The Distribution Blog

eCommerce vs. Distribution Sales Reps: Why They Need to Work Together

November 11, 2022

Table of Contents

It’s more common than not for sales reps to get in the way of the success of an ecommerce initiative.

It makes sense.

They’re worried about losing a commission on the sale. They also feel like they are saying goodbye to a longstanding relationship. After all, if all the information their customers need is online, why would they come to the sales rep for help?

The problem is that the shift to digital shopping and buying is inevitable.

According to McKinsey, roughly two-thirds of B2B buyers actually prefer to buy via ecommerce or remote purchasing options. A recent Amazon Business study raises the stakes further; after surveying 440 buyers with influential B2B procurement roles, Amazon found that 91% of buyers prefer to buy online. In addition, 68% of buyers said they planned to make at least 40% or more of their purchases online.

Buyers no longer want to rely on just in-person visits or phone calls to get the information they need or to place an order. Depending on the level of support they need, they want to move between in-person interactions, the phone and digital self-service through an ecommerce portal.

B2B buyers want fluid purchasing options.

In other words, when it comes to ecommerce and in-the-field sales reps, it doesn’t and shouldn’t be either/or.

Consider this: Workers have been afraid robots are coming for their jobs for years. But now, as robotic technology has become more commonplace in distribution centers and manufacturing lines, workers are learning they can complement their work – not replace it.

The same is true with ecommerce.

Your customer-facing reps have a direct line of communication with buyers. Those buyers may not always need support – on reorders, for example. But a sales rep can provide higher-level consulting around product selection and application, and support customers in other ways beyond just sending their orders in.

eCommerce can remove some of the repetitive tasks that sales reps currently do to release them to focus on more consultative tasks for customers that need it.

Your technology strategy should not pit ecommerce and reps against each other. Instead, it should support both to work together and be more productive and profitable than before.  

Why eCommerce and Reps Need to Work Together

Customer preferences have slowly shifted toward digital and remote buying. According to Gartner, “B2B buyers spend only 17% of the total purchase journey with sales reps. Because the average deal involves multiple suppliers, a sales rep gets roughly 5% of a customer’s total purchase time. And 44% of millennials prefer no sales rep interaction at all in a B2B setting.”

While the sales rep role isn’t dying, it is changing. As customers transition away from traditional sales, customer-facing reps must adapt how they service and interact with buyers. Conversely, customers don’t want a purely digital experience either. While more customers prefer digital shopping, many still want to speak with a sales or customer service rep via phone or video conferencing at some point in the purchasing process.

On the surface, it may seem like customers can’t make up their minds. In many ways, they can’t – and they shouldn’t have to. As B2B buyers interact with suppliers across an increasing number of channels, distributors must have the infrastructure to support customers as they move through the buying journey.

Since customers sometimes behave in unexpected ways, it is more important than ever for ecommerce and customer-facing reps to work in unison.

For example, having a robust ecommerce site with detailed product information is table stakes. But customers don’t always interact with ecommerce in the way distributors expect them to. Unlike B2C, B2B customers don’t always buy items through the cart function. Instead, they use your site as a catalog. They browse products, compare pricing and specs, and compile shopping lists. Then, when they’ve finished their research, they’ll contact a rep to complete the process.

The transition from ecommerce to sales rep must be fluid. If your reps don’t know what the customer was looking for on your website (such as recently viewed and “liked” items), they’ll scramble to fill in the gaps – leaving you with a frustrated customer. On the other hand, if your rep can easily pull up a customer’s channel interaction history on their phone, computer or tablet, they'll be able to see everything they need to make practical and consultative sales suggestions.

This interconnectivity between channels is called “omnichannel,” and customers don’t just want it – they demand it.

The Case for Omnichannel Interactions

All B2B customers prefer omnichannel. McKinsey found that no matter the industry, country, size or customer relationship stage – all B2B customers want omnichannel. The study points out that even loyal customers are willing to switch suppliers for a better omnichannel experience.

Omnichannel capabilities are important to customers because they make life easier. Imagine this scenario: A customer browses your website and calls a sales rep to ask a product-related question. Their conversation will be more productive if the rep already knows what products the customer has been looking at online. Omnichannel combines data from each sales channel to provide a holistic view of each account.

With the customer’s information at your reps’ fingertips, they’ll be armed with:

  • What the customer viewed on your site (and how to direct them to what they are looking for)
  • Robust item details, features and specs
  • Which additional products would pair well with their purchase
  • Helpful items relevant to their industry or niche that the customer may not have considered
  • The customer’s budget and credit status
  • Item availability and shipping estimates
  • Upcoming reorders that could be rolled into their current order

Given the vast amounts of data distributors manage, creating an omnichannel experience is vital, but it’s not easy unless you use artificial intelligence (AI). AI deep-learning models can sift through years of messy, unorganized data to find high-level patterns in customer behavior, sales and product demand. AI can use this information to make highly personalized product suggestions online or break the information down into actionable insights for your sales and customer support teams.

AI isn’t just for ecommerce or digital channels. It can also improve customer relationships with customer-facing reps. With AI, sales and customer service reps can optimize their customer relationships by working with ecommerce to make the most of every interaction.

AI gives teams the tools, insights and support to be more effective and helpful. With the right AI solution, you’ll have all the information you need to enhance customers’ shopping experience – whether they’re online or speaking to a rep.

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