Here are the 4 biggest unified commerce mistakes B2B companies make

17. november 2022

The demands of today’s business to business (B2B) buyers and their expectations of suppliers are changing – and growing. B2B companies are now expected to deliver a commerce experience that rivals B2C – more convenience, more personalisation and actively supporting the customer throughout the journey, whichever channel they meet and interact with a business on.

And that experience needs to be seamless: which means B2B companies who care about customer retention and attracting new business need to have a unified commerce strategy.

Reminder: Unified commerce is the practice of delivering hyper-customised and seamless buying experiences across your online and offline channels.

Many B2B companies acknowledge the importance of offering digital sales channels to their customers. And then of having their digital and physical sales channels blend together and reinforce one another. Yet, knowing the above doesn’t mean it’s being put into action. Especially by B2B wholesalers and manufacturers who are falling behind more than other industries. Even for these industries, the timing is now urgent. Unified commerce isn’t a ‘we’ll get around to it one day’ thing. It’s real, it’s now and it’s here to stay.

 

This trend is likely to accelerate further in the coming years, with 94% of B2B decision makers now saying omnichannel is just as effective (if not more effective) at reaching and serving customers, up from 65% in 2020. And by 2025, Gartner predicts that 80% of B2B sales between suppliers and buyers will take place in digital channels.

B2B suppliers who aren’t embedding unified commerce into their sales strategy are failing their customers. Fortunately, it’s not too late for organisations who are stuck on traditional or inside sales channels. There’s still ample opportunity to capture an increased market share and boost revenue by incorporating unified commerce into their sales strategies. 

What do today’s B2B buyers want? 

At IMPACT, one of our specialities is working with B2B companies to future-proof their businesses. And nearly every day, we hear – straight from the horse’s mouth – that B2B doesn’t really need digital. 

This article explains to sceptical B2B businesses why this is no longer the case.  

 It doesn’t matter what your industry is. How big it is. Or even how niche it is. It will benefit from a unified commerce strategy that better enables selling to customers, wherever those customers are. And that is clearly no longer primarily in a conference room or over the phone.

As customers increasingly learn and buy digitally, sales reps become just one of many possible sales channels. Because of this, sales organisations must be able to sell to customers everywhere the customer expects to engage, interact and transact with suppliers.

Cristina GomezManaging VP, Gartner

We’re not advocating that B2B suppliers go 100% online. (Not yet, anyway).

The most successful B2B wholesalers and manufacturers combine traditional in-person sales with digital sales channels, like e-commerce and digital self-service, to offer a unified commerce experience that’s been common in B2C companies, but still lacking in the B2B world today. This will help them meet their customers’ expectations and needs in the coming years

Kasper KnudsenSenior Client Director, IMPACT Commerce

What is unified commerce, and how does it differ from multichannel?

Before we dive in, here’s a quick refresher on what unified commerce means.

  • Multichannel means that a company has multiple sales channels in place. However, these channels work separately, instead of together. This can lead to damaging silos and channel conflict.
  • Unified commerce, on the other hand, means traditional and digital channels come together to form a seamless, personalised end-to-end customer experience across channels, delivering the same tailored recommendations, seasonal offers, loyalty rewards and customer service, wherever the buyer meets the business. You can read more about it on our dedicated unified commerce page.

Here are some of the most common misconceptions around investing in digital selling we hear from B2B suppliers – and the worrying implications of not embracing a unified commerce approach.

Misconception 01

Our product is too complicated to sell online

The number one challenge we hear from B2B suppliers is that their products are simply too complex and expensive to sell online. There are too many variations and too much is configurable.

Fortunately, this misconception is just that, a misconception. Technology is now available to effectively sell complex and customised B2B products online. The coronavirus pandemic gave B2B sales the nudge it needed to digitise more rapidly, from setting up video conferences between customers and sales reps to pushing into e-commerce in an unprecedented way – and it’s working.

There’s ample proof that the market is trending towards more and better digitalisation, with e-commerce now actually surpassing face-to-face meetings as the most popular sales channels in B2B. In fact, 65% of B2B sellers are now more likely to offer e-commerce channels than in-person selling. And reliance on traditional salespeople relationships looks set to decrease further, with 44% of millennials preferring no salespeople interaction at all in B2B settings.

But that doesn’t mean B2B suppliers need to cancel their in-person sales meetings just yet. Over half (59%) of B2B customers say they won’t buy from a supplier they haven’t met in person. Still, it’s obvious that there’s a very real shift away from the traditional salesperson model of selling, towards salespeople assisting self-guided buyers.

Okay, so B2B buyers are willing to buy online. But a common question we hear is: are they willing to spend big? The answer is a resounding yes. The average buyer is now more comfortable making large purchases digitally. Three-quarters (77%) are willing to spend up to $50,000 (385.000 DKK). And one in three (35%) are willing to spend $500,000 (3.850.000 DKK) or more in a digital transaction.

So, what does all this mean in practise?

My take is that B2B sales must incorporate unified commerce, including digital self-service, video conferencing and traditional face-to-face sales – not competing but a unified journey across all touchpoints. Combined, this unified commerce approach creates a relevant, frictionless and engaging customer experience,

Kasper KnudsenSenior Client Director, IMPACT Commerce

If we return to the McKinsey study, we can see that a ‘rule of thirds for unified commerce has emerged. To meet the demands of B2B customers, B2B suppliers should work towards merging their traditional sales channels with new digital ones. This is how that might look:

Unified commerce rule of thirds:  

  1. Traditional: such as in-person meetings – still the bedrock for many B2B companies 
  2. Remote: such as phone and video conferences 
  3. Self-service: such as e-commerce and digital self-service
Misconception 02

Thinking your customers are loyal because of your product

Still not convinced of the need for investing in unified commerce? Take heed of this. The majority of B2B buyers will actively look for another supplier if their needs aren’t being met. Like in B2C, customer expectations are constantly rising, but compared to B2C, nurturing existing customers is absolutely vital in B2B manufacturing and wholesale, as the size of the target group is often much more limited.  

