Online experience is about relationships, experiences & trust

DVR Seshadri, Director for ISB-CBM and Clinical Professor in the Marketing Area, Indian School of Business points out that for SMEs, using on-line platforms is a cost-effective way to grow their businesses. He adds that with a surplus of online platforms, it is important for SMEs to understand that while their business is not online, their customers are. 



IBT: What benefits does establishing a virtual presence entail for brands planning to advance their business (both B2B & B2C) in a post-COVID world?

Prof. DVR Seshadri: There are multiple benefits of establishing a virtual presence for brands, the most important one being access to a larger audience. This is because COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across every industry. Thus, Digital is the ‘New Normal’ and has become a reality in this COVID and post-COVID world. 

It has given businesses an opportunity to rethink how they work and engage with their customers in a more meaningful way. It has become essential for companies to re-define their brand purpose and communicate it clearly. Moreover, online marketing is not only cost-effective but provides a wealth of insightful data to help companies understand their customers and preferences. 

Further, the rise of social media also underlines the fact that online marketing isn’t just about sales, it’s about building relationships, offering experiences, and creating trust. For example, a survey conducted by Deloitte showed that one in five respondents had boycotted brands based on their response to coronavirus, especially when it comes to keeping staff safe. In summary, in the era of global competition and a digital world that we now are in, virtual presence is essential for success of a company, both in B2B and B2C. 

IBT: How can SMEs leverage the power of the online platforms to grow their business? What organic and inorganic tools can be deployed for the same?

Prof. DVR Seshadri: For SMEs, presence on online platforms means exploring new ways to measure ROI, including social value. It is important for SMEs to understand that while their business is not online, their customers are. One of the biggest questions which SMEs have is how to build their online presence with so many online platforms such e-commerce sites, mobile commerce and online marketplaces like Amazon,  social media, websites and virtual spaces like Zoom.

To answer that, SMEs need to identify the right approach for their business and find out where their customers in the digital world are and what interests them. It is the experience that companies create for their customers online that is vital to their success in engaging with their customers.

The best approach today is to combine organic and inorganic marketing strategies. Organic marketing is free and it includes creating original content and encouraging customers to create content for you on themes relevant to your business. Inorganic marketing includes paid promotions such as banner ads and sponsored posts. While organic posts may not directly drive up sales, they are more effective in brand building. Similarly, brands must consider developing their mobile apps as apps have been found to be more effective in driving sales.

IBT: What are the reasons & constraints why SMEs are reluctant to use virtual platforms to advance their business?

Prof. DVR Seshadri: Some of the key challenges which SMEs are deliberating in leveraging virtual platform are:

  • Competition: There is a lot of competition in the online marketplace, and companies have to be put on their thinking hats and come up with innovative ideas, products, and delivery methods to stand out.
  • Funds: Access to adequate funds is the largest challenge faced by SMEs. From identifying the right platform to upskilling their employees and engaging professionals for brand building, creating a virtual presence can put off SMEs in terms of investment requirements. However, this is a one-time investment to build on-line presence, and it is recommended that SMEs look at the long-term benefit including the volume of the audience that they can reach by having effective online presence.  
  • Apprehension: Fear of bad online reviews also sometimes make SMEs wary of creating a virtual presence. However, there are effective strategies to handle bad online reviews. The best way to get over the apprehension of possible bad online reviews is to create a great customer service/support team which will in turn help in creating a better brand and improved customer relationships both online and offline. The key is to be extremely responsive on on-line platforms, and to the extent possible, respond to customers’ queries and concerns in real time. 

IBT: What can be done by the government to encourage more brands to start using online platforms to promote their businesses?

Prof. DVR Seshadri: Some measures which can help in promoting usage of online platforms are: 

  • The Government should focus on developing infrastructure, especially in rural areas.
  • Developing high-speed and reliable internet access and a vast mobile network in rural areas. This is a significant problem due to power outages, etc. that result in breakdowns of high-speed Internet services.
  • A robust and secure digital banking infrastructure.
  • Educating people on how to make payments through banks and digital platforms, including enhancing financial literacy and awareness among the masses. It is essential to assuage the privacy concerns that customers may have about making digital payments and educating them on the advantages of making the transition to using online platforms to enhance their efficiencies. 
  • Enhancing cyber safety and security measures for maintaining the integrity of online data and information, to help reduce apprehension among users about possible frauds.
  • The technological innovation brought by the fintech industry and the policy initiatives of the Government must work together for enhanced adoption of digital payments and to foster continuous innovation in the respective organisations.

IBT: Please give us examples of companies that you think managed to use social media/online channels successfully to advance their B2B goals. 

Prof. DVR Seshadri: Brands use social media to connect with their customers at a personal level, which in turn helps them to enhance sales.  It is essential for companies to focus on customer support, be responsive, answer their queries in a timely fashion and build trust. Tata Steel, in both B2B and B2C has been an exemplar in digital transformation as a whole, as well as in its sales & marketing engine.

Tata Steel has launched ‘The Washout,’ a digital film to convey the message of washing hands while saving water. The film begins with shots of people of different genders and age groups washing their hands. When a company like Tata Steel comes up with an important message, it conveys a lot more meaning for consumers, and informs them that the company is very caring of its stakeholders including customers, employees, suppliers, etc. 

IBT: What inhibitions can brands have while doing B2B marketing on digital platforms?

Prof. DVR Seshadri: Some of the key inhibitions are:

  • Customer loyalty: With the excess of products and information available online, it has become difficult for companies to drive customer loyalty. When customers have an excessive range of products to choose from, it isn’t easy to move away from price-wars.
  • Technology: The need for understanding and keeping a tab of ever-changing technology and new trends in the B2B marketing, from leveraging customer data to continually refreshing the digital presence with different and interesting content, can inhibit brands from leveraging digital platforms.

IBT: From a customer’s perspective, what could be the challenges in ordering products online from an SME through virtual apps?

Prof. DVR Seshadri: Some of the most common problems faced by customers in ordering online are:

  • Typical customer perception is that while shopping online, there is no guarantee on product quality.
  • Lack of robust connectivity, which results in customers facing problems while making payments online. 
  • Website policies such as refund and return of product are not very clear.
  • Additional charges incurred while making online payment through cards. 
  • There are also a lot of hidden costs such as shipping and handling charges, which are not conveyed till the final purchase is made.
  • Cyber crime is the biggest threat these days, as fraudsters continually come up with ever more creative techniques to hack e-commerce websites and steal money from online shoppers. There is additionally fear that the online portals could misuse the information available with these E-commerce sites. Information that could potentially leak includes customer data such as  names, phone numbers, address, and bank details. The fear in customers about placing orders online from an SME through a virtual app is that if these details fall into the hand of fraudsters, they can be misused.


DVR Seshadri is the Director for ISB-CBM and Clinical Professor in the Marketing Area at the Indian School of Business. His areas of interest are business-to-business marketing, corporate entrepreneurship, and strategy. He had over 15 years of industrial experience before joining academics since 2000. Before joining ISB in 2016, he taught at IIM, Bangalore, and at IIM, Ahmedabad, as visiting faculty. He works closely with several companies, providing them training and consulting services in his areas of expertise. After joining academics twenty years ago, he has developed over 100 case studies, authored several research papers and co-authored five books.

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