The business world is undergoing a seismic shift toward digital commerce, forcing companies in all industries to rethink the way they connect with their customers. Retailers are now pressed to pursue excellence in software and to come up with ways to engage shoppers via smartphones while they're in the aisle. Even nonprofits are finding their goals are achieved more efficiently when conducted online, and are therefore adding an element of digital marketing to their efforts.
Lacking immunity to this wave of transformation, B-to-B companies (particularly wholesalers) are now exploring ways to build relationships and maximize sales through new digital channels, often disrupting longstanding sales processes. However, while the imperative is clear — that companies stand to dramatically improve their bottom line by adopting digital strategies — thus far wholesalers have largely struggled to fully seize this opportunity.
The Traditional Approach
Oftentimes, B-to-B organizations' inability to capitalize on digital commerce is not for lack of trying. Although some may fear alienating customers who aren't ready for change, plenty of wholesalers have already branched out into the world of e-commerce, launching websites that allow buyers to place and manage their orders. That being said, B-to-B companies typically take a relatively traditional approach to these efforts, failing to recognize many of digital commerce's biggest benefits.
This disconnect comes from B-to-B organizations' propensity to look at digitization from an operational perspective, rather than that of a marketer. By prioritizing the functionality of the tool over the experience of the end user, wholesalers may end up simply replacing existing channels with a digital version. This strategy can certainly make processes more cost-effective, but it keeps companies from realizing digital commerce's true potential: the ability to reach entirely new audiences and offer diverse groups of buyers a personalized user experience.
To extract such value from their digital strategies, wholesalers have to be prepared to flip the script. Rather than asking how they will end up interacting with customers through digital channels, companies must consider taking the perspective of their customer. What will the buyer's experience look like? When does it truly begin? What features will help them buy? Looking at the sales process from the other end of the table lengthens the scope for B-to-B companies, forcing them to think beyond the level of transaction to deliver the ideal customer experience.
Changing the Buyer Experience
This comprehensive approach begins with wholesalers becoming intimately familiar with their customers — both their most loyal and longstanding clients and potential new customer bases. Building a strategy around the workflows and features that are most valuable to these audiences will help guide wholesalers toward developing a channel that expands beyond the functionality of existing methods to fill buyers' previously unserved needs.
For example, in the steel industry, most wholesalers see the web simply as a more efficient environment for collecting orders. However, with efficiency as their only focus, many companies simply mirror the exact same order process they practiced in the field traditionally.
Steel Pipe & Supply broke this narrative by taking a purposed look at its audience's needs. Marketing research showed that while the wholesalers' decision-makers were generally members of Generation X, the buyers were overwhelmingly members of Generation Y. Market research further revealed Gen Y-ers' preference for a more dynamic shopping experience in both their consumer lives and in their role as B-to-B buyers. After then arming its web store with functions, features and visuals that appealed to this well-defined market, Steel Pipe & Supply saw a significant boost in conversions and overall sales.
Taking a consumer approach to B-to-B sales can give wholesalers a significant leg up on the competition. Grainger, for instance, used a well-marketed e-commerce site to bring what was once an in-print catalog business online. Not only did this transition make it easier for their existing customers to explore product offerings and place and manage orders, but it also opened the door for an entirely new set of companies to engage with the brand that would have never interacted in a retail setting.
In this way, Grainger's web store served as both a lead generation tool and a digital sales channel, exceeding the amount of functions performed by the printed catalog. Implementing this B-to-C perspective in Grainger’s B-to-B context has generated undeniable success: In the first half of this year alone, Grainger sold more than $2 billion worth of goods online.
While embracing these strategies has already brought success to companies like Steel Pipe & Supply and Grainger, they represent just the first ripples in a wave of change that will forever alter the way B-to-B companies engage with their customers.