B2B commerce has arrived. It’s big, it’s urgent, and it’s got to get done

Over 700 B2B commerce practitioners from manufacturers and distributors of all sizes and specialties convened at B2BNext 2018 in Chicago for three days to evolve or begin their digital commerce journey. Former Forrester analyst and founder of B2B Paradigm, Andy Hoar, in collaboration with Vertical Web Media brought a much-needed conference to B2B companies attempting to “reinvent for a digital-first economy”. The session and workshop-packed event left no room to question “should I” or “shouldn’t I”. It was all about the “how”.

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Key Takeaways:

B2B buyers demand remarkable customer experience

There is no hiding from the truth: today’s buyers are demanding contextual and personalized buying experiences, rich with product information, relevant pricing and recommendations, and frictionless fulfillment options. When they are not getting this experience from one source, what do they do? They go somewhere else. It happened in B2C and it is happening in B2B. While B2B is different, the trend is the same – innovate or die. It’s cold, it’s callous, and it’s real.

Marketplaces are eating B2B manufacturers and distributors for lunch

Have you heard about Amazon Business? It went from $1B to $10B inless than five years. It continues to grow, and no business is off limits. Chinese manufacturers use marketplaces such as Amazon to bypass the distributors and sell directly to consumers. Alibaba and Tmall flooded the market with cheap merchandise and squeezed out the middleman. It’s all about stocking as many SKUs as possible at the lowest price with a two-day or same day delivery. How does one withstand a tsunami called marketplaces? The answer is simple: innovate and disrupt the status quo through value-added services and rich product information.

If you don’t disrupt yourself, someone else will

We live in a world where most things become commodities. How does one innovate? Pivoting your business model is a must. One of the conference speakers, Darryl Sharper of Arrow Electronics, spoke about a “barn and bank” concept where a distributor can continue to sell products, but offer services such as warranties, financing, servicing, etc. to differentiate its business and stand up to marketplaces. For distributors, it’s about starting with your buyers’ needs, and working back to offer a solution that will really differentiate your business. For manufacturers, it is all about solving channel conflict, flexing their direct to consumer (D2C) muscle and innovating based on direct customer feedback.

B2B commerce isn’t a destination. It is a journey.

The notion of commerce as an iterative process is familiar to seasoned commerce professionals, and it rang true throughout the sessions in the B2BNext conference. It was a constant reminder of what it takes to be successful on the digital journey. Implementing a platform is just the tip of the iceberg that B2B businesses take on when they implement a commerce platform. The initiative must come from the top down to be a success. It mandates a cultural shift in the organization that requires new processes, new skillsets, new ways of going about the business. The importance of training employees to leverage the platform and customers to order online cannot be underestimated. The entire journey can be frustrating, fun and scary at the same time, and becomes a second nature for those that have commerce DNA among the team.

Technology providers are still “vendors”

Many B2B attendees came to the conference to learn how to future-proof their business, yet most were reluctant to engage with technology providers in the exhibit hall or workshops. There was a clear divide between vendors and B2B businesses. It begs the question why? Many technology providers are happy to offer a piece of advice and lessons learned without any commitments. This show offered a great opportunity to meet with multiple technology providers and get answers to pertinent questions, yet it felt like few B2B players leveraged it.

Convergence of commerce and IoT is a fact

A pleasant surprise found at B2BNext was around commerce and IoT convergence. This wasn’t the case a few years ago when B2B commerce was starting to take off in a major way. When Bosch, a 103-year-old multinational engineering and electronics company with $7B in revenue and 400,000 employees decided to reimagine its own business and innovate, they not only enabled their products with IoT capabilities, but also built an entire ecosystem for enabling developers to build apps around these products.  This came from Davie Sweis of Bosch who shared his story about this endeavor and shared how the focus on developer community is his top priority.

Needless to say, Andy Hoar put on quite a show. With a keynote from innovation icon Clayton Christensen, and multiple tracks and workshops spanning commerce best practices, selling on Amazon, and stacking up against Amazon, content management, information architecture and AI, the message was clear: B2B commerce has arrived. It’s big, it’s urgent, and its got to get done.

What were your key takeaways?