B-to-B Marketers Should Take Another Look at E-commerce

E-commerce opportunity is evolving fast, but only 25 percent of B-to-B marketers are taking advantage of it, according to a 2012 Oracle study. Time for another look. The typical B-to-B companies selling online are classic catalogers like Edmund Optics and Seton, which were fast to supplement their print catalogs with e-commerce. But with the new functionality now available, just about any business marketer can find ways to reduce selling expense and attract new customers by integrating e-commerce into their go-to-market strategies.

E-commerce opportunity is evolving fast, but only 25 percent of B-to-B marketers are taking advantage of it, according to a 2012 Oracle study. Time for another look. The typical B-to-B companies selling online are classic catalogers like Edmund Optics and Seton, which were fast to supplement their print catalogs with e-commerce. But with the new functionality now available, just about any business marketer can find ways to reduce selling expense and attract new customers by integrating e-commerce into their go-to-market strategies.

A worthy example is Dow Corning, which found itself under huge price pressure as the silicone category grew commoditized. To meet the market demand for lower prices, Dow Corning launched an entirely new brand in 2002, called Xiameter, where customers could buy trailer-loads of certain products at a 10 percent to 15 percent discount through a newly built e-commerce engine. Xiameter sales grew so successfully that in 2009, Dow Corning moved as much as 2500 of its 7000 products to the site. Today, Xiameter represents 40% of Dow Corning’s $6 billion in sales.

Another example is Symantec, which created an online store specifically to serve its small-to-medium business customers in North America. Today, 100 percent of Symantec’s $300 million SMB sales run through this channel, which is operated for them by the SaaS outsourcing supplier Rainmaker Systems. Symantec is enjoying not only lower selling expense, but also admirable revenue growth, with sales up 25 percent and trial-to-conversion rates up 33 percent in the first year.

Why are these online ventures working so well? It’s thanks to new technology combined with changes in buyer behavior. The growth of consumer e-tailing has clearly been a contributing factor. Business buyers are people, too. So, their increasing comfort with e-commerce in their personal lives spills over to their jobs.

But business buyers also expect consumer-like functionality in e-commerce. And a seamless experience. This is where the new technologies come in. Platform suppliers like Rainmaker are building systems specifically designed to support B-to-B buying processes, with consumer-like features and ease of use.

So what are the e-commerce success factors for business marketers as they look to take advantage of these opportunities? Here are some tips:

  • Review your customer segments and product lines for e-commerce potential. Small and medium business customers may be a perfect fit. Same for high-volume, repetitive-sales product categories, like replacement parts or warranty renewals.
  • Examine your sales and marketing process for elements that can be automated with e-commerce technology. Look at quote management, contract pricing, channel partner support, purchase order processing, order approvals, cross sell and upsell, licensing, renewals, reactivation, winback-there are more than you may think.
  • Select software that was built specifically for the complexity of business markets. Companies that buy consumer solutions and try adding B-to-B capabilities will quickly be frustrated.
  • Select software that provides consumer-like e-commerce functionality. Ease of use is the competitive watchword today, according to Forrester’s recent study “Thrive by Adopting Proven B2C Principles.”
  • Make sure you connect your e-commerce with your existing accounting, manufacturing and other systems. Xiameter customers, for example, get their order confirmation, shipping notices and invoices out of Dow Corning’s SAP, which also communicates with the manufacturing plants to get the order produced.
  • Consider using cloud-based suppliers, where you can get up and running in less than a month, and leave the technology to someone else. Rainmaker Systems offers not only dedicated “sales assist” from its call center, they will even deal with their clients on a revenue-share basis.
  • Remember that e-commerce is global by definition. So look for technology that offers multiple languages and currencies, and supports tax and customer compliance.

How are you integrating e-commerce into your sales and marketing?

A version of this post appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

New Developments in B-to-B Loyalty Marketing

Business marketers have much to gain from retention marketing. Business customers tend to be fewer and more valuable—meaning you can’t afford to lose even one. But how do you keep your customers active and buying from you, versus the competition?  How do you prevent defection? Let’s look at the traditional approaches to retention marketing in B-to-B, plus some new developments in loyalty marketing being adopted by B-to-B marketers today, including social media and gamification.

Business marketers have much to gain from retention marketing. Business customers tend to be fewer and more valuable—meaning you can’t afford to lose even one. But how do you keep your customers active and buying from you, versus the competition? How do you prevent defection? Let’s look at the traditional approaches to retention marketing in B-to-B, plus some new developments in loyalty marketing being adopted by B-to-B marketers today, including social media and gamification.

Traditional Approaches in B-to-B Retention Marketing
Given the importance of customer retention in B-to-B, business marketers have a long history of investing in loyalty drivers. The most basic approach has been—simply—superb account management.

