In the last few years manufacturers, wholesalers and service companies successfully digitized the interactions with their business customers. But did they put them first?
The advantages of customer-centric digitalization efforts are well known: reduction of the cost of each interaction, fewer errors, freeing of resources that can be moved from repetitive tasks to added business value, all leading to the overall goal: improving customer satisfaction, margins, and broadening the sales channels.
In the last weeks, for many people (both on the sales and supply sides) digital interaction has become the only available choice. All companies that delayed or underestimated digitalization are now facing additional challenges and are quickly losing the competitive edge.
How do B2B commerce leaders tackle this challenge?
Many tech-savvy companies have already implemented a long list of digital self-services:
- They allow customers to exchange electronic documentation and sign contracts digitally.
- They provide online configurators that can give an idea of price and options for complicated machines in just a few minutes and speed up the offer cycle.
- They provide smart personalized spare parts catalogs so that customers can identify the exact part that they need to replace.
- In most complex scenarios, customers can remotely monitor their machines spread on several factories or working sites, quickly identifying failures or need to reorder consumables.
All these are great initiatives, but need to be managed carefully to avoid dissatisfaction and even frustration: all those services provide different touch points, have their own authorization mechanism, and oftentimes provide inconsistent interfaces. They usually are part of an "inside-out" approach, where internal processes are published to the customers "as is". It is up to the customers to know those processes and adapt to them.
Inefficient separate digitalization initiatives
So there are many great examples of digital self-services offered already. However, when organized as separate services, many well-known conflicts arise:
- An offer is created on a CPQ (Configure Price Quote), but then, once approved, the order has to be typed in manually into the customer ERP.
- The updates on the production status are available on-site, but then information about shipping status is available only via phone.
- Payments are coordinated on another channel with the accounting department.
- Installation and order of spare parts may have a process completely different than the one needed for consumables.
- Booking of on-site services for repair or maintenance has to be negotiated by phone, and the outcome of the intervention is delivered via mail or in paper form.
While each one of these stand-alone interactions can be very efficient, the overall experience will be very unpleasant. There’s even more if the sales organization has boundaries and limits that don’t have meaning for the customer! Think about unique touch points for different countries, product segments or business units!
The perfect outside-in solution: a digital Customer Portal
There is, fortunately, a good solution for this, and it is a Customer Portal. It is one of the biggest opportunities, and therefore one of the biggest trends in B2B commerce. A customer portal completely overturns this described perspective, creating "outside-in" processes. All interactions are designed starting from the customer needs, and the internal organization is adapting to them.
In a single digital service, with a consistent interface over several touchpoints (web, apps, call center, even embedded screens on machines), ALL customer interactions can be put together and streamlined. There is no need for customers to know the seller's internal organization.
A seamless B2B customer journey
A visit to the Digital Customer Portal to learn about a machine can be the starting point of a configuration session, which then seamlessly becomes an RFQ whose status can be followed on the same website after login. There, it can be transformed into an order that is transferred automatically into the customer ERP via a standard protocol called Punch-Out.
Shipping information and invoices follow in the communication area of the site, and once installed, the product is part of the installed base, where the customer can order consumables, monitor the machine status, and order specific spare parts, services and so on. Of course, all documentation and history are connected to the online profile of the machine.
By this, a Digital Customer Portal is not a "collage" of applications, but rather a "hub" of different processes. Some of those are implemented directly in the Digital Customer Portal, some are connected to other parts of the ecosystem via a modern micro service/API architecture.
This unique interface doesn't hold advantages only for the customers. A unified ecosystem can collect information through the whole chain of interactions, from pre-sales to after-sales, and deliver insights on the customers for up- and cross-sell opportunities that wouldn't have been possible to be gathered from different isolated repositories.