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A new wave of digital-first customers is changing B2B sales and how we do business. eCommerce platforms are evolving, and distributors using these tools should pay attention. We’re moving from ecommerce 1.0 to 2.0, and in this next iteration, distributors will provide customers with much better personalization, richer product data, better connectivity to the distributor’s tech stack and mobile-first experience.
Jonathan Bein, Ph.D. of Distribution Strategy Group, recently hosted a panel of technology experts, “How Distributors Should Modernize their eCommerce.” The panelists included:
- Kristen Thom, Director of Product Management at White Cup
- Dave Bent, Senior Vice President of Operations within the Distribution Division of ECI Software Solutions
- Pratik Chakraborty, Chief Technology Officer at Blue Meteor
Here’s their take on where ecommerce is going next.
The 4 Cs of eCommerce 2.0
Bent believes evolving ecommerce platforms will take the customer experience to the next level. He named four critical areas of focus:
- Commerce – How can we sell more products to a broader audience?
- Content – How can we increase customer ecommerce engagement by providing the right product information?
- Connectivity – How can ecommerce websites integrate with our existing CRM and ERP while connecting to consumers on any digital device?
- Communication – How can ecommerce sync with sales and marketing to share information in real time?
These “4 Cs” aim to improve the customer experience at every level.
“We’ve seen ecommerce strategy shift to retaining customers and expanding your footprint with those customers. That changes how you measure success on your ecommerce platform,” Thom said.
Successful engagement starts with the data that fuels an ecommerce website, said Chakraborty. “Your website is no good if the data on your screen is incorrect or incomplete. It’s the data behind the scenes that matters. What goes into the meat of your ecommerce platform behind the scenes is critical.”
Product data has always been the oxygen of ecommerce. What’s changing is our need to integrate with other digital systems. Customers demand a seamless approach. What can distributors do to ride this wave?
eCommerce to Support the Purchase Decision
Customers benefit from touching, testing and exploring a product in real-time. Distributors must use their platform to connect customers to a similar experience online or run the risk of losing the sale.
“Customers buy a 3-D product from a 2-D website,” Chakraborty said. “They cannot touch, actually see or feel the real product. That hasn’t changed since the inception of ecommerce. What has changed is that more information needs to be available so the customer can make an educated purchase decision.”
But distributors face challenges around pulling data from various systems. If that interconnectivity fails, product data could be incomplete, so the distributor misses an opportunity.
When a distributor imports hundreds if not thousands of SKUs from suppliers, the biggest challenge they face is when product data is incomplete or inaccurate. Even one missing piece of data could mean you don’t make the sale. But distributors must also ensure a continuous flow of accurate data in and out of the ecommerce platform.
“I may sell the best televisions on the market. I have all the information, great pictures, videos, everything. But if I’m missing the size of the television, I won’t sell a single unit,” Chakraborty said.
Changes in Customer Behaviors Require Changes in eCommerce
If customers want to buy a hammer, they can go to one of several big-box retailers or online. The distributor will lose the sale if their ecommerce experience isn’t as satisfying. Chakraborty said, “It’s fallout from customers being more educated in what they want to buy and being more demanding in terms of the information they want to see before making the purchase.”
Bent agreed. He said the customer is on a purchasing journey and content must be presented throughout the product lifecycle — from the website to the installation, data is what drives the sale. He told this story to illustrate his point:
“We’ve created a configurator for a MIG welding gun manufacturer. There are 400 possible configurations for the product. In the past, this required a conversation with a salesperson. But we’ve set up an ecommerce configurator where someone can get that data based on the product attributes they’re looking for. It’s the next level of ecommerce to make it more effective for complex products and increase sales.”
“Sometimes the sale doesn’t happen on the ecommerce site,” Thom said. “Giving research tools to your buyer is critical even if the content on your site is just there to help people research on their own before they pick up the phone.”
Chakraborty said applicability matters. “If I want to buy tires for my car, I need the exact tires that fit the make and model of my car. I need the ability to search by application. It’s another layer of complexity added to the product content space.”
This kind of specificity is a task for a distributor with 200,000 SKUs in multiple categories. If every product has all the data expanded on every page, it becomes overkill. Small design touches, such as having the ability to collapse data, make for a better user experience without overwhelming the customer.