In a well-run company, the sales team in charge of any given customer will do its best to understand what’s going on in the account; sell to them the way they want to buy; deliver on time; develop new products to serve their evolving needs; solve any customer service problems; cultivate deep relationships with the specifiers, influencers and decision-makers throughout the account; and generally provide the best possible products and service levels. It is this basic approach that has stood the test of time in account development.

But as buying has become more complex, businesses have developed additional strategies to deepen customer relationships and engender loyalty. For example:

  • Data-driven segmentation and differentiated treatment. Not all customers are created equal, so segmenting customers by value and treating them differently is a strategy that works well in business markets. Some companies will identify their top accounts—based on margin or on top-line revenue—and provide them with special perks, pricing and service levels, such as:
    • Corporate-wide purchasing agreements, where all buying across a far-flung enterprise can benefit from pre-negotiated contract pricing.
    • Dedicated sales teams, some of them even housed on site at the customer’s operation.
    • Dedicated customer service phone lines, where the service personnel can develop an ongoing personal relationship with individuals in the account.
    • Special status, like Gold Customer or Preferred Customer, programs that may include access to discounts, free shipping, invitations to events and other perquisites.
  • Incentive programs. Taking a page from the consumer world, some business marketers have found success with frequency marketing programs that reward customers for certain behaviors, such as repeat purchase. These programs are not universally applicable in business, but they have their place, particularly when the purchase cycle is short and purchase behavior can be tracked.
    Rewards programs are typically applied in businesses that mimic consumer purchasing behavior, like office supplies. Staples, for example, runs a thriving business rewards program targeted to its small-medium business customers. Financial services and telecom have also done well with frequency marketing programs in SMB, examples being American Express OPEN, the MasterCard Business Bonus program and Verizon’s BusinessLink.

New Developments in Loyalty for Business Markets
In the last few years, B-to-B loyalty marketing has benefited from the arrival of new tools that support the goal of deepening relationships with business buyers. Social media, for example, has created an easy, low-cost way for companies to build communities and foster engagement. Social media is being applied across the B-to-B marketing spectrum, from prospecting via viral pass-along, to enhancing customer relationships, to surfacing and solving customer service problems.

In the area of enhancing customer relationships and fostering loyalty, the power of social media is being felt throughout the B-to-B marketing world:

  • Companies build the ranks of their followers on Twitter and LinkedIn, their “likes” on Facebook, and their RSS subscribers to blogs and YouTube channels. These connections then become another set of media channels for staying in touch, introducing new products, sharing ideas and case studies, and otherwise building an ongoing relationship.
  • Within social media environments, companies establish communities of customers and prospects around certain subjects, like technologies, products, events and other shared interests. In these forums, chat groups, blogs and other formats, like-minded people share ideas, expand their knowledge and make valuable connections.

One of the most exciting new developments in B-to-B loyalty marketing is the new concept known as gamification. The idea here is to build on people’s natural enthusiasm for games involving prizes, competition and recognition, and turn that motivation into a loyalty driver. The goal of gamification is to add gaming elements to otherwise boring processes and tasks, converting them into something fun, competitive and addictively engaging.

Marketers who want to introduce game design and mechanics to their loyalty programs can now take advantage of several new software platforms, like Badgeville, CallidusCloud and Bunchball. These tools are taking loyalty programs to a new level of interactivity, real-time feedback and social interaction, with some promising early results.

If you’ve experimented with loyalty programs in B-to-B, please share your experiences.

A version of this post appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

USPS Talks Sustainability and Its Performance Returns for 2011

The United States Postal Service (USPS) recently released its fourth annual report on sustainability practices and performance. The document serves as a blueprint for any company or brand in the marketing field on how to report progress and hurdles toward improved triple-bottom line performance (financial, social and environmental, being the three bottom lines), and to illustrate the business case for doing so.

Our mantra is ‘leaner, greener, smarter, faster.’ To achieve these goals, we’re adjusting the size of our workforce and delivery network, eliminating waste, reducing energy consumption and encouraging our employees and customers to conserve. When the Postal Service is more efficient, everyone benefits.
—USPS Postmaster General & CEO Pat Donahoe, USPS 2011 Sustainability Report

The United States Postal Service (USPS) recently released its fourth annual report on sustainability practices and performance. The document serves as a blueprint for any company or brand in the marketing field on how to report progress and hurdles toward improved triple-bottom line performance (financial, social and environmental, being the three bottom lines), and to illustrate the business case for doing so.

Transparency is the hallmark of sustainability reporting, just as it is for financial-only reporting. According to the report’s summary, the USPS adhered to version 3.0 of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)—”the most widely respected international reporting standard for public sustainability performance disclosure”—for the report’s structure and detail.

