Thinkers360 caught up with John Bruno, VP Commerce Strategy, PROS, to discuss trends in omnichannel commerce ahead of PROS Outperform 2020, a free, virtual event featuring sessions on Commerce, Pricing, Selling and more
Thinkers360: Firstly, what is omnichannel commerce? Since the topic has been around for a while, what is unique about PROS’ perspective on this topic and why now? What’s the burning platform or the opportunity for the enterprise?
Well, the topic’s been around for a while now, largely thanks to patterns in the consumer world. The first thing that kind of comes to mind is what happens in a typical business to consumer or retail experience where you might purchase online but pick up in-store. And thanks to COVID right now, we’ve seen the rising popularity of curbside pickup. At its core it’s really about bringing together the worlds of eCommerce and traditional purchasing experiences.
And although the notion of buy online, pick up in-store, or pick up at curb has gotten fairly popular in B2C, the B2B world has been largely behind.
Most interactions are done manually through a call center agent or salesperson. Now we’re seeing the increasing popularity of eCommerce in the B2B world, but it’s different. So, you’re not connecting online to brick and mortar; you need to connect online to the human experience. The human experience in B2B is a complex one. It’s based on long-standing relationships with certain products that you’re purchasing or negotiated prices, across the board.
And being able to adequately and accurately represent those relationships in a digital medium has not historically been an easy task. So right now, the notion of omnichannel commerce in B2B is as popular as ever.
Thinkers360: With disruption moving more from the exception toward the rule these days, how can omnichannel commerce help organizations thrive through the ups and downs of the next normal?
In B2B, most organizations have evolved or advanced out of necessity but a necessity based in the past. Its the desire to grow and scale to reach new markets. Recently, we’ve seen growing popularity in digital self-service channels for B2B, but COVID has really kicked that into high gear. We don’t have the luxury of in-person engagement.
More B2B purchasing has to be done remotely. And although it can still be done remotely via the phone or email, that experience is just not an effective one or enjoyable for B2B customers. It’s increasingly causing businesses to push more toward digital. When we see that happen, buyers’ expectations of personal relationships don’t go away. Businesses need to find ways to deliver that same experience through self-service interactions.
Whether it’s products routinely purchased, the terms and prices that a customer typically pays or the right bill and ship to locations so that orders can be completed, all that information needs to be provided through the digital channel in the same way that it’s managed through the traditional channel.
So organizations that are effectively executing on omnichannel commerce provide their customers the choice. Choice is what makes omnichannel commerce so disruptive in B2B interactions.
Thinkers360: According to PROS, omnichannel commerce is all about giving customers a choice and striking the right balance between traditional sales and self-serve approaches to sales. How should an organization know when to use either approach? Are there common industry use cases where you’ve seen each approach work most effectively?
Well, the easiest answer is to listen to your customers. Not every customer is going to behave the same way. They will engage how they feel is most appropriate. Now, there are some overarching trends that tend to be fairly common and these are, when the purchasing process requires less evaluation, requires less research and less diligence, is something that’s fairly straightforward or a process the buyer has gone through before – those are often when a buyer would prefer to engage via a self-service eCommerce experience.
And conversely, when a customer is evaluating a brand new, complex or more expensive products they may be inclined to work with a salesperson. Conversely when cost, complexity or volume are lower, more routine purchases are the ones that tend to work really well for self-service.
Thinkers360: What about the handoffs between traditional sales and self-serve approaches? What use cases require handoffs and what’s the state of the art here?
In certain situations, the customer will initiate the handoff. In other situations, a salesperson might actually initiate the handoff. The handoff from the customer side might be in a situation where they’ve started conducting some of their own research. They’ve started progressing down their buyer journey to the point where they’ve identified a new product, or they have maybe added it to a cart or quote but aren’t necessarily ready to transact.
Maybe their confidence level isn’t high enough to make that purchase right then and there. They may look to transition from self-service to getting information directly from a representative.
Now in other situations that actually might happen the other way around where potentially a customer is adding items to a cart, but that cart gets abandoned or left untouched. Now that might be a situation where the customer’s decided to purchase it elsewhere, but more commonly it’s a signal to the selling organization that the customer needs a bit of assistance or help.
The best sales reps of the modern era are able to look at those digital signals, understand where the buying journey breaks down and then proactively engage with their customers to add a bit of a consultative touch to that experience, make sure the customer’s getting everything they need and help get them across the finish line of their purchasing journey so that they’re making the best use of the products and services they’re buying.
Thinkers360: Technology such as AI is making a huge impact in terms of helping businesses make better decisions, as well as conduct more dynamic transactions. How are you seeing these technologies advance the art of the possible in the world of omnichannel commerce?
