Why digital selling is enabling COVID-affected UK businesses to thrive

Online Shopping

Valerie Howard, Solution Strategy Director at PROS explains why the shift to digital selling has allowed businesses to thrive in the current situation.

The pandemic saw entire workforces operate remotely, all but essential travel continue, and social distancing become the new norm. As lockdown commenced nationwide, there was an explosion of online buying, and the way sellers interacted with their buyers changed dramatically. Digital transformation projects accelerated, and many organisations had to consider how their sales environments could adapt to an exclusively digital world. But, as businesses face another round of lockdown-style restrictions, those organisations that aren’t able to quickly adjust for this shifting buying behaviour are going to struggle to survive.

The shift to digital commerce

B2B buyers have gradually been shifting from traditional face-to-face sales representatives to self-serve ordering through digital channels. But the pandemic accelerated this shift. According to findings from our COVID-19 B2B Buying Trends Report, 37% of businesses have been primarily purchasing through digital channels at the outset of COVID-19, which is a 29% increase from prior to the outbreak. If you look at predictions for post-pandemic buyer behaviour, that figure is expected to rise to 40%. But not all suppliers were prepared for this quick shift. Two-thirds of buyers expressed that throughout COVID-19 they faced challenges working with some of their vendors.

This is a huge challenge, especially where delivering on B2B buyer demand for digital has become a vital necessity. The three issues that B2B buyers identified as most problematic for them include slow and inefficient responses; inconsistent, highly variable pricing; and a lack of transparency into inventory.

The pandemic has caused many businesses to see a shrink in demand for certain product lines, while shifting to other areas of their business. Others saw the reverse and demand for their products skyrocketed. This has had upstream impacts on the supply chain. Adjustments to purchasing decisions had to happen quickly in order to accommodate this rapid change in customer behaviour. However, only select suppliers offered transparency into inventory and pricing that allowed business buyers to reliably transact through digital channels.

As a result, seven in ten buyers have changed their vendor preferences, because of challenges working with their existing vendors. The top drivers of this shift were: Competitive pricing (40%), supply availability (39%), and a better digital purchasing experience (35%). Vendors who have delivered on digital and dynamic pricing have an opportunity here, but it also drives home the point that businesses that have hesitated in their digital transformation efforts can’t wait any longer.

Applying the right technology

Enabling a self-service purchasing platform requires a clear understanding of customer expectations and behaviours. While the pandemic forced many buyers to change their buying habits overnight, this change often required learning new systems and tools. Therefore, buyers were more willing to progress transactions with vendors who had already demonstrated that the customer’s desired goods or services would be delivered as communicated.

The supporting technology required to deliver on this level of trust and transparency must extend beyond the completion of a digital transaction. Increasingly, buyers are demanding faster responses to their inquiries, they want immediate clarity into inventory and pricing, and vendors that proactively support buyers gaining further value through their suppliers are preferred.  

Addressing buyers’ explicit and implicit needs requires deep levels of understanding that can often only be achieved through the analysis of buying behaviours and preferences. Each unique interaction is a combination of distinct variables that can be used to interpret what drives customers’ needs. These can be anything from what channel the customer used to complete the purchase; did the volume discount motivate them to purchase more; or the time it took them to complete the order?

With this understanding, businesses can better understand their customers and proactively personalise their responses. Taking this personalisation one step further with artificial intelligence (AI), suppliers can begin to predict and anticipate customers’ needs so that they can meet those needs across any channel the customer chooses to engage through.

The coronavirus pandemic has eliminated any opportunity for hesitation in meeting customers’ needs for self-serve buying. Businesses that have fallen behind need to commit wholeheartedly to digital transformation. Amongst those businesses taking on the challenge, we see the following trends:

1) A renewed sense of customer loyalty:

There was a fear that digital interactions meant that businesses would lose the human element that made their company distinctive from the competition. However, as suppliers were forced into enabling self-serve buying in the pandemic, they were surprised to see that many buyers actually became more loyal. Allowing customers to make the choice of how, when, and where they want to buy means that your business is exponentially increasing the likelihood that buyers will choose you.

2) Addressing complex customer needs:

Making it easy for customers to reorder their last purchase frees up salespeople from repetitive, administrative tasks. Most importantly, salespeople felt they had more time to be able to address their customers’ most complex needs with care and consideration.

3) It’s not always about price:

When businesses can rapidly respond to requests, meaningfully personalise offers, and anticipate customer needs, buyers will have a higher willingness to pay for their products. In fact, one in two buyers said that they would be willing to pay as much as 5% more just to receive pricing information instantaneously. It’s obvious that clear and transparent pricing holds more importance for customers.

In a short amount of time, business and the public have undergone a vast amount of change. They’ve had to rethink their approach to selling, and digital transformation efforts have seen a burst of activity. Businesses that rise to the challenge of this new environment and accelerate their delivery on digital selling will be rewarded.

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Valerie Howard

Solution Strategy Director at PROS

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