For B2B Leaders, Empathy Is the Key to Successful Digital Transformation

Go easy on staff and customers who are jittery about e-commerce.

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For today’s B2B merchants, digital transformation is no longer optional, but that doesn’t mean the process of moving business operations online always goes smoothly. Usually, the greatest challenges aren't around the technology, but rather the people and company culture and the processes involved in the transformation.

Challenges that accompany digital transformation are easy for B2B leaders to overlook. If you’re adopting new technologies, after all, you probably believe they’ll make your company better, and that the changes will ultimately be good for both your employees and customers. Many executives assume that those benefits speak for themselves, and that everyone will see the coming changes as the improvements that they are.

Often, though, the benefits come later. What staff and customers see is simply disruption and change — and change can be annoying or even scary. That’s why it’s vital to communicate clearly as you embark on a digital transformation project, and to treat both your staff and your customers with real empathy when rolling out new e-commerce infrastructure. 

Make your employees feel valued

It’s easy to understand why some employees might have doubts about digital transformation projects. After all, automation often means that some tasks that were previously done by people are now done by machines — and that can seem threatening.

To keep your staff on your side, it’s important to engage them early in the process. Executives who take an overly top-down approach, for instance, may wind up pushing out tech-based “solutions” that don’t solve real problems for rank-and-file teams. Instead, it’s important to listen and learn early on, and to keep conversations and lines of communication open as decisions are made and new technologies are implemented.

This is especially important when you’re dealing with your sales teams, who quite naturally often see e-commerce as a threat to their core function. The goal should always be to ensure that employees understand how technology will make it easier for them to create value for the business — and thus make them more valuable. A sales rep, for instance, needs to understand how digital tools can help to surface new leads or enable them to intervene strategically to close deals or create upsell opportunities. 

A good digital solution will be the distillation of your team’s knowledge, experience, and expertise, designed to complement your sales team, increasing synergy while removing the stress of repetitive tasks or complex analogue processes. It should also be made clear to workers that digitization will make their jobs easier, remove friction, remove silos, and allow them to make more informed, data-driven decisions in ways that elevate them rather than supplanting them.

Keep customer satisfaction at the top of your priority list 

If you do a good job of presenting digital transformation to your team in an empathetic and convincing way, you can help staff see digitization as something that’s personally important to them. In a sense, your employees become champions of change — and that makes them far more likely to help bring your customers along for the ride as well.

It’s important to remember that no matter how big the benefits your digital tech brings, implementing it will mean changing processes in ways that cause some degree of disruption to existing customers. That’s especially true if your processes have historically depended on more organic person-to-person relationships: a customer who is used to picking up the phone to place an order might feel isolated or undervalued if you abruptly tell them to use a web portal instead. That is what makes it so important to bring your customers into the transformation process early on, in order to figure out exactly what they want so you can deliver exactly that.

The goal should be to support your customers — not least by continuing to take their phone calls, for example — while encouraging your team to gently highlight new tools or services as they become available. Clear communication, backed up by enthusiastic engagement from your customer-facing employees, is the best way to ensure that your customers feel valued and supported as you transition to a digital commerce system. The key is to ensure that customers understand that their relationship with you isn’t changing — it’s just growing richer, more sophisticated, and more streamlined.

Empathy is everything

For B2B leaders, the key is to view digital transformation holistically — not simply as a process of rolling out new technologies, but also as a process of elevating the human interactions that define your brand and your business culture. Seen this way, it becomes clear that digital transformation isn’t just about putting infrastructure in place. It’s also about managing and optimizing the way that people across your organization interact with and leverage new technologies to drive value for everyone.

Realizing the potential of B2B e-commerce requires both visionary and compassionate leadership from executives who are optimistic, but also sensitive to the stress that change brings. It also means being willing to listen when people tell you that things aren’t working the way you’d hoped. Digital transformation shouldn’t be about laying down the law and unilaterally telling people they need to get with the program: it should be a process of give and take, with people openly flagging problems as they emerge so that they can be addressed and resolved promptly.

That’s doubly true when it comes to your customers, of course. When transitioning to a new e-commerce platform, prioritize customers by proactively developing tools they may need. If a customer grumbles, engage empathetically, explain the change, and offer support to make the transition easier. Some customers may need extra help with new digital tools, so be patient and offer guidance. Combining proactive development and empathetic engagement is key to a successful transition.

Crucially, if you can rally your team — and your customers — around a shared sense of purpose and mission, then you’ll find that you’ll all treat one another with more empathy as you roll out new technologies and elevate your business processes. It won’t always be a smooth ride, but the more you respect the people on whom your business depends, the less resistant they’ll be to change — and the easier you’ll find it to drive digital transformation and lasting success for your company.

Yoav Kutner is the co-founder and CEO and of Oro Inc., which created OroCommerce, the No. 1 open-source e-commerce platform built for distributors, wholesalers, brands and manufacturers.

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