The story of B2B eCommerce adoption has largely been built upon the shifting demands of business buyers.
With Amazon often cited as the source of disruption, the industry continues to discuss the need for corporate buyers to embrace a consumer-like buying experience, a demand that has weighed heavily on the heads of suppliers now tasked with exploring ways to migrate their sales operations online.
Yet the last 12 months have changed the dynamic of B2B eCommerce adoption as more organizations on the B2B seller side embrace the opportunity to modernize. According to Peter Stern, executive vice president of I-commerce at Inxeption, the value-added opportunity for manufacturers selling to corporate customers and distributors is significant once the selling cycle migrates online.
It’s no straightforward process, of course. But through embracing a hybrid approach of digital automation and human customer support, B2B sellers will find themselves in a more advantageous position to support buyers’ demand for a digital experience, as well as gain access to data-driven growth opportunities.
B2B sellers cannot merely list a product and its price online, establish a digital checkout experience, and start collecting payment.
Everything from the need for buyers to customize a product, negotiate prices, adhere to existing contracts, and choose the way they submit orders and payment must be supported by whichever digital infrastructure a seller decides to use.
It can be an overwhelming process, but Stern said there is clear path to get started.
“If I’m a B2B seller, people want to go online to access information and a product catalogue in a digitized setting,” he said. “That’s step one of the journey — getting products online.”
The next steps depend on the product category and use case, and involve sellers creating the channel over which to sell that item.
Sellers that might be selling spare parts or excess inventory may have a more straightforward sales flow than sellers listing specialized and customizable products online. Regardless, channels need to support flexible functionality. And it’s at this point in the sales process that Stern said a hybrid approach to optimization can be particularly beneficial.
“Someone might need human interaction,” he said. “We believe there’s a convergence of online and human selling. This allows a potential buyer to still interface with a sales representative, to request a quote, or to place an order via purchase order, not just click-to-buy.”
Due to the complex nature of B2B trade, there may always be a human element involved. But that’s not to say that key elements of the process cannot be digitized in a meaningful way, particularly at the moment an order is placed and beyond.
The transaction itself is primed for digitization, said Stern. That’s because in B2B payments, there are plenty of ancillary services and workflows that surround the transaction itself, whether it be the submission of a purchase order or the adoption of a buy now, pay later tool. Driving efficiency means not just digitizing the transaction, but also those complementary services surrounding it.
A Seller-Driven Evolution
For all the talk of buyers’ demand for a digital B2B commerce experience, Stern said there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it can be the seller, not the buyer, who leads the way toward modernization.
The proof is in the fact that just because a seller launches an online portal to accept orders doesn’t mean it will actually be used.
“Customers can leverage these channels, but the problem is when the distributors place orders back with the manufacturer, they’re still coming over via faxes, email, phone calls, excel spreadsheets and EDI,” he said.
Adding to the complexity of digitization is the fact that B2B sellers aren’t embracing online channels in an effort to replace their distribution business model, or to displace their human sales teams. On the contrary, they’re looking toward digitization as a way to optimize and empower these partners.
When sellers take the lead in the B2B eCommerce evolution, they can actualize some meaningful changes within their own organizations. A digital-first strategy supplemented by human support can mean a sales operation flexible enough to meet unique needs of buyers, while still extracting value from new insights obtained from the digitization of data.
“Digitizing the end-to-end process gives you a single source of truth,” said Stern, noting that in addition to offering sellers automation and efficiency, electronic sales workflows can provide visibility into the demand for certain products, how those items are moving, and where a vendor should go next as the market evolves.
“People are making assumptions on what products to build without analyzing all of the data,” he said. “By digitizing this, you can take a look at the entire supply chain. There is so much intelligence that you can have.”