Stewartby Ken Stewart

At its core, automation is designed to amplify two of business’s most valuable assets — time and money. As every entrepreneur will tell you, “You can accomplish anything with enough time and money,” quickly adding, “… and there is never enough of either.” Given these natural constraints, SMBs and mid-market firms constantly fight to survive and grow their businesses with one key goal in mind — profitable revenue generation. Facing every constraint from working capital and distribution footprint to talent acquisition and marketing strategies, businesses have increasingly matured from thinking of technology as a luxury to the sobering reality that it is now table stakes in the bid to court, woo, and wed today’s savvy customer.

Despite the sting of acceleration whiplash, business still needs to get done. The automation of revenue-touching processes is increasingly taking center stage for B2B businesses, and, according to Forrester Consulting, nearly 75 percent have turned to e-commerce as a means of increasing customer acquisition, cementing customer loyalty, and drawing down associated costs. More customers are buying online today than ever before, and they expect sellers to provide self-service tools that help them simplify the customer journey — from buying experience to anticipating unrecognized needs just over the horizon of awareness.

The Acceleration of Self-Service

While B2C customers have come to expect self-service portals to be available for any brand worthy of patronage, B2B sellers have lagged behind — but no longer. 

Forrester Research estimates that B2B e-commerce in the United States will grow to $1.13 trillion by 2020. By then, B2B e-commerce will constitute just over 12 percent of total B2B sales. This acceleration of the self-service experience largely stems from customers’ preference to have a do-it-yourself experience as opposed to buying from a salesperson. In fact, according to website eCommerceandB2b.com, 80 percent of companies believe that B2C practices have changed customer expectations irrevocably and nearly 90 percent of B2B buyers use the internet to research products and potential vendors before any purchase is made. Every bit of content can weigh on a decision, including online properties and public opinion. In the end, B2B buyers want to know they can trust your brand and have an enjoyable buying experience. This makes ERP-integrated e-commerce solutions one of the key priorities for B2B sellers in 2017.

There are benefits on both the buy side and sell side of the equation. B2B sellers can increase revenue and reduce overhead, while B2B buyers experience a more enjoyable buying journey. Always searching for that extra edge, B2B companies are more frequently asking three key questions:

1. How can we continue to increase reach and capacity without adding additional costs?

2. How can we improve efficiencies to increase our gross profit?

3. How can we encourage increased loyalty to our brand?

“Integrated e-commerce solutions answers every one of these questions,” explains Brian Seidel, CEO of Website Pipeline, a company that is firmly onboard the self-service trend by designing, building, hosting and supporting cloud-based customer service automation portals and B2B e-commerce websites that integrate with customers’ existing ERP (financial and inventory) software. “Incorporating a customer self-service portal increases overall efficiency through strategic automation — minimizing clerical errors and improving the overall customer experience. It is an absolute must for companies who wish to scale efficiently and successfully transition into the digital age of B2B commerce.” It’s no wonder integrated and single-stack e-commerce solutions are on the radar of a growing number of B2B sellers.

tweetbutton B2B sellers can increase revenue and reduce overhead, while B2B buyers experience a more enjoyable buying journey.

Extinction Age for B2B Sales?

With increased demand for self-service, will a B2B sales force still be relevant? Forrester actually predicts that 1 million U.S. B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service e-commerce by 2020. Over the last few decades, information has become largely democratized, enabling buyers to complete research prior to engaging in the sales process. Andy Hoar, principal analyst at Forrester, believes that B2B companies must “reshape their channel sales strategies” to remain at parity in changing times. He encourages businesses to rethink the role their sales teams play in B2B business today.

Seidel couldn’t agree more, clarifying that, “The role of the salesperson in today’s self-service landscape is more supplementary, but can still play a part in the process — assisting and enabling when necessary, providing customer service support when there are issues, and utilizing automation tools in conjunction with traditional methods where a personal touch is needed or desired.”

Yet 93 percent of B2B buyers prefer buying online, with 75 percent saying that buying online is a more convenient experience than buying from a salesperson (Forrester). What — outside of extinction — does this landslide statement forecast for the B2B sales team?

Where products or services meet a clear customer need and are easily understood, salespeople will have to evolve into customer service representatives — facilitating a higher volume of orders via an e-commerce system. However, salespeople will remain prized in situations where needs discovery and solution crafting are complex and product need is sufficient to counter the typical ebb and flow of customer loyalty.

If played correctly, e-commerce systems can help sales teams be more effective and manage more capacity, larger territories, and more account assignments. Embracing e-commerce isn’t an all or nothing proposition, but it is well worth thinking about how such a catalytic automation platform may impact existing sales approaches as online orders grow.

At the Heart of Automation

The nature of sales has changed, and our ability to adapt is the key to surviving. The pace of change is moving at breakneck speed and offers us no refuge or signs of abating. Inflation eats away at our profits and stresses demands on working capital. To cope, businesses of all shapes and sizes turn to automation to achieve dreams held close to the heart and wallet alike.

The internet has long undergirded the hope of infinite scale and capacity. A company’s ability to flex became critical over the last two decades. Now, two individuals with laptops and a Wi-Fi signal could viably compete with Fortune 500 firms. Technological automation — paired with human ingenuity — is increasingly leveling the playing field to allow SMBs and mid-market companies to compete at scale and a lower budget with larger, more established firms. 

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel.