In this Q&A article, Karie Daudt, a veteran B2B strategist who is a Director of Commerce Strategy at digital consultancy Perficient, discusses how distributors can best take on the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly digital B2B world of commerce. In her previous article, Daudt discussed challenges for manufacturers.
DC360: What are the top B2B digital commerce trends B2B buyers and sellers should watch closely in 2023 and why?
Daudt: There are many trends that distribution buyers and sellers should pay attention to in 2023.
This is the year of customer obsession and focusing in on the needs, wants and expectations of the customer. Important considerations are what do you make your customer do that they do not want to do? This is not just a simple focus on the buying journey, but a complete understanding of the process customers goes through to engage with you. We know that there are many people involved in the buying journey, and each of those people are engaged at different times for different reasons.
Think of how the process is for a new customer, versus an existing customer. What are all the use cases associated with the end-to-end process, and what are the challenges they face along the way? What role does the customer care representative play in the journey? When does a technical resource need to engage, and why? How does the salesperson stay engaged and informed in the process?
Understanding all the internal and external interactions that occur or could occur, provide the opportunity to solve for the multi-step process and make engaging with your business better. The ability to partner with your existing customers to understand the challenges they face is a great opportunity to build long-term relationships in a digital world.
Another trend to consider is the concept of how performance is impacting the customer experience. We are seeing a big trend in site reliability engineering. This is not just focused on how your overall site is performing, but also a way to key in and focus on specific activities. Taking an actionable and measurable approach with performance engineering and KPI alignment is the next big opportunity to driving better commerce results.
DC360: Has B2B ecommerce reached the tipping point where the industry now views digital commerce as mainstream? If so, why?
Daudt: I do believe that B2B ecommerce has reached the tipping point where the industry now views it as mainstream. The continuous growth and expansion of B2B ecommerce indicates that the acceptance and expectation of customers is that companies must have it. The challenge is that distribution companies need to take this seriously. Just having a website is not what B2B ecommerce is all about; it is making it easier for your customers to do business with you, including evaluating your internal business factors that impede success.
DC360: B2B ecommerce is accelerating on multiple levels right now, not the least of which is annual sales growth. In general, where are distributors being impacted, and why?
Daudt: As B2B ecommerce continues to accelerate, distributors need to stay in front of their customers. It is important to understand what challenges their customers face and find ways to solve those challenges. Distributors need to make themselves relevant and provide value that customers can’t find elsewhere. Distributors need to partner with their manufacturers to deliver better experiences through data quality, leveraging tools that help customers make better informed decisions. It is critical that distributors always visualize what the future looks like so they can plan ahead.
DC360: What did COVID 19, supply chain woes, labor shortages and inflation teach manufacturers and distributors about digital commerce in 2022? What hard lessons should they have learned, and why?
Daudt: Covid 19 should have taught distributors several things, with the first being that they need to have digital sales channels that can adapt and pivot quickly to address customers’ needs. One important lesson for many organizations was learning how well their digital sales channel can handle a significant influx of traffic. We saw many organizations take significant performance hits and get overwhelmed by people looking for products.
This performance challenge is leading to a new trend and opportunity for organizations to focus on site reliability engineering. Starting with the overall site performance, it is important for organizations to understand where they might see failures with a higher-than-average demand. You may see an increase in cart abandonment and may not understand why this is happening. It could be that your cart and checkout page are having an issue with performance, causing people to abandon their cart. Connecting these data points will enable your organization to improve overall experience in targeted and specific ways.
DC360: What are the biggest B2B ecommerce challenges facing distributors, and how can they overcome them?
Daudt: One of the biggest challenges facing distributors today is product information quality. Organizations must invest in managing their product data and content, from collecting, standardizing, and enriching the information.
To overcome this challenge, distributors must make product information a priority. This may mean partnering with your manufacturers to address the quality, accuracy, and relevancy of the data they are providing you. It might mean leveraging inbound product syndication to improve the information you have for products.
Regardless of how a company improves the data they have for products; the distributor needs to take the initiative to enrich the products to align with their business and customer needs. For organizations that currently have a product information management (PIM) solution, it is time to prioritize managing and enriching the data. Focus on optimizing your top-selling products and differentiate your content from your competition for better SEO and onsite search results. For distributors that have not invested in a PIM solution, this is the year to make that a priority and improve the experience your customers have with your business.
Another challenge that distribution companies need to solve is providing better overall transparency to data. The ability to show product availability across different warehouses is one example. Or, let your customer know if the delivery date has been changed so they can plan accordingly. Give your customers options. For example, if the exact product they desire is not available let them know if they can order a direct replacement. The ability to keep your customers informed is no longer a luxury — it is key to your ongoing success.
DC360: Headless commerce, artificial intelligence and cloud applications are the most talked about new digital applications. Are these must-haves or nice-to-haves for sellers?
Daudt: You are correct, headless commerce, artificial intelligence, and cloud-first applications are the most talked about new digital approaches. Are these must-haves or nice-to-haves for sellers?
Honestly, distributors could consider any of these items as nice-to-have approaches versus must-haves. The key for organizations to think, how will these solutions help me move the needle for my business?
Artificial intelligence is interesting especially in how it can help things like intelligent search. The ability to use data and automated learning for areas like related products or cross-selling can be useful beyond managing those items manually in tools like PIM or ecommerce. It can also be an accelerator to drive more intelligent personalization, but I do want companies to think about what personalization is to their B2B business. How is this going to help me and possibly take me to the next level, or are there other key considerations I should be making before I move in this direction?
Headless commerce can be a great for distribution organizations that are more mature and can invest in connecting the front-end experience to the commerce engine. Headless can be a great move for organizations that are wanting to leverage technologies, like a content management system (CMS), that the business user is comfortable with to provide content that drives the user to a conversion. The organization needs to be prepared to make the investments in technology and the resources to support and maintain the headless approach and be nimble enough to take full advantage of the solution.
The cloud-native approach and leveraging APIs to connect commerce capabilities is an interesting trend. The reality is that this approach does require a fully agile development approach and an advanced IT support team prepared to operate as a software development team. If the organization is fully prepared to make the switch, and desires to make the necessary level of capital investment, it might be better to stay with a more traditional approach and see how the trend pans out.
DC 360: What happens if a B2B organization chooses not to make digital commerce a strategic priority?
Daudt: This is still my favorite question!
In my opinion, every B2B organizations must have a strategy that makes digital commerce a strategic priority. The important considerations are what does that strategy look like and what does it mean to our business. Digital Commerce is many different things to many different organizations, including a customer portal, an ecommerce digital sales channel that supports guest and authenticated users as well as a marketplace.
It can also include areas of your business to digitize product information and data to syndicate to websites, third-party marketplaces, and more. Every distributor needs to understand what the long-term strategic impact of their decision to not go digital in some way, shape or form.
In a previous article, Daudt discussed challenges for manufacturers.
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