Business leaders and technology vendors explore the current challenges and opportunities in B2B digital commerce

Key insights and highlights from B2B Online West Palm Beach 2023: Driving digital transformation for success

Anita Temple headshot
Anita Temple
Corporate Journalist, commercetools
Published 24 October 2023
Estimated reading time minutes

For B2B firms to thrive in today’s rapidly evolving business environment requires a deep commitment to staying on top of new commerce trends, as well as a willingness to both explore and invest in new technologies. Every year B2B Online hosts multiple events that bring together digital executives in manufacturing and distribution with technology vendors to meet, collaborate and learn about the transformation strategies B2B leaders are embracing to drive innovation and growth.

While the overarching theme was digital transformation, discussions focused on everything from leveraging AI, managing data and delivering omnichannel experiences to mastering customer experience (CX), unlocking the power of PIM and the importance of change management.

Business leaders and technology vendors explore the current challenges and opportunities in B2B digital commerce

Here is a roundup of the top seven takeaways from the event.

1. Shift your focus externally: Find out what your customers want

This simple best practice was repeated many times by multiple business leaders.  Most presenters agreed that traditional B2B companies tend to internalize operations. When developing strategies, exploring innovations and choosing technology, the focus is usually on “What does our business need to thrive?” 

However, Mark Frenette, B2B Digital Commerce Manager at The Hershey Company, Theresa Kuske, Director of Marketing at Ergodyne and Derek Gominger, COO Global eCommerce at Lenovo, were just a few of the speakers who stressed the importance of looking externally toward your customers for direction. All agreed that getting feedback from them is a critical, often-forgotten step in building new digital experiences that will deliver business growth.

A few best practices shared:

  • Surveys are good, but sending someone to sit and watch how your customers work is better.
  • Get continuous customer feedback on all the moments that matter — these are the specific interactions that leave lasting impressions. Map them out and focus on improving the ones that can deliver the biggest positive impact.
  • Remember that it’s not just about the digital buying experience, it's about the entire journey. Incorporate fulfillment, shipping and delivery into the discussion.
We continually ask ourselves, do we have continuous customer feedback in all the moments that matter?
Theresa Kuske

Director of Marketing, Ergodyne

Our customers are not shoppers. They want to go get what they need quickly, and we need to enable them to move on with their day.
Mark Frenette

B2B Digital Commerce Manager, The Hershey Company

2. You can’t transform your technology without change management

Once everyone in your organization is in agreement on the need for digital transformation, aligned on the future vision and a roadmap is in place to move forward, you may feel like you’ve gotten past the major hurdles.  At this point, though, presenters cautioned that it’s critical to implement change management strategies. Rich Cohen, President and Founder at Elevate Packaging, stressed there will still be some challenges: “There is just a massive human element — people need to change. There are new processes, it's different. They feel uncomfortable.”

The consensus on change management is that it’s not an impossible problem to solve, but it has to be approached thoughtfully.

Not everybody has the same understanding of what it is that we're trying to do. So you must be very empathetic and show them what's in it for them. Success is going to look like different things across all your different stakeholders and you just have to cater those solutions, especially highlighting what's in it for them.
Maria Olivo

Global Director, MarTech & Website Systems, Stanley Black & Decker, Inc.

3. Choose your partners wisely

The sheer number of technology vendors in the market today is huge — so it can be difficult to make decisions, but choosing the right partners can be the difference between success and failure. In his kickoff presentation for Day 2, Chairperson Michael Scholz, Vice President of Product and Customer Marketing at commercetools, presented a timeline from Chief MarTec of the growth of the marketing technology landscape — comparing a 2011 checkerboard of about 150 companies with a crowded 2023 map filled with 11,038 vendor names. 

Despite the exponential growth within an already overcrowded technology market, Michael said B2B organizations are better equipped to make the right decisions today. One reason is that integrations are easier than ever because, with the composable commerce approach, there’s no longer a single vendor at the heart of your platform. This gives B2B companies more power and flexibility to make changes and ensure their commerce is always in sync with what their customers want.

You want to have good chemistry with your partner. That's one thing. They're there to help you, so they need to be integrated into your team. They can't kind of be off to the side. Maybe certain partners can be, if it's more of an ancillary thing that you need to do, but for your core partners who are helping you with your digital transformation, they need to be thought of as one integrated team. That means they need to understand your business goals, your desires, and what success looks like.
Matt Swan

Technical Product Manager, Ace Southern

4. Data is both a challenge and an opportunity for all B2B firms

As more and more B2B companies launch digital transformation projects, they are gaining access to data that was previously unavailable to them. And, while this means they can start leveraging their data to drive growth for their organization, the current challenge is figuring out just how to do that. As Day 1 Chairperson Tom McFadyen, CEO of McFadyen Digital, shared in his opening remarks, most B2B companies are still struggling with issues such as data silos, poor data quality and lack of data governance policies.

The consensus is that there is still a lot of learning to do. No matter where you are in your digital maturity journey, even the most mature companies are still building out a robust data strategy. According to the Harvard Business Review, data is still an ongoing issue with all eCommerce organizations, and while B2B firms are actively working towards becoming more data-driven, it’s going to take some time to overcome these challenges. 

