
Achieve greater demand chain visibility
As markets around the world experience ongoing disruption, manufacturers must adjust their demand forecasting. Year-over-year and quarter-over-quarter data may not be reliable as indicators of future demand.
For a data-driven approach, manufacturers should monitor their customers’ behavior through B2B ecommerce analytics. Buying patterns in ecommerce offer important visibility into the changing state of demand chains. By monitoring this data, manufacturers can keep a pulse on the direction of their market and better anticipate future disruptions.
2. Give customers transparent inventory/ATP data
It’s no secret that coronavirus has disrupted B2B supply chains. As Axios reports, 75% of US companies are experiencing supply chain disruption due to the pandemic, and 62% are experiencing delays in receiving orders from China.
Transparency is essential in this time. If coronavirus will prevent your B2B buyers from receiving their orders on time, they need to know.
So how will you communicate real-time inventory data to customers?
Your ERP system already runs complex calculations to provide this data. There are only two ways to give that data to customers:
- Phone/fax/email exchange with a customer service representative who has access to your ERP;
- Self-service B2B ecommerce channel with ERP integration.
If you don’t currently have a B2B ecommerce solution that displays this data, then customers have to contact customer service to get it. But if your customer service department is working from home due to coronavirus, your B2B customers may experience friction in getting that information.
The alternative is a B2B ecommerce solution that offers real-time inventory/ATP data within the web store. In this scenario, customers can get the inventory information they need (and build and place orders) through self-service, no phone calls required.
But there’s a caveat: if you’re going to provide inventory/ATP information as part of your B2B ecommerce solution, you shouldn’t work too hard to make it happen. Your ERP already “owns” this data for each product and customer. Rather than rebuilding the relevant business rules in B2B ecommerce, you should use a solution that integrates to your ERP in real time.
That way, your IT team maintains only one system (your ERP), while automatically displaying 100% accurate inventory/available-to-promise (ATP) data for each product, for each logged-in customer. Your buyers can keep placing orders through B2B ecommerce throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with minimal disruption.
3. Don’t create any new work for your IT team
As everyone transitions to working from home, your IT team has its hands full. Supporting the setup of company machines at home, managing forwarded phone lines, whitelisting IPs, establishing virtual private network (VPN) access—the list goes on and on.
If B2B ecommerce is going to work during the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll need a plan of attack that doesn’t create any more work for IT. That means:
- You can’t use a solution that requires data duplication between your ERP, middleware, and ecommerce. It will create too much work for your IT team;
- With IT overburdened (and working remotely), you’ll do best with a managed, cloud-based SaaS solution;
- A solution that acts as a window into your ERP system is ideal. That way, you don’t have to rebuild anything—your IT team simply continues maintaining data in your ERP as they always have, and the customer experience in your B2B ecommerce store conforms to the ERP business rules surrounding the customer’s account.
4. Equip your Sales reps to sell from home
Whether your reps sell in person, from the office, or both, you need to equip them to win at B2B sales during the coronavirus pandemic. That means giving them a mobile-ready ordering portal so they can place orders on behalf of customers from any device. Ideally, it should provide:
- Customer mapping from your ERP so each rep can toggle between their customer accounts;
- Instant, on-behalf-of ordering for each account assigned to the rep in your ERP.
- 100% accurate, real-time inventory/ATP calculations for each product, by customer, straight from your ERP;
- Recommended/related products (i.e., cross-sell/upsell) with product relationships inherited from your ERP;
- 100% accurate contract/scaled pricing for each product, by customer, straight from your ERP;
- Support for modified RDD (requested delivery date) availability due to coronavirus disruption;
- Full order history from all channels, by customer, straight from your ERP.
5. Equip your customers (and CSRs) to manage accounts from home
Does this sound like your legacy B2B customer service process, before coronavirus?
- Customer calls or emails customer service for all things related to order status/history and invoice status/history;
- Customer service rep (CSR) looks up customer data in your ERP, in real time, and gives the customer the information, either over the phone or through email.
This system relies on two foundational pillars: A working company phone system, and secure access to your ERP system for CSRs.
When everybody’s working from home, these are both difficult to maintain. Moving this system to a distributed, work-from-home model will create friction for customers.
For both customers and CSRs servicing multiple accounts, the order tracking portal should provide:
- Order status for every order associated with the account, regardless of how it was placed (phone, fax, email, ecommerce, EDI, etc.);
- Shipment notifications, status, & tracking numbers via integration with all major carriers;
- Reprint all order-related documents from the ERP system, in PDF format;
- View open items and invoices straight from the ERP;
- Download order history in CSV format;
- View payment terms for the account;
- View credit status & month-end statement;
- ERP-integrated online payments (credit/debit card, ACH, eCheck, PayPal, and more) to pay down selected invoices;
6. Prioritize an agile path to B2B ecommerce
For companies that don’t have a B2B ecommerce channel, the coronavirus has created a scramble to transition the buying experience from phone/fax/email to a digital customer experience. While coronavirus disrupts B2B ordering by forcing your employees to work from home, ecommerce offers stability and reliable order through-put that doesn’t depend on your staff processing transactions (as long as the solution includes ERP integration).
While predictions vary on the duration of the impact which we’ll see from coronavirus, one thing is sure: a lengthy B2B ecommerce rollout is a risky move. This is especially true if the B2B ecommerce solution doesn’t include ERP integration, but instead requires 3rd party middleware to integrate to the ERP. This type of architecture will force you to rebuild and maintain all your ERP business rules in two additional places—B2B ecommerce, and middleware.
The Takeaway: Get closer to the customer, and stay Agile
As you respond to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, put customer value at the forefront of your B2B ecommerce efforts–but make sure you do so with minimal impact to your IT team. If you already have a B2B ecommerce channel, you should leverage it for greater demand chain visibility and more transparent post-order care for customers.
George Anderson is the digital marketing manager at Corevist Inc., a provider of SAP-integrated ecommerce, order tracking and other applications for manufacturers. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.Favorite