Manufacturing in Australia is poised for its own digital evolution – and it’s a business imperative to get on the front foot now. Stuart O’Neill, Head of Business at SAP Hybris Australia and New Zealand, explains why the industry can no longer afford to lag behind in building omni-channel experiences and how learnings from abroad can inform the local market.

Australia is an island nation and it informs the way we see ourselves: remote, parochial and protected from global changes that threaten the status quo. However, in a digitally connected world, we are no longer sheltered from economic market forces. While digital disruption is nothing new, until now manufacturing has been relatively untouched by its presence. But as B2C experiences groom customers to expect ease of use and seamless transactions, B2B organisations can no longer afford to trail their retail counterparts in the experience stakes.

This will be a huge change for the industry. Luckily for Australia, we have an opportunity other markets are seldom afforded. We have a window into the industry of tomorrow, leaning on the experiences of the US and Europe. In the US, digital effectively disrupted the entire market dynamic of the manufacturing and B2B space. Businesses that had dominated the landscape for 30 or 40 years no longer exist and new players who had a digital strategy from inception have been able to embed themselves. Fast, smart movers who saw the tide turning adapted and pivoted to the change, weathering the transition.

The key outtake is that manufacturing businesses need to be cognisant of this move to the consumer and seize the opportunity rather than bracing against change – or worse, ignoring it. In addition to their traditional reseller links, there is a huge aftermarket consumer base that needs to be viewed as part of an omni-channel business instead of a separate, or lesser silo. A Forrester study commissioned by SAP Hybris, Building the B2B Omni-Channel Commerce Platform of the Future, found that more than half of global B2B buyers plan to make 50% of their purchases online in three years. Importantly for manufacturers, these buyers expect that experience to match retail offerings. This means building easy-to-use shopping experiences with real-time service and response, intuitive options for recurring orders and online accounts to allow customers to view their order history and status.

The digital age has also meant the barriers to entry for competitor organisations are long gone. Businesses like Amazon can be hugely competitive without traditionally cost-prohibitive expenses such as warehouses and thousands of regionally-based staff. A website and a supply chain is all that is needed to produce a commercially competitive business.

Unfortunately, our experience is the vast majority of manufacturing businesses in Australia are ill-prepared for the scale of change at their doorsteps.

For some, fears of channel conflict and impacts on reseller agreements are the reason they’re reticent to change; a problem addressed in overseas markets with private portals for reseller partners. But many more still believe in the mythology of Australia as an island, and fail to see the imperative to move quickly and adapt their businesses.

Even when they do, they often find themselves confronted with a technical challenge. PwC’s 18th Annual Global CEO Survey found that 58% of CEOs expressed anxiety about keeping pace with technology change. Businesses that don’t fully comprehend the scale of the transformation believe placing a directory or product information on a website is enough to count as a digital strategy. Even fewer businesses have a full-scale omni-channel strategy that places customer experiences at the centre of their business.

A customer experience strategy needs the ability to share data and analytics between department channels, countries and locations, meaning for most manufacturers there is a process gap to address. Legacy systems, built along a linear supply chain, need to be updated to give rise to personalised strategies.

So how can manufacturers at the start of the journey get moving? If the first step is to get online, then the second step is to invest in the process. While cheaper options can be tempting when it comes to building that initial digital footprint, it’s important businesses invest for priorities in the mid-term and not just tomorrow. Instead, knowing from the outset that building an intuitive, customer-centric website is going to be a sunken cost in the short term can help a business justify the expense, and build a robust system that will last.

It’s also important to ensure any digital footprint is easy for stakeholders to navigate and the basics are set up properly. The system needs to be intuitive and simplistic to use with functions including search capabilities, mobile-optimisation, several payment options and ‘search and trace’ for products purchased. There should be the ability to capture customer data and analytics across the chain to ensure when buyers browse online, in store or on social media, and that a single customer view is maintained. Further, building a 360-degree perspective of each customer helps businesses intelligently up-sell and cross-sell.

It is big process, often taking more than 18 months from beginning to end. But having an integrated software platform allowing transaction data to follow seamlessly between commerce, customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and manufacturing applications is a necessity for modern business. It is also important to bring employees along on the journey of transformation through upskilling, additional digital hires, and engaging staff. While the systems underpinning customer experience are important, technology is only as good as the people using it.

The results can be staggering for businesses that get it right. SAP Hybris client Rheem implemented a cloud-for-customer system in 2015 despite its core business being manufacturing and sales, after recognising it had become a first point of customer contact for the products it built. This resulted in an average of 10-15% saving in call times and improved customer satisfaction.

Manufacturing is embarking on a new era with the customer at its core and the options are to either sell out, move out or move up. For adaptive businesses it creates a huge opportunity; one of not just survival, but growth too.