How B2B eCommerce and Sales Reps Can Coexist

Glen Coates
April 30, 2015

Hark! News from the front! (B2B eCommerce Predictions)

Recently, Forrester posted a new report titled, "Death of a (B2B) Salesman." The report predicts a million B2B sales reps will lose their jobs to by 2020, focusing on the ever-increasing importance of B2B eCommerce and arguing that “order takers” will be hardest hit as their jobs are essentially “optimized out” by Amazon-like customer experiences for B2B. That fact that B2B eCommerce would become commonplace over time has been obvious to those in the industry for years.  Every consumer commerce trend points to it as a leading indicator, and as per usual, B2B is now following the major B2C trends a few years down the track. Each industry will adopt B2B eCommerce differently, but change as a whole is inevitable, and the only real question is whether brands and their salespeople should view this is as good or bad news. Like any significant change to the status quo, there are opportunities and threats, glasses half-full and half-empty, and understanding where the balance shakes out for your business is your next challenge. Underneath the report’s sensationalist headline of impending job loss, there is the important message that the number of  “Consultants,” who have extensive knowledge about the buyer’s company to help the buyer understand what her company needs to purchase” will see job gains over time. This is the hard question you have to ask yourself: is your sales team ready to step forward as genuine strategic partners to your customers, as part of a well-rounded omnichannel strategy that includes eCommerce? Is your business ready to be a leader in offering a modern B2B customer experience, or are your people going to plod along as old-school order takers as the competition moves ahead?

For push-and-pull B2B relationships, omni-channel is king.

As we all know, B2B is relationship-driven. The bond between supplier and retailer is built over shared successes season to season, product line to product line over the years. The report notes that “93% say they prefer buying online when they’ve already decided what to buy,” but we know that in a long-term B2B relationship, that’s only half the picture. Most of the largest purchases in B2B are the ones where the buyer hasn’t already decided what to buy, and surprise surprise, that’s where great salespeople are critical. When we talk to our customers, we hear over and over that there are generally two types of orders:

  • “push” (typically larger deals where sales is actively involved and driving the conversation)
  • “pull” (typically smaller deals where the buyer is driving the process––often re-orders for out-of-stock product)

Think about your business. Do you have an ebb and flow between new product launches and taking mid-season re-orders? A “push” B2B channel is driven by consultative, strategic sales conversations. There are times of year where you need to educate your customers about new product, how they should merchandise it, and how their floor staff or marketing team should be presenting it to consumers.  Your goal is to help the buyer through the stressful high-stakes purchase decision that involves committing to significant inventory risk on your brand for the upcoming season. In short, your goal is to be a strategic partner to the buyer in planning out a successful season ahead. A “pull” B2B channel is driven by lower-stakes, tactical interactions initiated by the buyer, which could potentially be served through a low-touch process that doesn’t involve sales.  Good examples are small re-orders for single items that have gone out of stock, or standing, regular re-orders for evergreen product that turns over constantly. Today, you could be processing these high-volume, low-stakes orders with technology (e.g. B2B eCommerce) to free up your sales team to spend time on more strategic activities in the “push” channel. If, like millions of other businesses, you have a push-and-pull B2B go-to-market strategy, the good news is that today you have the opportunity to craft a thoughtful omni-channel strategy that leverages both your sales team and technology to raise the bar on customer experience and customer lifetime value, the key metric that you need to be thinking about.

People should do the interesting stuff; machines should do the boring stuff.

When I left my job as a software engineer in Sydney to take over the US distribution of a brand called Envirosax in 2008, I was blown away by the amount of menial, repetitive data-entry work that my staff had to do to service our B2B customers. Coming from a world where we spent all our time programming computers to handle heavy task loads, seeing our sales reps spend the week following a trade-show typing orders into our ERP was horrifying. By contrast, the time at shows actually spent talking to customers, learning about their businesses and figuring out which of our products would work best for them were awesome and energizing. I would always find myself thinking, “how do we spend more time on the really good people stuff, and automate away this boring mechanical work?” Today, maximizing your long-term customer lifetime value (and the prospects for your business) depends on leveraging your sales team and technology in tandem to optimize both your “push” and “pull” customer experiences.  Specifically:

  • There are consultative, strategic conversations your sales team needs to have with your customers to drive value and shared success; they need more time to dig in deep for those conversations.
  • When your sales team is having those strategic conversations, you need to provide technology that can help them add even more value by having information, analytics, and strategic insights on-hand that they couldn’t possibly keep track of simultaneously.
  • When your buyers want to engage with you on their own time / terms and not through sales, you need to give them a modern online customer experience.

In the end, a successful B2B world is big enough for both sales reps and B2B eCommerce to coexist. While B2B eCommerce will take over mundane "pull" interactions like routine re-orders, sales reps will play a bigger role in the crucial "push" role of driving continued and future business for your brand with the help of technology. Based on our conversations with our customers, a technology-driven B2B go-to-market strategy should:

  1. Minimize the time spent doing order-entry to maximize the time for strategic, consultative selling.  A mobile-first sales platform can speed up order-entry, freeing up the salesperson to do what they do best; have real conversations and add value.
  2. Provide deep data-driven insights, ideally as an integrated part of the order-entry experience, enabling salespeople who have to deal with hundreds or even thousands of products and customers to provide real insight into real-time updated inventory information, granular detail into what’s selling and what’s not, and a clear picture of which customer relationships are healthy and which need attention. Technology should allow salespeople to focus their energy on the right customers and the products that are right for them.
  3. Leverage B2B eCommerce to allow your customers to interact with you online, positioning you as a modern partner to their business, and allowing for the most tactical, mechanical re-orders to be handled without taking up your sales team’s time.

Earn the right to ask for the order.

We recently had a senior sales & service leader from the software industry present his customer experience philosophy to our team. Halfway through the presentation, he showed the well-known “Always Be Closing” clip of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, which produced the usual grins and snickers from the audience. He then immediately put a big red cross through it, saying that “ABC” is all wrong, and today, a great salesperson needs to “earn the right to ask for the order” by providing value and insight, and proving their worth as a partner before any money changes hands. I firmly believe that this is how the best B2B salespeople see themselves; as partners and advisors, rather than order takers. I think all B2B salespeople aspire to this. Nobody gets into sales because they want to do data-entry, or simply “take the order.” Great salespeople get into sales because they’re “people people” who want to add real value. With a successful omni-channel B2B strategy that includes eCommerce and mobile, everyone wins.  Salespeople are finally freed from menial work to become the true partners they want to be, customers get genuine insights that help improve their business, and the brand gets an optimized “pull” channel that delivers always-on efficiency around that consistent flow of orders. While the headline on Forrester's recent report seemed to portend disaster, it may actually be a signal that things are finally headed in the right direction.