What 'Omnichannel' Actually Means for Distributors

To win in the digital age, you need to show up where your customers are.

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The term “omnichannel” has become something of a buzzword lately. Everyone seems to be talking about omnichannel sales and capabilities, but what does it mean for you?

Omnichannel refers to the connection of all systems, platforms, departments and sales channels. With omnichannel capabilities, distributors can provide customers with a consistent experience across all touchpoints. With AI, that experience isn’t just consistent – it’s seamless.  

Why is this important? B2B customers want options when they shop. They are used to a fluid shopping experience in their personal lives and expect the same from their professional suppliers. 

McKinsey & Company found the number of sales channels available to customers doubled from 2016 to 2021. Modern B2B buyers want to engage with distributors across 10 or more channels and move between channels seamlessly. 

Customer expectations are changing. To win in the digital age, you must engage with emerging trends and show up where your customers are. It’s not just customers who benefit from this new normal. McKinsey found the companies with the highest market share gains in 2021 were the ones that sold through more channels.

Embracing omnichannel is the only way forward. But you don’t have to do it alone. Emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence, can help.

What Is Omnichannel?

As we mentioned, an omnichannel environment is achieved when all systems are connected, and data can flow freely between channels. Done right, an omnichannel model gives you a holistic view of the customer experience and buying journey. When you understand your buyers’ buying patterns and history, you can make insight-driven decisions, like what products to pitch.

Omnichannel capabilities also make it easier for customers to buy from you and are increasingly non-negotiable for doing business. According to McKinsey & Company, 72% of B2B buyers want the option to buy from any channel and will actively look for another supplier if this requirement isn’t met.

With omnichannel, customers can seamlessly float from channel to channel. This means a customer could browse online and then purchase over the phone. Or, they could place an order with a field sales rep and follow up with an email to customer service. With omnichannel, the options are limitless. 

AI Elevates the Omnichannel Experience

With AI-powered omnichannel tools, you can improve how you sell and interact with buyers on each channel. With AI, you can break down the walls between channels.  

You can connect siloed customer information and sales data with omnichannel to a larger system. Then, once all of this information is combined, you can use AI tools to provide personalized insight for each customer, including purchase history, buying preferences, order status and reorder needs. This makes your customers’ lives easier and enables salespeople to be more efficient and consultative. 

Top 10 Distributor Channels

Your customers prefer interacting with 10 or more channels during their shopping journey. Omnichannel removes barriers in the purchasing journey. It makes it easier for customers to interact with your brand and eliminates the unnecessary wait times they would typically have to deal with when interacting with separate channels. 

Let’s dive into how AI improves McKinsey’s top 10 sales channels to see what this looks like.

  • Email: AI tools can review emails as they arrive and automatically send them to the appropriate departments. Some can even transcribe the email’s contents to eliminate manual data entry and order-taking tasks. 
  • In-Person: AI-powered mobile applications help outside sales reps stay up-to-date with customer information and reorder needs. AI tools can also offer product recommendations based on the customer’s account and sales history. This makes it easier to pitch new products and find answers to pressing customer questions – from the convenience of the sales rep’s laptop, phone or tablet. 
  • Phone: Natural language processing AI models can understand voices and inflection more accurately than older voice recognition software. After analyzing a customer’s question and tone of voice, the AI can direct the call to the appropriate person or department or assist the agent to better answer the question to boost customer satisfaction.
  • Supplier’s Website: You can integrate AI tools with your website to enhance the customer experience. For example, greater search functionality makes it easier to find things, while product recommendations offer highly relevant suggestions. “Frequently Bought Together” and “Other Customers Bought” recommendations show customers exactly what they need and what they might have missed.
  • Procurement Department: AI makes it easier for customers to interact with the procurement department. These tools can analyze requests and pass them along to the correct department. Then, once a request is received, AI can also automate the order-entry process and check for errors before fulfillment. 
  • Web Chat: Integrating AI bots with natural language processing into your website will remove some of the pressure on your customer support teams. For instance, chatbots can answer basic questions and help customers find items by directing them to the correct product or web page. In addition, if someone needs to speak with a customer service representative, the chatbot can gather basic account information before passing them along. This feature will reduce wait time once they’re on the phone with a support agent. 
  • E-Procurement Portal: AI can link to e-procurement systems connected to the customer’s ERP system to automate reordering. This technology can also identify potential product needs and alert sales reps to reach out and provide cross-sell recommendations. 
  • Mobile App: If a customer wants to purchase through a mobile app, AI can make it easier to find items and offer helpful product recommendations. Alternatively, if the customer wants to speak with customer support, an AI chatbot can answer basic questions or direct their message to the right person. 
  • Video Conference: Instead of phone calls, many customers are beginning to lean toward video conferencing. AI tools enhance video conferencing by giving sales reps and other customer-facing employees the information needed to upsell, cross-sell and be more consultative during their call. 
  • Web Search: A great website makes it easier for customers to find you online. Creating a robust web presence involves having top-quality content and product information throughout your site. You can use AI tools to add data to your product listings to accomplish this. Some solutions will also add “similar” and “related” tags to items. All of these features improve visibility and help customers find your site. Then, once you’ve drawn them in, AI-powered search engines and recommendation models make it easier for customers to find what they need and place an order.

Your customers are tired of spending hours on the phone trying to get reps up to speed with their latest orders. They are desperate for an easy shopping experience and are willing to take their business elsewhere if you can’t provide it. 

It’s not just a buzzword – omnichannel is table stakes. How many channels do you offer your customers today? If it’s anything less than 10, it’s possible you’re not reaching all your potential customers. In the modern age, omnichannel is the gateway to success, and AI is the key.

Benj Cohen is the founder and CEO of Proton.ai.

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