B2B commerce: Here’s how to digitalize your B2B sales channels in the era of Covid-19

Image of Urs Haeusler, Managing Director at valantic Customer Experience & Commerce Switzerland, e-Commerce

5 questions for… Urs Haeusler

Covid-19 has a firm grip not just on our private lives, but also on the entire economy. In particular, B2B trade will feel the pandemic’s consequences due to its strong orientation toward bricks-and-mortar sales, supply chain disturbances around the world, and the cancellation of trade shows. Urs Haeusler, Managing Director of valantic CEC Schweiz, explains in this interview how you can reorient your B2B commerce sales strategy for the long term and what other tips you should pay attention to right now.

In the current crisis, most companies have to forgo bricks-and-mortar trade. The only solution seems to be to digitalize sales channels. What’s your impression: What does the crisis mean for digitalization, especially in B2B commerce, and could E-commerce even profit from it?

In the current crisis, people are generally consuming less out of fear of what will happen in the future. Companies have also reduced expenditures and investments in many areas.

Due to the lockdown and the accompanying closing of shops, only digital sales were possible from one day to the next. Companies that relied on online sales in addition to bricks-and-mortar sales even before Corona and served their customers via all available channels had an advantage. B2B companies are now forced to offer digital sales, while their customers, depending on industry and customer segment, exhibit sharply differing degrees of digital sophistication and in some cases have to learn and learn to accept online purchasing. This has made Covid-19 a catalyst for B2B commerce. Many customers will very probably also purchase online after the crisis because they have learned that with a positive user experience, online trade can be much simpler, easier, and more cost-effective. Those companies that had invested in digitalization and B2B commerce even before the Corona crisis will profit from the crisis. Companies that had previously invested little in E-commerce will have to play catch-up – if they even withstand the crisis.

Many B2B companies are currently trying to digitalize their business models and sell their products online. How do you advise companies that have to react quickly now and reorient their digital business?

Clearly there are solutions with out-of-the-box E-commerce tools that allow you to sell products online as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. However, B2B commerce is much more complex than this and it demands many other functionalities than B2C.

Such short-term crisis solutions are not platforms that will lead a B2B company into the B2B commerce future.

That’s why I recommend that B2B companies first formulate clear business strategies for the future in order to implement the right B2B commerce platform based on these – integrated into their IT architecture and completely process-automated. This way, they will be well-prepared for similar situations in the future.

What particular solutions can you recommend to companies to this effect?

Anyone who is engaged in B2B business cannot simply digitalize from one moment to the next. Expectations for B2B commerce are high and will continue to increase in the future. The benchmark is clearly B2C: Buyers want to search easily, find things quickly, and place orders without problems. They require quick order processing and delivery, an appealing visualization of products, very detailed product information, and a great customer journey.

Therefore, a clear E-business strategy is crucial. A customer journey focused consistently on customer benefit forms the basis for successful E-business. There are some B2B-specific details that have to be considered, such as extensive purchasing and approval processes, customer-specific prices (net/gross), complex product configurators, real-time inventory information, and the specification of (binding) delivery dates, to name just a few examples.

A majority of B2B companies depend on the big trade shows to generate new business. However, nearly all the trade shows have been canceled this year. What advice do you have for companies about how they can acquire new customers in E-commerce?

Companies’ current “weapon” is their online presence. In B2B, it is still frequently treated as a “stepchild” and it must be improved. Usually, one problem is the merger of the product information and the online shop. Frequently on the websites, it is not possible to order the product with just a few clicks. Instead, potential customers have to select a dealer or change to another website.

Many customers also cancel purchases because it is not clear enough to them in the product presentation (especially for products that require explanation), whether the product in question (variant, size) is really the one they’re looking for. Furthermore, questions are often not answered online. It is therefore extremely important to describe products very precisely, to illustrate them, and enrich this presentation with videos, installation instructions, construction plans, etc. Online advising can be a big help, for example via a chat function or a video call in which an employee explains the product, demonstrates it, and can answer questions. Due to Covid-19, video calls are now absolutely normal and accepted.

Therefore, they can offer a more personal experience. Potential customers like to be able to see a person rather than message a text robot. This way, it is possible to establish trust, which is of special importance for big investments and a good replacement for trade shows.

In addition to the customer journey, the concern is general visibility on the web. Critical is that companies and their products can be found easily on the web – keyword: Search Engine Optimization (SEO). The better the search terms and the SEO for a website, the easier it is for potential customers to find the companies during a digital search. Another concern is expanding the range of and exploiting potential buyers through digital marketing. Among other things, this includes social media, Google ad campaigns, content marketing (in particular: interviews, blog contributions, explanations, videos, etc.) or webinars.

However, I am convinced that online trade shows are not the future. Therefore, companies shouldn’t invest too much in them. Instead, companies should spend time re-thinking and advancing their entire online presence.

How do you see things: will the current situation change B2B commerce in the long run and generate more digital business in the future?

As I mentioned before: the current situation is a push for digital business. Due to the crisis, digitalization is growing by leaps and bonds in all areas (schools, administration, social life, etc.). Suddenly, many things that were not possible before the crisis will now be possible digitally and people who are less digitally oriented will have to learn about and accept digital possibilities. This also applies for B2B trade.

Companies will examine and adapt their strategies, also with regard to future crises. In the process, many industries will discover new potential and customer segments that can be opened up with long-term strategies. Yes, I’m convinced that in the long run we will have more business due to the coronavirus, and that companies will invest in real digitalization. Real digitalization means rethinking strategies and business processes and adapting them – which can result in fundamental changes for the entire company, new business models, and target groups.

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