The ultimate goal is to gain the ability to truly utilize your data to personalize the buyer journeys.  Capturing data — good, clean data — and analyzing it to understand how it can help your buyers succeed can be a game changer. Most presenters agreed that you can’t do this well without modern technology in place. As Michael Scholz pointed out during the Master B2B UnWebinar™ live debate, “Is AI the Long-Awaited Solution to the $3 Trillion Data Problem in B2B Ecommerce?,” (video on demand will be available Nov. 1), this simple fact is the key reason B2B companies should ditch their legacy systems right now. 

Start fresh, start clean, because whatever the world of technology is throwing at you, whether it's big data in memory or whatever, [utilizing AI on a legacy system] is just going to give you shit data faster and that doesn't help anyone. I think this is your best use case to go to your CEO and ask for a replatform.
Michael Scholz

Vice President of Product & Customer Marketing, commercetools

The Master B2B UnWebinar debate on stage at B2B Online West Palm Beach 2023
The Master B2B UnWebinar debate on stage at B2B Online West Palm Beach 2023

5. Composable commerce is not as complicated as you might think

In recent years, composable commerce has become a huge industry buzzword. The perception, however, particularly for B2B organizations, is that it's complicated to implement. In a livestream interview with Master B2B, Matt Swan challenged that concept. 

He acknowledged that compared to a monolithic, legacy platform, you could look at it and say, “This is harder.” However, what his company found was that it actually simplified their processes. “With a monolithic platform, you’re dealing with all of the decisions of all of the engineers in that company — whatever patterns they've implemented in their code. You have to follow all of that. And what we found was to do a simple change, it was taking weeks and the business would go, “Well, why is it taking so long to fix this when we knew this three weeks ago?” 

We offload all the complexity on our backend of commercetools. It doesn't matter to me how commercetools makes their secret sauce as long as I can access what I need. It’s created a situation where we can focus on that customer experience and get them what they need rather than dealing with, “Well, what modules do we need to work with this system, that system?” That's been a big advantage for us.
Matt Swan

Technical Product Manager, Ace Southern

6. AI is an enabler, but it has to have human effort behind it

There’s no question that AI is making a huge impact on the B2B commerce experience. While the technology is still new and considered a “work in progress,”  businesses are finding a multitude of ways that it can enhance automation, improve the customer experience and streamline operations. According to Meeta Kratz, Global VP, Product Management & Marketing at Lonza, B2B companies that are not experimenting with it should be, as its potential is far too great to be ignored. As Michael’s debate partner in the aforementioned Master B2B Webinar, she presented a strong argument to reinforce her position.

Anything worth having is worth iterating around. Nothing is perfect when it comes out the gate, right? Whether it's electric vehicles or data or whatever that looks like, it's never going to be perfect the first time around. AI is about learning, it's about iterating, it's about reestablishing the norm and crowdsourcing information to get more accurate over time. I said it yesterday, and I’ll say it again: Don’t sacrifice speed for perfection.
Meeta Kratz

Global VP, Product Management & Marketing, Lonza

What B2B leaders need to know today, is that, yes, AI is here to stay. And yes, it can and it will support your business in the future. Some of the best practices to consider right now are:

  • Experiment with small projects.
  • Create an AI governance strategy.
  • Only use quality data (what you know is good and clean).
  • Human involvement is a necessity.

7. Digital transformation isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding

This last takeaway is a given, but quite a few presenters felt compelled to remind the attendees that when it comes to digital transformation, you have to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. In the presentation, “Embarking and Enhancing Your Digital Transformation: Success Factors and Challenges When Growing,” Maria Olivo stressed that keeping the project moving forward requires a great deal of flexibility, support, commitment and strong partnerships.  

Mark Swan agreed, explaining that you have to break it down for each team. He pointed out that you have these large organizational goals, but each team needs to know how it is going to affect them. “You need to come to them not just with your vision, but with the stair steps of how you’re going to get there — otherwise they’re going to see your vision and just get overwhelmed. You want them to go to their coworkers who they talk to every day and say,” This is WHY it's going to be great.”

Ultimately, it's alignment and respect. Alignment in that they [your team members/ employees] believe you understand what’s needed and can deliver it, and respect in that [they acknowledge] you’re going to need help and support. The way I see it is that I have to present a very clear vision. That vision is my responsibility, and to make sure it is as crystal clear as possible.
Rich Cohen

President and Founder, Elevate Packaging

Parting thoughts from the panelists included:

  1. Don’t get discouraged. Adjust. Pivot. Keep going.

  2. Overcommunicate. Overcommunicate.

  3. Have a budget and plans in place for unknowns, because they are going to come up.

Finally, Chris Kostakis, Chief Technology Officer at Hero Digital, pointed out that his company’s main focus is on helping organizations overcome the two big challenges of digital transformation — migrating off legacy systems and handling change management. After listening to the panelists share their experiences with digital transformation, he summed up how taking the composable approach can make the entire transformation process easier and less stressful. “It allows you to kind of adjust as you go along because you don't need to boil the ocean with a big reveal.”

To learn more about how B2B enterprise businesses including Zoro, Dawn Foods and Normet are leveraging commercetools to successfully navigate their digital transformation journey, watch our on-demand video, Insiders Reveal: How to Benchmark and Accelerate your B2B Digital Maturity.

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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