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MSC Builds a Sturdy Data Exchange

Like in any relationship, a good rapport between marketers and customers is built on give-and-take—specifically of data. Through open data exchange marketers can truly understand customers’ needs and desires, and then provide value to customers in return.

“We live by [the] philosophy that you can’t fix what you can’t see,” says Peter Bingaman, VP of marketing and communications for MSC Industrial Supply Co., a distributor of metalworking and  maintenance, repair, and operations supplies.

MSC facilitates this data-value exchange for its customers through its use of Ariba Inc.’s business commerce network. The Ariba Network allows the industrial supplier to conduct business online, identify customer pain points, and extend relationships across different channels.

The nuts and bolts

MSC joined the Ariba Network after a customer asked the industrial supply company to start conducting business on the commerce platform. Unlike traditional social networks that provide a place to form connections, business networks allow members to network and share information, and provide a place to conduct exactly what their name suggests: business. According to Rachel Spasser, Ariba’s SVP and CMO, the Ariba Network offers a space for buyers and sellers to partner up, and ultimately, drive commerce. “There’s some transaction that’s going to occur between some companies that are on the network,” she says.

These transactions serve as a data source for buyers and sellers. MSC harnesses the data not only to gain customer insight, but also to improve its customer experience. The company uses its customers’ purchase data, gleaned through the network, to improve its supply chain capabilities, such as the timing, fulfilling, and pricing of orders. The data also aids in customer inventory management, such as helping customers reduce their inventory levels and ensure that they have “the right products, at the right time, in the right hands,” Bingaman explains. And as a result, MSC’s customers can streamline their own operations and improve their time to market.

Right tools for success

But the real value for MSC is extending its traditional face-to-face sales experience to online, Bingaman says. This fusion of on- and offline worlds allows the company to gain a better understanding of customers’ problems. For example, after learning that a high-value customer was struggling to receive invoices in the languages that it needed, MSC resolved the issue by using the Ariba Network to convert electronic data interchange (EDI) files to extensible markup language (XML) files.

“B2B companies that treat their customers as people, not as businesses, are seeing much greater success,” Bingaman says. “When we have the opportunity to have a face-to-face relationship, it really gives us an opportunity to understand the customer’s pain points, have dialogue, create real-time interactions, and figure out how we can help them. As we learn more about that environment, we can transition it more to the online world.”

MSC continues to improve its online customer experience through the Ariba Network, as well as via its own website. For example, MSC uses Ariba’s PunchOut catalogs—electronic directories that provide URL authentication data so customers can skip the sign-in process. The company also recently made several upgrades to MSCDirect.com, which allows searches, transactions, account management, and work flow automation. The site offers enhanced search capabilities to help customers find what they need faster; better product data and images paired with ratings and reviews to educate consumers; and costcenter tracking, approval workflows, and purchase order tracking—all meant to simplify the purchase process.

“The feedback we’re getting is very positive and being used to deliver even more improvements in the future,” Bingaman says, adding that the Ariba Network has helped boost productivity for both MSC and its customers. “We’ve gone from managing the budget of one client to managing hundreds of millions of dollars today on the network. We’ve seen so much benefit that we’ll continue to expand.”

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