What delivering omnichannel commerce experiences means to B2Bs today

Creating omnichannel commerce experiences that support the needs of today’s B2B buyers

Anita Temple headshot
Anita Temple
Corporate Journalist, commercetools
Published 19 May 2023

By now you’ve probably noticed that digital commerce in the B2B market has exploded. In fact, despite the slow business economy this year, B2B eCommerce sales are expected to hit $2 trillion USD. And, in the process of enabling B2B buyers to order products and services online, it’s become crystal clear to the leaders of these organizations that this customer has the same expectations as the average consumer. As a result, many of them are just now exploring trends that B2Cs embraced years ago. Case in point: Omnichannel commerce.

What delivering omnichannel commerce experiences means to B2Bs today

Each year, the B2B Online conference brings together manufacturers and distributors to collaborate and learn about the newest industry innovations and trends. This year, the event featured a session entitled, “Synchronizing Your Business for a Successful and Consistent Omni-Channel Customer Experience.” Moderated by Tom McFadyen, CEO of McFadyen Digital, the panel included three B2B leaders, along with Michael Scholtz, the Vice President of Product and Customer Marketing at commercetools.

For a term that was introduced in 2010, the entire panel was in agreement that omnichannel still means different things to different people. At first, many brands embraced it as a new way to approach marketing in which by aligning their identity and messaging across all touchpoints they created more consistent consumer experiences that helped build awareness and loyalty. Since then, omnichannel has evolved into a true commerce strategy focused on brands creating a single, connected shopping experience across all physical and digital channels.  

That said, the general consensus was that while omnichannel is an important strategy, business leaders also need to think about delivering commerce experiences that specifically support the needs of the B2B buyer.

Michael kicked off the conversation by pointing out that in general, brands are starting to rethink their omnichannel strategy. “When omnichannel was born, everybody wanted these unified commerce experiences. At this point, we’re going back a bit. Leaders are realizing, ‘You know what, I do have multiple channels, but they’re targeting different customer groups so I want to treat them differently’.”

He explained that as a vendor, commercetools thinks of omnichannel in terms of technology enablement. ”It’s everything that we do. In terms of headless, composable, MACH® architecture — all of these things that we've built and are pioneering and evangelizing — are to give companies, specifically B2B companies, the opportunity and the components to build these outstanding experiences.”

He said when commercetools launched in 2013, it consciously made the distinction between frontend and backend. “We knew the only constant was going to be change. No matter what touchpoints or channels emerge, we want to be the backbone for that. We know the best way to orchestrate that is from the back.”

He called out Audi as a perfect example of how commercetools technology is enabling its customers to provide more personalized contextual experiences. While not specifically omnichannel by definition, Audi’s in-car commerce gives car owners the ability to order digital functions like wiping turn signals or matrix LED lights as well as order and pay for anything from a Starbucks coffee to an electric charging station right through their navigation system. “It doesn't matter to us what the actual interface is, or the touchpoint is, or the device is, we can power any sort of digital transaction for Audi. At the end of the day, it's just a digital transaction that we facilitate.”

Regardless of the specific experiences a brand wants to provide its customers, Michael said the key is having the right technology in place. That includes having a rock-solid ERP, commerce and content management systems, and maybe even a digital experience platform (DXP).  “Product discovery and finding a product is really key. Just to hone in on that, B2C and B2B search is fundamentally different. Where B2B search came from, the buyer typically already had the SKU number or product number, it was about finding the product and reordering. Now, it's about product discovery and really having that B2C experience so I think it's really important for B2Bs to have those tools in play.”

The experts joining Michael on the panel also had a lot to say about what omnichannel means to their organization today. Here, we share their insights, the solutions they’ve come up with and the challenges they face. 

Parvez Patel, Head of Omnichannel and Digital Experiences, NAPA

“NAPA is at roughly around $12 billion USD in sales, with around 20% coming from eCommerce. Just like most other businesses, 80% of our customers, whether it’s a driver [consumer] or a pro [B2B buyer] — in this case, the shop owner or the mechanic who's working on the car — they start their journey online. So, it's typical for them to start with search — to look for a part. Even if they have a contract with NAPA, they have the option to go and buy from Advanced Auto or O'Reilly. So for us, being there, being top of mind when they start their journey is important. It’s all about, ‘How do we make sure that they search and find what they want?’”  

To illustrate the scope that entails, Parvez explained that NAPA carries around one million SKUs and each one has a year-make-model fitment. So, “One brake pad might fit 20 different Ford F150s. With that permutation and combination, it becomes almost 70 million SKUs.” 

For NAPA, the most important thing from an omnichannel perspective is making sure the customer can find the part that is an exact match. “The last thing you want is to put on a brake pad that doesn't fit your car, or have a pro come to the NAPA store, pick up a part and have to come back because it doesn't fit. So, finding the part within those 70 million SKUs that we can guarantee fit, is extremely critical.” 

Parvez also pointed out that for the pro, it's about getting cars in and out. So, the second most important thing is making sure the part is available at the local store and being able to promise delivery within half an hour or better. 

