The future reimagined

Ecommerce and B2B – a Marriage Made in the Future

Future of Growth

There is a large scale migration going on. And no, we are not talking about swallows, ducks or even the pink-footed geese. We are talking about B2B buyers who are flocking to ecommerce – not just in large masses but quickly as well. This means change for traditional B2B sales, and Posti’s Matti Pohjanheimo has some ideas on how to prepare for the future union of ecommerce and B2B. 

We are in a conference room decked with mahogany. Surrounded by expensive-looking briefcases and pens. High-quality stationary and business cards. Tailored suits and what we hear is high-powered businesses. A sale is being made. A B2B sale at that. It really is a marvelous thing to witness.

It is also not how things in the B2B sales space have been done since the 1970s. Yet, B2B sales carried along an image of prestige, tradition and, well, mahogany for ages, but actually, B2B business is becoming more digital, modern and less woody than ever. This can be seen in the numbers, which Posti has gathered with Kantar TNS in one of the first and very few B2B ecommerce studies made in Finland (you can download the whitepaper in Finnish here).

“The difference in B2B and B2C sales is staggering – over two-thirds of the online sales value by Finnish companies was generated by B2B e-commerce in 2018 – and globally the number is even higher” says Matti Pohjanheimo, Posti’s Business Manager who is tasked with making sure that Posti’s services match the market’s demands.

At least from the viewpoint of B2B buyers, the demand seems to be going towards buying online. According to the study commissioned by Posti, B2B buyers expect to conduct as much as 51% of indirect purchasing through digital channels within the next 5 years. Meanwhile, only 33% of B2B sales reps would expect this kind of change to happen at that pace. “The biggest insight from our study was the realization of how quickly B2B buyers are able to change their buying behaviour – both in terms of attitude and actual processes. Meanwhile, the seller-side of B2B transactions expects the change to be slower, and they seem to be less ready to make big changes in their sales channels and processes as a result,” Pohjanheimo stresses the key finding to the B2B ecommerce study.

The writing is on the wall: B2B sales organizations need digital sales channels

“Looking at the data from our research it is obvious that now would be the right time, if not the last chance, to start building an online storefront for B2B sales, for companies that do not already have them,” Pohjanheimo says while pointing at the number 30%. That is how many companies in Finland said that they do not have any kinds of digital sales channels or forms of ecommerce in use. About half of these companies said they will open digital sales channels within the next 3 years, and a third of these companies said that they are not even thinking about setting up shop digitally, even though the buyers are moving most of what they do online. Pohjanheimo would argue that “it is important to get on board with the changing times and embrace the direction of B2B sales development, because the risk is that some companies could get left behind by their more digitally experienced competitors.

”However, there is one tricky question that has to do with B2B services – and some products – that usually have not been sold digitally, because the service or product itself cannot be offered through digital channels. Situations such as these do not mean that digital sales channels are not useful – or even a must – they just mean that the service itself needs to be reimagined.

Having an online storefront is just half of the story

“Some companies may feel – perhaps a bit traditionally – that certain products and especially services do not translate well into digital channels in terms of the sales and delivery process,” Pohjanheimo illustrates and offers a solution: “the key here is to think about how your service or product is served to the customer in order to accommodate digital sales as well.

”The word ‘disrupt’ gets thrown around quite a bit, but there have indeed been many consumer fields that have gotten completely upended – or disrupted – by former startups such as Uber, Airbnb and Netflix. This is because they have been very successful in reinventing a traditional service and made it easy for customers to buy that service online. This same kind of thinking should also go into finding a good reason for B2B companies to start building ecommerce capabilities.

“It is really important to think about how we could sell our products and services online? It surely is not as simple as ‘let me just set up an online store’, but there is a whole end-to-end process from production to delivery to having a happy customer that needs to be thought about,” says Pohjanheimo. At Posti, the thinking is, that the migration to B2B ecommerce – because that is where the buyers will be – will serve as a spark for innovating new kinds of B2B products and services altogether.

Pohjanheimo shares the vision for how to help companies to take their first steps into offering digital sales channels to their customers: “We are working hard on helping our B2B clients to design the whole B2B ecommerce sales and delivery process into something that makes sense for them. For example, we offer installation services with our deliveries. A company could sell, say, hand sanitizer dispensers nation-wide, but does not need to hire an army of people to set up the devices because our delivery professionals can take care of it while delivering the device. We do this so that our customers get to focus on their focus points in their business, and that our customers’ customers have a great experience when shopping online.”

If the future union of B2B and ecommerce is unavoidable, and getting started seems daunting, what should companies that are on the fence do to get a good start?

“I would say that in order to get started with ecommerce, just start with the basics. Have clear product information and have delivery methods that make sense. You may not need all of the fixings such as chats and artificial intelligence aided personalization built in in order to have a digital sales channel, but can instead start with the most important, basic building blocks and add to it when you get more experiences. The world keeps changing and customer expectations change with it, so as long as you add to the buying experience what your customers want, you will be successful in B2B ecommerce.”

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