The pulse of the customer isn’t what it was 25 years ago. It’s time to dig down deep, figure out exactly what your customers want from you, and then develop a plan of action.
Distributors across all industrial sectors are coming to the harsh realization that they’re just not very good at taking their customers’ pulses—at least not in the digital age, where price and delivery times tend to trump all else. “Companies really have to dig deep and make sure they have a good pulse on their customers,” says Joshua Feinberg, a digital strategist and VP at SP Home Run, Inc., in West Palm Beach, “and not the pulse that they had from 25 years ago, but the pulse that actually exists in 2018.”
Amazon Business is one competitor that seems to know how difficult this can be for an existing distributor—across all industries—that has been around for a while. In fact, this oversight has left the door open for e-tailers and other competitors to move in, figure out exactly what makes B2B customers tick, and then fulfill those needs. “If your distributorship has been around for 20 or 30 years, it’s probably serving a completely different client pool and being run by a whole new generation of owners,” says Feinberg. “That’s why it’s so important to get a handle on customer habits, learn how they solve problems, and how they’re buying.”
To get that information, Feinberg tells companies to develop specific customer personas to focus on, survey existing customers, and ask questions like “When you need to place an order for electrical supplies or lighting, where do you go first?” Chances are, that electrical contractor your firm has been working with for the last decade is using a mobile device to shop around online 24/7.
“They’re using their iPhones the same way everyone else does in the B2B context,” says Feinberg, “and looking at their devices first thing in the morning when they wake up, all day long at work, and then right before they go to bed.”
B2C Crosses to B2B
It’s no secret that B2B consumers are more and more acting like their B2C counterparts. That should actually be music to the distributor’s ear, says Srini Venugopal, Epicor’s director of e-commerce, because it allows firms of all sizes to deepen customer relationships by “migrating” offline transactions to the web in order to reduce customer acquisition costs.
“As B2C e-commerce continues to drive B2B e-commerce, more of our experiences as consumers influence our expectations as business buyers,” says Venugopal. “As consumers, we know there are many elements of a product or buying experience that keep us going back to the same brands, online and offline.” Loyalty programs, such as Amazon Prime, Hilton Honors, or Marriott Rewards, for example, are designed to keep customers buying more and feeling valued by the organization. “Successful brands know they must offer us a memorable, consistent customer experience with every interaction, on our terms,” Venugopal adds.
However, loyalty programs are increasingly relegated to just one element of customer retention. McKinsey & Company recently pointed out in its You Better Shop Around report, for example, that consumers are still driven by price in spite of all these programs. “They shop around for the best price,” says Venugopal, “and likely to switch if they can get a better deal elsewhere.”
Hitting the Key Points
So how exactly do loyalty programs and a price-driven mentality translate to a B2B buyer? “B2B buyer expectations are founded on their experiences as consumers, but compounded by the needs of their business,” Venugopal says. “As a result, B2B businesses must serve both needs well in today’s world of e-commerce, which accentuates traditional touchpoints like customer service in new and creative ways.”
Here are eight “touchpoints” that Venugopal says all distributors should incorporate into their e-commerce sites:
- Product choice – Make it easy for B2B buyers to find what they need.
- Detailed product information – Offer extensive data like specifications, images, PDFs, and product attributes.
- Filtering – help them zero-in on preferred products.
- Personalized pricing – Offer special pricing based on your business relationship.
- Real-time inventory – Display highly-accurate inventory position data.
- Purchasing convenience – Let buyers purchase anytime and from any device.
- Customer self-service – Let them view and interact with purchase history, quotes, orders, invoices, tracking, return merchandise authorizations (RMAs), ability to pay invoices online, and so forth.
- Repeat buys – Make it easy to reorder from a past purchase.
Hitting all of these targets can be a tall order for a distributor, but Venugopal says the efforts will pay off. “To achieve this pragmatically, organizations need a modern e-commerce platform that is integrated with core business systems to automate the flow of data securely and in real-time,” he points out. “With this level of connectivity, electrical distributors can support both online and offline buyer interactions in the personalized and consistent manner that today’s B2B buyers expect.”
SIDEBAR: 4 Ways to Keep Your Customers Close
As CEO of New York-based Custom Request, David Uriarte helps B2B companies carve out their places on the web with customer-friendly e-commerce sites and good search engine optimization (SEO). Along the way, he’s worked with quite a few distributors and manufacturers that needed help shoring up their customer relationships—both online and offline. In most cases, Uriarte says that goal can be attained with four simple steps. They are:
- Keep them informed. If there will be any delays in shipments, pick up the phone and let them know. “Delays can happen to the best of us for any number of reasons,” says Uriarte. “A simple phone call can help ward off any customer service issues that could be caused by an unexpectedly-late shipment.”
- Make it easy for them to order online. If you have a product catalog, and if it’s economically feasible, then make it available online. Then, give customers the ability to place their orders online from the convenience of their devices or laptops.
- Have transparent pricing. “Let the customers know the price before they pay,” says Uriarte, who acknowledges that electrical distributors will likely have special pricing for specific order sizes or products. “The key is to give them the information they need to be able to shop around.”
- Use a personal touch. “Picking up the phone helps you build and maintain relationships,” Uriarte says. “In this online world, the personal touch still works.”
In Part I of this article series, we discussed the ways Amazon Business is disrupting the B2B segment and the “old ways” of doing things.
In Part III, we’ll cover eight ways to shore up your customer relationships, tap into your firm’s institutional knowledge, and keep competitors from infringing on your territory.
Tagged with Amazon, best practices, e-commerce