From b-to-b supplier to partner, via the Web

Aug 01, 2000 9:30 PM  By

In the business-to-business world, the World Wide Web is one of the most lucrative opportunities for growth to come along in years. According to Forrester Research, the surge in e-commerce is expected to reach $445 billion in 2000. Tradition catalog companies could be the prime beneficiaries – if we’re willing to do what it takes to make the Internet work for us, and for our customers.

Certain businesses, such as Internet service providers (ISPs), search engines, Website designers, domain-name registrars, and hardware, software, and database manufacturers, will automatically profit from the e-commerce boom. Also in line to reap rewards are companies that facilitate Internet transactions, including credit- and debit-card processors, package delivery services, and fulfillment houses.

But as catalog companies, we won’t reap the rewards of the Web effortlessly. We have to seize the opportunity by adopting a simple axiom for Internet success: Do well by doing good.

We must use the Web to enhance products and services in our catalogs. We need to impress our customers by making their online experience equal to or better than anything they have come to expect through traditional order and delivery cycles. For instance, when customers call in an order, we know who they are. When they shop through the Internet, they need to know that we still know who they are. A 20-year customer cannot suddenly become anonymous simply because he or she decided to shop online.

How does one do this? When customers sign on to your site, greet them by name. Allow them to call up their order history. Enable them to order from their history with a single click. Remind them about potentially low inventory. Suggest new products that other customers in the same business frequently order. Offer them a toll-free number, in case they want human contact, and after they order, send automatic e-mails thanking them for their orders and linking them to the package carriers so that they can trace order delivery. Eventually, news about the ease of e-ordering and the quality of service will spread, and a new generation of customers – electronic from the get-go – will start to grow. Do good, and you’ll do well.

How we do it

At NEBS, most of our customers are small businesses. In fact, 85% of our customer base has fewer than 20 employees. What are the challenges they face with e-commerce? They may be stymied by the technology or lack the time, marketing dollars, or inclination to jump into a vast and potentially scary new world. Here’s where we can do good again.

We can become their online business resource. We can provide informative articles on finance, cash management, marketing, merchandising, and special-event planning. We can offer links to other sites that support small businesses. We can provide “communities of interest,” in which contractors, independent hardware store owners, florists, or any other category of small business can meet online with industry experts – a virtual meeting – to share and discuss strategies for growth and viability in the age of the superstore. Our sites can become business oases, places where people in similar lines of business from across the nation or around the world come together to share ideas and techniques in a noncompetitive, nonthreatening forum.

As a company committed to providing small businesses with products and services that help them run their businesses better, NEBS is also keenly aware that the Internet has the potential to level the playing field between small and large businesses. Toward that end, I believe we should help small businesses embrace the Internet as a tool to increase their revenue and profits. Through partnerships with Website design and hosting companies, we provide free Websites and e-mail to our customers – and even to our prospects in the hope that they will become customers. In the last year alone, more than 12,000 small businesses took advantage of this service, and many have reported double-digit sales increases directly related to new Internet business.

The Website aftermarket

Once customers have a Website, we offer them marketing programs to help expand their reach and their revenue, including domain-name registration, search-engine listing, access to selective banner advertising, and advertising specialties that expand sales by making their URL known to their customers and prospects. When customers’ businesses expand with our help, they will keep us high on the preferred-vendor list. Again, do good, do well.

Only about 10% of small businesses choose direct marketing as their preferred channel to acquire goods and services. If we can help an additional 10% to select the Internet as their preferred channel, we will have doubled our potential market!

The Internet provides an incredible opportunity to proactive catalog companies – those that are willing to move beyond the print, mail, and telemarketing cycle. At NEBS, we look at it this way: If just half of our customers let us help them develop, maintain, and promote their Websites, we will have made 1.25 million small businesses better prepared to compete in this new multichannel economy. In doing so, we move from being a catalog supplier to becoming a business partner. And we all know partners last much longer than suppliers.