“Self-service” used to be a catch phrase for B2B ecommerce operational cost savings. But with 71% of B2B buyers willing to spend $50,000 or more on a single B2B transaction, the market shifted toward a new view of self-service according to McKinsey & Company¹. It’s a leading buying behavior.
The following chart shows the role of self-service through a buyer’s purchasing and repurchasing journey:
The trajectory for self-service buying and operational excellence was already on the rise when COVID appeared. It’s not that suppliers aren’t important, but buyers continued to need better response times and more “digital proof” not only with external third-party validators, but also to track their work.
It’s time now to rethink self-service for 2023 and beyond. In B2B digital commerce, it encompasses more than buying (or ordering and reordering.) It becomes digital-first operations and in particular, the ability to both conduct business 24/7 and the ability to harness integrated systems.
Mobility has changed the way we do business. More business decisions are made now during traditional “off hours.” Even in hybrid or fully remote work situations, some buyers prefer to place their orders at the start or end of their day. But buyers are doing more than buying during these times. They are checking on the order status of backorder items, they are confirming shipping, and they are coordinating with geographically diverse teams to ensure order approvals. They are managing their roles and responsibilities on an around-the-clock basis. Self-service allows them to more easily do it on their timeline.
Buyers are also an extension of their customers’ changing expectations, too. Many B2B industrial distributors now drop ship directly to job sites in order to maintain onsite inventory. Key products on hand means never having to miss a deadline in the field. And taking it one step further, self-service might be extended to even your customers’ customers, or the same field personnel, who scan RFID tags to order for themselves. Your buyer elevates to an analyst, tasked with monitoring inventory levels for her team instead of just procuring the product.
The National Association of Electrical Distributors gave an example of this recently in their Futures Group forum:
- Operating as connected businesses, distributors may build digital links, through APIs or other means, to complement smart contracts. Most of the day-to-day transactional operations of a distributor would then operate automatically, essentially transforming the routine conduct of business as a self-service offering led by contractors as customers.²
Collaboration and Integrated Systems
Integrated systems are necessary for so many different digital operations but have become even more important in the ecommerce process. To illustrate this, let’s look at a great digital B2B buying experience:
- Access to pricing, early in the journey, rather than later after being qualified by a salesperson
- Access to independent recommendations, to validate the choices that were made
- Access to documents not only to accompany purchase orders, but in some cases to maintain files post-purchase to meet regulatory and legal requirements
Self-service is possible when systems are more fully integrated. For example, a buyer who can gain access to a self-serve bid-quote system typically reduces time, steps and frustration. This happens when guidelines and approvals are in place from the supplier to the distributor to the company contracts team. With a few simple questions, the system qualifies the buy, allowing the buyer to proceed expeditiously.
And when buyers can simultaneously look at other third-party reviews, and in some cases bring that into the procurement system, commerce and operations unite. The friction in a clunky website experience is removed, and buyers have peace of mind that their choices are more objectively validated.
Finally, self-service is meaningful when there are less calls that need to be placed to customer service, inside sales, or even trusted sales representatives. E-document management during the sales process and after the sale becomes a norm. Platforms like digital asset management (DAM) systems help to locate, retrieve, and catalog a wide variety of documents for buyers who need them throughout the buying cycle. Sales teams are then freed up to offer timely counsel and market trend information, thus giving you the added benefit of better managing your teams. Self-service is better overall resource management.
The Evolution of Self-Service
The case for self-service will continue to grow. Understanding human connectivity, however, is integral. For all the good that integrated systems offer, they should be reviewed through the user experience lens. Self-service is best in B2B ecommerce when buyer journeys save time, effort, or other intangible costs. And if it’s a financial cost-savings for both of you, too, well that’s digital commerce success.
¹ McKinsey & Company Growth Marketing Research
² NAED Blog January 2023