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Guide to the Eight Stages of B2B Industrial Website Evolution

I was in Santa Clara, California this past week at the RoboBusiness conference. My biz dev lead and I surveyed all of the robotics industry manufacturers there. They comprised some 70 providers of robotics supply chain components such as servos, cabling systems, control units, platform solutions, and the like. From fully assembled industry robotics solutions to individual bearing and articulation systems, every business sold complex configurable products.

Our interviews confirmed something we’ve learned from our clients in this industry: There are eight stages of adoption of web-based sales tools and enablement.

Stage 1: You have nothing

At this stage, we encountered in our interviews that businesses still relied completely on traditional sales teams. It's a tall order to develop and maintain web-based sales systems for complex and configurable products and services. Picking the right starting point and knowing how to iterate on the web takes time, money, and attention. These businesses were not there yet or they had significant skepticism about whether a website could be an effective member of a sales team.

Stage 2: You have WordPress

In our experience, we’ve found that a number of industrial businesses, including those at the RoboBusiness conference, have someone in-house who is capable of standing up a simple WordPress website. These were largely brochure websites with very little investment.

At Solspace, we advocate very strongly for moving onto the web in progressive steps. As a first move into digital, a WordPress website is a perfectly sensible move. However, with such a simple initial effort, there is little data or feedback to work with to know whether the web can be a viable sales channel for an industrial business. We urge a bit more courage in this early stage.

Stage 3: You have detailed product pages with PDF Spec Sheets

In our next tier of industrial businesses, we find the next logical progression of supporting sales on the web. These businesses are starting to meet the demands of industrial customers who want to prepare themselves in detail before talking to a sales rep. These customers want full specifications for tolerances, capacities, compatibility, and constraints. They expect to speak intelligently, and in detail, with any sales rep they may encounter.

The website at this level is maintained regularly, has up-to-date pages for each product line, and makes PDF specification sheets available for download. These are websites on platforms beyond the simple WordPress implementation but still on inexpensive open-source tools.

Stage 4: You have a product catalog available for search and browse

Websites at stage 4 have a full product catalog available with search and browse capability. Faceted search is supported and data is kept up-to-date within 12 months or so of relevance.

These websites are not yet integrated with any other systems such as ERP, CRM, or inventory resource systems. Nevertheless, customers can avail themselves of significant useful specification information so that they can begin to assemble their own solutions and improvise their own quotes before talking to a sales rep.

Stage 5: You have parts available for online purchase with system integrations

At stage 5, not only does a business have an extensive parts catalog online, but it is also current within a 3-7 day range. These systems are integrated at least minimally with other online tools so that 'real-time' is actually an accurate description for at least part of the website.

These websites are definitely pulling their own weight alongside the sales team. The sales team is glad the resource exists and regularly refers existing customers to it in order to facilitate online purchase of replacement and add-on parts and service.

These websites are built on more sophisticated web development platforms such as Craft CMS or a composable architecture. They are beginning to serve as a hub for the company's business rules online. Data flows through these platforms at scale.

Stage 6: You have full configure, price, quote (CPQ) capability with system integrations

At this next stage, you've invested in your website being a fully enabled and empowered member of your sales team. It even has its own sales quotas!

Your website has a legitimate CPQ capability allowing customers to not only fully explore the specifications of your offering but assemble their own solutions online. Customer purchases still must be routed through your human sales team, but a great deal of the sales work is done online; less error-prone and available 24/7.

This type of system integrates with your CRM at a minimum so that solutions configured by customers land in the lead queue of your sales team for verification and fulfillment.

Stage 7: You have all of the above with big ticket, staged e-commerce with system integrations

Websites in this stage are capable of completing the sale of full solutions made above. Customers can research, understand, configure, quote, AND buy all online. Even when your solutions land in the six-figure price range, customers are able to pay for these through e-commerce using payment plans based on solution delivery stages.

For example, a customer places an initial deposit for a configured solution. Once that solution moves into production with your fulfillment team, the next payment is due. Then when the solution passes its internal QA and certification, the next payment is due. Then finally, when the solution is crated/paletted and sent out for delivery, final payment is due. All of these payment stages take place online through credit card or ACH bank transfer.

These systems are, of course, deeply integrated with the rest of your revenue pipeline. Almost everything is real-time and automated. The humans on your team are focused on human relationships. The computers are focused on repetitive computer stuff.

Customers at this stage see very little difference between your business and your website. They interact with your online service portal, review order status, and often interact with sales all online at any hour of the day from anywhere in the world.

Stage 8: All of the above + IOT

Rare but still real, your industrial solutions, in the field, communicates back to your digital systems, filtering valuable data, and reports back to your customer through your web portal. These are IOT-enabled solutions provided by you. They increase their value to your customer by continuing the online engagement, reinforcing the notion that your web portal IS you. Your web portal IS core to your product.

At stage 8, the friction across your solutions, both real world and digital, is greatly reduced, increasing flow and preserving value reliability. You remain in continuous interaction with your customer. This gives you vastly increased customer touch points which enhances your ability to detect market problems that you are positioned to solve.

Special thanks to the Netlify Compose conference for these additional insights.

Your stage: How do you progress to higher, more sophisticated stages?

If you’re in the industrial manufacturing or distribution world, you likely saw your own business described in one of these stages. Your first thought might be, “So what? Can’t I just stay where I am?” You can, but not without great risk. Buyer’s behaviors are changing because the buyers themselves are changing. (Read more in our recent blog post, “Manufacturing Is Going Digital Because Manufacturing Is Going Millennial”). Modern industrial buyers desire as much as 70% or more of the buying journey to happen online. And, many are ready to complete purchases for these high-cost, high-stakes, configurable products online through e-commerce. What works today will not work tomorrow.

So, how do you advance to more digital/online web-based sales activities? The simplest answer is step-by-step. Large enterprise-level technology solutions tend to jump businesses ahead many stages at once. But, this can be costly in more ways than one. First, the upfront capital expenditures can be eye-watering. And, there is an adoption cost too. Your sales staff, production teams, distribution, inventory management, etc. will have to drastically change their behaviors in leaps and bounds all at once. Problems arise, and advancement seems like a mistake. However, it’s really just too much too soon.

At Solspace, we know the answer to this advancement of online sales behavior is to implement it incrementally through composable web services. By using a “headless” or composable approach, you can augment your current website and tech stack to introduce functions such as faceted search, CPQ engines, or connections to ERP or inventory management on an as-needed basis. This way, you can acclimate your teams to adopt the new behaviors bit by bit. This causes less disruption and friction and greatly increases the opportunity for the implementation to be successful.

You’re even allowed to experiment. By implementing a new feature on a specific line of products or for a limited number of customers, you can gauge reactions and plan for scale moving forward. Upfront costs are kept manageable and only low amounts of change are introduced to keep friction at a minimum. Once you’ve realized the benefits of the next consecutive stage, you can begin the work of implementing new services (through a composable approach) to advance you to the stage after that. Plus, with the right partner, you should already be planning the upcoming stages well in advance and adjusting as needed.

Industrial purchasing is shifting. The change is inevitable. The solution is to recognize which stage you’re at now and start planning and preparing for the steady, controlled advancement to meet your buyers where they’re headed.

Need help? Solspace is ready to audit your current status and help you devise a plan to begin your advancement in online sales progressively and predictably.

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