At Lawson Products, Inc., a Chicago-based North American distributor of industrial MRO products, a major upgrade is in the works to put its B2B ecommerce technology and service on the cutting edge.
But even with all the new features on the way—like improved site search, online invoice management and the ability of strategic accounts to set authorized spending limits and workflow approval for their buyers—Lawson will remain a company that pushes personal service to the forefront of its customer-focused growth strategy, executives say.
“It’s important to understand that Lawson is as much a service business as a product business,” says Kevin Hoople, chief information officer, who oversees ecommerce, IT and digital marketing.
Helping customers do their jobs
One of the highest-value-added opportunities Lawson will address, he adds, is to help its sales reps “become a more important part of customer operations,” enabling many of the mechanics throughout its customers base to “have more wrench time” fixing their facilities with the proper supplies purchased from Lawson. Lawson does close to $400 million a year in sales of maintenance, repair and operations products ranging from bolts and chemicals to metal-cutting tools and welding equipment used in several industries.
The new ecommerce platform will be an important part of the company’s customer-focused strategy, Hoople says.
In a major upgrade underway this year of its ecommerce site, Lawson will replace a nearly decade-old online technology platform designed for basic retail transactions with a platform built from the ground up for the complexities of B2B ecommerce. The upgrade will make it far easier for customers to find the products they need from among Lawson’s 75,000 available SKUs, then place orders and complete payment transactions in ways that suit their purchasing policies, Hoople says.
Mixing ecommerce with personal service
The new ecommerce site, developed on Oro Inc.’s OroCommerce platform, will be designed to also integrate with Oro’s customer relationship management system, providing a tight connection between the customer-facing ecommerce site and the back-end customer account activity recorded in the CRM, Lawson says. That integration will provide a more comprehensive view of all customer activity.
But one thing the new ecommerce platform won’t do according to Lawson’s plans, the distributor says, is push customers further into self-service ecommerce.
“We’re not pushing customers to order on the web,” says Shane McCarthy, senior vice president of supply chain, product marketing and marketing. “All of the online tools we provide—they’re designed to make our sales reps more efficient.”
“Our whole value proposition,” McCarthy adds, “is built around vendor-managed inventory—helping customers stock the items they need to do repairs quickly and reduce downtime.”
Expanding online content and features
To be sure, the new ecommerce platform will feature a broad range of product and educational content, including videos and webinar recordings designed to make the ecommerce site a helpful tool to customers. “We are putting more product information, video content and webinar content online as problem solvers,” Hoople says.
But in coordination with other applications, the ecommerce site will play just as big if not bigger role for Lawson’s sales reps, the company says. The reps assist customers whether customers place orders on the Lawson website or through other channels such as EDI and procurement software.
The company’s growing sales force—over 1,000 sales reps as of the end of Lawson’s last fiscal year ended Dec. 31, 2019—will use the new site in coordination with its cloud-based Microsoft Teams employee communication and collaboration system, which it installed about two years ago, to improve how Lawson personnel share information to help customers.
With Lawson’s thousands of products used by companies across many industries, including automotive and oil-and-gas, the collaboration system is designed to help the sales team solve problems for customers looking for the right product to complete their jobs, Lawson says.
Sharing product information for specific jobs
“Our reps see many questions come in from customers, and they can leverage the knowledge other sales reps have,” Hoople says. Accessing the Lawson website for product information and sharing information with other reps via Microsoft Teams on how products are used, helps sales reps play a more critical role in assisting customers, he adds. “Reps become a more important part of customer operations, enabling their mechanics to have more wrench time” using the most suitable materials and the tools meeting their job specifications.
When a customer needs metal-cutting tools, for example, Lawson’s reps will advise on the hardness rating of saw blades and drill bits most suitable for the project the customer describes. “A slightly different spec for hardness can make blades and drill bits function better,” McCarthy says.
“If a customer asks a rep what’s the most environmentally friendly cleaning product for my freezers, the rep can post the question with the Microsoft Teams app, where a thousand sales colleagues can respond in real time,” McCarthy says.
Giving reps credit for online sales
For Lawson, its evolving mix of sales and service technology and processes builds on the multichannel strategy it has followed since it deployed its legacy ecommerce platform in 2011. “When we first implemented that site, we were very careful to make sure we were not creating a competing channel,” Hoople says, adding: “Our reps get credit for the sale, whether they get the order directly or a customer went to self-service ecommerce.”
When reps are at customer sites, they can access a digital product catalog on their laptops to assist customers in placing orders and scan the bar codes on products on-site that a customer needs to reorder.
Lawson expects its new ecommerce platform to integrate well with the distributor’s enterprise resource planning system from SAP SE, which among other things helps to deliver most products to customers within two days of when it receives orders.
Competing with a focus on service
Lawson, which is a publicly-traded company, reported total sales of $370.8 million for the year ended Dec. 31, 2019, up 6% from the prior year. “I’ve never been more confident about the future of the company,” Michael DeCata, president and CEO, said on 2019 fiscal year-end conference call with investment analysts.
Lawson’s overall mix of commerce and collaboration technology and service, Hoople says, helps it compete with large as well as relatively small competitors in the distribution of industrial fasteners and other MRO items.
“But with our service and vendor-managed inventory,” he adds, “we compete more with smaller regional distributors with a high-touch model.”
In light of the ongoing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Lawson says it is taking several steps to ensure business continuity.
Lawson’s COVID-19 strategy
“To ensure that our and your customers’ operations continue to run efficiently, we have a business continuity plan in place to provide uninterrupted service to the best of our ability,” it said in a statement provided to Digital Commerce 360. “We have taken a proactive approach with our supply chain—working with all of our key suppliers to ensure that we have adequate stock, bringing in additional supply where possible and identifying alternate sources if needed.
“While Lawson Products and many of its customers are considered ‘essential businesses,’ customer visitor policies continue to change. Our sales reps have maximized the ecommerce channel to ensure our customers have the products they need.
“In fact, Lawson has a diverse set of countries from which it sources product. Ensuring that our customers are able to continue to operate efficiently in this ever-changing environment is of great importance to us. Customers can reach out to their sales reps directly via phone, call customer service or place orders through our website. Our team will continue to conduct business safely to provide the support and service that our customers have come to expect.”
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