In today’s technology-driven marketplace—where buyers can easily compare sellers online and shift their business at the drop of a hat—finding creative ways to make your company stand out is crucial. And no one does it better than National Business Furniture (NBF), a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based seller celebrating 40 years in business. While great products and exceptional service form the cornerstone of NBF’s success, the company’s innovative use of e-commerce has played a pivotal role as well.
In addition to its catalog, national sales force, and website, NBF sells through multiple electronic networks and portals, with the Ariba® Network as a key resource. The results speak for themselves, with NBF achieving double-digit sales growth on Ariba for eight years running, and 2015 sales surpassing the highest year ever.
So what makes NBF’s approach unique? To find out, we talked to Brady Seiberlich, IT eProcurement and development manager, who spearheads the company’s e-commerce program and has a veteran’s insight into what works and what doesn’t.
How has your e-commerce offering given you a competitive advantage?
It really helps us meet our customers’ needs and differentiate ourselves. Office furniture is not a disposable good, so people don’t buy from us every month. That means we have to make the buying experience as enjoyable as possible, so six months from now when you want a new desk or chair, you come back to us. That’s what we try to do with the different e-commerce offerings we provide.
It also gives us more flexibility in serving our customers. We can make daily changes to our offerings based on demand, and we can tell customers instantly about new products rather than waiting weeks or months until the next catalog comes out. Buyers today are sophisticated; they want the ability to do price and feature comparisons right there. We try to give them as much information on the web as we can, so they have everything they need without having to call us. If they want to call that’s great, and we offer live chat too, but we
really focus up front on making their online purchasing experience very friendly, easy, and efficient.
What’s the most innovative thing you’ve done with e-commerce so far?
I would say creating the virtual showroom on our website, where customers can click on a product and one of our people walks them over to that product and shows it to them. If they’re trying to narrow down their selection, it really helps to see someone sitting at the desk, how easy it is to move the chair up and down, and the way to put it together. Most of our competitors can’t offer that level of support, and we believe it sets us apart.
What specific advantages or capabilities does Ariba give you?
With Ariba, we can be unique by customer, because we can customize catalogs for each company to meet their specific preferences. With other networks, everybody has to play by the same rules.
We’re also seeing a greater number of smaller orders through Ariba, which was one of our goals in joining the network. That’s because more companies are using platforms like Ariba to control their spend, plus it’s easier to buy through so people use it even for lower-value purchases.
And from an accounting standpoint, we get paid so much faster through Ariba than some of the other portals we use. Obviously we like that, and other companies do too; they like that they’re getting it off their books right away. Often a customer can place an order in the morning and it’s closed that night.
How has e-commerce/Ariba impacted your sales process?
It really helps improve it. Our website holds close to 100 pieces of information about each product we sell, and that doesn’t even include all the videos. Our salespeople know exactly where everything is, so they can help customers find what they’re looking for all in one spot, right there at their fingertips.
It drives efficiency, too. If a customer can look online and find what they need to make their purchase via Ariba and the e-commerce platform, there’s really no touchpoint on our side. It eliminates the data entry piece, so we can spend more time on strategic projects. We’ve done some studies on this, and an order with 10 line items usually takes 10-12 minutes to input, but when it comes in on the network it’s about 15 seconds, which is amazing. Plus it reduces errors by requiring customers to be thorough with their orders before they can submit them.
It also gives us another avenue to attract customers to our offerings, and that exposure is helping us expand into new industries and markets.
What processes do you have in place for improving your e-commerce offerings?
We measure everything and base decisions on that. We track customer experience in various ways, including focus groups, surveys, requests for product reviews, and follow-up emails on abandoned shopping carts. We track how customers arrive at our site and what caused them to order from us, and we do that for phone orders too. We track our pay-per-click performance and how our web page search terms perform so we can fix problems and continually make things better.
We also go to events like Ariba LIVE and listen to the speakers’ experiences, because you can learn a lot from what somebody else did wrong or right.
What have been your main e-commerce challenges/lessons learned?
Trying to stay on top of technology and trends in an ever-changing environment is a huge challenge; a great idea today might be outdated next week. And I would say the biggest lesson learned is not to bite off more than you can chew. You need to be sure what you do makes sense for your company.
What advice would you offer to other sellers about using e-commerce?
Embrace it! E-commerce is not going anywhere, and to be successful in this market, you have to be willing to invest time and effort in it. Otherwise, you’ll see your competitors pass you by.