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5 minute read

Opinion: Servicing the age of the customer

Digital transformation has hit different industries at different speeds, and nowhere more so than when it comes to the adoption of B2B eCommerce. The manufacturing industry is so diverse, it is impossible to generalise about the uptake of a direct-to-customer sales shift, even within specific market segments. Stephen Hardy from FPX looks at what this transformation means for manufacturers who want to grow by embracing eCommerce and develop their sales process.

There is no doubt that as the habits of business customers continue to be influenced by the digital experiences they receive from popular retail brands, there is a huge gap between manufacturers like Apple, for example, which sells not just to consumers, but to business buyers too, and businesses that rely on vast partner/vendor/dealer networks, plus those that lean on direct sales teams. Some try a combination in their efforts to roll out digital transformation not just to buyers but all stakeholders.

But, whilst it may be more challenging for discrete manufacturers, perhaps producing air conditioning systems, construction materials or automotive parts, to establish online sales channels, the fact that they sell highly-customisable products or massive volumes of intricate parts or units should not put them off. They need to be thinking about delivering an eCommerce experience to their business customers if they want to remain competitive and relevant.

B2B eCommerce could easily be part of a manufacturers digital transformation efforts / Picture: Getty/iStock


Today’s B2B buyers are familiar with the personalisation of the eCommerce sites that they visit. They know that they can get recommendations on Amazon and delivery arrangements designed to suit their lifestyle on a favoured fashion website, and, frankly, they are beginning to expect the same from their B2B suppliers.

That’s not to say that they don’t understand how much more complex the typical buying and selling process is for larger B2B manufacturers, than it is for Amazon. But, we are living in the age of the customer, and that means delivering what they want.

Research from Forrester suggests that companies must build a contextual marketing engine which can deliver continuous engagement with customers, and that means providing relevant content and value exchanges in their moments of need. It is not about replacing traditional direct and indirect channels, or reducing the size of a sales force, but instead adding to those functions.

This is not easy. Many companies struggle to extend their sales process into digital channels and for B2B manufacturers, it’s not as simple as selecting a standard eCommerce platform, plugging it into their website and offering their entire product catalogue online. Buyers, understandably, will be nervous about shifting to a self-service model, particularly if their purchase is complex. For the manufacturer, however, there are incalculable levels of customisation and human interaction in any given sale that need to be delivered through a digital self-service channel if it is to emulate the close cooperation that they would normally offer to customers, and this can seem daunting.

For discrete manufacturers, in particular, there are some capabilities that should be delivered when they are assembling a successful ecommerce strategy.

What Does Successful eCommerce Look Like for B2B Manufacturers?

1 – It has the capacity to handle extremely complex configurations.

B2B manufacturers and their customers need an eCommerce platform that’s more than a simple online shopping cart, and currently, this is not available. In order for them to facilitate buyers’ needs, they will need to supplement eCommerce platforms with other solutions so they can offer their full portfolio of products and services. In addition, customers must have the power to make customisations to the products and configure highly-complex or engineered-to-order solutions.

2 – It delivers data-driven, guided buying.

Manufacturers should take a leaf out of Amazon’s book and aim to deliver guided buying functionality in their eCommerce offerings. Automated up-sell or cross-sell product recommendations delivered to the B2B customer based on historical transaction data or selected criteria will help manufacturers guide their buyers and direct sales people to optimal solutions and drive increased order size.

3 – It offers dynamic visualization.

It helps for buyers to actually see the solution they’re buying as they configure it in real time. As part of a successful eCommerce strategy, manufacturers must allow customers to engage with 3D visualizations of their products to give valuable detail to the online buying experience. This is not necessarily something they would have benefited from if they ordinarily purchased over the phone, for example, so it is a bonus afforded by the eCommerce process.

4 – It connects with disparate data sources.

Manufacturers shouldn’t have to manage product, pricing, and customer information in their eCommerce solution in addition to the many other IT systems. To ensure data accuracy and ease-of-use, B2B manufacturers need eCommerce platforms that source sales-relevant data from any system of record across the entire organisation.

5 – It allows for omnichannel co-creation of solutions.

This is really the future of sales for B2B manufacturers. A successful eCommerce platform must connect direct sales, partner resellers, and end-customers as part of a collaborative sales process that aligns with today’s customer journey. Buyers may not always want to purchase online, they may sometimes choose to specify products online and then complete the order during a face-to-face meeting. Enabling this breadth of choice will help to build long-term B2B customer loyalty.

Successful eCommerce & sales growth is really about finding the right tools for the job / Picture: Getty/iStock


Successful eCommerce is really about finding the right tools for the job. While complexity sits at the heart of the typical sales process for B2B manufacturers, Configure Price Quote (CPQ) applications sit at the heart of a successful B2B eCommerce strategy for many manufacturers. No longer just a sales enablement or quote-to-cash tool, modern CPQ applications are built with the future of buying and selling in mind and make successful B2B eCommerce possible by delivering each of the capabilities highlighted above.

It’s a new B2B world and since we are in the age of the customer, it can be intimidating for manufacturers to get all aspects of digital transformation right. Picking tools that are fit for purpose is one way to make that transition much smoother.