For marketers, the report highlights some valuable information and insights on USPS operations, and what opportunities and challenges lay ahead for direct mail. Consider these findings, quoted in first person from the report:

  • RECYCLING—Our recycling efforts had a banner year with $24 million in revenue. We recycled more than 215,000 tons of material in 2011. By using our distribution network in new ways, improving contract services and working with recycling vendors to maximize revenue through economies of scale, we are starting to see results. Strong recyclable commodity pricing during 2011 played a part in our record revenue earnings, but the real story is a long-term strategy of continuous improvement. Also, by using our existing transportation network, we avoid fees from recycling vendors who would make costly stops at each local office. In FY 2011, more than 12,000 facilities participated in the backhaul recycling program, recycling more than 215,000 tons of mixed paper, cardboard, plastic and scrap metal—and earning $24.4 million in recycling revenue. We also encourage customers to recycle by asking them to discard unwanted mail in Post Office lobby recycling bins, instead of our trash cans. Our “Read, Respond and Recycle” mail lobby campaign was launched in 2009. More than 10,000 locations now offer customers lobby mail recycling. This effort continues to reduce waste being sent to landfills.
  • FACILITY ENERGY USE—Our progress toward reducing facility energy use 30 percent by 2015 continues to exceed our annual targets despite a slight increase in facility energy use this year. Since 2003, the Postal Service has reduced total facility energy use by more than 25 percent, nearly the amount of energy used by 90,000 average U.S. households in a year. USPS also reduced energy intensity, which is energy use per square foot of building space, by 22.4 percent in the same time period.
  • CARBON ACCOUNTING SUPPORT FOR MAILERS—We have been preparing a greenhouse gas emission inventory every year since 2007, and we now offer USPS BlueEarth, our new carbon accounting service so our business customers can determine their own carbon footprint for the mailing and shipping services the Postal Service provides. Postal Service business customers are increasingly requesting information about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with USPS services. The calculator [introduced earlier in 2012] uses proprietary USPS methodology to calculate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and takes into consideration the type of shipping or mailing product, size and weight, how it’s processed and transported and the distance the package or envelope travels. Energy awareness creates a culture of conservation at USPS.
  • RECOGNITION AMONG GOVERNMENT AGENCIES FOR GHG REDUCTIONS—We were awarded Gold status by The Climate Registry for leadership in reducing GHG emissions by more than 5 percent. Our overall target is to reduce GHG emissions 20 percent by FY 2020 using FY 2008 as a baseline. The Postal Service is among the first of the Registry’s more than 400 members and the first government agency to achieve the recognition. To report our GHG emissions, we are compliant with established protocols set forth by The Climate Registry, the International Post Corporation and under Federal Executive Order 13514 (of President Barack Obama, 2009).
  • LEADERSHIP TRAINING AT USPS INCLUDES SUSTAINABILITY’S BUSINESS CASE—The Postal Service’s leadership programs are designed to develop high-performing leaders to meet the changing needs of USPS into the future. They include a demanding curriculum offered over a six-month period, with classroom instruction and mentoring by existing and future executives on key topics in business finance, project management, leadership principles and presentation skills. The programs culminate with a business case presentation. The 2011 classes were challenged with creating a “sustainability business growth model” to improve USPS waste reduction and recycling and to develop strategies to engage employees in Green Team initiatives. The participants used their new understanding of sustainability to present a business case of their findings before an executive review panel chaired by Chief Sustainability Officer Tom Day.

Additionally the report documents transportation energy costs, as well as water use and conservation (arguably the next focused area for sustainability reporting after greenhouse gases).

Another element to postal sustainability, from a product development perspective, is the USPS’s focus on mail-back programs, working with product manufacturers and others on the creation and execution of services to return used goods (computers, printer cartridges, batteries, etc.) so they can be safely dissembled, disposed or recycled: “Postage‑paid mail envelopes are available in 1,600 Post Office lobbies. These envelopes can be used to ship small used electronics, such as cell phones, ink jet cartridges and digital cameras, to a centralized recycling center, where they’re broken down into usable parts. During 2011, customers recycled 185,000 items—about 22,000 pounds of material. Since the program began in 2008, more than a million electronic devices and printer cartridges have been kept out of landfills.”

There are skeptics—and some responders to this blog—who maintain that the Postal Service can’t afford to be chasing “go green” efforts when its financial life is on the line. Respectfully, I counter that it can’t afford not to! I commend USPS labor and management in their understanding—and leadership—in recognizing waste as a cost, and efficiency as a gain. Every postal customer should thank USPS and its green teams for this continued effort toward sustainability, in all its forms.

Here is the link to the full report: http://about.usps.com/what-we-are-doing/green/report/2011/welcome.htm