Alex Sayyah, CEO of Aleran Software, provides five lessons for e-commerce organisations to learn in order to build their B2B audience
If your company supplied popcorn tubs to movie theaters, microchips to auto manufacturers or furniture to department stores last year, you have my heartfelt sympathies. But take heart: you’re not the only the B2B leader who is happy to leave 2021 behind.
The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in everyone’s offices, supply chains and public health systems. Every industry scrambled to find new ways to attract, engage and service customers. Companies lost longtime clients whom they believed were rock solid. Everyone was forced to pivot, retool, furlough or do worse as long-held assumptions about market demand shifted.
The new year promises to be different, however. B2B is booming because commerce is becoming e-commerce. Forrester Research recently predicted that B2B e-commerce in the US would soar from $1.1 trillion in 2020 to $1.8 trillion by 2023. I’ve seen an inexhaustible range of companies — small, startup, enterprise, legacy — smartly shift their entire selling process to the digital realm.
These trends provide B2B companies with a roadmap. You can’t beat e-commerce, so join it. While there may be no guarantees, if you know your audience and embrace these five lessons that have emerged from the crucible of the last year, you’ll increase your chances of success.
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Relationships are more important than ever, but no one wants to talk to you — at least yet. B2B is not just about knowing your target audience, but also your buyer’s journey. Frankly, your B2B target prospects probably don’t want to talk to you until they’ve spent ample time researching your products, services, company, brand and reputation.
Keep these numbers in mind: as many as 70% of B2B buyers have decided to make a purchasing before they even contact sales. Over 70% conduct online research before purchasing. Nine out of 10 say online content plays a “moderate to major” role in their decision to make a purchase, and 62% start with a web search as one of their first three steps toward buying. 33% research products now more than before COVID. Almost 90% would just rather run all or part of their buying journey themselves.
You’ve got a lot more ground to cover well before your buyers reach the on-ramp, which means your presence, your content and messaging must be aligned before you’ve even met your business-customers. Controlling the narrative ahead of time is how those relationships begin.
You may never again set foot in the same room as your best customer. Reluctantly or not, we were already making the shift to digital platforms at Aleran, but COVID-19 gave us a very big push. There are certainly B2B sales teams waiting to knock on doors again, but only 20% of B2B buyers would like to return to in-person sales, McKinsey found.
That reluctance extends into all arenas, including suitcase-and-sample scenarios where field sales were the norm, such as medical and pharma. 75% of sellers and buyers now prefer remote selling, even after the lockdowns ended. The shift isn’t just about not wanting to be in a room with a stranger. An enormous social, behavioural, and logistical transformation has occurred. E-commerce is the new access.
Taking the next step: how will B2B sales evolve in 2022?
You need to grow and tend to relationships with your target audience, but those relationships will only be as good as the technology you deploy. Your technology is your connection. I’ve seen too many organisations succumb to the fear that digital platforms will take all the flavor out of their brand. But if you choose the right solution, you’re going to have more interaction, more connection, and more opportunities to convey your brand. E-commerce soars when it’s part of a high-quality omnichannel solution designed with B2B complexities in mind.
Still not sure if tech is the answer? Private equity firms — key players in the B2B ecosystem —tend to keep their finger on the pulse of future-friendly concepts. You can sense which way the wind is blowing by the new talent they bring in.
For example, PE firm Sterling Group just brought in a new technology director, Carsten Weber, to lead tech value creation across its portfolio. Sterling views technology investments as a critical way to boost “meaningful opportunities for value creation at industrial companies”. Take another look at that word: meaningful. A digital first business growth strategy isn’t a temporary trend — it’s the differentiator. Without technology, there aren’t meaningful opportunities for value creation.
It might seem counterintuitive, but digital drives more human connection. One of today’s most compelling paradoxes is that while markets are more complex, and the buyer’s journey has a thousand detours — I’ll get to that point in a moment — there’s a clear imperative in that complexity and journey. Bring your digital A-game along with your values and best practices. Empower your sales teams to provide an impeccable level of responsiveness, personalisation and flexibility. If you’re concerned that you’re dropping the ball, you’re probably dropping the ball. If you don’t know if there are gaps in your sales process, there are likely gaps.
Another neat paradox: given our reliance on remote platforms, B2B and B2C are more related than ever. B2B has always eyed B2C for cues on how to best attract and build a customer base. Now, you don’t have to look that far. Without focusing on every individual consumer transaction, you’re still focusing on people. Often, the B2B buying process involves between six and 10 decision makers who each perform their own research with their own agendas, concerns, and relationships to each other. In certain sectors, that decision is also a moving target.
Concurrent with the rapid-fire shifts wrought by the pandemic is a quicksilver cadence for technology and process developments. New competitors emerge all the time. Your job is to make the process of deciding and therefore connecting easier, simpler, and — here’s that word again — more meaningful.
Contact is loyalty
In one of his recent columns, author and angel investor Maynard Webb addressed the heartbreak and surprise that companies experience when losing customers they assumed were “locked in.” As the former COO of eBay, Webb knows a thing or two about the ground shifting under his feat. Companies always need to know how customers feel about their relationship, he wrote. You shouldn’t have to ask. If you don’t know, you’ve lost contact.
Lean into the power and scope of an omnichannel marketing strategy that integrates online and offline marketing tools (yes, you can still make a phone call) and a smart sales team that works in tandem with marketing. You’ll be able to keep that contact alive. Aim to forge lasting connections and relationships with all the decision-makers involved in a buy. Make sure that each one of those six to 10 folks is accounted for.
While it’s key to have all the information out there already, provide your teams with even more — demos, walk-throughs, print, digital assets, interactive catalogues — so every contact point is also an opportunity leveraged to educate and enlighten. Your audience should be able to understand and appreciate your features, functions, and value. The more they know, the more they can buy into that value you’re providing.
This is all happening right now. While it’s a pleasure to say goodbye to 2021, these realities have been coming to the fore for years. The beauty of B2B’s evolution is that we now have the tools, the technology, and the wisdom to know how to create a successful multi-dimensional B2B selling strategy. All we have to do now is follow through.