Digital Transformation

Member Article

Businesses’ 2021 recovery plans tap into the benefits of automation and AI

2020 was a year dominated by disruption. It’s no secret that COVID-19 has drastically altered the way any business operates. This has certainly been the case in the B2B world, with the pandemic leading to a seismic shift in B2B buying behaviours and preferences. And many of these changes look set to be made permanent.

Since the outbreak started, 37 percent of companies were primarily purchasing through digital channels – up 29 percent prior to COVID-19, and this is expected to continue to rise to 40 percent post-pandemic, according to research from PROS. This has led to an extra level of scrutiny on all business activities as working patterns shift and businesses battle against the uncertainty. In fact, according to a McKinsey study, only 15-20 percent of B2B buyers want to interact with sales people face-to-face, even in their ideal post-COVID model. In 2021, businesses will be focusing on what their recovery will look like and how the digital transformation efforts deployed last year can support their rebound.

As businesses look to recover and prosper in 2021, it’s critical that they are able to develop a digital roadmap based on a resilient and robust omnichannel sales model, that is fit for purpose for the evolving digital commerce-based world. The disruption to businesses in 2020 has caused a number of challenges but as ever, challenges lead to innovative problem solving and present opportunities, too. For example, B2B eCommerce has boomed in the last 12 months, simply out of necessity, which means the importance of digital transformation for B2B sellers has never been so clear. But the critical question remains, which technologies and use cases will be the most useful in driving business resiliency and agility?

**Maintaining the human element of the sales process through automation **

2020 saw the acceleration of simple purchases online, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It pressed fast-forward on many organisations’ digital transformation roadmaps and eCommerce plans for well-defined commodities. Over the coming year, we will see the importance of configuration and personalisation become vital in the ever-complex B2B purchasing cycle for multi-variant products and services. B2B selling is far more complex and varied than B2C, as factors such as unique product variants, purchasing cards, invoice terms, customer specific offers and more are brought into play. As this process become more complicated and intricate, the buying phase will need more options to complete the cycle.

Consumer online retail, and especially the purchasing process, has streamlined year on year, to the extent that you can make purchases at the click of a button, delivered straight to your door, exactly as specified. The levels of optionality and complexity vastly increase within the B2B world and if not addressed, will further complicate the challenging landscape that lies ahead. Business leaders must seek to address this through automation.

Where the potential issues lie, is how to achieve automation that is also truly personalised. Customer-friendly buying experiences will become key differentiators as competition ramps up, so while an automated purchase may simplify complex optionality, it could mean that some long-standing customers feel neglected with the lack of a personal touch. What businesses must understand is that simple eCommerce technology will not do the job alone; they must be seen as key enablers for the human face of the business that when built into a digital roadmap, provide the platform for success.

**How AI is facilitating personalisation **

AI (artificial intelligence) is a central pillar of digital transformation due to its ability to consume large amounts of data and extract insights that a human being might otherwise miss. In a world where automation and digital experiences must be implemented to achieve success, using AI to support personalisation of the customer experience is key. Organisations must demand of AI vendors that the technology’s decision-making processes, and the way AI is making those decisions, are transparent enough that they can rely on the outcome, Glass-Box vs Black-Box technology. For example, making use of AI-driven software that presents criteria upon which it is making recommendations to engender trust and confidence in the price and product recommendations a sales representative should use. This means that buyers still get a personal touch, just streamlined and supported through automation.

Widespread adoption of and trust in AI will be considerably undermined if companies can’t trust the kinds of decisions it produces. An AI technology outcome that has shown to be behaving unpredictably will create significant reputational damage for the organisations using it and when it comes to commodity products, companies are going to buy from the brand they know and trust.

What success looks like in 2021

Even the boldest of predictions for the tech sector in 2019 would not have foreseen what lay ahead in 2020. It’s been a tumultuous 12 months for business who have had to be agile enough to scrap existing plans and pivot to meet customer demands and survive. The saving grace, if there is one, is that it forced many to accelerate their digital transformation projects and, in the process, improve their customer experience.

As industries look to recover in 2021, it’s important that the progress made in digital transformation does not stop. Business roadmaps for this year will feature a combination of automation and AI to help evolve the digital buying experience. With automation to simplify complex B2B buying purchases and AI to personalise the end-user experience – trust will be instilled in the company during a volatile landscape.

With all the technology available to businesses, it’s important that the personal touch is not lost. Technology must be seen and deployed as an enabler of employees and not a replacement for them. People still like to buy from people or at least have the opportunity to negotiate with or ask questions of sales reps to help with their decision. Ultimately, customer experience is king, so providing an easy purchasing experience through automation and personalisation, whether that be self-service over electronic channels or informing the sales reps to best empower their performance is essential. Creating buyer trust and convenience will be critical to businesses looking to rebuild in 2021.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by PROS .

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