Driven by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, changing consumer preferences, and grounded sales teams, chemical companies are faced with a choice. Use the power of digital technologies to drive growth or be left with an antiquated sales process that can easily be disrupted.

2020 was all about going digital. Customers of every industry were (and still are) suddenly living, working, and purchasing online. But the past year was also all about chemicals—vaccine technology, sanitizers, and cleaning products, to name a few. Found in 96 percent of manufactured goods, the industry’s solutions are critical to our society, to leading healthy, safe, sustainable lives.

While the chemical industry is on the forefront of driving materials innovation, due to regulatory and distribution challenges, it has notoriously been slower than other industries to move sales processes online. Hit hard by supply chain disruptions and a severe drop in end-market demand over the course of the last year, that seems to be changing. In fact, digital B2B commerce is proving to be a significant growth opportunity for the chemical industry and will likely gain even more traction in 2021.

Let’s look at how the need for innovation is driving an industry shift—and how these companies can leverage this unique opportunity to prioritize sustainability, empower their sales teams, and make it much easier to do business.

Why digital? Why now?

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced chemical companies to adapt to working remotely, rethink how they sell products, and invest in virtual engagement. In addition, changes in policy, energy prices, sustainability, and the workforce—including a growing millennial segment—have led to new elevated expectations for chemical companies, their employees, and their customers.

At its core, the chemicals industry has always been about people and their safety. In fact, our research showed that most B2B sellers recognize the need for empathy with their clients. Yet, many tend to view empathy as only a person-to-person response rather than a strategic approach supported by technology. Some may even feel that digital solutions jeopardize the industry’s traditionally personal relationships, but the opposite is true.

By adopting human-centric strategies and digital capabilities, B2B companies can improve those connections, make it easier for customers to do business with them, and gain a competitive advantage. How so? B2B customers aren’t just looking for a product to buy. They’re looking for solutions and, ultimately, for experiences, and they’re willing to pay for them. Our market research shows that B2B buyers are on average 34 percent more likely to buy and 32 percent more likely to renew a contract with B2B-leading suppliers that master customer experience.

graphic of customer experience statistics

This includes new sustainable product development; access to real-time inventory data to enable better business decision making; simplified, integrated ordering; and more personalized, trust-oriented service. We are seeing that chemical sales organizations are initiating organizational and platform changes to meet these demands, but still have a way to go to fully transition to digital selling.

The future of chemical sales is B2B commerce

As the competition for attention and loyalty intensifies, chemical companies seeking digital transformation will need to shift their focus from product to customer—and collaborate across business units to reimagine interactions and deliver a differentiated human experience. This approach might entail developing new capabilities and leveraging data to target, craft, and deliver not only product information and messaging but moments that matter. There are six major elements to consider:

Digital empowers sales
Chemical companies need to solve for a new age of selling digitally—not making it less human, but in fact more so. Many B2B companies are increasingly using digital tools to support the whole sales process. Offering downloadable product documents and regulatory information, enabling self-service research, and simplifying the ordering process can help remove the friction of doing business and make life easier for the sales team, enabling them to focus on higher value tasks.

Seamless order experience
Today’s customer wants to know that no matter how they connect with you, the experience will be consistent. From quote to order, delivery to follow-up, seamless order management across channels—whether physical or digital—is essential. Customer portals with digital capabilities like click-to-reorder, order statuses, easy-access invoices and quotes, and 24/7 access across devices can help set the stage for customer loyalty. As can improved customer service through always-on digital options like chat.

Optimized digital channels
Timing and relevance are everything with both in-person and digital customer interactions. Not every channel is a good fit for every customer. Nor is digital the be all end all for the entire B2B journey. The benefits of optimizing your channels and processes based on how your customer prefers to engage, customer type, value, or end market can be many. But this requires knowing your customer, what they’re looking for, how much they are spending, etc. Which adds up to data.

Customer analytics
Data might be the lifeblood of customer experience, but the ability to understand that data and use it to improve experiences and create added value is a different story. Customer analytics can help companies not only better support existing customer relationships but proactively identify new trends and needs in the market and capitalize on those opportunities by improving existing products or creating new ones.

Insight driven sales
Some customers prefer regular contact, some only want to hear from you once they’ve placed an order. Digital capabilities can help you deliver a 21st century sales experience to the right customer, with the right message, at the right time, and on the right channel. They can also help you go beyond the point of purchase to enhance ongoing customer support, tailored product recommendations, and more.

Not only is there is an evolution of public preferences but of government regulations for more sustainable consumption. When it comes to chemical companies, there is opportunity in accelerating decarbonization technologies, product lineups, plastics recycling, and overall operations—not to mention paperless ordering and billing—to address this as part of the overall customer experience.

Accelerating growth and digital via a pre-configured platform for the chemical industry

Ultimately, these elements of improved experience can add up to help drive revenue growth, attract more customers, increase cross-sell and upsell opportunities, and enable sales reps to work more efficiently. Research has shown that experiences create connections, connections create loyalty, and loyalty drives business results. But in order to elevate the human experience, chemical companies need a better view. A single view of their customers, products, and partners complete with back-office integration.

Deloitte’s pre-configured multi-cloud solution, Cloud4M for Chemicals, powered by Salesforce, is designed to support end-to-end engagement—from marketing and sales to ordering and service. Cloud4M can help you create new products and services and better understand your customers so that you can connect with them in entirely new ways.

Learn more about how Cloud4M for Chemicals can help reshape your organization.

Paul do Forno is a Managing Director at Deloitte Digital and helps to run the B2B Commerce practice. A leader in the Advertising, Marketing & Commerce Practice, he brings more than 25 years of experience in strategy, digital experience, consulting, technology, and digital. 

David Yankovitz is a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and a Chemical practice leader with more than 25 years of experience developing strategies and innovations leading to the sustained growth and profitability of companies in the oil, gas, and chemicals sector.