CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
March 31, 2020
Forward Thinking

Commentary: Getting B2B digital sales right in the wake of COVID-19

Social distancing measures are making it even more important for companies to have a digitally enabled sales and supply chain operations.

Many business-to-business (B2B) companies are somewhere along the journey of transforming their resource-intensive "traditional" sales model to that of a modern, digitally-enabled one - shifting the role of the salesperson from ordering and re-ordering to consultative guidance. Now with COVID-19 forcing companies to bend and flex in ways previously unimagined, a digitally enabled sales model and supply chain is even more important than ever.

Companies need to make sure that, above all else, they can deliver the following five critical capabilities.

  1. Inventory transparency. Do you have the product available? When business customers place orders from their suppliers, they need to know whether the products they're ordering are even available. If the products are out of stock, then customers likely need to go look for the same or similar products from other suppliers. In this circumstance, B2B companies should be ready to offer alternative recommendations to avoid losing the sale. 
  2. Distribution tracking. Where is my order? Everyone in the business-to-consumer (B2C) space is accustomed to tracking their shipments, and many logistics companies provide live-tracking of freight and trucks. In light of COVID-19, this is now "table stakes"—all companies must provide this. Businesses need to plan almost down to the minute when orders are arriving, as their staff are probably in high rotation with time-sensitivity throughout the day.
  3. Inventory forecast. How long will you have the product in stock? When business customers order products that are in stock, it is vital to know if it's going to be in short supply in the future. It may be a critical product that the customer needs to stock up on (armed with that information), or it may be the case that the customer needs to take preventative action with its own consumers to ensure readiness and manage expectations.
  4. Priority purchases. Can you ship to hospitals first? Emergency care providers and other critical organizations and businesses must be allowed to take priority over noncritical customers and transactions. This includes putting critical customers at the front of the line for select products in limited supply (for example, personal protective equipment) and providing them with expedited delivery options.
  5. Essential stock. Can you help me ensure I stay stocked on essential items? In many states now, only "essential businesses" can stay open at all. These include grocery stores, healthcare services, and hardware stores, among others. These businesses are now facing a far higher and less predictable demand for products than they had previously. For items that are essential (for example, bottled water, canned food, and medical supplies), businesses need their suppliers' help to ensure that shelves are remaining stocked.

To provide these holistic, end-to-end capabilities, digitally enabled sales models need to be tightly integrated with supply chain systems, including planning, sales and operations planning, inventory management, and distribution. Ideally these would all be managed through an ecommerce engine, allowing customers to serve themselves. At the least, sales reps should be able to help customers with these five capabilities quickly and easily.

For companies that do not have these capabilities or integrated systems in place today, this crisis is a clear wake-up call for the urgency of modernizing tools and capabilities.

Joshua Swartz is a partner in the Digital Transformation practice of Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm.

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