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Charts: B2B Buyers Prefer Ecommerce

A majority of B2B buyers in the U.S. now prefer ecommerce to in-person, telephone, or any other purchase channel. That’s according to a recent survey from McKinsey & Company. In “Busting the five biggest B2B e-commerce myths,” a January 2022 article in its “B2B Pulse” series, McKinsey dispels the notion that B2B buyers shun digital transactions.

In 2021 alone, many U.S. buyers shifted their preferences to online from in-person. Wholesalers, distributors, and manufacturers stated in the survey that ecommerce is now their most effective sales channel.

Research published by Statista in January 2022 supports the results of the McKinsey survey. Statista, in cooperation with Sana Commerce, a B2B platform, surveyed 1,200 worldwide B2B buyers in August 2021. Fifty percent of respondents said ecommerce was their “most used” purchase channel.

The McKinsey survey asked B2B suppliers about their ecommerce priorities compared to in-person sales for four key functions: (i) product and service availability, (ii) guarantees and warranties, (iii) shipping and delivery options, and (iv) personalized recommendations.

Most respondents replied their ecommerce capabilities were equal to or better than in-person sales for all four functions.

Some observers claim B2B buyers use ecommerce only for smaller purchases. The McKinsey survey dispelled that notion, too, asking buyers to disclose their maximum per-transaction online spend. Seventy-seven percent of respondents stated they would purchase at least $50,000 in a single online transaction. Twenty percent said at least $500,000, and 15% stated they would place a single $1 million order online.

The Emergence of B2B Raw Material Marketplaces

Business-to-business marketplaces are among ecommerce’s leading growth trends, yet many industries remain under-served, especially for raw materials.

The trend is evident in the level of venture capital investment and in the number of enterprise businesses developing marketplaces alongside their core products. That’s according to Paul do Forno, managing director of content and commerce at Deloitte, the international consulting firm.

“Everyone thinks of Amazon, but there are hundreds of marketplaces popping up,” do Forno said, giving, as an example, Knowde, a chemical, polymer, and ingredient marketplace connecting B2B buyers and sellers.

Knowde raised $72 million in Series B funding in August 2021.

Purchasing chemicals, polymers, and ingredients is “a very complicated buy, and what Knowde is trying to do is make it super simple,” do Forno said.

Home page of KnowdeHome page of Knowde

Knowde is a B2B ecommerce marketplace for raw materials and an example of what could be an emerging growth trend.

Not New

B2B marketplaces are not new.

“Business-to-business commerce on the Internet is generating a lot of interest,” wrote Steven N. Kaplan and Mohanbir Sawhney in a Harvard Business Review article from 2000.

“The appeal of doing business on the web is clear. By bringing together huge numbers of buyers and sellers and by automating transactions, web markets expand the choices available to buyers, give sellers access to new customers, and reduce transaction costs for all the players. By extracting fees for the transactions occurring within the B2B marketplaces, market makers can earn vast revenues. And because the marketplaces are made from software — not bricks and mortar — they can scale with minimal additional investment, promising even more attractive margins as the markets grow,” Kaplan and Sawhney wrote.

Some 21 years later, the time for many of these marketplaces may have finally come.

Raw Materials

“When I think about B2B marketplaces, I break them up into three segments,” said Ali Amin-Javaheri, the co-founder and CEO of Knowde.

“The first segment is everything related to services — payment marketplaces, labor marketplaces, logistics marketplaces, freight marketplaces, all sorts of them.

“The second is finished goods marketplaces, like Amazon Business, Alibaba, McMaster-Carr. It’s all B2B. They are selling to companies, but it’s all finished goods,” Amin-Javaheri continued.

“The third segment is all things raw materials — all the stuff that companies buy to create their own products,” said Amin-Javaheri, describing the segment in which his own company fits.

Many examples exist in the first two categories described by Amin-Javaheri, but relatively few are in the third.

That could change. Raw material marketplaces such as Knowde could be a Blue Ocean of opportunity for businesses to combine deep industry knowledge with commerce software.

The business fundamentals are the same as those that Kaplan and Sawhney described in Harvard Business Review nearly a quarter-century ago, “Web markets expand the choices available to buyers, give sellers access to new customers, and reduce transaction costs for all the players.”

