This piece was originally published on Pumps & Systems
In a world where online shopping reigns and cyber sales days have eclipsed Black Friday, retailers are scrutinizing page views and other Google Analytics as carefully as gross receipts and shelf positioning.
The business-to-business market, or B2B, also has embraced the virtual bazaar. Frost & Sullivan estimates that B2B e-commerce will reach $12 trillion in worldwide sales by 2020, up from $5.5 trillion in 2012.
Two recent surveys concluded that virtual business buyers set the same high standards for commercial transactions as they expect from consumer goods. They insist on a convenient and transparent shopping experience.
These demands may be relatively straightforward and even easy to satisfy for some companies such as office product suppliers or standardized equipment vendors like computer outlets. However, that is not always the case for those selling pumps and complex pumping systems. These manufacturers often find virtual purchasing much more challenging than simply coding a website and setting up a payment engine.
“The struggle lies in how to make information available without overwhelming people,” said Stephanie Welda, business development manager for Grundfos. Welda just completed an upgrade and overhaul to the company’s “Grundfos Express” online portal.
“You strive to balance sometimes competing interests, such as offering accurate, comprehensive data and protecting trade secrets, while also responding to the needs and expectations of users who often have very different levels of product knowledge and experience,” Welda said.
“It often comes down to how much information you can share, especially with potential customers who may not have a long history in selecting, configuring and pricing pumps,” said Dave Brockway, a pump industry veteran for two decades before co-founding software provider Intelliquip in 2000.
“If I’m going to buy something technical, like a whole house security and monitoring system, I will want to talk to a live expert and learn from his or her expertise,” he added. “In the same way, even if a pump manufacturer handed me complete access to their full selection and configuration software, how much do I gain if I don’t know how to use it properly?”
Laurent Davis, sales operations director of Water Technologies for Pentair, has led the creation of new online portals for his firm’s equipment, such as fire pumps.
“In many ways, we aren’t selling a product,” he said. “We are selling the ability to meet duty conditions. Our customers include super users with decades of expertise and knowledge and ‘novice’ buyers who only know flow and head requirements and rarely request a specific model. It’s not easy to develop the software tools that can cater to all these different levels of knowledge.”
How to bridge user demand for convenience with a company’s need for accuracy can depend, in part, upon the complexity of the pump.
“For standard products, we can give them the easy, the ‘lite version,’” said Harinath Tirumal, head of Marketing Oil and Gas for Sulzer. “But when it comes to highly engineered products, we let them select what is possible, and then we encourage them to contact us, to give us the ability to better understand their unique requirements and provide a customized solution. This makes complete sense if you consider that, when you select and configure what could be a $1 million pump, it’s probably the very first time it’s being designed uniquely for your conditions.”
Sulzer agreed to make a special selector available through Aspen Technologies’ aspenONE Exchange because the portal is widely used by rotating equipment/process engineers in the oil and gas market. To simplify selection for this audience of users, the company and its software provider created a special “stripped down” version of its internal STARS Selector.
Jeff Frank, Franklin Electric’s senior project manager for advanced application and innovation, is overseeing the development and implementation of the company’s new online portal. He sees the lines between various customer groups blurring and dissolving, in part because of technology’s capabilities.
“With the growth in mobile apps, all users now expect their online tools to be intuitive, graphically pleasing and easy to use,” Frank said. “All users, regardless of past experience and knowledge, expect whatever functionality they need to be at their fingertips, when they need it, and in a way that isn’t cluttered or confusing.”
The user interface is key to bridging the gap, as is training and education.
“Intuitive is the first word in every conversation,” said Grundfos’ Welda. “We don’t want users to need to call for help. The tool should be self-guided and answer key questions as you progress. We also have online technical training institutes and host webinars on specific pump applications and products. We are considering additional tutorials or webinars to talk about specific topics like parallel pumping.”
What works best, said Pentair’s Davis, is to automate the complex first. “We really dove into the inner ring to start, using [software] tools to serve our super users. We implemented all our product lines into that tool, addressing every single possible question an engineer can have. We relied on our experienced internal application engineers and our most talented, Type-A distributors, people who can navigate our catalog as well as or even better than many of our employees.”
“Now we can use that core knowledge base to help us craft solutions for the specifying community who know more about their project and less about our products,” he added. “This means creating tools that make it easy for specifiers to identify and select products and generate general layout drawings. It also means developing web-based training software. Users can now register for interactive training that includes video product demonstrations and detailed explanations of the various nuances of selecting. Our success with these customers depends upon a combination of training, simplified processes and extremely intuitive software.”
As manufacturers continue “right sizing” their software for various skills and classes of buyers, they face real challenges. For Sulzer and Tirumal, part of the solution is to require users to register and login. This step better protects intellectual property, offers business intelligence that helps determine when “self-serve” really should be “sales-served,” and satisfies the end user’s thirst for data while fostering a collaborative environment that enables users to easily ask for assistance.
Franklin Electric does not require a login. “We recognize that our customers are looking for quick and easy access to not only product information but also fully configured quotes containing multiple items,” Frank said. “To allow for this, we felt it was important to provide all the information in an open access format. For Franklin, service is a high priority. An open system provides what our customers expect.”
These and other decisions are a natural part of the online evolution, which will be tested, refined and rewired as more results come in.
“Online pump selection and purchasing will definitely benefit pump manufacturers and their customers in the short and long term. But it will take endurance and discipline to make it work well,” said Brockway. “It’s neither quick nor painless to make simple what is often complex. Companies want tools to work for casual users but they can’t just say, ‘Here, use this.’ When it comes to choosing pumps, effective virtual solutions require a lot of concrete work.”