The distributor brought in more than $250,000 in the last year from new website business after involving both its customer service team and loyal customers throughout its four-year website and e-commerce improvement project.
Four years ago, Jason Packer, third-generation owner and now CEO of New York-based food service disposables, janitorial supplies, office supplies and industrial packaging distributor Hill & Markes, made a decision to invest in the 113-year-old company’s digital future by bringing in an e-commerce manager. Mike Powers, director of e-commerce & marketing, was tasked with building the company’s online business with a more mobile-responsive website, enriched product data and punch-out enablement that allows customers to easily access their company’s specific product catalog.
It took about 14 months for Hill & Markes to build out the new site, which launched in January of 2017. Then, the real work began, says Powers. Sure, the site could now display properly on a smartphone, table or desktop, was loaded with more than 50,000 SKUs worth of high-quality, richly detailed product descriptions and images, and offered individual customers company-specific landing pages, but Powers knew there would be no Field of Dreams, “build it and they will come” moment.
“That is definitely not the fact for the B2B buyer in distribution,” he says. “Once you build up your e-commerce capabilities, you have to engage with your customer base and your internal stakeholders — your sales people, your customer service teams. You need to make sure both internally and externally, people are comfortable with your website.”
With that in mind, Hill & Markes devoted all of 2017 and beyond to an e-commerce adoption strategy that embraced getting both its employees and customers completely engaged. The company’s commitment to a long-term digital strategy makes them one of 10 2019 MDM Digital Innovator Award Winners, presented to companies in the industry that are leveraging technology to advance their operational excellence.
The commitment to internal adoption and support for the e-commerce project started from the beginning. As Hill & Markes was building out its new website, the customer service team had the ability to log into the test website throughout the process to become familiar with — and provide critical feedback on — the new functionality, before it deployed.
Powers joined the customer service team’s weekly meetings to make sure they could log into the test site and place dummy orders. Powers thought of the customer service team as “a first line of defense” in the website creation project, there to detect any bugs and look at the site from a customer’s vantage point.
“It was very important that our customer service team was getting their hands dirty with this new website platform before it went live, because at the time, 50% of our company’s revenue was coming through our customer service team,” he says. “So, I needed to make sure that if we’re going to be successful in getting the customer service team to migrate their orders [online], they were very comfortable with the website functionality.”
Once the website was live, Hill & Markes created a sales performance incentive fund (SPIF) as a contest that would incentivize customer service reps to convert in-person on phone sales to online business. Registering a customer on the website and walking them through how to place an order would be a $10 payout for the sales person, with the next two orders placed by that customer qualifying for $5 payments to the customer service rep.
The SPIF lasted about two months, paying out approximately $1,200 to the customer service team — and bringing in nearly $100,000 in e-commerce revenue. “We were trying to create the habit of getting somebody to place an order online and then, from those accounts, place subsequent orders,” says Powers. “That was a pretty cool thing to see.”
As another element of their internal adoption strategy, Hill & Markes in the summer of 2017 hired an intern (the son of a sales rep) to work as the company’s e-commerce customer onboarding specialist. “Some of our top sales reps are unbelievable, but they didn’t feel comfortable talking about e-commerce. They’d rather talk about floor stripping,” Powers says. It was the intern’s job to be an asset to them and walk customers through the Hill & Markes website.
The intern — a digital native himself — had the idea to create a Hill & Markes YouTube library where customer could access company-created how-to videos on how to register on the website, place an order, create a shopping list, etc. When he left at the end of that summer, Digital Content Specialist Katie Bruno stepped in, creating video content across the company’s social media channels as well as the website. “She’s done a fantastic job,” says Powers.
To get and keep customers engaged with the e-commerce initiative, Powers held a webinar on how to use the site every week for a period of 12 weeks. “I thought it was probably one of the more powerful tools we used on getting people familiar and comfortable with our website,” he says. We covered everything from registering for the first time, finding your frequently ordered list, how to create a shopping list, how to create a saved cart — all of the key functionalities of our website.”
The webinars were just for customers, but Hill & Markes also began to leverage the new website to improve its inbound marketing to prospects. Folks who found the site through Google or any search engine would be directed to a landing page to fill out their contact information. And banner ads on the site promoted the company’s sustainability effort with its products, it’s innovation summit, special products and more. “We want to make sure our prospects are also familiar with our website,” Powers says. “That’s been something that has been pretty powerful for us.”
For years, social media sites were completely blocked at Hill & Markes, but the company changed its perspective and began to embrace the platforms — particularly LinkedIn — as another means of marking its newly strengthened e-commerce capabilities. The company’s LinkedIn page hosts how-to videos and product demonstrations. Sales reps are encouraged to ‘like’ Hill & Markes content so that their connections will see it in their newsfeed. “They’re connected with their customers and we’re seeing leads and demo requests happening from LinkedIn,” Powers explains.
Through all this effort, the company has reached 27% of revenue coming in from e-commerce. The near-term goal is to get to 30%. Powers credits Nick Seefeld, e-commerce merchandiser, for putting in much of the behind-the-scenes work to make it happen. “One of the reasons we’re approaching 30% of total revenue is Nick is responsible for product data on the website,” he says. In Jan/San, it’s imperative you have related items mapped — you have to make sure you have appropriate lids linked to the appropriate cup. A towel dispenser needs related towels. Nick mapped almost 3,000 items on the website. It makes it very easy for us to grow the new revenue. On a daily basis, he’s optimizing and mapping product data on our website.”
Why make the online push in the first place? “If we’re able to leverage the e-commerce platform, the solutions that we’ve embraced, that’s going to shift orders from our sales reps, who can instead of focus on order taking, they can focus on new business acquisition,” says Powers. “They can focus on making sure that they’re going after the right target at the right time, instead of needing to take orders from customers who could be placing those orders online.”
Another advantage is the way it frees up customer service, he adds. “We can eliminate the order entry in customer service and really focus on customer service providing excellent customer service,” Powers says. “Being proactive. Maybe a bid is coming up for renewal. A customer service rep can now find the time to reach out to key customers: ‘How is everything going? Are you happy with everything? How is your driver? Are we meeting your needs?’ So, the underlying benefit of our website is it saves time and increases operational efficiencies throughout the organization.”
Powers is pumped about the next e-commerce venture for the company, a Hill & Markes mobile app. It will have a barcode scanner so that customers can go into their storage room, scan an item that needs replenishing, and get it automatically replaced through the app. “I’m really excited about having a mobile app that allows for them to open it up, click on Hill & Markes and place and order or scan their order on the fly,” he says, adding that the company is aiming for a Q4 or early 2020 launch.
While Hill & Markes does not disclose revenue numbers, Powers says the website accounted for close to $250,000 in new revenue in the last year alone. “Customers are now starting to add new items to their cart because of our website. It’s easy to browse. It’s easy to use. So, the fact that we’ve increased revenue from new items on our website, I’m really proud of it,” he says.
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