A strong omni-channel B2B customer strategy is vital for many manufacturers these days, but it must go beyond simply ensuring the online experience matches the offline experience, to fully support the buyer throughout the entire, often complex sales process – however they choose to buy, says Michiel Schipperus, CEO, Sana Commerce.
What was the last thing you purchased? Did you buy it online or in a high street store? Think more deeply about it and you might realise you actually made a more complex omni-channel purchase mixing online, high street, mobile and social media elements into one buying decision.
B2B buying increasingly has its own flavour of omni-channel purchasing too. While a buyer's investigations into a product may begin online, once they hit complex configuration requirements they may require direct contact with a sales representative by phone or face to face. It's critical in ensuring that sales are fulfilled that the e-commerce solution automatically passes the customer seamlessly to the next logical step in the process, whatever and wherever that may be. All importantly, the buying experience should remain personalised across all channels.
In-fact, B2B omni-channel delivery means being able to provide a higher degree of personalisation to the customer than ever before. High value B2B sales often require greater depth of detail and the omni-channel ecommerce solution needs to deliver more than simple product and price information. It needs to create an online environment that for example provides recommendations based on previous interactions or customer purchases whether via the webstore or other means.
As companies learn to access and build on the wealth of customer data they possess, many are now seeing the benefits of new technologies in supporting omni-channel strategies, including virtual reality, 3D printing and the Internet of Things.
Firstly, we're seeing more practical applications of virtual reality (VR) in B2B e-commerce offering an effective way to simplify and 'experience' complex products in action, support self-service strategies and reduce the cost of sale. VR can also be used to see how individual parts will work as a finished product during the buying process. Because it's an immersive experience, buyers are fully engaged with the company and product - isolated from outside interference and therefore highly receptive to product messaging.
3D printing has already had a big impact on the manufacturing sector and production process, but it also impacts the omni-channel experience. By making it easier to produce bespoke or complex parts automatically, 3D printing provides buyers with the ability to personalise products or even configure them online and send the design to manufacture without intervention. This brings a whole new dimension to customer self-service.
Finally, having hit both the mainstream consumer and B2B markets last year, the Internet of the Things (IoT) supports automated ordering, which in turn creates an additional sales path as part of omni-channel delivery. This could be as simple as the buyer's system triggering an automatic sale on the seller's e-commerce site when stock is low.
At a more complex level, IoT can aid decision-making for lean production. The ability, for instance, to take live data from customer sites that can automatically feed into the manufacturing process, means that companies can produce exactly what's needed, when it's needed. The customer can see what's being manufactured through its e-commerce dash board, and if integrated with the ERP system, the company can utilise it as part of its production planning to ensure resources are allocated effectively.
Omni-channel typically addresses the online and physical sales channels to ensure a consistent buying experience, but it also brings companies new insights into customers and the ability to integrate data to improve the experience. New technologies, such as IoT, 3D printing and VR are all bringing additional channels into the mix and should be considered increasingly as 'must haves'. Manufacturers, have much to gain from doing so but must ensure that they build them into the core strategy if they're to maximise the benefits of an omni-channel future.