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Latest Issue: Nov/Dec 17

How new technologies are revolutionising the omnichannel experience

The momentum of omnichannel in the B2B marketplace has refined the customer experience. Since manufacturers and wholesalers are often closer to the customer than their B2C peers, there’s a real opportunity to create even stronger customer experiences using data that already exists within an organisation.

What does a strong omnichannel strategy look like for B2B organisations? While it’s ensuring that the online experience is able to match the offline experience, it should go further than that. B2B companies need to create omnichannel strategies that support the buyer throughout the sales process.

Take for example, a purchaser buying a complex piece of manufacturing equipment. While investigations into the product begin online, once they hit complex configuration requirements, the eCommerce solution should automatically pass the buyer over to a sales call. The sales representative is automatically delivered a clear view of the customer’s actions and can take them to the point of purchase. But perhaps a site visit is necessary for the sale to conclude. The representative meets the buyer face-to-face, and uses their iPad to complete the configuration and sale online via the eCommerce system. While the process may involve a series of steps, the experience for the customer should be seamless. Importantly, the online experience should remain as personal as the offline.

B2B omnichannel delivery also means providing a higher degree of personalisation than perhaps evident in more consumer environments. Since many sales can be high value or require greater depth of detail, the eCommerce solution within omnichannel needs to deliver more than price comparison information. It needs to mine customer data to create an online environment that pushes through recommendations that support buying decisions based on previous interactions or even customer buying trends.

As companies learn to access and build on the data they already hold, many are now seeing the benefits of new technologies in assisting and supporting omnichannel strategies. Take virtual reality (VR) for example. Already used widely in consumer channels to demonstrate product benefits, VR can be used to visualise everything from flooring in your home to new wheels on a Porsche.

The practical application for VR in B2B e-commerce is also broad since it offers organisations an effective way to simplify a complex product. Imagine being able to demonstrate how a complex piece of machinery breaks down into key parts and then comes back together to highlight spare parts that might need to be ordered. Or what about aiding purchasers as they configure complicated bespoke designs? This helps to support self-service strategies and reduces the cost of sale. VR can even be used to see how raw materials will look as they become a whole product. And because VR is an immersive experience, buyers are fully engaged with the company and the product, isolated from outside interference, meaning they’re receptive to product messaging.

3D printing has also had an impact on the manufacturing process and the omni-channel experience. According to Gartner, worldwide shipments of 3D printers reached nearly 0.5million units last year, and it predicts that more than 6.7million will ship by 2020.

Known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing makes it easier to produce bespoke or complex parts automatically. Being able to provide buyers with the ability to personalise products or even configure them online and send the design to manufacture without intervention brings a new element to self-service.

Then there’s the Internet of the Things (IoT). Having hit both the mainstream consumer and B2B markets last year, IoT has found a home in supporting automated ordering, which in turn is creating an additional sales route as part of the omnichannel delivery. For automated ordering this could be as simple as the buyer’s system triggering an automatic sale on the seller’s eCommerce site when products drop below a certain level. We’re already seeing this happen in hospitals for low cost, high volume products such as bandages. Each one is scanned on use, ensuring the system is able to record accurate stock levels. Once stock hits a minimum level, an automated order is placed to replenish.

At a more complex level, IoT can aid decision-making for lean production. The ability, to take live data from customer sites that can automatically feed into the manufacturing process means that companies can produce exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed. The customer can see what is being manufactured through its eCommerce dash board, and if it’s then integrated with the ERP system, the company can utilise it as part of its production planning to ensure resources are allocated effectively.

While omnichannel typically addresses the online and physical sales channels to ensure a consistent buying experience, it also brings companies new insights into customers and the ability to integrate data to improve the experience. New technologies, such as IoT, 3D printing and VR are bringing additional sales channels to omnichannel. Companies, particularly manufacturers, have a lot to gain from these technologies but must ensure that they address and build them into the core strategy if they’re to maximise the benefits they can create.

by Michiel Schipperus, CEO & managing partner, Sana Commerce