In the world of commerce, there’s one thing that there’s never been a shortage of and that’s data. And historically speaking, sales and B2B sales decision making has been largely relegated to gut feel. But now that we have data about our customers, products and transactions, we’re able to better leverage that to really optimize the buying experience for our customers.
You might use AI to do things like recommend a particular product that a customer hasn’t actually purchased to date, but because of all of those different signals they could benefit from in the future. Other examples of that would include looking at the long-term relationship between buyer and seller and looking at anomalies or changes in the purchasing pattern of a particular buyer. This provides more information to the seller so they can make sure their customers remain happy.
In other ways, it’s about volume. Most B2B purchases are reorders or replenishments. And so if you’re thinking about selling volume over time, those are perfect opportunities to enter into more negotiated pricing with that customer. So, what is the ideal price to set a particular product app for a particular customer so that you’re maximizing long-term customer lifetime value while still protecting your revenue and margin working with that customer? It creates a happy customer and creates a happy business. All of these things are really optimizing that focal point between buyer and seller so that the experience is optimal for both parties.
Thinkers360: In terms of dynamic pricing, most people are familiar with how the airlines use this type of pricing to incorporate real-time market conditions, input costs and competitive perspectives. What other industries are you seeing starting to benefit or already benefiting from omnichannel commerce and dynamic pricing? What’s the long tail of innovation here? Which industries are leading the charge, and which are the fast followers?
Well, it’s easy to point to the airlines as being leaders in dynamic pricing. And really what it’s all about is it’s all about understanding where the demand and supply signals of the market meet.
Industries that have matured further along this curve would include consumables and food services – things that are more commodity-based, things that you can adequately and accurately look at the supply signals coming in. But every industry—whether it be consumer goods, heavy equipment, distribution or others—has a leader, and each of these leaders are leveraging dynamic pricing to gain that competitive edge in their market.
And so being able to look at those signals to make sure that you’re pricing appropriately for the market, or being able to look at those signals to determine how much of a particular product you should manufacture to capitalize on a market opportunity in front of you. Really, there’s no limit as to a number of industries where these capabilities are not only relevant, but would help differentiate you from your competitors. Adding more intelligence into your selling motions will become the norm in the near future.
Thinkers360: There’s also been much talk about AI taking jobs. How is AI impacting sales and what do you see as the future role of the salesperson?
Oftentimes people want to jump to the hyperbolic answer that is all jobs are going away and machines are going to take over the world. In fact, what we see in specifically over the next several years happening is that AI is going to help salespeople be more effective at their roles. So, we’ll see a lot of automation, a lot of self-service, a lot of AI helping customers become more self-sufficient, but the whole game is about scale.
How do you scale your operations? And this provides a couple of opportunities for salespeople in the future. One is if a number of interactions that I normally deal with on a day-to-day basis are able to be automated that frees up bandwidth to focus on the needs of new customers or focus on customer acquisition. Who hasn’t asked for more time in the day?
Secondly, it’s about identifying the trends that are happening within a customer’s business. And if you’re able to remove yourself from monotonous activities like replenishment orders on behalf of one of your customers and focus on more strategic purchasing decisions, whether to evaluate products from an entirely different product line or whether to expand your business in other areas, those are all things that actually elevate the salesperson from a role of manual order-taking into a role of a true value driving strategic consultant for their customers.
So, we actually look at AI as augmenting the salesperson, augmenting them by giving them more bandwidth and more reach and augmenting them by helping them deliver more value for their customers.
Thinkers360: Finally, what advice do you have for organizations wishing to explore omnichannel commerce? How should they get started and what are some of your recommendations? What are some of the common pitfalls to avoid?
When organizations start talking about omnichannel commerce, their minds immediately race to eCommerce and self-service. And unfortunately, a lot of us have preconceived notions as to what that means or what’s most important. And unfortunately far too often organizations jump to the flashiest web experiences or the best images or assets to entice the buyer, when in reality in order to execute on omnichannel commerce well, you need to make sure that the experience is not only good, but consistent across those channels.
And that means how are you making sure that the products and services that you’re recommending to your customers are consistent from one channel to the next – meaning, if I recommend product A for a particular customer, if they go to a self-service experience, are they going to see the same recommendation? Secondly, it is about making sure that the same terms and offers that I make available to a customer, so does my website.
So, if I’m selling a particular product at $20 per unit, that particular product should show up as $20 per unit on the website. And although those things seem mundane and fairly common practice, far too often organizations get in a situation where the relevance of the recommendations they’re making varies from one channel to the next and channels tend to compete with one another.
So, it’s not uncommon for a customer to see one price online and then work with a sales rep to see if they’re going to offer a better price where businesses start cannibalizing their own margins. So, it’s about getting the basics of blocking and tackling around offers, around products, around pricing right above anything else. Once those things are done well, each of the reasons for why someone would choose a particular channel, the richness of it, the availability of the content, those can be optimized after the fact.