We may be several decades into the digital age, yet technology continues to profoundly transform how we work. Nowhere is this more obvious than in business-to-business (B2B). B2B is emerging from its guise as the less glamorous cousin of business to consumer (B2C) commerce. Why? Because so much innovation and creativity are moving into this space.

It’s been a long-time coming, but finally there’s a great deal of pressure on the B2B sector to digitalise across the board. It has the power to completely reinvent how businesses interact with clients and deliver products and services more efficiently with innovative flourish.
The whole B2B ecosystem is evolving rapidly. A digital-first strategy is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. And it’s happening right now.

Why now? Well, technology has become more affordable and a core enabler in the B2B space. We also live in an era of great expectations driven by daily activity in our personal lives. B2B buyers are the same individuals that shop on Amazon or interact with Apple devices daily. B2B marketers use Netflix, Uber and Airbnb. The experience bar is set very high, and don’t forget a good proportion of B2B buyers are now millennials and digital natives.

Yet, B2B digital transformation won’t happen overnight. It’s still in the early stages of the maturity curve, whether you’re operating in manufacturing, distribution, or wholesale, or any other B2B sector for that matter.

A Progressive Culture

Technology is an enabler when it comes to B2B digital transformation, but it does not make it happen – corporate culture does. Companies that prioritise the customer, the importance of data and the digital future will win. Getting B2B right in the digital age is more dependent on corporate leadership than deploying any particular technology solution.

Many operating in the B2B environment find it challenging to get senior leadership on board. One of the biggest misunderstandings concerns the kind of talent and skill sets required for these kinds of initiatives. Quite often companies need new team structures that can support B2B digital transformation goals in the long term.
Find an advocate – This is a crucial piece of advice and ideally, it should be the CEO. Finding a senior figure who can influence the board, back up your promises with an alternative point of view, and consistently bang your drum can often make the difference between a red or green light.

Build a business case for digital transformation – This is one of the best ways to get buy-in, especially if digital projects are small and not wholesale change. Identifying early gains in the digital journey is crucial.

Everyone needs to be on board – Digital transformation is only really successful if everyone in the company believes in the change and has bought into the idea. In many businesses, this requires a complete culture shift, especially if it involves finding customer-facing digitalised solutions. Focusing on the financial benefits of digital transformation can help get many key players on board.

Tips to Create a Culture of Change

Don’t change overnight – It is worth introducing change into a business slowly and progressively. Digital experts can be slowly integrated into an organisation over time. Acceptance only comes with understanding, and gradual change with a view on the long-term perspective. Identifying low-hanging fruit and starting there can help with longer term buy-in.

Continuous learning – We’ve already said that there is no one-size-fits-all model. Therefore, you need to be in the learning business. What works for one company doesn’t work for another, especially when it comes to digitalisation. Firms should learn and take what works for them from the digital model. Small scale experiments work and scale upwards. Sometimes experiments will fail, but it's also good to understand why something doesn't work.

Create a road-map – Where do you want to go with digitalisation? Building a roadmap, which includes an audit of existing assets, identifying and documenting where B2B digitalisation will work is essential. It is worth establishing how it is all going to work with data flows between systems.

A digital-first approach – Some companies go through a radical restructuring. General Electric invested more than US$1 billion and created a new market for the industrial internet. It also consolidated each business unit under a CDO. Such a radical approach allowed it to approach its customers with data and digital-focused solutions at its core. This example shows that true digital transformation requires a mindset shift for the entire organisation.

Customer-centricity – The essence of digital transformation in B2B involves a new focus. It all centres around the customer. You need to break down siloes and integrate new technologies. Every focal point involves creating a holistic view of the customer across the whole organisation.

Think hard about marketplaces – B2B merchants, brands, manufacturers and distributors, many of which are striving to emulate Amazon’s features. However, they risk losing out on what makes them unique. The rush to digital transformation is about preserving what’s unique about certain businesses and keeping up good customer relationships, from tailored catalogues to unique payment terms.

Create personas – Personas are used in B2C and B2B commerce, they can help shape effective marketing campaigns, create tailored products, and deliver frictionless, compelling customer journeys.

Digitalisation continues to transform how we conduct business operations and internal processes in the business environment. However, a sense of inertia has held back B2B, specifically in eCommerce and customer experience application. It’s time for change.

Driven by the proliferation and increased accessibility of digital platforms and cloud services, plus the influence of B2C experiences in our daily lives, digitalisation should no longer be seen as a nice-to-have. Data, analytics, personalisation, mobile experiences and marketplaces are driving change in B2B, as self-service buying, and elevated customer experiences are seen as key growth drivers.

More purchase decisions than ever are started online, and informed by high-quality content, delivered at the right time to the right stakeholder. This doesn’t mean the end for the sales rep. In fact, sales teams should be embracing data, analytics and content as digital enablers to driving new business and facilitating retention.

It’s time for B2B to drop the ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ attitude. This is the root of inertia. But there needs to be a strong business case for investing. Businesses need to adapt to survive or be left behind. Those businesses still unsure of what a ‘360-degree view of the customer’ is, or how to break down different B2B buyer personas, will be wondering what the reward for embracing transformation will be.

The answer is growth. Digital transformation will help businesses make the customer journey smooth and personal and stay ahead of competition.

It means that technology, data and digital services, as well as those that work on them from the CIO and CDO downwards aren’t to be hidden in a back-office somewhere. They are now centre-stage, core to the business and here to stay for the foreseeable future. The sooner that all businesses realise this, the better.

By Richard Mathias, Senior Technology Architect at LiveArea

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