“These are the key omnichannel kind of moments for us. Help them find the part, give them the confidence that we'll have it delivered in X amount of time, or have it ready to pick up, and then obviously, guarantee it's going to fit. How do we bring all of this together? That's both the challenge and the opportunity for us. We’re a 100-year-old company and when I look at what we’re doing — and I'm the first VP of Omnichannel — it’s interesting because we have an omnichannel business, but it is very nascent. I'm here to see what we can do to accelerate some of the gold here.”

As this is Parvez’s third transformation gig, he shared specific advice on how to enable omnichannel experiences. He pointed to three buckets of data — product, customer and transactional/behavioral that brands need to serve as the foundation. With very robust data, you can start building out your CMS, search engines, etc. “Fundamentally, I believe once you have that foundation, then you can start thinking about the delivery of the experience, whether it is reactive or proactive.”

David Krohn, Director, Digital Marketing & Communications, Zurn Industries

“Zurn is a water solutions company, a manufacturer of basically anything that touches water within a commercial building. We make anything from drains to faucets to flush valves, water fountains, bottle fillers, etc. We provide clean and safe drinking water in buildings, so, it’s a very expansive portfolio of products.”

When it comes to how he approaches the company’s omnichannel strategy, David said, “I try to distill it down to meeting the customer wherever the customer wants to meet. So, whether online or offline, it’s about really understanding your ecosystem, really understanding the way in which your customer wants to interact with you, and optimizing each one of those touchpoints to deliver a best-in-class customer experience.”

“PIM is core for us,” said David. “We use InRiver, it really is the master data source across the entire organization, whether it's our internal websites, our external websites or our customer's websites, to try to create that interactive experience. We also do scraping and tracking to make sure that content is up to date, it's getting processed correctly, and we try to work with our channel partners as effectively as possible to correct any issues that we see. So, we're working on generating that consistent omnichannel experience.”

He mentioned that the master data hierarchy is also critical. “I think everybody in B2B specifically, can appreciate our product offerings and assortments can be very complex.  We use a CPQ tool within our organization, but it's deployed across multiple applications — our ERP system, our CRM system and our web applications as well. So, when items are getting configured, they're getting configured correctly. If you don't have that master data hierarchy though behind the scenes, you're just going to create a ton of downstream trouble. And so that's something that we spend a lot of time investing in and making sure is accurate.”

Corrie Freudenstein, VP of Customer Experience, Atlas Copco

“We’re a $14 billion USD manufacturer of compressors, tools and vacuum pumps. What omnichannel means to us — I don't think I could put it better than what David said — it's really meeting that customer with a consistent personalized experience at every single touchpoint.”

Corrie said the company still does the majority of its sales in person, “That means enabling field sellers, enabling our back office and also, migrating the customer online, where appropriate and where they want to be. And, sometimes they don't even know they want to be there.” As a result, what’s really important is, “Creating a consistent flow of information so they can educate themselves and make good decisions regardless of channel, and so our in-person teams can pick up wherever the customer left off, regardless of channel.”

Corrie also said they have to factor in their service business as well. “When a customer requires service from us, how can we make that seamless?  How can we reference all of the additional experiences they had in their pre and post-sale journey so that when they need to come back to us, we can create a nice sticky experience? One that, regardless of channel, offers that same connection to our brand that becomes an emotional connection because we know that's what's going to drive success with the customer over time.”

Corrie shared that Atlas has 30+ digital tools for each brand so, “It's not really about the specific tool, but it's more about our data strategy and how we connect all of these tools into one common data lake to get that one view of our customer. We look at the best tool for the job and who's doing that job and what information is critical to them at that point during the customer’s journey to deliver that omnichannel experience, ensuring that regardless of what it is, the data flows into that data lake and becomes one view of the customer.”

She explained that in the past, Atlas defined the customer as the business. “We're a business selling to businesses. When we built our data lake, that was really our complete transformation. We now define the customer as an individual contact…so we can treat them as people and really serve humans to humans or digital to humans. The experience has been a big moment of truth for us in being able to actually execute and start to see success in the way we connect our tools and create that online and offline experience that mirrors one another.”

In Conclusion

Moderator Tom McFayden summed up the conference commenting, “So, it’s the data that really ties everything in — and it’s probably the least sexy aspect of digital commerce, but it's the backbone that makes everything work.”

It’s not only core to enabling brands to deliver experiences, it’s also core to software vendors as well. Michael brought up that it’s often the first step that commercetools advise customers to take before they actually embark on a journey. “We have a super flexible data model and our customers go bonkers playing around with it. So for them to actually take a step back and pause and sort of figure out, ‘Where are we now and where do we want to be? How might our business change? What are the different channels that we want to serve? How do we not only enrich our data, but clean the data?’ It’s really important to do this in the beginning. We encourage it and our support of it because the ultimate customer experience that you want to serve is inherently connected to the data management that you apply.”

To learn more about how you can use data to create experiences that support the needs of B2B buyers, read “Behind digital commerce is an ocean of data. Are you ready to navigate it?”

Anita Temple headshot
Anita Temple
Corporate Journalist, commercetools

Anita J. Temple is the Corporate Journalist at commercetools. She was a fashion editor at Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) and W Magazine before launching a career as a freelance writer and creative producer. She has written content and worked on a wide range of marketing projects for companies including Dreamworks, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Verizon, and Adidas.

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