Chakraborty added: “Page design is an art not a science. Showing everything in the very first page can overwhelm the viewer. It’s trial and error for the designer.”
Real-Time Connectivity Enables Customer Service
With ecommerce 1.0, proper database integration wasn’t possible. Distributors updated their data with a daily sync of a CRV file. Today, distributors can leverage sophisticated web-based application program interfaces (APIs) to funnel data between ecommerce and CRM platforms automatically.
APIs tie together the digital systems distributors use to create a single source of truth for data. APIs smash through siloed data and give us a better picture of customer ecommerce behaviors, supply chains, vendors and more.
Thom described how these systems share data and their effect on sales teams:
“Business intelligence fuels the CRM. Integration means you bring data into the CRM from the ERP and ecommerce systems so that your customer-facing teams, inside and outside sales, marketing and customer service have a unified, cohesive connectivity point that drives decision-making. With integration, it’s less about CRM as a big brother to track activity but more for using the CRM insights into customers and understanding what’s the best use of your time today.”
Chakraborty said there are change management barriers to adopting these tools. “Beyond the technology piece, it’s a corporate policy where people are used to dealing with Excel or a CSV file. So, for them, everything is working why change? That’s the hurdle that needs crossing. It’s about a 50/50 mix between API adoption and manual tools for our customers.”
Bent said it’s a fast-changing area. “But the bottom line is customer experience. Say you have a customer with a budget threshold they’re tracking. Beyond a certain point, they must route the purchase for approval. It must be a real-time lookup, no matter your system. Syncing is a thing of the past. If your ecommerce platform can’t support integration, that is a huge red flag.”
Integration allows your teams access to the same data. It also gives customers that same real-time birds-eye view. Thom said: “If a customer is calling or on the ecommerce site, the answer stays the same. When everything from inventory to pricing is accurate and up to date, the customer can do more self-service on your ecommerce site, which takes some heat off sales and customer service.”
Bent agreed. “Integration is all about being customer experience-driven and engaging customers so they become a primary partner. If you create an all-encompassing experience for the customer, they’ll return to you. It’s all linked to integration as it drives the buying experience.”
Improve communication with that customer by creating seamless ecommerce integration with an easy-to-use interface and the right content.
“If you create an all-encompassing customer experience, they’ll return to you,” Bent said. “If you tell the procurement director, we can help manage your spending, set approval levels and budgets and even track against locations and cost centers, they will consider you a sole source provider. That’s ecommerce 2.0.”
High Tech vs. High Touch: Can eCommerce + AI Mimic Human Encounters?
The next level of ecommerce will bring more AI into ecommerce. Distributors will use these platforms to:
- Build personalized shopping experiences for each customer.
- Use integrated data for product release decisions.
- Target and build relationships with new customers.
- Target existing customers for higher sales.
AI is moving from machine learning, where the computer can suggest products that build on the customer’s planned purchase, to a more integrated approach throughout the product lifecycle. “It’s smoothing connections between buying points,” Thom said.
Chakraborty suggested: “We found many customers ordering 10,000 nuts and bolts monthly. Why not automate it like a prescription refill? After the customer orders, there is an inertia that you must overcome to get them to log back in. What if they get a text message suggesting their next purchase, and all they must do is text ‘Yes’ to place the order?”
These steps will be standard best practice with the next iteration of ecommerce for distributors.
eCommerce in a Mobile World
Finally, ecommerce 2.0 will improve mobile and how the small screen interacts with the extensive product data found in ecommerce. Today, 61% of online retail traffic comes from mobile devices. For distributors, the percent of customers coming through mobile will depend on their customer makeup.
Bent said: “It’s important to be mobile first if a large part of your base is on the road, HVAC, plumbing – you have to provide the capability to the screen they’re using.” The challenge is that complex products may not translate well to the small screen.
Bent reiterated that’s why sales reps will continue to play an essential role. A small-screen user may look up product details, but to explore the complexities of the item and make the purchase, they may still pick up the phone.
The shifts outlined by our panel must remain centered in distributors’ desire to keep customers satisfied. Technology isn’t the goal for technology’s sake; it’s to improve the customer experience and move them along in their product journey.
Chakraborty added: “There’s a saying in IT, high tech vs. high touch. High tech is wonderful, but can high tech also mimic the high touch that another human being can provide? That’s where AI and intelligent recommendations will change the industry.”
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