B2B buyers are making more of their purchases online—a movement accelerated by the pandemic. Susanne Adam, an expert in wholesale distribution at SAP SE, lays out eight tips for helping B2B companies to capitalize on this trend.

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Susanne Adam

Even before the pandemic, we saw a change in behavior from B2B customers, requiring wholesale distributors to quickly react to a dramatic shift of buying patterns and maintain business continuity amidst disruption. COVID-19 is only the catalyst that sped up an already evolving industry, but one theme that remains is the need for a great customer experience that builds trust.

To make the state of the market more complex, suppliers are selling directly to customers, and B2B marketplaces are making prices and delivery options more transparent while offering an extensive assortment. Online competition is eating up revenue from traditional wholesale distributors as the market continues to pivot focus to easy-to-sell products and leaves the more challenging, time-intensive, and costly sales to the wayside.

During 2020, Digital Commerce 360 estimated that B2B website sales, including marketplaces, would top $1.3 trillion in the United States, showing an increase of 10% from the prior year. The importance of ecommerce channels will continue to grow, pandemic or not. Waiting until the pandemic is over and relying on sales reps as the main sales channel is not sustainable. Instead, it is best to learn by trying out new ways of doing business, measuring success, and optimizing for value and experience.

Turning Commerce Challenges into Opportunities

So, how can you take advantage of this new online playing field and not be left by the wayside?  First, you must evaluate the strength of your current ecommerce shop.

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To get started on this journey, an outright review of your organization’s current ecommerce presence is required—does it have all the features that customers expect today? This process should include not only employees but also customers.

One best practice example is Australian healthcare distributor Sigma Healthcare. This company began work on their new customer portal based upon customer feedback, thereby developing a tool that would meet the buyers’ needs and also simplify the commerce process through self-service capabilities. This portal has the built-in ability to continuously seek customer feedback, thereby providing Sigma with the real-time inputs required to elevate the customer experience while making business easier, faster, and more transparent.

Getting Started:  How to Evaluate Your Existing Commerce Strategy

While Sigma Healthcare’s commerce journey was transformational in nature, there are many smaller, bitesize ways to adopt a model of continuous improvement for your commerce strategy.  Golden threads to your commerce success are hiding around every corner, but here are eight common focus areas to identify short- to mid-term improvements:

  1. Accuracy of Search Results: Insufficient search results lead to lost sales. How easily can customers find the products they are looking for? How relevant are search results for the customer?
  2. SEO (search engine optimization): This strategy is essentially the art and science of getting products and web pages to rank higher in search engines. As stated by Forrester Research, SEO is no longer just a “nice to have” but a foundational element that enables B2B organizations to drive brand awareness.
  3. Product Recommendations: Customers continue to be grateful for product or service recommendations that complement their immediate needs. This can be displayed on the product detail page as suggestions of alternative products in case the original product is out of stock, or recommendations for complementing products.
  4. In-Stock Availability: There is nothing worse for buyers than finding the perfect product, at the perfect price, only to be informed during the checkout process that it is not available within the required timeframe. Is stock availability information provided up-front so that customers know when they can expect the delivery?
  5. Mobile-Friendly Experience: B2B buyers use their mobile devices for product research and purchases, expecting easy navigation and a fast transaction. How easy can your web shop be navigated and searched on different mobile devices?
  6. Customers Self-services: As mentioned in the prior Sigma Healthcare example, self-service offerings can add an important piece to the puzzle of customer loyalty. During and after the buying journey, there are many opportunities to offer self-services. These offers could include detailed product information, online tutorials, fast order option, access to past orders and invoices, and analytics related to ordering behavior. McKinsey found that customers expect this in today’s commerce experience, as 86 percent of buyers prefer using self-service tools for reordering, rather than talking to a sales representative.
  7. Business Workflows: In a B2B purchasing process, various stakeholders are often involved. Do customers have the ability to easily comply with their organizational setup and create approval workflows to support the buying process?
  8. Customer Service: Do customers have access to experienced sales and service reps if they have a more complicated question? How well does your webshop integrate a mixture of self-service and customer service options?

These eight areas of improvement can provide you with a quick and easy guide to analyze where your existing commerce strategy may be falling short, but there are more areas to look into for more sophisticated distributors. A self-analysis such as this one is the first step to develop a business roadmap that enables your organization to identify and address step-by-step concrete improvements. The ultimate goal for any distributor should be to become the differentiated, go-to-entity in your market segment.

Susanne Adam is a Principal Solution Manager for Wholesale Distribution with business operations software provider SAP SE.  She has worked with client companies on customer engagement strategy and on various projects in the wholesale and retail industry. Follow her on Twitter @susanneadam3.

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