With the digitalization of sales processes, wholesale distributors have a new opportunity to engage customers and significantly grow their business by coordinating the efforts of marketing, sales and ecommerce teams, writes Susanne Adam, a principal solution manager at SAP SE for wholesale distribution.

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Susanne Adam

By definition, the wholesale distribution industry buys products from manufacturers or suppliers in large quantities and sells them at wholesale prices to customers, which are often commercial establishments, business professionals, or retail stores.

Marketers can add value by influencing all stages of the customer life cycle, working cross-functionally across sales and ecommerce teams.

The traditional focus for the industry primarily resides on the logistics and sales aspects of business, such as offering a large assortment, fast delivery options, and the ongoing management of customer relationships. For a long time, keeping the promise of product availability and delivery was the basis to build and retain an excellent reputation.

In wholesale distribution, the marketing function was often given limited resources and budget in contrast to sales personnel who could meet buyers face-to-face to build personal relationships. Wholesale marketing tasks concentrated on the creation of promotional ads, email campaigns, homepage design, and later expanded to include social media management.  Their responsibility was to drive awareness and interest while the sales teams generated leads with new or existing customers. The marketing and sales team often operated in silos, resulting in tension and preventing each team from fully executing their jobs, as stated by Gartner.

With the increasing importance of digital sales channels and the strategic imperative to put customers in the center of all activities, the role of marketing has become much more vital. Now, marketers can add value by influencing all stages of the customer life cycle, working cross-functionally across sales and ecommerce teams to meaningfully contribute to a company’s bottom line.

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Marketing and Sales Alignment

Up until now, lead generation has been the primary responsibility of sales teams. Sales representatives have been held accountable to simultaneously identify opportunities with existing customers while recruiting new customers.

This trend has started to shift, as Forrester Research predicts for 2022, “instead of separate lead generation and customer marketing teams, many organizations are consolidating into a unified revenue marketing team that embraces the total customer lifecycle.” Forrester adds that these newly established revenue marketing teams will use “ABM [account-based marketing] and other digital marketing techniques to engage with prospects and customers at every stage of the purchase and post-purchase process.”

ABM is a strategic approach to designing and executing highly targeted, personalized marketing initiatives to drive business growth. For wholesale, an ABM approach often translates into specific, high-value customers being targeted with personalized marketing and sales activities. ABM is considered a long-term strategy, with the key to success being that sales and marketing must be in lock-step for an extended time, ideally along the entire customer life cycle. ABM software can provide distributors the ability to orchestrate personalized, multi-touch marketing programs at scale across a variety of tactics such as emails, advertisements, events, direct mail, social media, cold calls, and more.

Marketing’s Impact on Ecommerce Activity

Marketing staff can play a positive role in supporting increased traffic and growth of an ecommerce webshop through a variety of tactics.  For example, marketers can orchestrate paid search advertisements, social media campaigns, and organic search through means of search engine optimization (SEO). Especially for the latter, the marketing and ecommerce team must work together, as SEO in B2B is a mix of technical know-how, analytics, buyer persona, and journey insights, as described by Gartner. A successful SEO strategy can be developed and executed by joining forces and leveraging knowledge across various departments.

Tapping into the knowledge of the marketing department regarding the customer buyer journey and customer research instruments can also help to improve the useability of the webshop. Customer surveys or prompts for real-time webshop feedback are a great source of information on what customers are missing or dislike and can indicate which features deliver a good customer experience.

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Utilizing the Customer Portal as a Marketing Vehicle

Today’s wholesalers, like other B2B companies, extend their ecommerce platforms into customer engagement portals, where the webshop is only a part of the offering. Customer portals frequently comprise several self-service and engagement options to remain connected with sales and service representatives.

Customer portal offerings often include order and invoice document archives, a knowledge base, training videos, and webchat. Some portals include a moderated community area where customers can exchange ideas or questions on specific topics.  A customer portal can be the platform for nearly all customer communication which can open many possibilities for personalized content to better address customers.

Marketing could facilitate targeted promotions on the customer portal for specific customer groups, invitations to upcoming events, or information as a service, e.g., on market developments or changes in the legal rules in the market segment the customer is doing business.

Marketing as a Catalyst for Growth

With the digitalization of outdated sales processes, marketing departments in the wholesale distribution industry can now seize the opportunity to get out of their niche and drive sales together with the sales and ecommerce teams and support customer engagement activities across the end-to-end customer life cycle. By combining the knowledge of marketing tactics with sales experience, an unbeatable advantage is created to meet today’s high customer expectations.

Susanne Adam is a principal solution manager at SAP for wholesale distribution. She has worked with client companies on customer engagement strategy and various projects in the wholesale and retail industry. Follow her on Twitter @susanneadam3.

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