I am not old enough to have experienced the ‘two martini lunch’ technique of ‘doing business’, nor am I young enough to fully grasp the trends on ‘how buyers will buy’ 10-15 years from now. However, I do know that the chemical industry has actually regressed in the past 15 years with respect to our use of technology in the conduct of day to day business and transactions.
How are Buyer’s buying differently than in the past, and where could it lead in the future?
Last December, I visited a very progressive chemical marketing/sales company on the East Coast. I was impressed with the sheer volume of computer monitors and the atmosphere of a Wall Street trading floor. The founder graciously took me through their offices and explained how their website gets approximately 1,200 hits/day and 40 solid inquiries for their products. They literally are ‘fielding calls’ and reacting all day long. I am not ashamed to admit I was slightly envious, but I have to think this is a unique situation.
I look at my company’s website and while a little outdated in appearance, we provide solid information to customers/suppliers (and apparently headhunters as well) and try to offer a little personality with our company newsletters. We get nowhere near 1,200 hits/day and are realistically lucky to get 5 solid inquiries per week, if that.
I consider us to be fairly progressive on the technology side; our CRM and ERP systems are reaching the tipping point with our entire staff learning the value of a central repository of information and how profit and value can be generated. But I constantly wonder; “what are we missing, what is a better way?”
When I entered the chemical industry in 1988, only about 30% of companies had fax machines. We literally had to ask contacts, ‘do you have a fax machine?’. I contrast this to just this morning when a customer notified me of a purchase order via Facebook message. Truth! Back then, salesmen made phone calls and the occasional visit, and customers hopefully called back with purchase orders that were written into notebooks and somehow transcribed into systems that processed the orders and paperwork.
An excellent article written in 2001 by Rajat Agrawal discussed opportunities for chemical companies and specifically customer-related opportunities and supplier opportunities as well utilizing e-commerce. Based on my recollection, his vision at that time was spot on. Suppliers on a mass scale would literally link into customers using EDI or an extranet to monitor inventory, and share real time information. Smaller companies who could not afford such luxury were doomed! Buyers could use e-commerce for cost containment. Employees were leaving brick and mortar chemical companies to work for any entity that contained “dot com” in the title. The labor market to hire recent college graduates was completely turned upside down by the dot-coms as these kids all wanted minimum 6 figures to start as a junior salesperson.
The Dot Com’s and Exchanges…
At the millenium, there were in fact three dozen or so chemical exchanges that were destined to cause the end of the traditional model of chemical selling. They are ALL now gone… Powerful names like ChemConnect, e-Chemical, and Elemica were going to change the world, and here we are today… still on the phone (and with more – much more! email) making offers and still working for orders.
Perhaps these exchanges came too early, and this model will return again. I am aware of several new chemical exchanges that are trying to resurrect this model today, but are buyers ready for this yet? Will the chemical industry change it’s ways? Does it need to? What value does the exchange provide other than sharing of someone’s inventory and electronically react to a buyer’s eBay style wishes? And how much is that worth to a buyer/seller?
The two martini lunch days are certainly over, and the 5 hour golf rounds are getting fewer and farther between (maybe people just don’t like playing with me and I haven’t caught on yet). Email is getting more ferocious to manage, and business moves at the speed of smartphones… but has anything essentially changed? Are buyers buying any differently than 20-30 years ago, and more importantly will these habits change in the near future?
Personally, I don’t believe the chemical industry can be served by an Amazon.Com type model. There are just too many ‘special requirements’ in this business. Perhaps I am wrong, and I’d welcome any conversation about buying/selling habits. Thanks for reading.