Contributor: Alex Love – Managing Director

Five years ago in the B2B space I used to talk to clients about CRM, sales force automation and single customer views. Many of them talked about challenges in getting their salespeople (who in many cases had been with the company 20-30 years) to enter data or do ‘admin’.

We used to discuss business risk, a better understanding of the customer, and connected data that told you where to focus your time. When it came to how well they knew their customer, I’d hear everything from “I know them so well I go to their house for Sunday lunch” to “we play golf together every week – I know my customers”. They would always speak of great relationships, but the information about the customers and the relationships themselves were often tied to individual salespeople, not necessarily the organisation.

Five years is a long time in technology, but some of those clients are still in the same place they were back then. Today many of them are scrambling around trying to adjust to new challenges, some much more complex than simply CRM.

The world has changed, and people have changed. In our consumer lives the rise of connected devices, and expectations on how we buy and sell (as well as the ease of doing so) has rapidly sped up. If we want to buy something, the first thing we do is go online, get reviews, and compare costs. We want to be able to access information and purchase things much quicker than we did before, and we expect that to be easy and consistent.

Tools and technology advancements enable speed, and a broader delivery market has made it easier to deliver those products. This combined with our digital expectations and personal demands is driving change in our business lives. We have the same expectations as when we are at home – being able to buy online from the armchair, or the office desk – and when the boundaries of work and home are blurred as dramatically as they are now, those expectations have never been more demanding.

New practices are set up for purchasing, and whilst procurement departments have always been there, the way they operate is evolving. This means the buying process changes – Sunday lunch and a game of golf may not be the strong link it was before.

Online sales systems, portals and eCommerce in B2B have overtaken the B2C market in recent years, and Analyst Firm Frost and Sullivan stated last year that they expected e-commerce sales will reach over $6.6 trillion by 2020 and it will surpass the business-to-consumer B2C sales valued at $3.2 trillion by 2020 close.

Of course, these numbers were prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, but align to a more recent 2020 survey from McKinsey of B2B decision makers. 70-80% stated that they prefer digital self-service or remote human interaction to in-person interactions during the research, evaluation and buying process. More interestingly, 75% of respondents found the new (mostly remote) sales model was as or more effective than their model prior to COVID-19.

If we look at consumer trends, what is obvious is that choice and service wins. With digital transformation happening in all sectors, in all functions, in everything, everywhere… this highlights the opportunity and the necessity to do things differently, or at least look through a different lens. There is without a doubt a demand to buy online, in almost every space. But the key is getting the balance right.

Less and less ‘out of home’ transactions are taking place from the Covid-19 pandemic, but that trend is likely to continue when we all return to ‘normal’, or whatever the new normal looks like. Those businesses that retain (or grow) market share will be those that offer choice. It’s not about moving to an online business, it’s about investing in online as a channel for aspects of your goods and services to be procured from. What it is, and how that looks will be different between those businesses. There will be a natural evolution as your customers adopt new ways of working, and some may transition from the ‘status quo’ over time.

One thing that is clear is that laggards will struggle to catch up and draw back customers who aren’t offered the flexibility in the near future. Building a strategy takes time – and you need to take into account testing and trialling the best way to do things – but starting now will give you a platform to understand your customer’s requirements and plan for future change, step by step.

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