How decision makers interact with suppliers amid COVID-19
Face-to-face meetings between buyers and suppliers have always been central to building an ongoing relationship in the B2B world. Both parties benefit from the personal touch and the ease of airing out any queries and sorting potential issues. With the coronavirus pandemic cancelling every booked face-to-face for the foreseeable future, buyers are now looking for a digital solution to the challenge.
At the same time, disruption to factory production has broken links in the global supply chain, creating the added challenge of buyers potentially needing to source new suppliers who are able to deliver. If lockdown measures have limited production or forced the temporary closure of a factory, these potential buyers need to be able to quickly find the solution that your business is offering.
Supply chain disruption, combined with the difficulty of running in-person meetings, means the manufacturing sector must consider alternative options. McKinsey’s recent ‘Global B2B decision-maker response to COVID-19 crisis’ survey covered what B2B decision-makers are looking for when researching suppliers, tracking the importance of different digital features in this new marketplace. The survey looked at the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, China, India, South Korea, Brazil and the US, and found that across the board, there’s an increase in demand for digital self-serve options that empower buyers to find their solution.
Onsite search is a priority
Across all surveyed countries, when asked “what ways of interacting with a supplier would be most beneficial to you when researching/considering suppliers going forward?”, the most popular choice was onsite search. Can a buyer visit the company website, search for the product they are looking for, easily find more information, and process their order?
It’s important to consider this in terms of the purchase journey. Onsite search often comes early on; a quick guarantee that this company can supply the product they need. After the first point of contact, whether it’s a call, email, piece of direct mail or a self-initiated Google search or referral, the company website becomes the most important reference point, always answering questions that a potential customer may have.
For this reason, every manufacturer and supplier needs to ensure there is a search option onsite and that existing product and information pages are up-to-date with relevant information. Your CMS or commerce platform may provide a simple search feature to add to the site, but optimising the content for search requires a little more work.
From a UX perspective, a visible and well-defined search bar will make it quick and easy for anyone to find products and information. This will result in fewer clicks and less time spent on the homepage. A faceted search will enhance the general search, enabling users to narrow down their search to a category, price, product options and custom fields. All of this will improve the customer experience and help customers find what they’re looking for, quickly and easily.
Having a well optimised on-site search also has the added benefit of providing further insight into what buyers are looking for and what the roadblocks to purchase are. This information is gold dust; it either shows demand, or it shows opportunity. For example, a product selling at a fairly low rate could actually be getting high search volume, indicating a potential opportunity for the business to push this product to the fore.
These search stats and insights can also inform your business of developing trends in terms of customer demand or common difficulties. While there is nothing better than speaking one-to-one with a client about the challenges they are facing in the coming weeks, months and years, having clients visit your site and type their challenges into the search bar is a close second. Use this to tool your sales team with information on what common challenges are driving discussion in the industry. It’s also useful in optimising the messaging of onsite copy and any marketing campaigns your business is running. Reviewing search logs can also guide your business on what is currently missing from your site.
The preference for onsite search shows two important points. The buying and research process is digital-first and driven by self-serve opportunities. This shows a drift towards on demand information, giving buyers the ability to research at their own pace. This is backed up by the second preference — live chat. Rather than scheduled phone calls or back and forth emails, buyers are opting for the on demand option, enabling them to engage with potential suppliers when it suits their schedule.
Improving the customer experience with live chat & chatbots
A strong live chat system combines automated and staffed solutions. Like a customer service line, live chat conversations typically begin with a light automated opening that directs the visitor to the appropriate colleague for this conversation. Parts of this can be decided in the background, such as knowing which page the visitor is on and using this information to inform which representative joins the live chat.
The added bonus for companies implementing a live chat or chatbot feature on site comes through an extra customer services option; through a flow of automated responses, a chatbot can help current customers find a quick solution, taking the strain off of call lines.
When looking at the surveyed countries in Europe, there is a soft preference for sales rep led interactions, showing the importance of a personal touch, even in an increasingly digital market. Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK all name face-to-face meetings in their top three ways of interacting with suppliers; a major challenge during the lockdown period.
The clear lockdown replacement is video calling. What is often ignored is the idea of availability. It’s generally understood that if a buyer wants to call a supplier, they can pick up the phone and dial a number listed on the site. The culture does not yet exist around video calling, meaning companies need to make it clear that their sales reps are ready for video calls should a buyer want to talk face-to-face.