Those fundamentals could apply to raw materials in circa 2021.

“It’s greenfield, it’s massive, and it is ripe for change,” said Knowde’s Amin-Javaheri of the market for chemicals, polymers, and similar raw materials, adding that there could be $5 trillion in annual transactions for these materials worldwide.

Chemical suppliers, according to Amin-Javaheri, have traditional sales forces and methods that require a lot of personal interaction. While this approach can be lucrative for the professional buyers representing huge companies, it creates a gap for small and mid-sized organizations.

Those buyers are relatively expensive for some middle-market chemical suppliers to transact with. So they don’t. That leaves businesses — some of which are willing to spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on raw materials — feeling underserved.

A marketplace solves the problem for both buyers and sellers. The latter can connect with many more potential customers at a lower cost, while the former gets more support on a complex buying decision that might include understanding how various compounds could interact at a molecular level.

Software, Knowledge

This level of detail and complexity is why a simple web catalog won’t necessarily work. Buyers and sellers of the sorts of raw materials Knowde, for example, is trying to serve cannot simply visit a web page with a list of chemicals and casually add them to a shopping cart.

Thus, those B2B marketplaces create “workflows” that enable buyers and sellers to research products, ask questions, and negotiate prices.

These customer “workflows” could be similar in concept across industries. For example, a search that identifies chemical interactions might use similar logic and code to a search that matches semiconductor chips to motherboards.

But the parameters of, say, chemicals and semiconductor chips are vastly different. Thus raw material marketplaces will require both software and industry know-how.

That is a challenge. But it is one many companies could take on. Don’t be surprised if new B2B raw material marketplaces emerge in the next few years. And don’t be surprised when marketplaces such as Knowde gain significant market share.

The Overlooked Benefit of B2B Ecommerce

An oft-overlooked benefit of B2B ecommerce tools is the value to internal sales and customer service teams. Both gain efficiencies from digital tools, resulting in happier customers that spend more money.

Ecommerce gives users — internal and external — the ability to help themselves. Moreover, many functions that customers require are the same as sales and service personnel. Data integrations can turn an ecommerce platform into an all-in-one information repository, answering questions of all parties and thus driving efficiency and revenue.

Hence modern B2B ecommerce software increasingly serves dual users: staff and customers.

Common Tasks

Consider the online tasks common to customers and sales and service employees:

  • Search for products.
  • Place an order.
  • Look up order history.
  • Obtain information on how to use products.
  • Process a return.
  • Manage account details.
  • Set spending limits.
  • Access (or establish) the entire product line.
  • Access (or establish) frequently ordered products.
  • Request (or respond to) special pricing.
  • Request (or respond to) a quote.

Sales and service teams traditionally rely on siloed business management software. But a modern ecommerce platform — with robust site search, product descriptions, images, spec sheets — integrated with management software can serve both internal and external users, eliminating duplication and inconsistencies.

To be sure, sales and customer service representatives have unique needs. An ecommerce platform can provide those functions. Examples include:

  • Impersonation or masquerade features allowing internal staff to look up an individual or a company and log in as that user without needing the password. Staff accesses the site as the customer, providing enhanced support.
  • Creating and accessing a list of a customer’s available products. Allowing sales or service personnel to build or edit this list helps customers.
  • Responding online to a quote request. Having salespeople respond through the website can expedite the turnaround.
  • Note-taking. Giving sales and service teams the ability to add internal notes to an order or quote streamlines communication while recording the history.
  • Adjusting prices, discounts. Enabling staff to provide unique pricing or discounts can remove obstacles to a sale, although that functionality typically requires controls or limits depending on the employee role.

Platform Considerations

Not all B2B ecommerce software offers internal-user capabilities. Four platforms that do, however, are BigCommerce B2B Edition, Optimizely B2B Commerce Cloud, Magento, and Oro. (My company is a reseller of BigCommerce and Optimizely.)

If your B2B platform doesn’t facilitate internal functionalities, ask your developers if it is possible to add them. Be careful, however, as platform customizations can increase long-term maintenance costs and complicate future upgrades.

Regardless, modern B2B ecommerce platforms should serve internal and external users, adding capability and flexibility for everyone. The result is happier customers and more sales.

Checklist for a Post-pandemic B2B Surge

Many B2B businesses are already experiencing a post-pandemic surge. Certainly the revenue growth is welcome, but it can bring challenges as well. Here is a checklist to prepare for pent-up demand.

B2B Checklist

Communicate out-of-stocks. Supply chains have not stabilized. Some manufacturers are reverting to domestic suppliers for consistency and reliability.

Surprising a customer with delayed or canceled orders due to out-of-stocks damages the relationship. To overcome:

  • Communicate when an item will be available rather than simply displaying “out of stock.” This sets expectations and helps capture orders from buyers that might look elsewhere.
  • Allow visitors to enter an email address to be automatically notified when the item is back in stock.
  • Consider offering an alternative product in stock.
  • Direct customers to another website where they can buy the product. It builds trust and credibility.

Streamline customer service. Errors happen when a customer service team does not have the information they need or is otherwise inexperienced or overworked. Extended wait times and lack of answers frustrate buyers.

An ecommerce platform can be a terrific customer service tool, lessening the reliance on reps. Modern platforms:

  • Integrate sales with fulfillment. Glitches occur when the orders are not digital, such as a salesperson taking orders over the phone, writing orders on paper, or even receiving faxes. Manual ordering introduces errors.
  • Notify customers of partially filled orders.
  • Support customer service teams who use the website to answer questions and retrieve info quickly. Many manufacturers and distributors find that their site is easier to navigate than internal systems! Customer service personnel can share links with buyers and follow up with resources such as data sheets and safety specs.

Provide self-service ordering.  Relying solely on B2B salespeople to process orders creates bottlenecks and missed opportunities. Salespeople shouldn’t be doing things that customers could do on their own. A good B2B ecommerce site will:

  • Faciliate self-service ordering. Smaller, simpler, and repeat orders don’t typically require personal interaction.
  • Reduce human involvement. For example, software that configures prices enables customers to build their own quotes for a salesperson to review or respond.

Prepare for digital-first B2B. It’s easy to overlook strategic planning. The future of B2B commerce is digital, as Covid-19 has painfully demonstrated. Prepare now for the post-pandemic surge and beyond. Ask yourself:

  • How does the digital transformation impact my business?
  • Which digital features would add value to our customers?
  • How could digital tools strengthen my company’s competitive position and reduce obstacles and threats?

A digital foundation is critical for B2B growth and to test and improve sales and customer service. It enables your company to thrive in the immediate surge and after.

B2B’s Digital Shift Is Permanent and Incomplete

The pandemic has forced many B2B companies to add ecommerce capabilities quickly to keep orders flowing.

“B2B organizations that were planning to do more with digital five years down the road had to accelerate their timeline. Covid made them,” said Challin Meink, senior marketing director for Avionos, an agency.

The transformation is almost certainly permanent, changing how B2B companies operate. It’s also incomplete.

B2B Transformed

1. Buyers prefer ecommerce. Even before the pandemic, B2B buyers expected the “convenience, simplicity, and accuracy” of a digital experience, said Meink.

This should not be surprising since the same purchasing professionals who place orders on behalf of their employers also shop for themselves. They are accustomed to the ease of ordering from Amazon, Walmart, or any of the thousands of retailers selling online.

“More than three-quarters of buyers and sellers say they now prefer digital self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions — a sentiment that has steadily intensified even after lockdowns have ended,” according to an October 2020 McKinsey & Company report.

Upwards of 80 percent of professional buyers believes that a combination of remote human interactions and “digital self-service” are safer, easier to schedule, and less expensive than an in-person experience.

“Only about 20 percent of B2B buyers say they hope to return to in-person sales, even in sectors where field-sales models have traditionally dominated,” according to the McKinsey report.

What’s more, throughout 2020 B2B buyers became happier with the new remote and ecommerce sales processes. On April 9, 2020, about 54 percent of those McKinsey surveyed believed the new, Covid-driven B2B sales model was effective. By August 11, 2020, the proponents were 75 percent.

2. Mobile apps boost orders. Imagine you work for a plumbing company that serves a large metropolitan area. You have a van stocked with tools and supplies. Most days you don’t drive 50 minutes to the shop. Rather, home is your base.

