Build partner loyalty in tough times

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There’s no doubt the past year has been tough for b-to-b e-commerce. Spending on e-business projects has fallen precipitously, and much-hyped developments, from public e-marketplaces to collaborative e-commerce tools, have been slow to materialize.

But smart companies have found that a downturn is the perfect time to take advantage, in a practical and measured way, of the true strengths of
e-commerce: doing more with less, streamlining business processes and getting closer to customers.

Here are some e-commerce practices b-to-b marketers and e-commerce strategists can apply to their business, in good times and bad.

Become part of the value chain. Companies are only as strong as the weakest link in their so-called "value chain." Marketers rely on their trading partners on the supply side and retailers and resellers on the demand side to work with them more closely then ever before.

E-commerce and the Web are the perfect tools for making value chains work effectively. But where to start? Marketers should make sure their company is an early participant in the supplier portals rolled out by their most valued customers. Any chance you get, position your contribution to the value chain as providing significantly more value—with features such as design help, on-time delivery and product customization—than your competition does.

Don’t get caught marketing a commodity product or capability. The best example of this today is occurring in the auto industry, where b-to-b marketers must become an integral part of the Big Three electronic value chain or be left behind.

Team with your sales channel. In the early days of e-commerce, it was a popular idea that a company’s sales channel—its retailers, resellers and integrators—was more hindrance than help when it came to e-commerce success. That proved to be a myth. Particularly in the b-to-b world, marketers must look to their sales channels as partners in the e-commerce process.

What does that mean? Don’t steal sales from your channel partners; it’s simply not worth it. You’ll lose their loyalty and, perhaps even worse, be forced to deliver channel support functions, such as customer service or post-sales support, that you are totally unequipped to provide.

One solution was found by Kawasaki Motors, which wanted to sell clothes and other accessories via the Web without cutting out its valued retail partners. The solution: an e-commerce platform that credits retailers for purchases made online by local customers.

Create a community that can serve itself. B-to-b markets too often worked to keep customers away from one another. Who knows, they might compare discounts or horror stories.

But the reality is that smart companies bring their customers together via the Internet. Let your b-to-b customers share stories, solutions and technical advice. You’ll find that in many cases they can serve themselves better than you can handle them yourself.

No service is too small if it helps a b-to-b partner. You don’t need to spend $10 million to apply the power of b-to-b e-commerce. Too often, the so-called experts (vendors, analysts) highlight massive e-business software deployments or overly ambitious collaborative projects. But the Web can solve more basic problems. Automate brochure distribution, print catalogs more frequently, make collateral material available online; all these actions can help a b-to-b marketer in ways that really matter.

Consider DuPont Performance Coatings, which built a distributor portal to more quickly and affordably distribute product brochures, material safety data sheets and other key content. Its distributors—"jobbers" in industry parlance—love the convenience of the portal and buy more paint, DuPont execs report.

All of these practices have one thing in common: They not only improve efficiency but also engender loyalty among b-to-b partners. In tough times and good times, that’s a hard-to-beat formula for
e-commerce success.

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