Update your site design with information about video calling as an option, and speak about it in your outreach and marketing. Proactive options include video consultancy sessions, organised on a one-to-one basis or a gated livestream, available to viewers that sign up. This broadcasts the point that your business offers video conferencing to current and potential clients that are still interested in face-to-face discussions. With sales reps working from home, keeping the CRM system up to date with information from these video calls is a top priority.
Looking across to the APAC region, Brazil and the US, digital self-serve options fill the priority touchpoints for buyers, from apps to websites to social media. Knowing that these regions prioritise digital and self-serve is useful for suppliers and manufacturers in Europe that sell internationally.
Increasing agility with headless
If you operate internationally, the already complex task of managing localisation is currently heightened, given the varying level of Covid-19 restraints in your operating markets. To speed up the delivery of localised messaging, content and microsites, you can consider moving to a headless technical architecture for your content management.
A regular CMS connects a single front end (the sales channel that a customer interacts with), to a single back end (the operational side that processes payment and data and keeps the channel running). In this setup, changes to the front end must be reflected in the back end. This creates a fair amount of work if a company is running multiple websites, an app, or mobile-specific sites, as any updates must be repeated across each sales channel. A headless CMS connects each front end into a single back end. This means edits can be made to the front end without requiring a constant update to the back end. Launching new sites or creating an app for these new markets is a much more agile process with a headless architecture.
“It’s important to remember that this shift has been accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis, rather than being caused by it,” said Jonathan Whiteside, Principal Technology Consultant at Dept Agency. “The drift towards digital and self-serve options in the B2B space is part of an industry-wide move to online and on-demand that’s been building momentum over the past couple of years. Reorienting your operations to be more digital ensures relevance during the pandemic, but also provides a platform for the company to stay at the forefront of how buyer and supplier relationships function.”
Each adjustment the business makes now should factor in the multi-year strategy for the business, an initial change that leads to a much wider digital transformation. Now is the perfect time to review your digital roadmap and accelerate the digitalisation plans that will make the biggest impact as we enter a period of recovery.
About the author
Jonathan Whiteside has over twenty years of technical experience, helping global brands to solve complex problems with digital technology and maximising their IT investments. At Dept – an international digital agency with over 1,500 employees across thirteen markets in Europe and North America - Jonathan focuses on helping organisations become more efficient and effective by using digital technologies.
NTT DATA Services, Remodelling Supply Chains for Resilience
Joey Dean, the man with the coolest name ever and Managing Director in the healthcare consulting practice for NTT DATA and is focused on delivering workplace transformation and enabling the future workforce for healthcare providers. Dean also leads client innovation programs to enhance service delivery and business outcomes for clients.
The pandemic has shifted priorities and created opportunities to do things differently, and companies are now looking to build more resilient supply chains, none needed more urgently than those within the healthcare system. Dean shares with us how he feels they can get there.
A Multi-Vendor Sourcing Approach
“Healthcare systems cannot afford delays in the supply chain when there are lives at stake. Healthcare procurement teams are looking at multi-vendor sourcing strategies, stockpiling more inventory, and ways to use data and AI to have a predictive view into the future and drive greater efficiency.
“The priority should be to shore up procurement channels and re-evaluate inventory management norms, i.e. stockpiling for assurance. Health systems should take the opportunity to renegotiate with their current vendors and broaden the supplier channel. Through those efforts, work with suppliers that have greater geographic diversity and transparency around manufacturing data, process, and continuity plans,” says Dean.
But here ensues the never-ending battle of domestic vs global supply chains. As I see it, domestic sourcing limits the high-risk exposure related to offshore sourcing— Canada’s issue with importing the vaccine is a good example of that. So, of course, I had to ask, for lifesaving products, is building domestic capabilities an option that is being considered?
“Domestic supply chains are sparse or have a high dependence on overseas centres for parts and raw materials. There are measures being discussed from a legislative perspective to drive more domestic sourcing, and there will need to be a concerted effort by Western countries through a mix of investments and financial incentives,” Dean explains.
Wielding Big Tech for Better Outcomes
So, that’s a long way off. In the meantime, leveraging technology is another way to mitigate the risks that lie within global supply chains while decreasing costs and improving quality. Dean expands on the potential of blockchain and AI in the industry.
