I had an interesting conversation recently with a Director of Ecommerce at a global chemical manufacturer. He told me that the company's adoption of its CRM system went through the roof after their B2B ecommerce infrastructure was connected to it. Their sales and service reps, he said, had visibility into order flow and customer activity, increasing customer engagement, which ultimately led to better customer service and customer insights for the company.
He also shared that previous attempts to launch ecommerce as a standalone channel, disconnected from legacy sales and service channels, were largely unsuccessful. Customers weren't using it - in part because sales reps often encouraged customers to keep doing business the old way.
This conversation illustrates the benefit of thinking about digital commerce (whether B2B or B2C) as one piece of a larger connected customer platform that spans commerce, service, marketing, sales, and more.
The power of the platform
Many companies evaluating new ecommerce solutions put too much emphasis on the individual features and functions of the ecommerce application, and not enough emphasis on the connectedness of their ecommerce to all the other customer touchpoints.
The truth is, a number of leading ecommerce application providers can meet the functional requirements for B2C or B2B commerce in the digital channel alone, but that's not nearly enough to deliver a truly exceptional experience. Great customer engagement happens when all channels are connected and work well together. Integrations and third-party tools can round out the picture, and most ecommerce applications have some standalone integrations that help. A much smaller set of providers have ecommerce applications that are coupled with broader platform suites like CRM, ERP, and marketing. Even fewer companies provide ecommerce applications along with related or integrated systems like ERP, CRM, or marketing tools.
The best ecommerce providers, though, build their end-to-end platform around what's most important - the customer, meaning that customer data and connections across functional endpoints are built-in. So seemingly simple things like having marketing applications and commerce applications interact with the exact same customer become simple, versus making customers and business application users sort out system integration issues.
Indeed, research shows that this is what customers want. According to the 2019 State of the Connected Customer report, an astounding 80% of consumers say they expect consistency across departments in their engagement with brands. Perhaps not surprisingly, 60% say brands aren't delivering in this regard.
Delivering on customer expectations
According to research, 69% of customers expect a connected experience, and 78% want a consistent interaction across departments. But when you consider that the average enterprise uses hundreds of applications to manage customer engagement (only 29% of which are integrated), delivering on that expectation is nearly impossible. It's no wonder that 59% of customers say it feels like they're communicating with separate entities versus one company!
Omni-channel behavior makes connected experiences challenging enough, but customers also expect the representatives they encounter across those touchpoints to have the same information. In customers' minds, for example, a service agent should know about a recently signed sales contract, or the details of a recent ecommerce transaction, and engage accordingly.
The key to that is a holistic platform that's connected across channels. Based on my two decades of experience helping brands implement customer engagement technologies, here are the prime considerations:
The issue of trust is far-reaching, spanning data security, service reliability, customer privacy, transparency, and more. Where does your customer data reside? How many points does it go through, and where are the choke points that inhibit visibility and access? All channels of customer engagement (ecommerce, marketing, service, etc.) need to be available and secure across all channels at all times, and that's challenging. In fact, 54% of customers say it's harder than ever for brands to earn their trust, and 73% say trust matters more than it did just one year ago.
In today's hyper-connected world, nothing can live in isolation. That said, the actual ecommerce platform capabilities matter a lot - but it's important to evaluate the platforms beyond common checkmarks in an RFP spreadsheet. Feature-based comparisons are tough if they're the only comparison points because they tend to over-index on 'yes' answers, and under-index on details and implementation considerations.
That's why I tend to recommend 'day in the life' kinds of reviews where you're able to see how real users interact with the system across marketing, merchandising, and service scenarios. These end-to-end scenarios tend to extend well beyond the commerce platform itself, which allows companies to get a better sense of how the platform will interact with existing systems. And investigating recent R&D enhancements and future plans, along with annual R&D throughput, are important considerations. Commerce is evolving quickly, and it's essential to have an application partner that understands the necessity of continuous improvement.
Customers may not use the word 'connectedness' when defining a great experience, but research shows that they expect companies to use technology in new ways to create them. That said, companies should look for platforms that have near-perfect data integration from day one, meaning that a customer record in service is the exact same as a record in ecommerce, for example. This is essential to streamlining business processes since having data in few places means it's easier to get the right analytics in front of the right people.
How does a whole customer engagement ecosystem evolve? When new features are released, is it only in one part of the ecosystem, and are you having to manage many costly and time-consuming release cycles? A platform approach uses common tools across all customer touchpoints so that if a change is made in ecommerce, there is minimal or no effort required to have that change reflected in other parts of the system, such as mobile, in-store, etc. This gives companies greater economies of scale to manage an ever-growing range of interaction points.
No customer I talk to, in any industry of any size, is anticipating a slowdown in digital commerce. This translates to growth in the people and capabilities inside an organization. Continuous growth means that you're always hiring and training, which means you need to be sure your platform has a range of learning tools - not just around ecommerce but the whole customer engagement ecosystem. Choose an application partner that can help you constantly educate and grow the people inside your organization. Another important factor relating to how an application partner can support your growth is looking at the vendor's R&D spend and investigate both quantity (total engineers or percentage of spend) and the nature of the investments themselves. Customer centricity, removing integration costs, and investments in artificial intelligence are things to look for.
For other ways to grow your business, check out the Jumpstart Growth in Commerce Guide.
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