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IR B2B SUMMIT BERLIN Key themes that emerged from this week’s event

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B2B business leaders from across Europe came to Berlin this week for the first InternetRetailing B2B Summit. Digital transformation was the key subject for discussion which, held under the Chatham House Rule and in formats including round tables, leadership panels and workshops, was both frank and wide-ranging. Here are some of the key themes that emerged from the day. Here’s an overview of the event.

The importance of all channels – even the fax

German companies in particular are still keen users of the fax as a sales channel. One speaker said that their technology company simply turned off the fax machines in their office, at a stroke removing a sales channel and forcing the business to move to other ways of trading. Other speakers, however, said that businesses such as theirs that sold commodity items such as stationery could not expect that customers would simply change the way they order. Rather, they would find an alternative supplier.

Drivers for change

The push to move B2B sales online may have started with the business, but often the pressure to adapt now comes from the customer. Shoppers used to making domestic purchases online at home now expect the same convenience at work. For many businesses, in the UK, Europe and beyond, the ‘aha’ moment that change was needed came when business results started to fall. One delegate said: “There was a realisation of ‘do or die’. There as lots of denial around the fact that the way we trade today won’t be the way it will be tomorrow.” Added complications in B2B, compared to B2C, come lie in factors including the need to show different ranges, prices and free offers to different corporate customers. There’s also a need for authorisation in business purchases that doesn’t come into play at home, while team buying may now be the new normal.

It’s vital to inspire staff

Employees in many businesses that used to do their business primarily through a catalogue understand how that works – and are often uncomfortable with moving online. They may be familiar with telephone service – and less sure about responding via What’s App, a service that one clothing business had introduced. It’s important, said delegates, to inspire from above, ensure that staff are rewarded for online successes, and to then to delegate to agile teams. Sales reps are still important, as are third-party agents or partners – but they must share the rewards of digital success. Their role has changed, said one delegate, with the advent of digital: rather than being responsible for bringing customers to the business, they may instead focus on customer service, ensuring that shoppers happy after they bought and return to shop again.

It’s also important, said one, to ensure that staff are inspired by what they do, and do not feel at threat that their jobs will be automated (a risk, said one speaker, for more than 80% of US manufacturing employees). Instead, it’s important to communicate how staff can work with automation to produce a better service to the end customer.

The scale of the challenge

Variously described as “complicated” and “monstrous”, B2B organisations see a very real challenge in digital transformation. One trader said they enacted 40m price changes a year online, see 80m website hits a month, and do 65% of their business sales over the internet. Nonetheless, said one, the end result will be “a lot easier for everybody’s life” as company buyers can save time spent on admin. Making the experience as simple as possible will be key, said another.

Building the infrastructure for digital change, often across a number of countries, will take “many years” said one speaker. Perhaps the largest challenge identified was in bringing together different data sources to create actionable insights.

But it’s important to build up the pace of change, said one. “It’s a bit like Pacman,” they said. “There are lots of little Pacment nibbling away at your marketshare, at your cake.”

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