Coronavirus

B2B Brands Need a New Sales Enablement Strategy

After the pandemic pivot to digital, sellers need a new approach to ecommerce

By Yoav Kutner, CEO and co-founder of Oro, Inc.

Back in 2019, more than four-fifths of executives saw digital capabilities as a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. But COVID-19 has changed that: ecommerce businesses saw a decade’s worth of market penetration happen in just three months at the start of the pandemic, and today every business leader knows they need to meet their customers online in order to compete.

Still, the rapid shift to digital risks obscuring some of the challenges that online sellers, and especially B2B merchants, now face. Yes, customers who’d ordinarily place orders in person or over the phone raced online during the pandemic — and yes, B2B brands pivoted remarkably quickly to implement powerful new digital sales strategies. But most B2B brands haven’t yet reckoned with the way that digital transformation has changed their relationship with their customers — or the new approach to sales enablement that will be needed in the post-pandemic world.

That’s important, because while the pandemic pushed many B2B customers into digital procurement, the reasons they resisted digital for so long still remain. Unlike B2C consumers, the typical B2B buyer has a different mindset and different needs that don’t necessarily lend themselves to the current B2C-driven ecommerce model. To succeed in the new world, and to retain digital customers while continuing to support offline sales, B2B brands will need to address those needs effectively — no matter where their customers are reaching them.

B2C strategies aren’t enough

Since its inception, ecommerce has been driven by B2C brands. That’s understandable: it’s far simpler to sell a single consumer a new T-shirt than it is to fulfill a large, complex order for a business customer. In the world of click-to-buy ecommerce, consumers are necessarily going to be calling the shots.

Understandably, many B2B companies have emulated B2C strategies — and, often, used software and tools originally designed for B2C commerce — when bringing their sales online. That has meant using the same streamlined sales processes and purchase experiences that attract today’s consumers — and while that’s worked as a stepping stone into ecommerce for B2B brands seeking to serve booming demand during the pandemic, it isn’t a solid long-term strategy for most B2B sellers.

The reality is that B2C and B2B customers are very different. The traditional B2C shopper is a face in the crowd: anonymous, independent, and thought to be driven by emotional factors (such as the “buzz” or “wow” factor associated with a product) and transactional factors (such as impulse-buying in response to a particular promotion or sale). There’s often less customer loyalty involved, so B2C ecommerce tends to focus on scalability, creating a streamlined sales funnel, and using eye-catching stunts and promotions to try to catch shoppers’ attention.

Business purchasers, on the other hand, are traditionally thought of as being a bit more stolid: they’re known quantities who have an established relationship with the brands they use, and they’re detail-oriented and hyperrational in the purchasing choices they make. They’re also far more invested in the logistics of making a purchase: if they find a seller who can cater to their complex needs, including things like multi-destination shipping for large orders, then they’re likely to keep coming back for more.

An evolving relationship

Of course, the B2B customer’s needs and outlook did change during the pandemic. Increasingly, they’re bringing a bit more of the B2C perspective to their procurement processes: you might not have such a direct relationship with an online B2B buyer, for instance, and you might find that brand loyalty doesn’t count for quite as much when B2B shoppers are clicking around online rather than shaking hands with your sales representatives.

The key for B2B brands, then, is to find ways to deliver an ecommerce experience that preserves some of the best things about B2C ecommerce, but tailors them to the unique needs of B2B buyers.

Getting this right means focusing on people first, and technology second. Your sales reps are the people who are closest to your customers, and they already know how to close deals and keep their clients coming back for more. You’ll need to leverage their insights as you develop a sales enablement strategy, and seek out tools and software that augment your team’s existing expertise rather than automating them away.

Driving ecommerce success starts with taking an honest look at your current strengths and weaknesses, and paying close attention to blind spots that you may not even realize you have. Customer surveys and insights from sales reps can help to identify pain points where there’s room for improvement, and to develop processes that can streamline and enrich the sales pipeline in ways that make sense for your specific customers.

That’s where technology comes in: the goal isn’t to use ecommerce tech for its own sake, but rather to find software solutions that serve as force multipliers for your human sales reps, and add real value for your customers. B2B buyers have complex needs, and they’re often working with a multi-person procurement committee to make decisions. To get buyers on the hook and keep them there, sellers need to provide easy ways to get more information and personal assistance — perhaps using online chat, prominently displayed customer support numbers, or email — and to ensure that their sales reps regard these digital interactions as being just as valuable as face-to-face contact with a client.

Other opportunities could focus on using digital tools to deliver rich product experiences. Videos, animated explainers, interactive build-your-product tools, and other online services can deliver many of the same benefits as a real-world showroom or trade show demo, and help B2B buyers to imagine themselves using your product. Rich and accurate product information can also play an important role, with part-finder and compatibility-checking tools helping to provide reassurance for B2B buyers as they first venture online.

The key is to iterate your way toward a successful strategy, and incrementally test and validate new tech solutions to make sure you’re adding value for both customers and sales reps. That might mean building out personalized landing pages or other products for customers on the front end, while simultaneously creating automated workflows to drive efficiency and results for sales reps on the back end. There’s no single strategy or tech solution that’s right for every business, so the goal is to develop a people-centric strategy that lets you improve your ecommerce capabilities over time.

The next step for B2B sales

Done right, B2B ecommerce can empower brands to deliver more value to more customers, more quickly and cheaply than ever before. With lower operating costs and a bigger reach, B2B brands should be investing strategically to ensure the pandemic pivot to digital buying proves a long-term shift rather than a passing fad.

To get to that point, though, B2B sellers need to think carefully about what their customers are looking for, and how that is changing as they move into a digital-first relationship. Customers want the efficiency and convenience of digital buying, but they also want the care, competence, and attention they’ve enjoyed as offline customers.

Brands can’t deliver that simply by adopting B2C ecommerce tools. Instead, they need to use a hybrid approach that’s driven first and foremost by human sales reps who can serve as stewards of both customer relationships and company culture. By equipping your sales reps with smart, B2B-focused sales enablement tools, you can empower them to deliver the results your customers want — and to keep selling effectively, both online and offline, in the months and years to come. 

Yoav Kutner is the CEO and co-founder of Oro, Inc, which has created OroCommerce, the No.1 open-source eCommerce platform built for distributors, wholesalers, brands, and manufacturers. Yoav previously co-founded and served as the CTO of Magento.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.