While more agile, customer-centric competitors have always been ready to snatch buyers from complacent companies. We’re seeing it happen more and more regularly in the B2B landscape. So how do you protect your existing customer relations? 

We know it’s controversial to hear, but customer loyalty is no longer dependent on your product alone. We’d go as far as to say that customer retention today has nothing to do with unique selling points or differentiation from your competitors! Instead, it involves mastering the two most in-demand B2B elements: convenience and transparency.  

Convenience means removing friction from every step of the buying process – physically, online and between the two. 

Transparency means full accessibility into when and where a buyer can get the product or service they want.  

Mastering these two areas has a direct influence on customer loyalty and can very well put your company ahead of competition, seeing as most B2B companies fail to master both (or even one) of these elements. 

That’s not the only upside of reframing your relationship with your customers. Increased transparency also has a positive effect on securing new prospects. We see a tendency for most B2B companies to gate price and product availability because they don’t want to share prices and stock with their competitors, or because they know B2B buyers typically expect a discount, when they can only display list price.  

We believe these reasons really aren’t compelling enough. Especially when the consequence is that 7 out of 10 new buyers visiting the site will bounce when they discover such essential information is hidden from them (Dansk Industri). The end result? The business misses out on many new business opportunities.  

But you don’t need to take it from us. McKinsey also conducted a similar B2B study which looked at the five key factors that increase customer happiness and retention.

Topping B2B customer wish lists in that study are: 

  1. Performance guarantees
  2. Product availability shown online
  3. Ability to purchase from any channel
  4. Prices show online
  5. Real-time customer service

The common thread between these wishes? A unified commerce experience.

This is backed up by research from Gartner, who also found that the purchasing experience is the key driver of customer loyalty – ahead of company and brand impact and value to price ratios.

Our recommendation?

“Start by focusing on delivering the essential aspects of a good B2B customer experience – convenience and transparency. Then you can move on to consider extra differentiators,” suggests Kasper Knudsen.

Misconception 03

Running commerce channels separately

Handling channels in isolation is one of the most recurring mistakes B2B companies make today. Single-channel and multi-channel is still the most common setup. Only a small minority of B2B companies are digitally mature enough to devise and implement an effective unified commerce strategy and set-up. Here are three mistakes we see B2B companies making when it comes to selling across channels.

Not accounting for channel-switching
The first thing B2B companies should know to overcome this way of doing things, is that today’s customers switch between channels at each phase of the buying journey, with 64% of consumers using multiple devices to start and finish a single transaction (Salesforce, State of the Connected Customer report, 2022). Sales teams are no longer necessarily the first port of call for a potential buyer. Digital self-service purchasing is on the rise, which means you need to provide an interconnected and consistent customer experience, wherever your customer meets your brand. Be that online, your social media, your website or any other channel.

Forgetting about customer insights
The second thing to do is putting your customer at the heart of your sales strategy. How? It takes some homework, but conducting research into your average customer journey on each channel, gathering insights from buyer interactions and understanding preferences at every touchpoint and buying phase is the only way to truly understand your customers. Once you understand them, you can use these insights to engage customers more proactively at each stage, provide more personalised service and boost loyalty.

Accidentally encouraging in-fighting
One final area to focus on when tackling channel silos, is inwards. Siloed channels can be seriously damaging to your salespeople when not factored into bonuses and commission structures. Employees can end up fighting among themselves and their respective channels to seal the deal. Not good for your salespeople, business or customer. Instead, we recommend B2B organisations prioritise creating a holistic incentive model for employees. A unified approach ensures your salespeople will be fairly rewarded, whatever channel the customer make their purchase on.

Misconception 04

Not addressing channel conflict

Worried about how your digital sales channels could conflict with other channels by demotivating sales staff or damaging relationships with dealers and distributors? These are common – and fair – concerns. The McKinsey study bears that worry out, with more than half (54%) of B2B companies saying in-person sales is a competitor of e-commerce. A further 37% claim channel conflict is stunting the growth of e-commerce at their company.

The solution? “Getting proactive about quashing channel conflict,” says Kasper Knudsen. “B2B sellers need to establish a meaningful incentive model across all channels and up the salespeoples’ digital skills, allowing them to embrace digital as a lever for further growth. I recommend letting your existing clients use the digital self-service options while your salespeople can focus on pursuing new business opportunities. That way, they can stop fighting e-commerce and lean into a hybrid selling approach. It’s a win for everyone.”

This isn’t always easy, but it’s vital to futureproof your B2B organisation. Being proactive about addressing channel conflict means: 

  • Introducing a cross-channel incentive model for salespeople 
  • Better digital competencies for salespeople  
  • Reinventing your sales approach with hybrid sales roles (digital ambassadors)  
  • And sometimes, organisational shake-ups (Hire, fire or retrain)
Conclusion

If you don’t already have a strategy for unified commerce in place, you may be sabotaging your business’s future. Existing competitors and new digital entrants are already making the move to unified commerce, with 83% of European manufacturers upping their digitalisation budget in 2022 to expand and pursue new revenue streams, while reducing sales related costs.  

Are you a B2B company that needs help with unified commerce?

Kasper Knudsen can tell you all about it.

Kasper Knudsen