I have been an Account Manager and Consultant for a large portion of my career before making the switch to sales and marketing operations a few years back. I recently joined Elastic Path in January of 2021, where I am really enjoying working in the eCommerce market and learning a ton. While I had some exposure to eCommerce in my past, specifically when I managed the Lenovo account as consultant, I constantly find myself internalizing how eCommerce impacts B2B account managers.
Earlier this year, Elastic Path announced its BETA release of Account Management for Elastic Path Commerce Cloud. While B2B eCommerce teams have been clamoring for more feature rich experiences that enable the B2B buyer to get full account level visibility into transaction history, there are considerations the business will need to consider ensuring so that the customer experience is seamless and aligned across new digital and past account management processes. I will explore some of these areas and provide some recommendations for how to get the account team, marketing team and eCommerce team aligned.
Market Trends in B2B eCommerce
Back in 2015 Forrester analyst Andy Hoar forecasted that 1 million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service eCommerce by the year 2020. With a prediction like that, it is not surprising that account managers felt a threat to their jobs and had a skeptical outlook on how eCommerce experiences would benefit their customers. With the pandemic hitting in 2020, it is not clear if this prediction came true, but eMarketer published a study last year that predicts double digit YoY growth of B2B eCommerce through 2024. Adoption of B2B eCommerce is no doubt accelerating and aligning a B2B eCommerce strategy with existing account management teams could be the most critical success factor.
Time = Money
Every account manager that is worth their salt has reflected on the fact that if they could only find more time in the day, they could manage more customers and make more money. Now think about all the repeatable tasks you might be doing as an account manager that could be automated or self-service enabled for the buyer. This is where eCommerce can be a major ally to the account manager and enable the low effort buying experience customers want.
Processing order forms for consumable parts, adding more user licenses to the active contract, amending the contract to increase monthly supply, helping to coordinate service calls, managing renewal paperwork, etc. eCommerce enabling and automating these experiences with over the course of a month, likely free up more time for account managers to engage with customers in value-added conversations vs. pushing internal process through. The research says that the customer would prefer to manage these tasks without the account manager involved anyway, so why is the account manager wasting value time doing it for the customer? Gartner recently reported “43% of B2B customers would prefer not to interact with a sales rep at all, leaving the long-term future of in-person B2B selling in significant doubt for even the most complex of purchases.”
Recommended Action: Account managers likely have a list of repeatable tasks the eCommerce and marketing automation teams can use to design more self-service buyer experiences. Once the experience is online, account managers then can show customers how they can use them, enabling a more positive experience for the buyer that they can pass on to other buyers at the account to expand revenue opportunities between the buyer and seller.
Selling "Inside" of Digital
Humans are creatures of habit and as an account manager you can add value to your customer by learning how to operate inside of the digital buying experience. What that means is, account managers can engage with the buyer while in the digital workflow and enable a low effort experience that creates value and helps buyers gain more confidence in your product/brand. Essentially you turn the buyer into an educated advocate, and you give them the resources they need to educate others at the account internally. Success in this area requires tight collaboration with marketing, as the Website needs to have the content buyers seek during the selling process. Account managers can help identify and create the experiences that work best for buyers. That content also needs to show strong differentiation – which is typically the main reason sales creates PPT for each customer meeting. They need to show how different the solution they sell is compared to competitors.
Recommended Action: Ensure account managers know the Website inside and out. Limit the use of attaching static content to email and instead promote the use of links and content online when nurturing customers through a buying process. Consider putting core documents like MSAs, Terms and Conditions and Quoting tools online that the buyer and selling can use together when engaging.
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Account Managers + Chat = eCommerce Gold
Account managers have more tools at their disposal than ever to understand buyer engagement and communicate with buyers. eMail and LinkedIn have become the norm for account managers in how they communicate with buyers online, and while those are digital experiences, they are also very static and do not meet the buyer on your Website when they are engaging in an active buying decision. In B2B the more an account manager is in sync with buyers’ active digital behavior, the more they will be meeting the buyer in a low-effort, digital experience when it is best for their schedule. In B2B there are almost always questions that need human assistance to gain confidence needed to make a purchase decision, which is why Website chat has become so popular in B2B and almost mission critical when coupled with eCommerce.
Chat has become the leading contact source within the online environment, with 42% of customers using chat versus email (23%) or other social media forum (16%). (Source: J.D. Power)
However, the gap with most B2B sellers, it that most resources that staff live chat are junior business development resources and they will do their best to take in the information and route it back to the account manager for follow-up. However, as eCommerce is enabled in B2B, buyers are in active buying processes while they are
on your website. The best buying experience will be to have the account manager online, ready to answer questions that in turn enable the buyer to feel confident about making a purchase in that moment. Marketing and sales technology operations have tools available to enable this always on “segment of one” for account managers. It just requires getting involved with the technology, ensuring your customer data is updated and accurate and making yourself a part of the channel your customers want to use when online making a purchase decision.
For the account manager, they can consider this is the new “closing while on the golf course” model. Instead of closing the deal playing golf with your buyer, you can be out on the course with your friends, significant other or maybe enjoying a peaceful round on your own.
Recommended Action: Account managers need to insist that they get access to more “always on channels” that engage with customers online and in an active buying process. Marketing is more than willing to enable these tools, the missing link is account managers willing to make digital communications (beyond email) an integrated part of their daily lives at work. We are doing it with Facebook, Texting, Tick-Tock, and Instagram part of our personal lives. Why not add it to our work lives, customers will appreciate you being there.
Buyer Confidence is Critical
When a buyer is online and presented with the option to buy using an eCommerce experience, the most critical factor is confidence that their decision will be a good one. This is true for both B2C and B2B buying decisions. However, unlike B2C purchases, the B2B buyer is likely making a decision that will affect their entire team or maybe even the entire organization. Confidence is even more critical in B2B and without the account manager to answer questions or help find content and documents that build trust between the seller and buyer, you may struggle to gain buyer adoption online. A Gartner survey of nearly 1,000 B2B customers reveals that those who report a high level of decision confidence are 10 times more likely to make a high-quality, low-regret purchase. Confidence is created when the buyer can clearly understand and articulate the differences between your offering and the competitions’. As outlined in the Gartner study, account managers that become part of the digital experience can “help customers make sense of all the information they encounter, explaining implications, alternatives, and undiscovered opportunities in an understandable and compelling way.” This combined with better digital experience guided by what worked in live account manager meetings of the past will be a critical success factor for B2B eCommerce success.
Recommended Action: Bring the account team into your eCommerce project and have them input on what does and does not work to process the sale. Ask how they create differentiation and get their input on where things are too “look-a-like” with the competition. Use this as an opportunity to not only create new low-effort digital experiences for buyers, but also enable the account management to internalize how they can be “inside” the experience with the customer.