When online shoppers visit their favorite clothing store websites, they can customize the products they want — choose different sizes, quantities, colors and even add unique touches like embroidery or custom patterns.
Despite efforts to achieve the B2C-like buying experience, B2B manufacturers have a long way to go before they can offer such capabilities, even as they move online. That's because in areas like heavy industrial machinery, products are complex, and the kinds of options manufacturers' customers need are often far more numerous than the average consumer may need when buying a pair of shoes.
As he told PYMNTS, in order for manufacturers to remain competitive and please the buyer, they're going to need a major mindset shift — one that moves the focus from the seller to the buyer.
"It's all about taking complex buying experiences and complex selling experiences that manufacturers have, and completely digitizing that process," Thompson said of the opportunities to optimize the B2B sales and purchasing process.
But it's not only about migrating the conversation online. Thompson highlighted the value of self-service functionality on a B2B eCommerce platform, with CPQ (configure-price-quote) software an increasingly essential part of that optimization.
What CPQ allows is for the online buyer to configure a manufacturer's product to their unique specifications. When buying an elevator, for example, online shoppers can establish how many people that elevator must hold, how many floors it must go up, and other features like high-speed capabilities.
Traditionally, configuring products takes place over the phone or in person, yet as the pandemic has proven, the ability to support B2B commerce in a remote setting is now vital for both buyers and sellers alike. Further, capabilities like real-time product visualization mean in-person meetings to see products are even less necessary.
Speaking with Tacton's own clients, Thompson noted that historically, adding self-service functionality like CPQ onto digital sales platforms was on manufacturers' roadmaps, but as Phase 2 or 3 in their roadmaps.
"And then COVID-19 happened," he said, "and all of a sudden everything is remote and online. Phase 2 has basically become what manufacturers need to do right now."
Getting Out Of Their Own Way
The ability for an online corporate buyer to configure products and independently steer the process is a major shift from how B2B trade has traditionally been done. Even as B2B sellers migrate to eCommerce portals, the focus has typically been on the seller's process and how manufacturers will dictate the brand experience.
In a sense, said Thompson, manufacturers need to loosen up the reins and get out of their own way in order to ensure that sellers have the kind of online purchasing experience they're seeking. Giving up control of the sales journey to the buyer won't be easy for everyone, however, and indeed, even with the pandemic, not all manufacturers are ready to go all-in on the digitization front.
"A lot of manufacturers are not so sure about complete online sales," he said, although he added that the technology exists from providers like Tacton and others to facilitate payments, acquire product warranties, purchase replacement parts and more.
There is a shift in sales perspective that must occur, and although it may be slow, it's happening — and it has accelerated as a result of the pandemic. Thomson said buyers are ready — perhaps even more ready than manufacturers and even industry analysts may think. And as confidence grows for the buyer, manufacturers will begin to understand the value in embracing this shift in perspective.
"The truth is, manufacturers have been focused on the brand experience," Thompson noted. "Now that they see what's going on, they have to act fast. I firmly believe if you do not invest in CPQ now, the first company that is will be the leader in the industry."