“Blockchain is particularly interesting in creating more transparency and visibility across all supply chain activities. Organisations can create a decentralised record of all transactions to track assets from production to delivery or use by end-user. This increased supply chain transparency provides more visibility to both buyers and suppliers to resolve disputes and build more trusting relationships. Another benefit is that the validation of data is more efficient to prioritise time on the delivery of goods and services to reduce cost and improve quality.
“Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) is another area where there’s incredible value in processing massive amounts of data to aggregate and normalise the data to produce proactive recommendations on actions to improve the speed and cost-efficiency of the supply chain.”
Evolving Procurement Models
From asking more of suppliers to beefing up stocks, Dean believes procurement models should be remodelled to favour resilience, mitigate risk and ensure the needs of the customer are kept in view.
“The bottom line is that healthcare systems are expecting more from their suppliers. While transactional approaches focused solely on price and transactions have been the norm, collaborative relationships, where the buyer and supplier establish mutual objectives and outcomes, drives a trusting and transparent relationship. Healthcare systems are also looking to multi-vendor strategies to mitigate risk, so it is imperative for suppliers to stand out and embrace evolving procurement models.
“Healthcare systems are looking at partners that can establish domestic centres for supplies to mitigate the risks of having ‘all of their eggs’ in overseas locations. Suppliers should look to perform a strategic evaluation review that includes a distribution network analysis and distribution footprint review to understand cost, service, flexibility, and risks. Included in that strategy should be a “voice of the customer” assessment to understand current pain points and needs of customers.”
“Healthcare supply chain leaders are re-evaluating the Just In Time (JIT) model with supplies delivered on a regular basis. The approach does not require an investment in infrastructure but leaves organisations open to risk of disruption. Having domestic centres and warehousing from suppliers gives healthcare systems the ability to have inventory on hand without having to invest in their own infrastructure. Also, in the spirit of transparency, having predictive views into inventory levels can help enable better decision making from both sides.”
But, again, I had to ask, what about the risks and associated costs that come with higher inventory levels, such as expired product if there isn’t fast enough turnover, tying up cash flow, warehousing and inventory management costs?
“In the current supply chain environment, it is advisable for buyers to carry an in-house inventory on a just-in-time basis, while suppliers take a just-in-case approach, preserving capacity for surges, retaining safety stock, and building rapid replenishment channels for restock. But the risk of expired product is very real. This could be curbed with better data intelligence and improved technology that could forecast surges and predictively automate future supply needs. In this way, ordering would be more data-driven and rationalised to align with anticipated surges. Further adoption of data and intelligence and will be crucial for modernised buying in the new normal.
These are tough tasks, so I asked Dean to speak to some of the challenges. Luckily, he’s a patient guy with a lot to say.
On managing stakeholders and ensuring alignment on priorities and objectives, Dean says, “In order for managing stakeholders to stay aligned on priorities, they’ll need more transparency and collaborative win-win business relationships in which both healthcare systems and medical device manufacturers are equally committed to each other’s success. On the healthcare side, they need to understand where parts and products are manufactured to perform more predictive data and analytics for forecasting and planning efforts. And the manufacturers should offer more data transparency which will result in better planning and forecasting to navigate the ebbs and flows and enable better decision-making by healthcare systems.
Due to the sensitive nature of the information being requested, the effort to increase visibility is typically met with a lot of reluctance and push back. Dean essentially puts the onus back on suppliers to get with the times. “Traditionally, the relationships between buyers and suppliers are transactional, based only on the transaction between the two parties: what is the supplier providing, at what cost, and for what length of time. The relationship begins and ends there. The tide is shifting, and buyers expect more from their suppliers, especially given what the pandemic exposed around the fragility of the supply chain. The suppliers that get ahead of this will not only reap the benefits of improved relationships, but they will be able to take action on insights derived from greater visibility to manage risks more effectively.”
He offers a final tip. “A first step in enabling a supply chain data exchange is to make sure partners and buyers are aware of the conditions throughout the supply chain based on real-time data to enable predictive views into delays and disruptions. With well understand data sets, both parties can respond more effectively and work together when disruptions occur.”
As for where supply chain is heading, Dean says, “Moving forward, we’ll continue to see a shift toward Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and advanced analytics to optimise the supply chain. The pandemic, as it has done in many other industries, will accelerate the move to digital, with the benefits of improving efficiency, visibility, and error rate. AI can consume enormous amounts of data to drive real-time pattern detection and mitigate risk from global disruptive events.”