The data from our latest State of Shopping and Buying research is clear: Your customers continue to prefer more efficient electronic shopping and buying methods.
That’s based on our survey of more than 3,800 distributor customers. And since the first version of our report was published in 2016, we have discovered an even more pronounced move away from print and people toward digital channels such as email and websites. We’ve also continued to see a move toward more efficient in-person channels such as inside sales and customer service.
The pandemic accelerated that, forcing a sharp increase in online engagement in March and April 2020, which stuck.
Distributors need to take bold action. Customers demand an efficient, seamless experience with you no matter the channel they are shopping and buying from. While most prefer electronic channels such as search and email, inside sales and customer service are growing in importance. It all depends on the task at hand. Develop an omnichannel strategy in line with your customer’s journey.
Here are six steps to take now:
1. Understand your own customers’ journey and how it affects shopping and buying.
Every customer base is different. While the data outlined in our report generally applies, there are some important differences among different groups, such as customer types (construction vs. manufacturing, for example). If an extensive customer survey isn’t in the cards right now, don’t wait. Start to collect data to understand your customer’s journey. Task your customer service reps with calling the last 100 customers, and ask them to provide more insight into their transactions.
Ask questions like:
- How did you make the decision to make that order with us, and the way that you did (online, phone call, email, etc)?
- Where did you start your transaction? Did you look online first — search, website, other?
- Were we your first call? If not, who else did you speak with?
- Not only will you get some goodwill for thanking them for the order, you’ll be able to start mapping persona journeys to ensure you’re meeting customer needs throughout the shopping and buying process.
2. Feed Search (on your own site and through search engines) with quality product data and SEO initiatives.
Prioritize an SEO strategy and plan, starting with an SEO audit and then systematically optimizing content. For a distributor with an ecommerce site, product data (what shows up on the product page on your website) is your lifeblood. If you want to increase the likelihood of being found in search engines such as Google and Bing, you need to modify your product data to stand out. The biggest distributors in each sector are growing the number of keywords that show up in search engines by 50% to 100% annually.
Improving your product data is also critical to having a robust site search. Good product data, including extended product descriptions, multiple images, video, spec sheets and more, also improves user experience. A user is more likely to buy when the information provided is useful, such as multiple images showing different angles of a product, a spec sheet, a video of the product in use, reviews and so on. Be sure to enrich the data that is most relevant to your customer base, adding details that pertain to their industry, most likely application and so on.
3. Prioritize online and offline customer experience (CX).
Customer experience is how customers view your brand throughout their shopping and buying journey with your business. This includes:
- Access to customer service and inside sales reps
- Using your field sales reps strategically, targeting the customers that want rep interaction
- Seamless interaction across sales channels, making it easy for the customer to find information
- A solid ecommerce offering that gets and keeps them online
- How easy it is to find desired products online, which speaks to the search function and how good the underlying product data is, as well as how well you organize the website so it’s easy to consume
Ensure your technology stack supports a positive customer experience, no matter where your customers are interacting with you.
4. Implement multiple technologies for touchless ordering including email order automation, EDI and punchout.
Touchless ordering through email order automation, EDI and punchout decreases the time and cost for the transaction and increases profit for the distributor. Set a goal to increase the percent of orders you can automate or process without human intervention. Over a two- to three-year period, you’ll experience significant cost savings if you can move that number to 50%.
5. Change how ecommerce ROI is measured to ensure resourcing appropriately.
Distributors are looking for the payoff in an ecommerce investment and, if they don’t see one, they count it as unsuccessful. The problem with this narrow way of thinking is that if distributors make plans based on forecasts that show limited ROI, they might decide to spend less and limit the site’s functionality and integration, dooming themselves from the start. A proposed website budget shouldn’t be treated like other capital expenditures because most ROI models can’t measure the effects of eroded long-term competitiveness from a failure to invest. This equation doesn’t account for the fact that digital capabilities are simply a survival requirement today. And not having ecommerce results in a high risk of customer churn, according to our research. It’s a risk not worth taking.
ROI models also don’t typically account for revenue results outside of the shopping cart. If your ecommerce site is packed with great information, and customers are using it to research before ordering via a different mechanism such as an account manager, the ecommerce initiative isn’t getting proper credit for the potential revenue it’s bringing in. ROI must encompass the value that you’re bringing to a customer. A digital presence is critical to capturing an order, no matter where it is placed. The alternative to building these capabilities is a long, slow going out of business.
6. Differentiate your value-added services.
More than a third of distributors in our 2019 survey on the topic said their survival depends on value-added services. However, many distributors tend to have a limited worldview when it comes to which services they provide. That is holding them back from getting ahead in a market that’s growing more transactional and where manufacturers can more easily distribute directly to the end-user. Services can be broken into three categories: logistic, information and value-added processing.
Distributors must offer enough value beyond logistics to keep a customer from going to the competition. If you want to compete against Amazon Business and other companies that excel at logistics, shift your focus to information services and value-added processing. Information services and value-added processing affect the core function of your customer’s business – or the line function. You want the customer’s costs to fall as you do more work, saving them time, effort and money, and integrating yourself into their operations.
Get the full story on how distributors’ customers want to shop and buy with you in our latest report: 2021 State of Shopping and Buying in Distribution.