Is it over for the Bacon Roll? Building Trade B2B Customer Relationships in a digital world

Nothing entices a builder, decorator, or plumber to stop by in the morning quite like a free bacon roll and a hot mug of tea, right? This wholesome approach epitomises the way that Trade Suppliers have been building and nurturing customer relationships for decades, maybe longer. Whether it’s through sophisticated loyalty programs or the promise of a hot breakfast before starting work, success in Trade B2B retail did then and still does live and die on the value of long-term account customers loyalty.


Gartner is predicting that 80% of B2B sales interactions will occur through digital channels by 2025 – a massive leap from 2019 when as much as 60% of leading B2B businesses had little or no ecommerce capabilities  – it is vital that Trade Supplier step up their game and focus on innovation and technologies role to play in delivering a world class customer experience.  

In the first of our series on The Future of B2B Trade Retail, we ask if the sector, long characterised by the one-to-one relationship between the merchant and the tradesperson, is ready to capitalise on the B2B digital revolution? Are Trade retailers ready to explore the opportunities that technical innovation can bring to relationship management, and to translate all that experience in customer nurturing from the one-to-one relationship to their digital platforms? 

Where are we now?

Hannah Foley, Director of Digital at the Wolseley Group – writing in the Builders’ Merchants News in December 2022–  argued that digitising the way that building trades browse and buy was so complex that it has impacted the speed that the sector has been able to embrace all the benefits of eCommerce. The pivotal role of the specialist in B2B trade sales, and the trust and valued relationship between staff and the customer, is extremely hard to replicate in a digital environment. It is this fundamental challenge that – to date – has set B2B trade merchants behind the consumer sector in its adoption of digital sales channels and innovation in customer service.   


What’s driving the need for change?

Customers are changing:  

With each generational shift we see browsing, selecting, and buying behaviours change. Although Gen X (now age 44 to 69) currently represent the largest average household income, largest family units, and the greatest spending power, this is also the generation moving towards retirement. Millennials (who at 28 to 43 represent the largest generation in the UK workforce today) were the first to grow up with the internet and mobile phones and have a reputation for challenging retailers and forcing them to innovate to keep up with expectations of speed and convenience. According to Forrester, these guys make up more than half of all business buyers (with many reports putting it as high as 73%) so bringing their habits and needs to the font of your CX strategy makes sense.   

  • 44% of Millennials prefer no sales rep interaction in a B2B purchase. They expect and are more likely to use self-serve transaction channels, and are pushing vendors to deliver these in the form of external marketplaces, app stores, vendor websites, and  
  • The modern day B2B buyer is already an active information seeker but Millennials and Gen Z will go to more sources and give more credit to third-party resources (such as recommendations, reviews, endorsements) than vendor resources.  

In a 2021 whitepaper commissioned by DHL, Leendert van Delft, VP of DHL Global Sales and eCommerce, said that, if B2B businesses want to make the most out of e-commerce opportunities, “they need to start adapting to the changing buying behaviours, especially with the upcoming generation of Millennials as B2B decision-makers, who are further driving the digitalisation of the sector.”.“B2B customer experiences” he stressed, “have to be more aligned with the digital B2C experiences.” 

Sales strategies are shifting: 

The National Buying Group (NBG) published a paper examining Valuing Local Independent Trade Merchants in a Digital World in 2022 and unearthed some surprising results. Even after COVID had driven 61.5% of tradespeople to buy more online, in September 2022 just 8% of trade sales were digital. This was the lowest rate for any retail sector.  A robust online presence is crucial for any retail business but, for B2B Trade, the offering needs to be more nuanced, more integrated, and more personalised to drive value. 

As Foley explains, the Wolesley Group understand that the challenge is knowing how to replicate the value that trade merchant specialists have, in a digital environment. It’s not about how to replace colleagues, she says, but rather asking “how do we complement them and provide that same expertise through our digital channels to give our customers the ability to do what they need to do 24/7 when our colleagues aren’t available, or when [customers] don’t need that human interaction.” 

What could change look like?

Digital has a significant role to play but we believe that the value it can deliver goes beyond sales.  

The appetite for digital is certainly there in the customer base, and – although the biggest factors driving sales such as convenience, price, and range – aren’t purely delivered through digital channels, they can be enhanced. Research, price checking and comparisons, building baskets – both for bulk purchases or for customer orders – videos, reviews and even business administration can all be delivered digitally. Tools such as auto reordering of van stock and materials can also provide cross channel support for Tradespeople support both in store and where they are.   

It’s this way that digital can play a greater role in building customer loyalty than the early morning bacon roll. Being able to check stock levels while on site could help customers overcome a familiar frustration with in-person purchasing, online tools can help trade customers create and retrieve quotes, and secure digital payment options can help them pay off their account. These and many more convenient, 24/7, accurate and low friction solutions can help encourage repeat business and increase customer retention.


What next?

The question of what role digital is going to play in B2B customer relationship management is certainly a hot topic.  This year, Profound will be exploring this and other challenges surrounding B2B by running a unique survey across B2B digital, IT and marketing leaders. We’ll be finding out what today’s buyers look for in this space and what turns them off. We will be delving into B2B leaders’ strategic priorities across experience, operations, data, technology and more and exploring their vision for the future, and we will be asking how technical decision makers are prioritising their transformation plans to meet these goals.  

We’d like you to be a part of this survey and we would like to share our findings with you. Please sign up to contribute and hear more from us.


Shaping the Future of B2B

Are you a B2B marketing leader, tech decision maker, or senior strategist? We’re embarking on an exciting research project this summer, and we want you to be part of it! Our mission is to inform and support professionals like you by exploring critical topics such as customer loyalty, innovative technology, organisational design, and ESG.

What can you expect from our research?

  • We’ll kick off with a series of insightful articles covering a wide range of B2B challenges.
  • Our survey will shed light on the current landscape, technology’s role, and triggers for change.

By signing up, you’ll gain exclusive early access to reports, findings, and more. Join us in shaping the future of B2B!