Staples Advantage Gets Personal with Procurement Customers

Accenture Interactive (part of Accenture Digital and SAP hybris) recently released results of a new global study of business-to-business buyers and sellers conducted by Forrester Consulting. The study, Mastering Omni-Channel B2B Customer Engagement, finds that business buyers’ expectations for personalization and excellent support–regardless of channel, device, or stage in the journey–are rapidly evolving, influenced by their experiences as consumers.

In fact, more than half of buyers say they would like suppliers to offer personalized recommendations across interactions. The study also finds that most B2B companies are not set up to deliver a seamless omni-channel experience, citing “difficulty sharing customer data between channels or locations” as the top barrier.

To learn more about this study and what it may mean for My Purchasing Center readers, we talked to Gillan Hawkes, Director Ecommerce Product Management for Staples Advantage. Here are her responses to our questions:

Gillan Hawkes_Headshot.jpgTo start, please provide My Purchasing Center readers with a brief description of some of the key findings of the Forrester Research study, “Building the B2B Omni-Channel Commerce Platform of the Future.” 

The Forrester study examines how the expectations of B2B buyers are transforming the way suppliers sell and deliver products and services. The study yielded several interesting findings, particularly, that high customer expectations have led B2B firms to raise the bar for their omni-channel experiences. Business buyers are familiar with the user-friendly buying experiences delivered by consumer e-commerce and vendor websites, and they now expect the same level of omni-channel service from their suppliers for business purchases.

Another noteworthy finding is that providing a seamless omni-channel experience helps solidify customer loyalty. Since consumer e-commerce portals have treated customers to such personalized and easy buying experiences, expectations have risen. B2B organizations that meet these high expectations can ensure the loyalty of their customer base.

Staples Advantage, the business-to-business division of Staples, is hyper focused on delivering an omni-channel experience to its business users and one of the few e-commerce websites purpose-built for them.

What types of goods and services is this study addressing? What types of buyers? (Just 28% of study participants identify themselves as being affiliated with their company’s procurement department.)

In this study, Forrester surveyed 526 B2B companies and 930 B2B buyers across Canada, France, Germany, the U.S. and the UK at organizations with more than 1,000 employees. It is our understanding from the report that the study did not address a particular industry, so there is not a slant toward particular types of goods and services. However, based on our experience serving businesses of all sizes across all industries, we can confidently say, no matter who the buyer is, ease of shopping is a top priority for everyone. For example, depending on the size of the organization, the buyer could be a procurement officer, an administrative professional or a facility manager. While their role and title might differ, they all value a more personalized experience that is tailored to their organization.

As you know, our readers are procurement and supply management leaders at Fortune 500 companies. They have sourcing strategies and buying systems in place for key categories such as office products, technology, facilities, furniture, etc. What does this study mean for them? What should they take away from it? 

The key takeaway for us from this study is that while business buyers and consumers are inherently different in their purchasing patterns, the truth is that they have similar expectations when it comes to online shopping experience. We recommend business users partner with suppliers that can help them source a vast array of products efficiently.

What measures is Staples Advantage taking to get to know its B2B (procurement) customers better? 

At Staples Advantage, we pay close attention to emulating the B2C omni-channel experience for our B2B customers.

Staples Advantage is creating a convenient and consistent buying experience for B2B customers, as their needs and buying behavior change. We leverage B2B customer data to personalize interactions through our site features, such as the Dashboard – which shows customers’ “need-to-know” information, including recent orders, order status, shopping lists and products that may need to be reordered. Re-order status is based on the frequency that the user purchases the product, determining when particular items may be running low and need to be restocked.

The study implies that companies like Staples Advantage are better prepared to meet the needs of the study’s participants than pure Internet retailers. Will you comment on this? 

