B2B Online: The Future of B2B Sales and Marketing

by | December 14, 2022 | Blog

What does the future hold for B2B sales and marketing? A few weeks ago, I attended the B2B Online eCommerce & Digital Marketing Conference where industry experts from around the world sought to answer just this question. The conference included leaders from both manufacturers and distributors, and featured deep dives into everything from enabling growth through digital innovation to the power of creating more robust customer experiences.

As a frequent attendee at conferences like this, I wasn’t surprised to hear the common refrain from speakers that B2B typically lags B2C trends, particularly in eCommerce. However, it’s becoming clear that this is rapidly changing, with the B2B online experience starting to look more and more consumer-esque.

Overall, my whirlwind couple of days at the Orlando conference covered a lot of ground, but below are some key takeaways:

Self-Service Pt. 1: Supporting the Customer Channel

Gone are the days of Glengarry Glen Ross and the traditional sales tactics of ABC (Always Be Closing). Today, we’re seeing a lot fewer telephone calls (do we even say “telephone” anymore?), and even fewer personal visits to the job site. The way we communicate and support our customer channel is changing, and the question becomes how manufacturers and distributors can best meet their customers’ evolving expectations.

Distributor websites

What contractor customers look for from distributor websites

This includes self-service technologies that have become more commonplace in salesperson-customer interactions, such as chat bots and texting. But it also now refers to the way content is distributed to customers and channel partners. In addition to the typical training modules and eLearning courses that might be available, are you providing “micro-content” that can quickly, easily, and intuitively help your partners sell and/or understand your value proposition?

Self-service components like this are producing a more efficient sales ecosystem by allowing customers and partners to access what they need, when they need it. It’s also shifting much of the marketing legwork to more passive, backend activities rather than traditional actions like email blasts and promotional communications. All of which is to say that the salesperson, somewhat ironically, is no longer the key driver of the sale. In fact, it’s the customers, and the technology that’s being implemented to support them.

Self-Service Pt. 2: Improving the Buying Experience

Along these same lines, the buying experience is also transforming into one that has both fewer human touch-points and a lower total cost to serve. Today’s B2B customers no longer expect to sift through a catalogue for a specific part number that needs to be called in and placed an order for. In 2022, this process already feels stale and outdated.

Instead, B2B businesses are seeking ways not just to digitize their buying experience, but to Amazon-ize it. What does this mean, exactly? The eCommerce experience needs to be rich with data and images, provide price accuracy and transparency, and offer machine learning capabilities—in other words, everything that we’ve come to expect from the Amazon shopping experience. All of these features must commingle to create an experience that is fast and intuitive on the customer side, but efficient, easy-to-implement at scale, and ultimately value-additive on the manufacturer/distributor end of things.

Obviously, different players are at different stages of this transformation, but what I found fascinating was how nearly everyone I spoke with seemed focused on addressing this challenge and embracing it as the next great opportunity in their business.

Marketplaces Vs. eCommerce

Another innovation that’s starting to take root in B2B is the concept of marketplaces as a foil to direct eCommerce platforms. Again, this speaks to the Amazon-izing of the B2B customer experience.

With it still being in the early innings of this trend, every company is now trying to figure out their strategy of how to work within a marketplace. From what I’ve been hearing, distributors are somewhat nervous about the direction of this trend and what it means for them within the channel ecosystem—and understandably so.

However, in general, manufacturers aren’t simply trying to go around their distributor partners in order to sell directly to their customers and end users; instead, what they want is to better control the message that’s being put out about their products and their brand. They’re also looking to get more data about their customers in order to create better relationships and drive brand preference. So, while the future of this channel conflict isn’t set in stone, the advent of the marketplace is something that both distributors and manufacturers are keenly aware of and navigating carefully around.

Conclusion

Every business is on a journey, and attending these conferences allows everyone participating to benchmark where they are on that journey versus their peers. It also gives attendees the tools and the knowledge base to forge ahead in what seems to be an increasingly uncertain B2B landscape. Because when things are changing, innovation is speeding ahead, and it feels like we’re in danger of being left behind, the last thing we want to do is put our head in the sand and pretend that things will go back to the way they were.

That’s not how change works, or how progress is achieved. But what it means for distributors and manufacturers across industries is that change management strategies need to be implemented sooner rather than later to avoid getting caught flat-footed. Understanding where you are in this process is a starting point; establishing a path forward is putting this knowledge into practice.

Of course, it starts with recognizing the key components of our forward-looking digital game-plan: speed, ease of use, transparency, and a lower cost to serve. Are we identifying—and implementing—the self-service applications and technologies that enable each of these? It also means re-envisioning the sales process and the traditional salesperson. There are no more order takers; as the sales process becomes commoditized through technology, it’s our job to figure out how best to de-commoditize it by leveraging the tools and data at our disposal. Because the better we can know our customers, the more value we can add to their experience.

An incentive program is a tool that can help shine a spotlight on many of these components. It can direct customers via incentives to a company’s new eCommerce site, or provide bite-sized training modules to help influence channel partners or educate existing salespeople. It can also be a digital vehicle that facilitates new, seamless methods of communication. Whatever the direction of your business, and however you plan on getting there, a well-conceived incentive strategy can be a veritable Swiss-army knife of promotion and enablement.

Change is never easy. But it is inevitable. The question is: are we ready for it?

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