For many B2B companies, this year is a turning point: every organisation - from local fruit and vegetable growers to large enterprises - understands the need for further digitalisation. But where their B2C colleagues can draw on large numbers of best practices, the B2B world is so specialised that each situation is unique. In practice, companies tend to stick to an online environment that is focused on the transaction, which does nothing more than simply present information.
This is unnecessary, because B2B companies can really make a difference with a personalised self-service environment. B2C companies often still find personalisation difficult because they have to interpret the data of millions of customers. B2B companies, however, deal with a smaller number of customers with many repeat orders and specific preferences. This gives businesses the opportunity to look at customers' needs in a far more specific way, and to respond to these needs with a self-service environment. It is both customer-friendly and efficient.
So what might a "My Account" of this kind look like? Basically, a self-service platform has to enable customers to perform common actions digitally. For example, it must provide real-time insight into current orders at any time of day. Knowing that a truck is on its way is one thing. You also want to share the current status and the expected delivery time. After delivery, any returns must be reported immediately and the delivery must be verified. Every customer also greatly appreciates insight: reports on annual turnover, applicable contract arrangements, payment terms and pricing are common features.
The next step is to add customer-specific services based on the customer needs you have observed. For example, Osudio has worked with a feed company that uses the order history to advise clients whether or not certain products can be combined. Other companies may know how their customers like to have their products packed, what dimensions they tend to use and what their practical delivery time slots are. The platform can then be set up based on that available information.
Essentially, it is all about adding value to the purely transactional side of things. For example, it may well be a logical step for a brewery to offer online training sessions to teach people to pour the perfect draught beer. A supplier in the hospitality industry may want to organise workshops by a chef and develop a resulting comprehensive knowledge database. The feed manufacturer we mentioned earlier uses customer knowledge not only to give advice, but also to replenish the stock of its cattle farmer clients automatically. The services are not product-specific: they are built around the products and are often free. Their purpose is to engage customers in the most relevant and personal way and so increase their loyalty in the long run.
You may feel that you have to innovate, but you also need to consider your investment budget. In practice, the business case can be created in different ways. For example, a self-service platform that enables customers to perform actions themselves will result in significantly fewer phone calls. An account manager can also save a lot of time by no longer entering orders manually with the odd error here and there. This freed-up time can be used very effectively by talking to customers to see how they can grow their company. Customer-specific services also add value in the form of loyalty. The services may even produce a new business model.
In addition to all the expected cost savings, the investments will lead to a new turnover forecast and so an ROI that will help customers to decide whether or not to invest in self-service.
Big bang or MVP?
Once a company has chosen self services, it makes sense to start with a sound strategy. In any case, never use a technology or set of functionalities as a starting point: this will turn the means into the goal itself. First, you need to determine that digital dot on the horizon and what it will take to reach that point in a certain number of years. Of course, you also need to know your customers' needs. Existing data and market research provide the necessary insights to draw up a roadmap and develop the platform.
It is important to access information from other systems, so integration with existing systems is crucial. Always make an inventory of the state of the technical stack, which applications are in need of replacement and where there is any functional overlap between existing and new software. This will allow you to develop a coherent and flexible ecosystem. Although the odd company may then choose to go live with a fully developed platform and a big bang, experience has taught us that striving for a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is far more effective. Especially in a B2B context, functions are usually very specific and technical, so it is better to develop these step by step at a high rate. This approach makes it easier to involve end users and to make adjustments based on their needs. This is often better than working on a ‘perfect’ end solution behind closed doors.
This method also forces the project team to simplify the complex reality somewhat and to stop focusing on the process' numerous exceptions. The result will be a self-service platform that assists customers directly and effectively. It will also immediately show the value that a B2B company adds: supporting its customer in their operations in a way that is personal and far more comprehensive.