Selling online seems to become more important every day. We work with manufacturers and distributors of ‘made to order’ B2B products that would like to do more digitally. However, with no catalogue of standard items many have been hitting roadblocks. When we discuss challenges we come across the same three issues repeatedly. Each has a strategy to mitigate or overcome, and these make good sense when set in the wider sales/new business context.
The pandemic has reminded everyone of the need for resilience. You could be forgiven with the freshness of Covid to leap to the conclusion that automation is the way to go, but you don’t need a long memory to know that IT can face its own challenges. And that is before you start to factor the preferences of individuals – one size rarely fits all. So the truth is diversification is key. Ideally you would want to be able to keep going if either systems or people were to fail, whilst also avoiding costly duplication. Meanwhile offering choice of a person or to proceed digitally to get on and order what is needed.
Outside of Covid effects the direction of travel is unchanging – an increasingly virtual world. Some digital marketers will have you believing that social channels are critical to success. Maybe. Digital research for business buying is certainly growing – both the ability and desire to be well informed through a purchasing decision. Accelerated no doubt by the blip in availability of people. The consequence is that to be in the mix, manufacturers should really consider enabling buyers to progress their journey online – at least far enough to get short listed.
So what does this mean and what are the common pain points? We get a broad range of comments from manufacturers rationalising why selling their products online is not possible. Be in no doubt a ‘contact us’ form or a phone number is weak and you might want to consider doing a bit more. Amongst the various comments, three groups repeat. Let’s look at them one by one.
“Our products are complex, customers need our advice”
We agree most customers would benefit from good advice. However, where and how do customers want to receive your advice? The trend is online, self service and on demand. So manufacturers have to find ways to capture the tacit knowledge of expert staff, and deliver advice in a way that can be consumed. This isn’t the same thing as personalisation of customer journey. Typically that is linear based on previous interaction. An alternative is to establish the specific need of the customer at that point by asking some questions ie having a dialogue. We call tailoring advice to a single dialogue ‘hyper personalisation’. It is point in time so there is no risk of miss-understanding in new situations.
Hyper personalisation requires some thought for the means of delivery. In Henry Ford terms – you don’t need better content, you need a better way to deliver your content so it becomes advice. Making dialogue digital is the logical course ie asking questions acting on answers by delivering the relevant content. This should feel like a traditional conversation with an account manager, but happening over a website.
We have far to many options, every order has too be quoted
We should be careful here. A birthday card with specific artwork and text is a mass customised product but it can be put into a catalogue at a price and easily configured. It’s harder with a deeper level of change eg a piece of packaging selected from hundreds of base designs, in a specific size, selection from a wide range of materials, printed in a specific way and produced in a required quantity. The product may have several alternative methods of production and large variances in raw material costs. It will need to be uniquely costed or priced. To offer this type of product digitally needs costing to be carried out in an automated way.
However, as with the first problem what is required is not really just ‘faster estimating’. To be successful it is necessary to know that you are also quoting the right product ie it meets the customer’s requirements and is designed for manufacture. Reflect again on the image of an account manager discussing requirements and exploring options before writing out an order. Getting to that point requires combination of finding out what the customer wants, manufacturing know how and costing of all options. This means combining a better way to deliver content so as to make it advice along with automated estimating.
Every product is custom designed and made
Some products are custom designed. Most are variations from previous work which become standards over time. Selecting the right start point is hyper personalisation in action. Digital dialogue, delivering your content so as to make it advice, costing of all options and making a recommendation. This is greatly enhanced with visualisation ie a picture that is representative of what is actually intended. This doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better’ pictures, it means pictures of the right type – those that give understanding of the product that could be delivered and showing how it will perform in use.
Combining the elements we have outlined make it possible to qualify whether the customer and supplier are a good fit – can the manufacturer make something suitable and would the customer be willing to pay the price. Having reached this point it is probably time to pass to a human to deal with the finer points of creativity!
So in summary, the three main objections can all be overcome by combining four capabilities: a means of sales dialogue, presentation of content so as to be advice on design, a method of costing and pricing and a means of visualising what will be made. These can be delivered individually in a variety of ways, but of course better in harmonised action. Not so much a ‘better website’ as a digital sales team.