When the Imbema Groep unfolded an e-commerce strategy for the first time in 2011, this took some doing. An interview with COO Jan-Willem Mantel. ‘Our customer needs to be able to obtain his information quickly and easily, and be inspired. He is key in everything we do. With Intershop and our implementation partner Salmon we have achieved more in the last 2 months than in the past 5 years.’ A story about ups and downs.
The Imbema Groep is a group of technical wholesale businesses for five sectors: Construction & Infra, Gas, Water & Energy, Offshore, Maritime & Process Industry, Trade & Industry and Mobility. The overall range consists of 180,000 items, 35,000 of which are available from stock. The main focus of the 13 subsidiaries is sales.
Jan-Willem Mantel: ‘In 2011 we started shaping our e-commerce strategy. We assumed that, thanks to the efficiency this would provide, we would be able to save expenses extensively. We approached this task thoroughly. First, we developed a clear strategy with independent online specialists and after that we selected a partner to implement this strategy. Our first big challenge was managing the interface. After all, how can je integrate e-commerce in your IT infrastructure? Our ERP supplier managed to convince us that they were the best partner for that task. They said they would be able to solve all integration issues: between the ERP and the e-commerce platform and the entire integration into the CRM system. We liked the sound of that! The development would be very time-consuming, but we could use that time to get the content for the web shop – the descriptions and images of all products – organized. We really had the feeling that we had the digital lead!’
Pulling the plug
Reality turned out to be a harsh and expensive lesson for Imbema. Development times got delayed, due to which the required functionalities lacked. Both Imbema and the ERP supplier did everything in their power to catch up, but the time to market was simply too long. Responsiveness and SEO turned out to be fields that require a different expertise. Eventually, there was nothing left for Imbema to do than to pull the plug. Mantel: ‘We weren’t ahead; we were actually behind! We had to start all over again.’
Customer is key
Mantel: ‘Now we had a better idea of what we wanted to accomplish, which was no longer just reducing expenses. Our ICT architecture was no longer key, the wishes and needs of our customer were. We learned to think from the outside in. How does the customer experience your site? Various investigations had already indicated that fewer and fewer customers have a need for interaction with sales agents. More than 50% orientate themselves online and after that 93% wish to make the purchase online. Therefore, we are now much more focused on inspiring the customer with success stories and facilitating the online purchase behavior. If you do that well, the result of that is increased customer loyalty. That is the main profit for me. You cannot achieve customer loyalty by meeting the customer’s expectations alone, you have to walk the extra mile and exceed expectations. Ask yourself what sets you apart from the rest. And in particular what makes you unique; where you excel. For your online customer relation, it is mainly important that the customer is able to locate you. Then he needs to get to know you and finally he needs to trust you. We are still in the starting phase, but it is our desire to become a front runner.’
From traditional sales to online
Due to the fact that Imbema worked so intensively on the e-commerce platform, they now recognize that the first three phases of sales – being located, creating leads and making contact – happen online. This also has consequences for the organization. Imbema was a traditional sales organization at first with intensive and routine customer contact, but now its sales take place online. Human contact is only established if this really adds value for the customer. This creates a number of challenges. Mantel: ‘Due to the fact that much more happens online it is much more difficult to negotiate. The customer wants to purchase a comparable experience in b2b as with b2c. This poses higher demands to logistics. We have to be inspiring and able to make a quick switch. The things you promise digitally, you need to realize offline as well. You have to arm yourself against disruptive providers. You are only as good as your last customer contact.’
Requirements of the e-commerce platform
Imbema’s requirements of the e-commerce platform were clear. The customer needs to be able to obtain the right information quickly and easily. Self-service, self-control and automation are part of that. In other words: a well-functioning online environment, in which the customer can find information on products, prices, delivery times, pending orders, track and trace etc.
Super trio: Salmon, Sellsmart and Intershop
Mantel: ‘Our new partner had to have proven itself in a reliable b2b e-commerce platform, with full b2b functionality, which can function as an omni-channel. This partner had to be able to fully integrate that e-commerce platform with the existing ERP application and had to become a multi-business site. We found the needle in the haystack in Salmon (formerly known as Eperium). Their Sellsmart solution – which runs on the all-round commerce platform of Intershop – offers everting we want. And the implementation is going surprisingly fast: in 2 months we have already made more progress than in the last 5 years.’
Mantel has learned a great deal since 2011. ‘My advice to other entrepreneurs who want to establish an e-commerce platform is to keep moving digitally all the time. The pace of developments is quicker than the speed of light. Be sure to involve marketing, ICT, sales and logistics. Don’t make it a purely ICT-related matter. After all, you need a basis in your entire organization. Make people available for the project: an e-commerce platform is not something you take on the side. Choose your partners carefully. With all the developments it is highly unlikely that you can accommodate everything with only one party. Every party contributes its own expertise. In the end, everything will come together on your platform. And when your online environment is finally inspiring enough, that customer loyalty will (almost!) come to you automatically.’