How manufacturers & distributors can implement the new era of self-service in B2B commerce

Image of woman in a hard hat and construction uniform.

In the recent Experience Maker’s Webinar, Forrester Research analyst Joe Cicman and I discussed how B2B businesses must deliver on multiple areas of B2B ecommerce, which includes self-service e-commerce, assisted e-commerce, and digitally enabled selling.

This is critical because manufacturers and distributors are seeing more and more of their revenue come from digital channels. According to research from DHL Express, B2B ecommerce revenues are expected to top $20.9 trillion dollars by 2027, but currently the majority of B2B revenue still comes from offline channels, primarily through a direct sales or channel partner.

This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for digital transformation leaders to implement a nuanced digital commerce strategy across the enterprise.

As a refresher, the three areas of digital commerce for manufacturers and distributors include:

  1. Self-service e-commerce: B2B buyers research, browse and buy directly from your e-commerce website or an enterprise B2B marketplace with little to no interaction with your salesforce. In 2021, 73 percent of B2B companies reported conducting sales online (compared to 55 percent in 2020).
  2. Assisted e-commerce. B2B buyers conduct research and browse journeys online, but often turn to a customer service representative or trusted salesperson seeking expert product recommendations or to negotiate a final price. 56 percent of B2B companies reported conducting assisted selling in 2021 compared to 21 percent in 2020.
  3. Digitally enabled selling. In this scenario, B2B sellers use digital tools to enhance traditional analog sales channels. This can include bringing a mobile tablet loaded with a digital product catalog to a customer visit or servicing digital kiosks placed on-site at a customer’s location. Roughly 54 percent of wholesale distributor’s revenue comes offline channels, with 19 percent coming from e-commerce websites and 27 percent coming from EDI and e-Procurement channels.

Let’s dive a little deeper to uncover how industrial manufacturers and wholesale distributors can implement these three B2B ecommerce solutions that enable self-service and help your sales organization excel.

Self-service ecommerce

Self-service is the most common first step for manufacturers and distributors. Typically, businesses will target one geography, segment, or stage of the customer lifecycle that would benefit the most from going 100 percent digital. The best candidates for self-service ecommerce are when customers need to make frequent, low consideration purchases like after-market parts and where channel conflict is low.

Key benefits of self-service ecommerce:

Who’s doing it well:

Global manufacturer Honeywell launched an after-market parts marketplace called GoDirectTrade which reached over $1 million dollars in online revenue in their first 10 weeks of operation. This is an entirely self-service ecommerce model that has transformed how Honeywell distributes products to end-customers. Now, 3rd party merchants and channel partners can become sellers on the GoDirectTrade marketplace.

Watsco, a leading HVAC/R distributor in North America, owns and operates five distinct business units. This $5 billion dollar company has fully embraced digital e-commerce with over $1.53 billion dollars in e-commerce revenue. The company is now pushing the envelope of self-service with a new Progressive Web App for its Carrier Enterprise business.

Assisted e-commerce

Assisted e-commerce use cases attempt to bridge the gap between online and offline. By allowing customers to choose how they want to engage with your business, assisted e-commerce can accelerate longer, more complex sales cycles. Assisted e-commerce journeys often start with B2B buyers browsing and conducting research digitally, and engaging the salesforce at the appropriate time, often to request a quote or ask a question. Once a salesperson is engaged, the sales motion can flow between sales (phone calls, email) and digital (live chat, online requisition list) naturally. Orders can be approved on the ecommerce website or processed by the sales rep directly, depending on the nature of the interaction.

Key benefits of assisted e-commerce:

Who’s doing it well:

Rousseau Metal implemented a digital e-commerce website squarely focused on assisted e-commerce. The company’s new website allows customers and prospective customers to research and browse the entire product catalog. The bridge to a sales rep comes in the form of a quote request. Instead of purchasing directly from the website, users can request a quote which is immediately routed to Rousseau’s back-office for engagement by the sales team. This assisted e-commerce website, powered by Adobe Commerce, has led to a 227 percent increase in quote requests from the web.

Image of a screenshot of Rosseau Metal's website

Customers and prospects can browse the entire catalog and request quotes for multiple units at a time directly from the product detail page.

Image of a screenshot of Rosseau Metal's website

Rousseau’s quote request form sends product requests directly to the sales team.

Digitally enabled selling

Digitally enabled selling is where the scales tip back towards the sales rep. In this scenario, digital enhances the offline sales interactions that have historically been analog. These use cases can be particularly valuable for an organization with a territory field salesforce that visit customer sites frequently.

By arming each salesperson with a digital catalog or a unique “rep view” of their own B2B ecommerce website, sellers can monitor their customers activities and make smarter decisions about how to grow their account base.

Benefits of digitally enabled selling:

Who’s doing it well:

L’Oréal, the world’s leading personal care and beauty product company, operates a beauty supply business in the United States including online stores and three retail brands, Salon Centric, State Beauty Supply, and RDA Promart. To add complexity, their State Beauty Supply and RDA stores are independently owned and operated.

Gabby Helms, director of eCommerce & Digital Marketing at Salon Centric shared that, “Today, sales reps are utilizing [the website] as a sales tool but as a business building and resource tool! We are now able to get a clearer look into conversions, ordering and service trends, which allows us to improve on this already beautiful foundation.”

Before launching their digitally enabled selling tools, SalonCentric sales consultants would keep binders and notebooks full of requisition lists. Now, sales consultants can manage online requisition lists for monthly replenishment orders, custom quotes, and front-of-house retail merchandising.

Pick the best model that fits your business

Not every manufacturer or distributor will launch each version of digital e-commerce. Some will stick to self-service e-commerce indefinitely, while others will jump right into digitally enabled selling from day one.

The important questions to ask are:

  1. Will the digital commerce initiative I’m considering disrupt my core business or revenue streams?
  2. What will my channel partners think of this e-commerce initiative?
  3. Are there repeat purchases my customers make that I can automate using a self-service ecommerce model?
  4. Where could an online catalog or ecommerce website accelerate an existing sales process?
  5. How will the existing sales compensation structure need to be changed to embrace B2B e-commerce?

If you’re interested in learning more about B2B e-commerce use cases check out the following links: