Putting Customer Experience at the Forefront of Retail’s Digital Transformation
The world has changed drastically in the last few months thanks to COVID-19, and the retail industry is no exception. In the B-to-B world, traditional modes of face-to-face selling have become impossible, and now it’s likely that much of what has changed for B-to-B sellers will never be quite the same.
For many businesses around the world, the move to e-commerce shifted from "long-term plan" to "immediate priority." COVID-19 has changed how people buy, pushing them to go online because there was no other way to purchase goods and services. How customers buy is the one thing businesses cannot ignore. Yet despite the fact that B-to-B buyers are increasingly moving to online purchasing, only a fraction of vendors are ready to meet them with a shopping experience that meets their expectations.
The time is now for businesses to invest heavily in e-commerce. This means that e-commerce marketing and sales leaders must now step clearly to center stage in owning the strategy to implement full digital selling as their route to market. This concept of digital selling embraces two, seemingly dissonant, strategies that must be harmonized to drive success.
Replicating B-to-C Experiences in the B-to-B Purchasing Process
The first is to deliver a self-directed, online buying experience that frees the customer from the need to interact with anyone. B-to-B customers want to own the buying experience just like how they do during the rest of the day when they're a B-to-C consumer. This means doing their own research, evaluating the options, looking at alternative approaches to solving problems, and digging into what a product or service can do for them. The last thing they want is to be “sold to.”
This can be deeply concerning for traditional B-to-B sellers, which want to shape the conversation and guide the buyer inevitably toward their own offerings. Now, to meet buyer expectations, vendors must engage with customers where and how they want, which may be in different ways than the ones vendors are used to.
Making the Customer Experience More Personalized and Tailored
The second, seemingly contradictory truth, is that vendors must make customer engagement much more personal and human. Buyers, just like everyone else, want to know that vendors care about solving their unique problems and are going beyond simply selling them a product that a similar buyer type purchased in the past.
This means that while the sales interaction will start online for complex or high-consideration purchases, companies still need to be ready to step in and help. A B-to-B salesforce needs to evolve to operate as a partner to both the customer and a vendor’s other channels. When a buyer reaches a difficult decision in a complex purchase process, they want the ability to quickly get help from a salesperson who can add value and guide them to the right answer to meet their needs. Simply put: they need the context and empathy that only direct human interaction can provide.
Balancing these two needs, self-service purchasing and seamless availability for human guidance, will be the key for business and technology leaders as they adapt to retail’s new normal. While the pandemic has accelerated the path to e-commerce, it’s still crucial for the delivery of digital buying tools to be integrated into the overall sales process from day one. Channel conflict between your online store and your existing B-to-B sales teams will erode trust in your customers, make buying difficult, and drive your business into the ground.
Creating tightly integrated sales channels that conform to how buyers want to purchase has been the future of selling for some time. For better or worse, thanks to COVID-19, that future must be delivered now.
Geoff Webb is vice president of strategy at PROS, a company that provides AI-based solutions that power commerce in the digital economy.