This is my third blog in a series covering customer centricity in a digitized world, now focusing on digital channels. Check out my first blog, second blog and fourth blog on customer centricity, and my blog on the consumerization of B2B sales in industrial maufacturing.
Simplicity is an imperative in today’s business world. Sellers are simplifying their processes, and buyers expect that their vendors are easier and easier to do business with as relationships grow. Digital channels are an important piece in this simplification game, as they definitely make it easier for customers to get the right information, services, or products at the right time in a convenient way. Providing all relevant customer interaction channels is also a key topic for improving the customer experience, one of the top objectives of many industrial machinery companies’ digital transformation.
Customers choose their own journey in multiple channels at their convenience. The pattern that emerges is not linear, as in the past. Customers also demand a seamless hand-off between customer self-service, partner channels and internal sales and service channels.
In the past, sellers have typically controlled the information flow, sending sales and marketing assets to customers and initiating customer interactions (not necessarily event-driven or in context). This type of one-way flow is no longer the case for manufacturing companies, as industrial buyers now initiate the interactions after they have digested all of the product information they have already researched across numerous different sources. This buyer-initiated engagement makes it even more important for the sales rep to understand exactly where the customer is in the buying journey and determine which channels the customer prefers for which type of interaction.
According to a recent study conducted by Forrester Research:
Industrial manufacturers are improving how they manage their B2B channels by:
- Establishing more control over the sales experience
- Increasing customer service and self-service capabilities
- Improving and automating channel processes
When it comes to B2B commerce in the digital age, it is important to identify who is the actual customer (decision maker or key influencer) and which is the most appropriate channel. Who does the sales rep from an industrial OEM call on these days? Is it the older, well-experienced purchasing agent who is accustomed with face-to-face interactions, or is it the younger, less-seasoned millennial who is more comfortable interacting with a screen and expects all information to be available to them with a touch of a button?
To get the maximum out of your digital channels, don’t just think about selling through digital channels, but consider the holistic picture:
- Address your entire portfolio: standard or customized equipment, solution bundles, software, contracts, financing, value-added services, service parts, …
Provide information: text, pictures, videos, …
Provide customer services, incl. self-services
- … and get information directly from the customer (e.g. customers to maintain their profiles)
- Sell through channels
- Get information about the customer or prospect – through analyzing the navigations
The appropriate and most effective sales channel often depends on the demographics of the buyer, with ease of use and simplicity being top of mind. Industrial manufacturers are not just selling (configurable) machines anymore, but they are also providing a holistic picture of all the information a customer is interested in when deciding on what to purchase. When researching complex industrial products, buyers now want access to digital data like videos, 3D graphics, and live chat in addition to traditional text-based information. Manufactures need to make it as easy as possible for customers to configure their own equipment on their own terms, with or without an actual salesperson.
What I hear from more and more from manufacturing companies is that their customers expect that they could also configure contracts online through digital channels. Online configuration of contracts could be even more important than online configuration of products.
With leveraging new technologies, sellers could directly benefit when potential buyers navigate their digital channels: E.g. in case a purchasing agent of a capital equipment machine manufacturer is navigating the digital channel of a drive systems vendor to figure out which new products (or services) are provided, a sales professional of the vendor could get a notification and react directly: contacting the prospect triggered by this “event” to provide the right information in context and tailored to the specific needs (based on the analysis of the navigation). This is a much better approach than sending mass-emails to customers and prospects without context and without being customer-specific.
Service parts business is another important example when it comes to digital channels and customer experience: most industrial machines have life spans that are very long, with some original equipment dating back a decade or even longer. Over time, specifications change, records are lost, employees change jobs or retire, all of which make servicing and maintaining older machines difficult. A common spare parts issue is that part numbers are difficult to find or have changed. If a buyer can’t specifically identify the exact part number, using digital photography they could capture an image and send that to the seller or even upload it directly to the seller’s digital channel. The seller can accommodate and analyze digital images by providing a self-service process for the buyer – another example on how to make it easier for customers to deal with their vendors. Innovative manufacturing companies already consider emergency parts by integrating 3D printing services from partners into their web channel solutions. The opportunity for this type of simplicity in the digital age is vast and unprecedented.
Through innovative technology advances like real-time customer profiling, omni-channel content management, 3D visualization, artificial intelligence, video production, predictive analytics, guided-selling, and live chat, industrial OEMs can differentiate their digital presence to make the buying experience as simple, enjoyable, and easy as possible for well-educated, highly-demanding, and time-constrained industrial buyers.
According to the Forbes article, Death of a (B2B) Salesman, by Andy Hoar, Forrester Research forecasts that “1 million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service e-commerce by the year 2020. B2B buyers now favor do-it-yourself online options for researching and buying products and services, and they are demanding that B2B sellers fully enable those digital paths to purchase.”
Yet too many of today’s B2B companies still insist that B2B buyers interact with sales reps in order to complete a purchase. For a minority of customers who are buying complex and expensive products and services, talking to a sales rep can be a value-added experience. But for the majority of B2B buyers who are self-educating online about products and services, or who already know what they want, the diversion is inconvenient and unwelcome.
With complex industrial equipment and machinery, we are not quite to the point where actual salespeople are irrelevant, but clearly, the initial buying research is mostly done on-line before an actual salesperson is engaged, and pundits like Forrester see this as a definitive trend.
Since industrial buyers becoming more and more informed with digital research and less and less inclined to be “sold to,” industrial sellers need to change how they market to this new class of well-educated buyers. Today’s sales reps must be easy to get in touch with, very well-prepared, very well-informed, and very professional when calling on customers and prospects who have more than likely already done exhaustive research on everything related to the OEM and its competitors. Sense and respond to customers’ needs, predict the next best step for the engagement, and talk about value rather than products’ features.
Consider how manufacturing companies successfully deal with their well-informed and more demanding customers:
- Be prepared to engage your customers on the channels they choose at any moment in their journey
- Deliver personalized experiences and recommendations and leverage historic customer interaction and equipment data in context of each customer engagement, to maximize the value of the customer relationship and equipment lifecycle
- Provide self-services, product information, configuration and ordering for products, solutions, contracts, services, parts etc. for customers and channel partners
- Offer easy transition to internal sales and service, if required, to quickly provide tailored offerings addressing business needs
- Do not compromise on full integration with your core business processes
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Looking forward to your responses and new ideas on how manufacturing companies leverage digital transformation and customer centricity to grow their businesses and attract their customers.
Dietmar Bohn is a Vice President of Industry Solutions Management at SAP SE, focusing on customer centricity and digital transformation. He brings more than 15 years of CRM experience from both outside and inside SAP and more than 25 years of industry experience. Dietmar has held various executive roles spanning CRM strategy projects, CRM implementation projects, CRM development and CRM product management. Before joining SAP, Dietmar has held different management positions in R&D, IT and Global Sales & Marketing organizations at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG. Dietmar holds degrees in Electrical Engineering and in Telecommunications.