Stores, offices, and showrooms were closed. Fairs and trade shows got canceled. Customers were not able to come. The salesforce needed to stay in their home office and was barely able to stay in touch with customers.
The ability to sell diminished and sales figures took a nose dive.
How to recover from this crisis, while becoming more resilient, to prepare for the next one?
Because it will come.
One thing is for sure. Businesses that had already established an e-commerce channel generally fared better than those that didn’t because they have a sales channel that is more resilient to this type of crisis. Consequently, some sales shifted to e-commerce. This can be seen in data provided by statista (B2C figures). An example: Walmart’s e-commerce sales increased by 74 per cent in Q1 2020.
Some of these ‘new’ e-commerce customers will continue to use this channel.
B2B winners included brands that supply collaboration technology, but also companies like vileda, which have been able to adapt their production and sales to current necessities.
At the same time, McKinsey finds that people spend more time messaging, and on social media.
However, e-commerce is not the panacea. Digital maturity matters. And every sale on the web shop needs to be delivered; so your own and your supply chain’s ability to deliver matters, too. Simply setting up a web shop is not enough, especially for B2B businesses.
What to think of when setting up e-commerce?
First of all, and not a surprise when coming from me: The customer experience. It must be as smooth and frictionless for the customer as possible, supporting the hierarchy of customer expectations.
And, based upon the McKinsey data referenced above, digital communication is key.
The experience is mainly governed by their journey, from engage, via transact and fulfill, through service. When customers are approached, it must be conscious about their consents, with information that is relevant to their current objective, be it via social media, e-mail, an app, or the e-commerce site itself.
Information must be easily retrievable, consistent, and correct with an appealing product visualization across sites devices and apps. The checkout process must be as simple as possible, yet secure. This is also valid for registration and login-processes, regardless of where they happen.
It cannot harm if delivery is prompt and reliable, including the ability to trace the purchase. Part of this means having a reliable and robust supply chain.
In-purchase as well as post-purchase, support must be easily approachable, not only during office hours but 24/7. This mandates the availability of a conversational AI to answer customer questions and, as necessary forward these to a service centre. The conversational AI itself is exposed either as a chatbot or, increasingly supported by voice as a voice bot.
More importantly, this requires an integration between the e-commerce system and a CRM system, ideally on one strong platform.
An additional consideration is how to be found on the web. Part of this includes smart digital campaigns and digital marketing that stretches across different content types. As organic search is still very important another key aspect is search engine optimization. After all, the likelihood of consumers to check page two of a Google result set is pretty low.
Last but not least B2C vendors, but also B2B companies, need to think hard about whether they want to be available on marketplaces or not, and on which ones. The main questions to ask are whether being available on a marketplace dilutes the brand more than it helps sales and how to become visible on the marketplace.
If a marketplace is an option, there are many platforms to choose from, from the omnipresent Amazon, Alibaba, ebay, eworldtrade, to industry-specific ones like Siemens Easy Spares, mobile, foodmaven, or regional ones like the New Zealand platform trademe, which successfully keeps eBay out of New Zealand so far.
What else do B2B businesses need to think of?
All this is true for B2B businesses, too. However, they are far more exciting as B2C businesses, as they often have more complex processes and more complex products to sell than B2C businesses. Still, from a user experience and customer experience point of view, the requirements are very similar when it comes to e-commerce. Apps are probably less of a concern, but responsive design in answer to the usage of different devices is not.
B2B registration and user management processes are more complicated than in a B2C environment, and so is pricing. The necessity for configuration or having product variants is far higher than in most B2C businesses. Overall, more explanation is necessary than for consumer products. Account-based selling is of high importance, hence the necessity to integrate content management, sales, marketing, and service systems.
The B2B site itself must be more of a virtual showroom than ever before, even more so than a B2C site. And here we are back to the salespeople who cannot visit their customers. They need to be available to customers via chat or ideally via video calls that can be directly initiated from the site by the customers. That way it is possible to establish a relationship and to explain complex products.
Now, that I have written a lot about considerations, let’s dive into some actual steps that businesses should take and milestones they need to achieve.
At the end of the day you want to be able to provide experiences. However, the ability to sell is key.
To not run in a wrong direction, it is important to have a strategy. Still, it is important to bear in mind that it is better to get things done than getting them perfect. An agile mindset is needed, while a platform approach is required. This platform needs to provide a technical platform, the services that are necessary for collaboration and insight, and be supported by a viable ecosystem.
The very first step – step 0, if you want – is to make real sure that it is easy for customers to contact you. This can happen as simple as a big sign in your window if you do not yet have a web site. If you have one, make sure it can be found.
Most obviously, if it is not yet implemented, an e-commerce platform is needed, that can be set up quickly and that integrates well in the already existing business software platform. This needs to be brought to a state where products, information about them, and prices are available for your customers so that they can easily inform themselves and order, which means that it should be preconfigured or easily configurable. Also, consider joining a market place to increase your reach.
Initially, it doesn’t matter whether the site sends an email to your sales representatives or whether there is a direct systems integration. Unless you are very sure that the chosen e-commerce platform will stay, do not invest too much here, as you might replace it. Even, if you are sure about it: Just make it work.
But make sure that inquiries can be answered almost immediately, ideally by a real person talking to another real person.
Step two then is to offer the necessary additional means of communications from this site, so that customers can efficiently connect and interact with you right from the site. The more personal this can happen, the better, but think about scalability. Think about bots that prepare an efficient handover to humans, even if you do not consider them necessary from the outset. There are many conversational platforms available that can be implemented easily, like Cognigy.AI, Salesforce, even SAP, or IBM Watson, given the right partner.
From then on it is all about integration. Processes, that have been set up in step one needs to be made robust and efficient so that the customer experience – and internal efficiencies – improve. Other processes, that have been omitted in phase one, like price and product recommendations, need to be established now.
The endgame is having a channel transparent customer experience architecture that provides resilience in all types of crises.
Getting there will take some time, therefore always keep in mind:
You need to know the business objective and have a strategy for getting there. From then on Think Big – Act Small.