According to the Forrester study, nearly half of B2B buyers now make work-related purchases on websites and mobiles apps they also use for their personal shopping. As we mentioned earlier, Staples Advantage is in a unique position to provide a similar shopping experience to business users that they have come to expect when shopping for personal use. For example, with Staples Advantage, customers can order online or from the Staples Advantage mobile app for a quick pick-up in store at the agreed-upon, prices stipulated in their contracts. Staples Advantage is an e-commerce website built for business users, making the shopping experience easy and personalized without added costs.

What are the consequences of a company serving the B2B market not reacting to the results of this study?

The B2B firms surveyed are investing in omni-channel capabilities to drive additional efficiencies and customer engagement.

Companies that fail to maximize today’s variety of digital channels or leverage buyer data for increasingly personalized interactions run the risk of delivering a disjointed, unsatisfying customer experience. It’s a matter of keeping pace or lagging behind competitors and subsequently surrendering the customer loyalty to a player who is more in tune with these market needs.

What is Staples Advantage’s omni-channel plan? Is Staples Advantage borrowing ideas from the consumer side of the business? Which ones? In practice, how would you say Staples Advantage is meeting customer expectations outlined in the study–enhanced fulfillment capabilities, inventory visibility and superior customer experience?

Omni-channel is no longer a buzzword for B2B buyers. It’s a must. Staples Advantage is creating a cohesive experience for customers across all purchasing channels – in-store, online and via the company’s mobile app.

The mobile app not only provides on-the-go ordering, but also enables customers to use their smartphone to scan the barcode on needed items. Now with the app, they don’t have to leave the supply room to order. This decreases the amount of time it takes to order supplies. In addition, if a customer has approvals required, approvals can be done real time without holding anyone or anything up.

Staples Advantage introduced new tools such as Visual Search, which is especially beneficial for more visual categories like interiors and furniture. Staples Advantage is the first major e-commerce site to offer the functionality.

By selecting product images to initiate a search, customers can find visually similar products to those desired, and quickly narrow search results to those that are similar in terms of color, shape and texture. As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words” – and office products are no exception, as it’s hard to adequately describe some products through text alone.

We find particularly interesting the finding that 69% of study participants prefer to use “direct instant forms of payment.” We’re hearing that companies in the U.S. are slow to switch from their use of other forms of payment (like paper checks). Perhaps this will help speed up that transition?

Staples Advantage offers multiple ways for consumers to shop and pay for their orders. As more and more companies begin to understand the importance of catering to their consumers’ unique needs, we wouldn’t be surprised if more companies presented a variety of ways to shop and purchase.

Another interesting point is that study participants would like to be able to leverage reporting and analytics to measure effectiveness. Reporting and analytics are also important tools used by strategic sourcing teams to monitor supplier performance, manage total cost, prepare for negotiations with suppliers, etc. Please comment on this. 

Staples Advantage provides a personalized experience, with recommendations tailored to customers’ organizational needs, helping them discover other products they may need, with a simplified check-out process. In addition, customers can see what supplies they may be running low on and need to reorder based on their order frequency history. With an emphasis on streamlining the customer experience online, browsing is now easier than ever with consolidated categories and the ability to browse by industry. Users can also view recently purchased items and a revamped deals section that highlights the best savings opportunities for their organization.

In addition, Staples help to manage total costs by eliminating rogue spend for customers. Today’s customers shop in a variety of ways – in-store, online and on their mobile devices. We have optimized for tablets and have a mobile app for smartphone devices to ensure businesses can easily shop wherever and whenever is convenient for them. Because Staples Advantage provides additional ways for customers to shop, there is always a way to shop with Staples Advantage within their negotiated contract price.

Going forward, do you have suggestions for our readers on what they should be thinking about/planning for (regarding implications of this study)?

Whether it’s an easy checkout process or adding multiple products to the shopping cart at a time, businesses should look to provide a seamless shopping experience to customers. Whether its viewing recently purchased items, quick order or an easy checkout process, companies should strive to provide a seamless shopping experience.

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