The business-to-business (B2B) buying experience has changed; there's no doubt about that. The business-to-consumer (B2C) commerce landscape has had a massive influence on corporate buying habits, from sourcing through payments. It's often described as the "Amazon effect," as suppliers explore how to provide a consumer-like experience to business buyers.
However, that may be an over-simplification, considering the complexities of procurement as they relate to supplier relationships, contract negotiations, payment terms, high-product values and more. There are trends other than Amazon affecting how business buyers and sellers work with each other, and, in some cases, aspects of the B2B buying process haven't been quite as influenced by B2C eCommerce as some might expect.
Take, for instance, supplier cold calls to potential customers — this may seem like an archaic sales tactic, one that certainly wouldn't find much success in the B2C space. Yet, Julie Thomas, CEO of ValueSelling, said cold calls (and the telephone, in general) remain important components of B2B commerce.
Vendors may be overlooking the telephone, however. ValueSelling research released last week found half of B2B sellers won't make cold calls at all.
"The reality is there are people who still answer the phone," Thomas told PYMNTS in a recent interview. "We believe that is a critical tool that should not be overlooked or —."
That's not to say that B2B commerce is entirely stuck in the past. The phone, Thomas explained, is key to reaching out to potential customers that may not have started their buying journeys yet. Whereas B2C commerce is largely positioned to let the customer come to the seller, the B2B environment still relies on vendors finding possible customers. That's partly because many products and services designed for corporates are complex, and, as Thomas explained, some buyers may not be aware that certain products exist at all.
Vendors cannot ignore how their prospective customers' habits have changed, though, particularly when it comes to businesses approaching the vendors. Corporate buyers are beginning to rely on their own product research before they even reach out to a sales representative: On average, a company will spend 20 hours reading up on a product or service before they seek further information from a supplier, according to Showpad research released this month.
That survey further emphasized the role of the telephone, as the majority of corporate buyers will reach out to a supplier over the phone. However, email is even more popular, with 56 percent preferring to conduct business through this channel.
With buyers using multiple platforms to connect with vendors, Thomas said suppliers have to embrace the omnichannel approach to finding new business, even when clients aren't making the first move. Reaching out through email and social media, in addition to traditional channels like the telephone, remains key to building brand awareness and ensuring that clients have a vendor top-of-mind if and when they decide they want a product.
There's no denying that consumer habits have seeped into the business-buying landscape. In addition to seeking information across platforms for products and services, corporate buyers are demanding a seamless experience, and that includes moving from working with a sales representative to making actual payments.
Complex products and high values often mean making a purchase with a vendor at the moment a buyer agrees to a sale, though Thomas emphasized that vendors are forced to explore how to make that process as painless as possible for businesses. Sometimes, that means working with what the buyer wants in terms of purchasing experience, and not only what the vendor offers.
"A sales representative has to be flexible enough to facilitate the buyer's process to buy," Thomas explained. "We can no longer say, 'This is how I expect you to move through this process.' Instead, I need to understand how you expect to move through that process, and then facilitate that."
Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the way corporate buyers buy — and the way vendors have to adjust — has less to do with providing a consumer-like experience to businesses. Instead, Thomas said, there has been a fundamental shift in the way companies think about how they spend their money, and suppliers are challenged to position their services and products as not only better than their competitors, but as a value-add for their buyers.
"No matter what you're selling, the whole concept of value-selling is more important than ever," she said. "At some point, all buyers are fighting for capital in their organization, so building a business case is more important than ever to help buyers get the funding they need to support the purchases they want to make."
A decade ago, she continued, a vendor offering Toshiba laptops would have to explain why that product was better than Dell or HP products. Now, businesses are placing greater focus on whether they want to buy that Toshiba laptop or use that capital for other areas of the enterprise. Suppliers must be able to connect with buyers to explain why their products add more value to their businesses, and they must do so across channels.
"That's harder than ever," Thomas added, "to really be able to build those cases, and help the client justify the purchase."