The technology platform is crucial, but without a re-think about corporate structure, branding and the changed context for your sales reps, your eCommerce initiatives are likely to have a disappointing outcome.
B2B eCommerce projects often fail to deliver the expected results and in this two-part blog, we explore the main reasons why. The question has many aspects, but they all come back to this core insight: that eCommerce should be considered a strategy and not just one more way to make a sale alongside emails, sales trips, telephone conversations, or trade fairs.
You will miss many opportunities if you regard eCommerce as just another sales channel.
Yet time again B2B companies embark on ambitious eCommerce projects without thinking through what this means – or ought to mean – for the business as a whole. If these companies are our clients we strongly advise them to take a step back, and look at the bigger picture. The purpose of this blog is to describe that bigger picture, and set out some of the strategic considerations that are crucial to success.
To fully leverage their investment, businesses should look at eCommerce not as a tool, a solution, a sales channel, or a business system (although it is all those things) but as a strategy that involves the entire organization. This is where many implementations go wrong: eCommerce is seen as a technological project that has no deep roots in the rest of the business.
Not that the technological choice of eCommerce platform isn’t important, of course it is. But it is just one of many fundamental decisions you must make to pave the way for online success, whether you are launching your first eCommerce initiatives, or want to build on what you are doing already by changing your business model, launching new brands, or expanding internationally.
A cornerstone of any strategy is to have a clear awareness of who you are, what you are selling, and what makes you different.
In the early days of digital commerce, B2B businesses (insofar as they participated in eCommerce) put their product catalogues online, but the brand story was still being told by skilled sales reps as they presented their products at trade fairs, in meetings, over lunch and so on.
As online purchasing became commonplace in our everyday lives, B2B buyers began to rely increasingly on digital resources for their research and product comparisons. This meant that the brand narrative had to be communicated online from the very first visit and then at every touchpoint of a complex and often extended customer journey.
eCommerce forces businesses to re-focus on their core message, and how this message is communicated to a much larger audience. Offline remains just as important as shops and sales reps adapt to a changed landscape, where customers move fluidly from device to device, and from online to offline. This transition has to be seamless – that is to say, there should be no transition at all but a seamless and consistent customer experience.
Everything you tell or show your customers as part of that experience reflects your brand in a multitude of different and often subtle ways. Businesses that are successful in eCommerce have thought long and hard about how to (re)position themselves online.
Related to the misleading view of eCommerce as no more than an additional sales channel is a tendency to put the technology into a box: as a platform and therefore “belonging” to IT, as a marketing tool “belonging” to marketing, or as a sales channel that should be run by the sales department.
Typically, businesses will implement an eCommerce platform, create a small eCommerce team with its own KPIs and a poorly defined interface with sales, marketing, IT, customer relations and logistics. The instinct of larger B2B businesses is often to parachute in a high-profile eCommerce manager and believe they’ve done enough. This always leads to disappointing results.
You have to join the dots and set up a multidisciplinary team that is jointly responsible for your eCommerce strategy. Just as you need the right technology stack, you also need an expert eCommerce manager who orchestrates, coordinates, and sets workflows for digital delivery – but as part of an eCommerce culture that impacts everyone in the business. Everyone and every department should be part of your eCommerce strategy. That includes IT, marketing, logistics, product managers – and sales.
Perhaps the main point of friction in building an eCommerce culture and strategy is the perception from sales that online will inevitably take away their income. These fears are not unfounded, because eCommerce – if it is successful – will lead to fewer traditional sales. But the reduction in income is only inevitable if businesses do not confront the issue and re-strategize.
Coca-Cola and Unilever decided very early on to take this problem off the table by promising sales reps that their income would not be affected by eCommerce. Remuneration and incentives were re-structured not after the event but before eCommerce was rolled out, making sales reps much less hostile to the change.
And it is a huge change – but one that could and should work to the advantage of the sales team providing that their role (and possibly their commission structure) is reimagined and reframed.
eCommerce is an enabler, even for traditional sales. The eCommerce platform is a hub, giving sales reps access to consistent, real-time, and accurate information about products, pricing, and availability across every channel and device. Nothing is more off-putting to a B2C or B2B customer than inconsistent or inaccurate information – but omnipresent eCommerce resolves this pain point.
eCommerce is a data hub, full of insights into customer needs and behavior. Sales reps can leverage this data to develop opportunities, either with a particular customer or with B2B buyers in other markets or sectors.
eCommerce gives you the insights – and the time to act on them. The platform automates most, if not all, the repetitive administrative tasks of a B2B purchase, freeing up sales reps to do what they do best (and why you hired them in the first place): pursue sales opportunities and build your market share.
Sales reps can also be deployed effectively online at critical touchpoints in the customer journey. They can advise customers on products and product versions, explain the returns policy, alert them to a new product line and so on. Online, the sales rep performs the role of a consultant, helping the buyer and pointing him or her in the right direction – that is to say, towards more sales!
eCommerce is not a zero-sum game. Over time, a successful eCommerce strategy will lead to higher sales overall. The Danish sportswear brand Hummel is a famous example of a business that by transforming its eCommerce also increased its sales in its physical shops. Amazon more or less invented eCommerce, but it is now opening direct sales channels in the form of “smart” supermarkets.
In the next part of our blog on eCommerce strategy we look more deeply into this problem of conflicting sales channels, and that other roadblock or route to online success: content.