One day, you’re on a service call. You open a storage bin in the back of the van and notice that you have just four toilet seal rings left. You quickly pull out your phone, tap the icon for your supplier’s mobile app, and order a dozen toilet seal rings for delivery to your home.

This sort of convenience works for many B2B buying scenarios. It became more common during the pandemic. It could be one reason McKinsey & Company said that B2B sales via mobile apps had risen 250 percent during the pandemic and buyers’ affinity for the apps rose 30 percent.

3. Chat and SMS aid research. “The best solution [for B2B digital transformation] would have been the five-year plan, with a large suite of platforms that has beautiful architecture that works together. But that takes time,” said Meink.

Some B2B companies started with live chat. McKinsey reported that the frequency of live-chatting with a B2B sales representative has risen 23 percent during the pandemic. McKinsey rates live chat as the top communication channel when researching a new B2B supplier.

Providers such as Podium have taken live chat and combined it with SMS messaging (text) so that the live chat widget found on B2B sites is SMS connecting reps directly with the buyers’ mobile devices.

These new chat and SMS behaviors will not likely go away when the pandemic subsides.

4. Video meetings are effective. Video conferencing as a means of connecting B2B sales personnel to buyers rose 41 percent during the pandemic, according to McKinsey. Even that doesn’t seem high enough.

Managers, employees, grandparents, and more have turned to video conferencing during the Covid lockdowns. Video meetings have given salespeople more time to engage with customers and become advocates and advisors. Not traveling may improve a salesperson’s quality of life.

So don’t expect video meetings to go away. Instead, look for fewer in-person appointments.

5. More investment needed. Covid forced businesses to add digital systems in a hurry. Early on, in March and April 2020, as they were unsure how long the lockdown and pandemic would last, many business leaders were reluctant to invest in digital, according to Meink.

Eventually, it became clear that B2B ecommerce was essential and that the digital transformation should occur as soon as possible. But that shift is not complete. There is more to come.

B2B Lessons from 2020

Covid-19 forced all of us to change. Companies and employees who had resisted digital innovation suddenly had no choice. Some of the changes have created value and are worth keeping. Others not so much.

My company develops ecommerce systems for B2B merchants. What follows are pandemic-induced changes that, in my view, will likely become permanent. I’ve also listed a few painful B2B weaknesses that Covid has exposed.

Permanent Changes

Digital content is critical. This was shifting even before the pandemic. People are using online content rather than an in-person conversation. Even phone and virtual interactions are down in favor of digital self-service options. Companies in 2020 came up with new ways to build relationships, such as videos, articles, PDF guides, and other resources. Going forward, think about how a customer or prospect can interact with your company at midnight when no one is around.

More efficient processes. Doing more with less has become a higher priority. Tools that make key processes faster are essential, such as quickly answering customers’ questions, closing a sale, setting up an account, cost details, and shipping and arrival info.

Embracing online sales. For many of my B2B clients, ecommerce sales grew in 2020, even if off-line revenue was down. The pandemic demonstrated the value of digital transactions to organizations that were previously skeptical. Ecommerce is a benefit to a sales team, and last year proved it.

Ecommerce on a timeline. Many B2B ecommerce sites that had been held up due to an expansive scope got done quickly. Companies were forced to accept smaller, faster iterations and improvements.

New ways of communicating. In-person sales calls and trade shows turned out to not be as important as we thought. Our culture shifted as more people worked from home. We became used to seeing each other’s pets and being in each other’s homes. We were forced to re-examine our habits and notions of how things are.

New services or processes. An HVAC distributor, for example, can now offer dock-side pickup, similar to curb-side for retailers. Traditional B2B sellers have shifted to selling certain products directly to consumers. Manufacturers that once took complex orders only through a salesperson have created self-service digital ordering.

New skills. Many B2B companies shifted employees to digital-focused tasks. Experienced team members can offer valuable perspectives. Most are willing to learn new things to match the needs of the company.

Weaknesses

Challenging times can highlight our weaknesses. The pandemic did that for quite a few B2B merchants.

Outdated systems. In shifting to digital, some organizations found that their systems could not easily integrate. Examples are outdated administrative platforms or homegrown software for sales quotes. The digital transition requires a hard look at internal systems. Some will need to be updated.

Lost opportunity. Businesses with limited digital platforms suffered the most.

