Today’s B2B buyers expect their suppliers to provide a useful ecommerce purchasing channel, but they also want a sales representative to lend a helping hand beyond basic order-taking, a new survey of 150 buyers finds.

Sales representatives that serve as proactive advisors to a buyer’s business can boost online sales, increase customer retention, and help suppliers better weather economic downturns, says a new report from Avionos LLC, a provider of digital commerce and marketing technology and services.

To be sure, B2B buyers today place a high value on effective ecommerce sites, which many buyers now require from their suppliers, the study says. “B2B buyers no longer view effective ecommerce channels as a ‘nice-to-have’ component, but rather as a requirement,” the study says, adding: “81% of buyers would choose a supplier with excellent ecommerce and customer portal capabilities even if the supplier’s product was moderately higher-priced than a competitor’s.”

That 81% of buyers, the study notes, represent an increase from the 74% of buyers a year earlier who said they would choose an effective ecommerce portal overpricing when choosing a supplier—“showing the expanding power of great buying experiences in B2B.”

But B2B buyers also value assistance from sales reps, who can raise the effectiveness of online channels, the study says.

How sales reps add value to ecommerce

Of the 150 B2B buyers surveyed for the report, which was conducted in November 2019, 94% say sales representatives improve the online buying experience, and 69% say they could not complete an online purchase without the help of a sales representative.

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Three examples of how sales representatives can enhance the online purchasing experience are:

  • Providing more detailed product information and specifications than can be found on a supplier’s ecommerce site or distributors’ sites;
  • Explaining how a product fits a buyer’s business needs; and
  • Comparing the pros and cons of different product options.

To illustrate these points, the report notes that:

  • 43% of buyers cite inconsistent product information across channels as a hindrance to the buying experience;
  • 59% say they have difficulty understanding how a product fits their business based on information from the supplier’s site; and
  • 57% say they have difficulty finding ways to compare products and prices.

“Consistency of content across a supplier’s digital sales channels is a problem,” says Dan Neiweem, a principal and co-founder of Avionos. “That inconsistency breeds uncertainty for buyers, and when buyers are uncertain, they become concerned about making a purchasing mistake. A sales representative can eliminate that uncertainty by confirming they are purchasing the right product or steering them to a newer version of the product or another product.”

Getting comfortable online with big-ticket items

Sales representatives can also play a significant role in closing sales when it comes to purchasing big-ticket items online, the survey indicates. Only 35% of buyers say they are comfortable making an online purchase of $500,000 or more; 31% are comfortable making online purchases between $300,000 and $500,000.

Arming sales representatives with data about the big-ticket items that customers are viewing online equips the sales reps to proactively reach out to buyers and educate them about how a product works or answer questions they may have, Neiween says. Proactive outreach by sales representatives, especially for big-ticket items, can help buyers achieve their desired outcome, he adds.

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A sales rep that proactively contacts a buyer about an item can also hasten the purchasing decision, especially for a high-priced item, the study indicates. When a sales rep has input for a purchase of more than $500,000, 76% of buyers say having a sales rep involved increases their confidence in the purchase; for purchases of $300,000 to $500,000, 77% feel more confident if a sales rep has input; and for purchases of $150,000 to $300,000, 82% of buyers feel more confident if a sales rep is involved, the study found.

Working procurement managers

When buyers are confident they’ve purchased the right product, they can more easily defend their purchasing decision to procurement officers who may ask whether a lower-priced brand or model is a better option, Neiween says.

“Proactive outreach provides value above what the ecommerce site delivers,” Neiweem says. “The goal is to have the sales representative get involved before the transactional stage and before the procurement manager reviews the order.”

The best time for sales representatives to reach out to clients is before the research phase for an online purchase, the study indicates. 61% of buyers say they want sales representatives to provide them with information about new products and services as it becomes available.

“Education about new products and services is key,” Neiweem says. “Buyers want to know which new products best meet their needs. They also want suggestions on complementary products.”

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A consultative way to beat Amazon Business

Suggesting peripheral products can not only increase order size, but prevent clients from purchasing those items from competitors. “A sales representative that sees a client is not purchasing peripherals can point out how single-vendor sourcing can generate volume discounts and reduce the complexity of working with multiple suppliers,” he adds.

Taking a more consultative approach to client relations can also prevent buyers from turning to alternative B2B ecommerce sites, such as Amazon Business, to fill gaps they feel their primary suppliers can’t fill. Buyers will look to a supplier’s ecommerce site first, but if they feel the supplier can’t meet their business needs, many will turn to Amazon Business, the Avionos report says. Suppliers whose sales representatives serve in an advisory capacity can differentiate their company from Amazon Business and offset this risk, it adds.

In addition, the report suggests that sales representatives can help suppliers weather economic downturns by identifying new market segments and prospective clients within those segments.

“Sales representatives can help suppliers get in front of new prospects when a downturn occurs and help craft the marketing message to capitalize on those opportunities,” Neiweem says. “Sales representatives are more than facilitators of ecommerce transactions; they are advisors who can help clients purchase more efficiently and often.”

Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology. 

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