Ask An Expert: Episerver’s Alex Atzberger Shares How Manufacturers Can Protect and Grow Their Business

The rate of change has never been greater — or faster — for the footwear industry, with new challenges popping up every day in nearly all corners of the business, from navigating cash crunches and supply chain issues to understanding the latest technological advances. In its new “Ask An Expert” series, FN will ask industry leaders — all solutions-based providers — to take on some of the most timely topics.

Companies throughout the supply chain are feeling the impact of the coronavirus, with manufacturers in particular either having too much backed-up inventory or limited access to supplies. Many manufacturers are struggling to fulfill some orders, while others are experiencing canceled orders by retailers facing cash flow problems. To survive, businesses will need to adapt.

Alex Atzberger, CEO of Episerver, spoke to FN about how manufacturers can protect their relationships and strengthen their offerings for long-term success.

FN: How has COVID-19 changed the criteria for a successful manufacturing strategy?

Alex Atzberger: Manufacturers need to rethink their entire strategy in light of COVID. Where do I manufacture? How do I ensure my supply chain works? And, most critically: How do I ensure that I can better serve my customers? COVID-19 is the ultimate change agent. We are seeing digital transformation initiatives — once held back by organizational red tape or a culture resistant to change — accelerated in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, with some organizations going from a zero e-commerce footprint to full-scale e-commerce operations in months, not years. The first step is re-thinking technology investments to put customers in the driver’s seat of how they talk with a company and transact with them.

FN: Everyone is relying on digital tools right now. For manufacturers, where is digitization most valuable?

AA: When Episerver surveyed 600 global B2B leaders this quarter, 42% of our manufacturing respondents said selling direct to customers online was the most significant opportunity for their business this year. That number is only going up. The second highest rated area was providing our salesforce with digital selling tools. Companies should prioritize offerings that allow them to keep the sales teams fully engaged while avoiding channel conflict, in addition to selling online.

Vietnam shoe manufacturing
Manufacturers have been hit on both sides, facing a lack of raw materials on one end and canceled orders on the other.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

FN: How can manufacturers protect and support their vendor relationships right now, when purchasing orders are being postponed or canceled?

AA: Every company is dealing with this, so companies understand that these are unusual times. It is important to discuss needs and concerns openly and directly. Relationships are built over time but they can be lost instantaneously in a crisis. We’ve seen that manufacturing companies are communicating more and using relevant content to act as trusted advisers during these times, in the form of webinars, resource pages and business updates.

FN: In what ways can manufacturers streamline the buying experience for their partners?

AA: A third of distributors want to be able to order products for the first time from fellow B2B organizations and 33% want to be able to re-order products — all without speaking with someone. While this can be alarming for manufacturers whose workforce supports these processes, the fact remains that today’s buyers are younger, more digitally savvy and have less patience for buying experiences that don’t work the way they think they should. Allowing partners or customers to self-serve through online ordering — as easy as it would be to purchase footwear as a consumer, on their phones, on their couch — is critical for streamlining the buying experience for their partners.

FN: What are some areas manufacturers might want to explore to prepare themselves for the new retail landscape?

AA: Manufacturers need to ensure that they are not single-threaded through one retail chain; they need to distribute risk and opportunity across multiple channels. Some might even consider direct to consumer. The writing for e-commerce was already on the wall before COVID — it’s why 47% of manufacturers in our Q2 2020 survey said they plan to invest in an e-commerce platform this year. This requires a much better understanding of the customer, the provision of a personalized experience and a team or partner that can help enable a truly hybrid B2C/B2B experience. This will streamline business operations so there is a centralized view of the business — two sites (B2B and B2C) in one place.

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