Culture turmoil. Many teams struggled because they weren’t prepared for or open to essential changes. Companies have learned the importance of a resilient, innovative, and adaptable culture. Employees who demonstrate an unwillingness to change are obstacles. Those who step up and lead are invaluable.

Unnecessary expenses. Some companies realized they were paying for outdated items that did not create value for the business or its customers.

2020 in Hindsight

Take the time to review how 2020 impacted your company. What lessons did you learn? What choices might you make going forward?

5 B2B Ecommerce Trends for 2021

B2B ecommerce was already growing rapidly when the global pandemic struck in early 2020, accelerating the wholesale industry’s digital transformation. And while it would be possible to list many industry shifts for the coming year, five trends could be especially disruptive.

All of these could produce important changes in how manufacturers, brands, distributors, retailers, and consumers interact in 2021 and beyond.

5 B2B Ecommerce Trends for 2021

1. Drop shipping. For many years, brands (which may or may not manufacture their own products) and distributors have been drop shipping orders on retailers’ behalf.

A customer ordering, for example, Ariat boots from any number of omnichannel retail stores might have his order shipped directly from an Ariat warehouse in California.

Similarly, when a shopper visits the Sur La Table website and purchases a small kitchen appliance, a distributor or manufacturer will likely fulfill the order, not the retailer.

This trend may have accelerated in 2020 for a few reasons.

First, the shutdowns in March, April, and beyond played havoc with ecommerce supply chains. In some cases, this forced wholesale businesses to invest in fulfillment infrastructure.

Second, ecommerce demand spiked, forcing some retailers that had previously done their own fulfillment to turn to suppliers.

Third, the shutdowns forced many retailers into bankruptcy, including J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, GNC, and more. Many of these businesses kept selling online whilst in bankruptcy because of drop shipping. Their financial situation made it difficult to order truckloads of products, but, with drop shipping, they could continue.

In all cases, wholesalers and retailers changed their habits because of the pandemic, and those new habits are not likely to change soon. B2B ecommerce could grow thanks to the continued and accelerated growth of drop shipping.

2. Ecommerce integration. One of the keys to more drop shipping was an increase in ecommerce integration. Despite being shorthanded thanks to Covid-driven furloughs, many B2B companies developed integrations with their retail customers.

In most cases, these integrations took advantage of application programming interfaces that made it possible to connect platforms and data. This enabled brands and distributors to provide retailers with accurate inventory info, supply chain details, and other vital business data.

What’s more, ecommerce integrations made it possible to deliver that data and place orders in new channels, including on mobile devices either via native apps or progressive web apps.

B2B suppliers and retailers alike made significant investments in these ecommerce integrations, and the only way to generate a return is to keep using them.

Photo of a street sign called "E Commerce."

For B2B wholesalers, ecommerce is becoming Main Street. Photo: Mark Konig.

3. Buyer experience. Increased B2B ecommerce integration is helping to fuel the trend toward better buyer experiences.

As Amazon pointed out, 73 percent of online business buyers are millennials. And 68 percent of those purchasing professionals would rather research products online (61 percent will use a mobile device) than speak with a salesperson.

The traditional B2B sales channels are not as popular as in the past.

In 2021, expect B2B suppliers to use consumer ecommerce technology and practices to attract new business customers and cater to a different sort of purchasing professional.

B2B ecommerce shopping experiences will rival B2C with better websites, sales channels, mobile apps, and an appropriate level of personalization, integration, and customization.

4. Payment options. With new channels, integrations, and buying experiences will come new payment options, including new forms of B2B financing.

In 2021, we can expect B2B companies to streamline their accounts receivable infrastructure. This could be as simple as moving away from manual processes such as physically mailing invoices and accommodating payments in new ways.

Whatever solutions emerge, we can expect these new payment options to address several problems within the current system, including digital transaction fees, payment delays, remittance data processing, and transaction visibility.

Thus digital payments for B2B transactions may come to resemble some of the retail options.

5. Consumer-like marketing. The most speculative of my five disruptive B2B ecommerce trends has to do with marketing. B2B suppliers will increasingly market like consumer-facing businesses. This is already the case for many consumer brands. Nike, Reebok, Levi’s, Carhartt, and others have always advertised their products directly to consumers.

