As the world continues to navigate through the ups and downs of the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses are taking stock of its impact and deciding where to place their bets going forward. The road ahead is going to be challenging for businesses, with many obstacles still to be faced, and even more so for traditional human-to-human industries such as manufacturing and B2B sales. For several years, buyers have steadily been shifting purchasing from traditional face-to-face sales representatives to self-service through digital channels. Now that sales people are unable to meet customers in-person, digital selling technology is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but a ‘need to have’.
eCommerce has dramatically increased in importance as part of a business’ selling strategy during this crisis and will continue to be crucial for long after. Digital transformation plans must focus on customer-facing initiatives underpinned by digital selling and eCommerce channels – or else buyers will simply look to competitors that can connect with them where, how and when they demand.
Trends influencing buyers
According to our recent Covid-19 B2B Buying Trends Report, 37 per cent of businesses have been primarily purchasing through digital channels since the start of the pandemic, a 29 per cent increase compared to before. That figure is expected to rise to 40 per cent post-pandemic. But not all business suppliers were prepared for this quick shift. In fact, two-thirds of buyers felt they faced challenges in working with some of their vendors through the pandemic. With uncertainty still very much a part of the current economic climate, leveraging digital commerce for forward planning will be crucial in giving businesses the best chance of survival.
There is urgent need for businesses to ensure all avenues of selling ultimately come together into a defined, holistic omnichannel execution model that supports business recovery from Covid-19 and into the next normal. Enabling these channels and self-serve interactions requires a clear understanding of, and personalisation to, customer expectations and behaviours. Many buyers are changing their habits overnight, which requires a dynamic response from suppliers introducing new systems and tools. Vendors who have reliably demonstrated that their desired goods or services can be delivered as communicated are more likely to find transactions completed.
AI-powered buying insights
Delivering on this level of trust and transparency requires underlying technology well beyond just the completion of a digital transaction. Buyers are increasingly demanding responsiveness, transparency and proactivity. They want fast, personalised responses to their inquiries, immediate transparency in inventory and pricing, and vendors that proactively share opportunities for them to gain more value through the supplier.
Artificial intelligence is one such solution that is helping businesses adjust to this rapidly changing world. AI helps minimise the assumptions and ‘gut feelings’ found in traditional B2B businesses. It enables an organisation to look at a huge amount of data and extract early patterns and trends from potentially sparse information that humans may otherwise miss or misinterpret.
AI offers a means of establishing a view of the whole sales process, across every channel. It can offer a view on who to sell to, what is the right price, what volume of product should be ordered and on which channels it should be sold. Taking things one step further, suppliers can use AI to predict and anticipate customer needs so they can be met across any channel the customer chooses to engage through. They can also collect and use data on purchases over time to develop more personalised offers that truly align with those customers’ wants and needs, leading to greater customer loyalty over time.
The ability to anticipate what a customer needs – and to deliver that across their preferred channel – creates a consistent buying experience, and in turn builds better business resiliency. The volatility of the current environment has thrown traditional business methods on their heads and has forced rapid digital transformation, especially across the enablement of eCommerce. Organisations that leverage AI to develop and execute the right omnichannel selling strategy will come out on top.
By Will Lovatt is General Manager EMEA at PROS.