At this evolutionary moment in time, we’re all still figuring out how to do business. The pace of change has us a bit fatigued, and new challenges have us scratching our heads. One of the faster-moving trends in sales and marketing is the integration of E-commerce in industrial B2B sales. Everyone knew it was important. Everyone knew it was inevitable. But many brands have been paralyzed by the apparent complexity of the process. And understandably so. It’s hard.
At the center of all this is your independent dealer channel. Many larger dealer groups in certain markets have already launched their own E-commerce platforms, while the manufacturers––whose products they sell––are still trying to crack the code on an E-commerce solution that would hopefully become their industry’s version of Amazon. Folks forget that it took Amazon seven years to first turn a profit.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But there are plenty of great questions, starting with these:
- How do your customers prefer to engage with your brand?
- Which components are they willing to purchase online?
- How will you handle returns and refunds?
- Where will technical support come from?
As you go through the process of defining your customer’s expectations, you’ll be able to identify a certain segment of your business that’s best suited for online sales. Let’s say you’ve found that the sweet spot for your E-commerce effort is consumable components for DIY service customers. Aha! That’s actionable information. Now the question is how to implement a program to reach that audience. (Yes, every answer leads to more questions. This is good because there will be more “Eureka” moments along the way.)
Does this segment of your business justify the expense of starting an E-commerce platform? If the answer is no, don’t check this off your list just yet. Move to the next question: Is this something your customers are expecting? If they are––because they’re getting it from other suppliers, including your competitors––an E-commerce investment is more about staying on top of customer expectations than about immediate revenue.
Next, what role does your dealer network play in the process? In many cases, dealers earn most of their revenue from parts and service sales. And most dealers will view a direct-to-customer E-commerce program as an unwelcome attempt to hijack their volume and profit. We suggest including dealers in the development of the program early and often. They need to understand that it’s an opportunity––rather than a threat to their business. There could be win-win situations where dealers serve as virtual distribution centers, keeping high-volume items in inventory and covering the critical last mile of fulfillment. There are also ways to use E-commerce sales as a bridge to additional service revenue. The key with E-commerce is to make sure dealers are in the loop––and understand the convenience to the customer and the value to their dealership.
This Q&A thinking intentionally ignores the whirling vortex of technological complexities that an E-commerce platform entails. Nor does it address details like integrating with dealer POS systems and transaction security compliance. Since we’re a marketing agency, we’ll leave that to the experts. Hopefully, you have people for that.
Let’s say you’re ready to go to market. What happens now? Before you begin happily pushing the program out to your customers, make sure you’ve rolled it out to your dealers first. (See “early and often” above.) We encourage you to view the dealer as one of your most important customers. It starts with communication, then training, and finally marketing support.
I’ve talked to brand folks at manufacturers who think dealers simply need to suck it up and get behind whatever the brand is pushing out. That’s a tunnel-visioned, brand-centered perspective that almost always leads to frustration on both sides.
E-commerce is not a venture to enter lightly for B2B brands. It’s a lot harder to manage an inventory of remanufactured transmissions than it is to sell handmade soaps out of your garage. But if you frame it as part of an overall customer experience strategy that benefits from dealer participation, the rewards can be excellent.