But that is not the case for every B2B seller. It will likely change, however, in 2021.

B2B Merchants: Harness Data to Pivot, Adapt

I’m hearing the word “pivot” from B2B merchants. Manufacturers and distributors are pivoting to keep up with the pace of change. Example pivots include:

  • New products. The pandemic has generated demand for hand sanitizer, face shields, and other personal protective equipment.
  • New markets. Products that companies previously sold to one industry are now suitable for others. Schools, for example, are buying specialized health care items for the first time.
  • New processes. The remote workforce has altered sales and customer-service functions. For many businesses, adapting to those changes while maintaining quality and efficiency has been difficult.

Harnessing Data

The pandemic-induced change is especially challenging because of the unknown afterward, post-Covid.

Businesses are asking:

  • How big is the current opportunity, and for how long?
  • How much do we invest and where?
  • How do we reach new markets quickly?
  • Can our team navigate the changes effectively?

Ecommerce provides critical data to answer those questions and more. Site search reports can identify popular products. Machine learning can determine the content that interests your site visitors. And testing various tactics — messaging, pricing, promotions, features — can confirm the most profitable items and bundles.

Data needs vary from business to business. To leverage what’s needed for your company:

  • List the assumptions around your business plan and strategy. Then determine the data that would validate those hunches. Ask your developer team to provide the data if it’s unavailable.

You likely have more data than you realize. The problem could be accessing it and making the info meaningful. Spreadsheets can be a good starting place for pulling it all together.

Where to Invest?

Companies that invested in ecommerce in the last couple of years are seeing their investments pay off. B2B customers are increasingly demanding online purchasing and support. The pandemic has accelerated this trend. (I’ve addressed how to sell online with a minimal investment.)

As you prepare to enter new markets, digital advertising can be an effective, targeted way of reaching new buyers, especially when paired with ecommerce. Moreover, digital advertising produces a wealth of data to inform your strategy and approach.

Virtual trade shows, Zoom calls, and email are replacing traditional sales activities. Email marketing is especially effective when it’s personalized to recipients’ interests based on their online browsing and order history.

Opportunities

Challenges are opportunities to innovate. Embrace the possibility that your company can come out of the pandemic stronger and better prepared for the inevitable digital-driven future.

Covid-19 Exposes Inefficiencies in B2B Accounts Receivable

The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated long-standing inefficiencies with the B2B accounts receivable process, such as manual entry, little standardization, and errant data.

Accounts receivable personnel have historically overcome many of these problems, but an increase in remote work may require B2B sellers to move to a more automated or integrated process.

Manual Processes

“In general, accounts receivable, particularly in a B2B context, can create challenges [for a business] because it’s much more manual than most people realize,” said Brandon Spear, president of MSTS, a B2B credit provider.

Brandon Spear believes that the pandemic has exposed problems in the B2B accounts receivable workflow.

Brandon Spear believes that the pandemic has exposed problems in the B2B accounts receivable workflow.

These manual processes can exist at nearly any step in the accounts receivable workflow. As recently as 2017, a representative for a larger brand told me that orders from its popular B2B ecommerce site were printed and turned into its accounting department to rekey into the company’s siloed accounting software to create an invoice. This was done hundreds of times daily.

This particular B2B brand and perhaps many others had not consolidated the ordering process and still had a significant number of customers — think brick-and-mortar, ecommerce, or omnichannel retailers — submitting orders by email, phone, or (unbelievably) fax.

Not Standardized

The electronic data interchange is meant to solve just this sort of manual-process problem by electronically communicating purchase orders and invoices. Unfortunately, according to Spear, different organizations have implemented EDI differently, meaning that it may not be a true standard that B2B accounting teams can depend upon.

So while it is true that some industries have a common EDI standard, that level of integration is more likely between large sellers and large buyers.

The retail industry, for example, frequently has large brands selling to small or midsize companies — or the reverse. The larger firm often dictates to the smaller ones how an order or invoice must be submitted. This too can create manual processes as accounts receivable clerks might be forced to manually enter invoice information into a portal of some sort or create several invoice templates to match a buyer’s format requirements.

Missing or Errant Data

Manual processes and not enough standardization also contributes to the problem of missing data. An order could come in via fax that lacked important info or was illegible. Or, an account receivable clerk could hit an errant key or reverse a single digit in a long purchase order number.

