B2B sell-side needs to up its game to meet buy-side omni-channel expectations


B2B buyers are increasingly embracing digital channels, making investment in such capabilities essential for the B2B sell-side if it doesn’t want to be left behind.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 15.01.12B2B enterprises need to rethink their approach to customer engagement if they want to be successful in omni-channel digital commerce.

That’s one of the top-level findings from a new study into B2B buyer demands and B2B seller omni-channel practices, conducted by Forrester Research on behalf of Accenture Interactive and SAP Hybris. Forrester surveyed 750 B2B companies and 1,307 B2B buyers at organizations with at least 1,000 employees across North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia Pacific.

The study – Mastering Omni-Channel B2B Customer Engagement – indicate that B2B buyers are increasingly embracing digital channels, making investment in such capabilities essential for the B2B sell-side if it doesn’t want to be left behind.

The study states:

Buyers are increasingly using online channels, both to research and buy. Our data shows online channels beginning to overtake more traditional buying channels such as via sales reps, customer service reps, and mail-order. Moreover, B2B buyers not only report higher total spend online, but also higher percentages of work purchases made online, and a larger average purchase size for online work purchases.

According to the study results, 38% of buy-side customers uses online channels exclusively, while another 32% use a combination of online and offline channels. Even those who complete buying transactions offline turn to online channels for research purposes, with 98% of respondents saying they do this.

Interestingly, while almost all respondents can access company-mandated internal portals or corporate buying websites, they turn to consumer sites (33% of respondents), search engines (26%) and third-party business marketplaces (17%).

Source : Accenture Interactive/SAP Hybris
Source : Accenture Interactive/SAP Hybris

B2C expectations for customer engagement have also crossed over into the B2B space. That’s a message that has gotten through to 74% of US and European respondents who cite “meeting customer expectations” as the main driver for investment in omni-channel, followed by providing “a consistent customer experience regardless of channel” (68%).

This matters, argues the report, as customer services and post-purchase support influence buy-side sentiment just as much as in the B2C world:

When buyers told us in their own words about excellent experiences that they had with B2B online work purchases, they cited personalization and support as the most common reasons for feeling as they did.

Achieving such a seamless omni-channel experience places considerable demands on the sell side and its’s clear from the study results that this is not the reality to date.

Sellers rated the top barrier to their omni-channel strategy as “difficulty sharing customer data and analytics between channels, countries, or locations. This means:

Sellers cannot create personalized experiences if their various systems can’t talk to each other, nor can they easily improve their customer engagement based on the data that they do have access to if they aren’t even sure what to measure.

B2B sellers have some of the customer data necessary for personalization available in some channels, but not all. Typically they have customers’ names, purchase/service histories, and business backgrounds available, but not critical personalization data, such as pricing available across all channels.

The report states:

B2B sellers find personalization to be an implementation challenge in every stage of the buyer journey. Disparate systems and processes complicate data aggregation and sharing efforts.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations:

Recommendation – Prioritize developing and delivering market-leading personalization capabilities

The study says:

If you don’t deliver that B2C-like personalized experience, someone else will. Leveraging technology to do data sharing and hiring people who know how to delight customers in a very personalized way is no longer optional, but mandatory.

Recommendation – Constantly measure efforts and refine offerings.

The study says:

Adopt practices of continuous measurement, analysis, and fine-tuning in order to ensure that your digital engagement is always evolving and progressing.

Recommendation – Embrace an omni-channel strategy.

The study says:

If your channels are still organized as silos, then the time to act is right now or you’ll be left further behind. B2B sellers need to consider an enterprise-wide digital strategy and align technology, organizational structure, and processes to fully leverage their omni-channel capabilities.

Recommendation – Build upon a proven and powerful platform.

The study says:

By adopting the right integrated technology platform to sit between and across touchpoints and enterprise systems, businesses can more readily share data from across channels. More-sophisticated digital businesses are working to master internal APIs to connect their various process-level building blocks together to create seamless customer experiences at every relevant touchpoint.

Recommendation – Engage with experienced ecosystem partners.

The study says:

In a world of constant digital evolution, nearly every company has gaps in their skills and capabilities. To help close the gap, creating an ecosystem of mutually beneficial partners is key.

My take

Leaving aside the less-than-subtle sales pitch implicit in the last two recommendations, some sound observations here and some good insight into the challenges the B2B sell-side still has to face up to.