Daring to be different: How to avoid getting lost in the B2B e-commerce crowd

When it comes to B2B sales, e-commerce is ever-present. Going digital is old news in our industry, but with this greater ease comes an added test: the challenge of differentiation. Now claustrophobic with e-commerce, B2B companies must be savvier than ever before to stand out in the crowd.

Customers’ expectations around user experience are high, and it’s essential for B2B companies to up the ante of what they can deliver. The key to differentiation extends beyond possessing digital tools. It’s about using these tools in innovative ways that transform the experience of the customer.

Thule Inc. Case Study

Before 2012, Thule Inc., the U.S. branch of the Swedish Thule Group, was known as a top provider of sophisticated products including bike and ski racks, and baby carriages to be pushed by runners. Despite its diverse product line, Thule’s innovative approach to merchandise was not mirrored in its e-commerce user experience. As a result of its lackluster online marketplace, only 10 percent of Thule’s North American customers made orders online.

The company’s call center was taking the hit, overwhelmed with calls from the other 90 percent of Thule’s customers, and unable to keep up with demands for orders and questions about the merchandise. While Thule was respected for its high quality products, its reputation was sinking in the minds of its commercial customer base. These customers wanted an efficient, engaging user experience, and Thule lacked the tools to give it to them.

Enter Annie Scopel, the director of Thule’s North America customer service.

Trailblazing the way to e-commerce solutions

Annie Scopel knew this problem was not one of ineffective customer service reps, but of ineffective delivery systems for the company’s products. She advised senior management to develop a new and more innovative e-commerce site, one that would reduce clogging in call centers by redirecting customers online.

This would mean scrapping Thule’s 7-year-old e-commerce site, and replacing it with a user-friendly site. The site would provide customers with updated information about inventory and product launches, simplifying the process of finding products, and allowing them to track their orders online.

When Thule took this suggestion, they directed Annie herself to lead the launch of the new site. Annie had limited experience in e-commerce. But what she lacked in direct experience she made up for in her inventive approach to problem solving.

Reaping the benefits of differentiation

The process of designing digital tools in B2B is complicated, and integrating innovation into these platforms can feel daunting. As Annie Scopel’s story shows us, the key to success is to hone in on the one objective that matters most to your company, the one with the greatest potential for payoff.

For Annie, her biggest goal was to drive customers to go online, both as a vehicle for getting their questions answered, and so they could self-order merchandise through the site. She hoped this would mend the disconnect between Thule and its customer base, while easing the strain on its customer service representatives.

Thus emerged, a new B2B site launched in 2012. The site provides a wealth of information to customers, from frequent updates of available inventory to details about order value thresholds for earning free shipping.

ThuleConnect allows customers a wider range of search capabilities, simplifying the process of locating products, and also supporting cross-selling from among Thule’s diverse product groups.

“We’ve always been in the forefront with products, bringing innovation to them, and now we’re bringing innovation to our dealers so they can have the greatest tools to do business with us,” says Karl Wiedemann, who manages Thule’s communications and sponsorships of sports teams and events.

ThuleConnect was further differentiated from competitors by its content being in both French and English, and featuring prices in Canadian and US dollars. The benefits of this site extended beyond the realm of solving the problem of customer call overflow. The new digital tool enabled a more comprehensive, user-friendly experience for customers worldwide.

Since the launch of ThuleConnect, the company has experienced dramatic success in encouraging online ordering. Two years later, 80 percent of Thule’s B2B customers were ordering online, and it is still trying to encourage even more of its customers to move online. Thule developed an online survey for customers to provide feedback on how ThuleConnect could make for a better online shopping experience. Thule’s relentless pursuit of digital improvements is what differentiates its e-commerce site from the rest.

Learn the art of differentiation from an e-commerce pioneer

Annie Scopel’s efforts have made a significant impact on the satisfaction of her customer base, and the success of her B2B company as a whole. Now we have an opportunity to incorporate these lessons into our own digital strategy.

Annie will be presenting ThuleConnect as a case study at B2B Online 2017. Held on May 8th, B2B Online is the leading conference for digital and ecommerce executives in Manufacturing and Distribution. Bringing together top experts in their fields, B2B Online will give you the tools to bring cutting edge technological capabilities to your business.

Make sure to also download the B2B Online agenda to check out the rest of the great activities, speakers, & sessions planned for this year.

Katie Koppel is a freelance writer based in Boston. She specializes in business and health-related content, and can be reached at

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