“Imagine you’re a smaller supplier, and you’re sending your invoice into a large buying organization, and they don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know where to route it. They don’t know what expense bucket it goes to. Just trying to navigate your invoice through an internal accounts payable process can be complicated. And more often than not, that’s got to do with data missing from the invoice that would help AP identify it to know where it has to go,” Spear said.

Covid’s Impact

Before the global pandemic, the accounts receivable departments at many B2B brands slogged through these challenges. Some took pride in their abilities to run down problems or create systems to make manual processes and errors less of an issue.

“Now if you take those underlying base challenges [of manual processes, missing data, and similar], and then you overlay on top of it the fact that a lot of people are not physically in the office” it is easy to see the potential problems, Spear said.

Spear argues that the very people who were making the manual accounts receivable process function may, in the current environment, have less access to the information and resources they need. How, for example, would a system that relied on printing a B2B order and carrying it to an accounts receivable clerk for rekeying work now? Email? Slack? And how would invoices be sent?

“If your primary distribution mechanism for invoices is the post office, you can imagine how complicated that becomes all of a sudden because if your customer doesn’t have personnel who are receiving mail, opening mail, deciding what to do with the invoices…that creates delays. You could imagine that if the customer pays you via physical checks that could also create delays,” Spear said.

Accounts receivable inefficiencies, which existed before the pandemic, are now much worse, forcing some B2B accounting departments to move forward with new software and integrations. These companies may have had new software implementations on their roadmap for 2023 or 2025. But Covid-19 is transporting those businesses forward.

In the end, the pandemic might help make B2B accounting departments more efficient. It may help them manage credit better. And it could make doing business easier.

Getting Your B2B Team on the Digital Train

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of many B2B companies. Implementing ecommerce and other digital tools requires rethinking how your organization operates and how it interacts with customers. It’s an opportunity to improve sales and back-office efficiencies.

Part of the transition involves changing employees’ roles and responsibilities. Employees will need to adjust. Likely they lack the required digital skills. Many will push back or refuse to evolve.

What follows are ideas for helping your B2B team get on the digital train.

There are many terrific educational resources. One is Practical Ecommerce, including my recent webinar on high-performing B2B sellers. Gartner publishes more than 800 on-demand webinars on topics ranging from marketing to finance to management.

Favorite Books

My favorites books on managing change in a digital world include:

  • No Ego, which addresses how to lead through change. I’ve read it many times. It boils down to inviting people to step up to the challenge. It reminds me that leaders cannot make people change. Leaders invite the change.
  • The Lean Startup.” The digital transformation is a process of iterative learning. “The Lean Startup” challenges leaders to create a company-wide culture that values learning and innovation, which is essential to embracing change, in my experience.
  • Growth Hacker Marketing.” Successful marketers today wear many hats. “Growth Hacker Marketing” addresses how to blend technical and marketing skills to reach targeted prospects and convert them into raving fans. The book is focused mostly on retail, but its concepts apply to B2B merchants, too.
  • Content that Dances.” B2B ecommerce sites can compete with larger companies by demonstrating subject matter expertise via compelling content. “Content than Dances” explains how to create content that connects with your audience and starts the conversion funnel.

Conferences

There are many helpful conferences on B2B ecommerce. They are virtual in 2020, which makes attendance very affordable.

  • B2BNext,” from Digital Commerce 360, is Sept. 29 – 30. I am presenting on the 29th.
  • B2B Online,” from WB Research, occurs October 28-29.

Closing the Skills Gap

When it comes to gaining skills, there’s nothing like experiential education — learning by doing. Consider having team members learn from each other.

Look for platform-specific tutorials and instruction, especially if you are re-platforming or changing systems. Ask your developers to assist, too, in gaining skills.

Create a safe space in your company for people to try new things. Launch smaller projects to help staff gain skills. Identify employees who are eager and interested in the digital opportunity, even if it’s not part of their current job.

The team members at my company, for example, get four hours per week of what we call “rock time” to focus on quarterly priorities and goals, such as developing new skills, trying new technology, or working on special projects. This comes from the Entrepreneurial Operating System. At the end of the quarter, employees present to the staff what they learned and how it can be used.