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B2B: The Last Mile

As the great philosopher Yogi Berra may have said, prediction is difficult, especially if it’s about the future. But I’m in the mood to try something difficult today, so here goes.

First, a prediction about how consumers will buy in the future: more and more online and, for repeated purchases like flights and hotels, through mobile apps. Okay, so that wasn’t much of a prediction, I’ll admit. Amazon, Alibaba, Expedia, Hotels.com, and many more have clearly shown that consumers like convenience. They want to find, compare, price, and transact with as little effort as possible. It may be fun to cruise the mall, and to see and be seen, but when it comes to actually buying something, the last mile of B2C is an e-commerce page or the transaction screen of a mobile app.

Vive les Différences!

But what about business buyers? Will B2B also discover that its last mile is an e-commerce site or a mobile app? Won’t convenience win out in the end, as inexorably as it is doing with consumers?

My prediction is that it won’t. Sure, there will be ways to buy the easy stuff, like pens and paper clips. But there are two deep differences between business and consumer purchases that will stem the tide of convenience in favor of a cautious and considered approach: trusting a salesperson to help choose what to buy and how to buy it.

Those two differences are:

  1. Businesses products almost always require some level of adaptation and integration, because each business is a unique system. While we like to think of people as unique individuals, two people are nowhere near as distinctly different as two businesses. Every business has a genesis, history, and internal complexity — usually including lots of politics — that forces careful consideration of whether to buy anything new at all. And that consideration is almost always by some sort of group or committee, formal or informal. We talk about “the decision maker” in business as though such a person exists; but anyone who sells to businesses knows full well that in businesses bigger than a one-person shop, decision makers are mythical beasts.
  2. Business buyers are not risking their money when they make a purchase decision; they are risking a career, college education for the kids, and their retirement. Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, but I think it may understate the case. No one wants to be that idiot who bought the stupid system that took two years to implement only to find out it only does half the job. And given the natural complexity and unique characteristics of each business, it’s easy to be that idiot.

The result is that business buyers take real care before Docusigning on the bottom line. They ruminate on requirements. They model scenarios. They calculate return on investment. They check reputations. They negotiate prices and terms. They consider complications. And often they just plain pass, or at least put off making a purchase now in favor of seeing how far they can go with the status quo.

Yes, Once Again, It’s About Those Conversations

So what is the “e-commerce site” of B2B that lets a business purchase go the last mile? It’s the salesperson. Not because the salesperson facilitates the transactional part of the sale, although they probably will do so. It’s because the salesperson provides the combination of information and assurance that lets that amorphous decision-making cloud coalesce into a transaction.

And if the salesperson plays the role of the e-commerce site, then where is the content and where are the clicks that guide the buyer from desire to purchase? They’re in the sales conversations that let a buyer explore, tentatively at first but with increasing confidence over time (if the salesperson does a good job) the possibility that this purchase might be a good thing — for their company and, more importantly, for their career.

So my prediction is this: businesses will only get more differentiated and more complex, and therefore, B2B buying (and selling) will look less and less like B2C buying (and shopping) over time. And the last mile of B2B will stay more firmly inside those millions of daily sales conversations without which business itself would grind to a halt.

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