Dunder Mifflin’s Ryan Howard Was Right About B2B Commerce

In season 4 of the NBC show The Office, “whiz kid” executive Ryan Howard introduces his first big initiative as a twenty-something Vice President for Dunder Mifflin, called “Dunder Mifflin Infinity”. It represented a total technology overhaul for the fictional paper and office supply company who did all of its business…on paper. 

The storyline was intended to build up the buffoonery of the Ryan Howard character—to create a know-it-all, arrogant youngster who fell on his face trying to modernize the company. Ryan Howard is somewhere between a joke and an antagonist on the show. 

But, I’m here today, to tell you that Ryan Howard was actually right! 

Dunder Mifflin was a made-up company. But, at the same time, it was very real. They were a mid-sized paper and office supplier struggling to battle with the likes of Office Depot. They conducted business with paper purchase orders and salesmen on the phone. The show tracks Dunder Mifflin’s story through recessions, layoffs, acquisitions, and the digitization of the business world. 

Cover up the words “Dunder Mifflin” and the previous paragraph may very well describe your company and the challenges you’re facing, even a decade after this show ended. If you’re a wholesaler or a distributor of industrial parts, office supplies, construction equipment, plumbing and HVAC supplies, etc., you are likely facing the same challenges as the fictional Dunder Mifflin.  

How do you modernize your business to keep up with a digitizing world? How do you compete with Amazon, Alibaba, and other industry giants? How do you shift the culture from a business that only works on handshakes and paper-based workflows? Or, depending on your role in the organization, how do you convince your CEO that you should? 

If you’re a fan of The Office, you know how obviously wrong Ryan Howard was in how he approached the problems. (Spoiler alert: He goes to jail.) But, as someone who might work for a real life Dunder Mifflin, there are a few things you should learn from what he tried do for his made-up employer—modernize their B2B selling experience by introducing eCommerce.  

Ryan Howard actually had the right idea. 

eCommerce Levels the Playing Field 

When you are only doing business “on the ground”—sending salesmen to your customers’ offices, mailing or faxing purchase orders and ship notifications, advertising your product assortment through a paper catalog—it’s impossible to beat the big guys in your industry. If you’re a mid-sized company, the big guys will simply outspend and undercut you. Economies of scale is simply a game you cannot win.  

But the internet, specifically eCommerce, levels the playing field. Giving your customers an online catalog to browse and online experience to order from doesn’t require millions of dollars. The eCommerce offerings available to allow you launch professional, highly functional eCommerce websites that support B2B transacting with a five- or six-figure budget. You become harder to undercut, because you’re able to achieve the same kinds of margins as the bigger merchants. 

Whatever your “officedepot.com” competition is, it’s possible as a small- or medium-sized B2B merchant to appear just as big, functional, powerful, etc. Online, it doesn’t take an enterprise budget to provide the same kinds of online experiences that enterprise competitors can. Relative to brick and mortar business, the cost of entry is small. That means, if you’re smart about the technology and solution delivery partners you work with, you can operate like one of the big guys without being one of the big guys. 

eCommerce helps the salesperson. It doesn’t replace them.  

In The Office one of Ryan’s biggest hurdles to launching Dunder Mifflin successfully is the resistance from his sales team. Not only is he overcoming the organization’s inertia—how they’ve always done things—he’s dealing with how to incentivize salespeople to have their customers use the website, effectively giving up their commissions. 

If your company’s sales are driven by a inside and/or outside sales team, but you are trying to get serious about using an eCommerce experience to drive sales growth, you might be in a little bit of a pickle. It’s common for organizations to have pushback from the salespeople for fear that they may be outsold or replaced by the website. Ideally, that’s not actually what you’re trying to do. 

Ryan encouraged his salespeople to “enter the orders through the website”. The way he does it in the show turned out to be fraudulent, but mostly he was right. The best way to approach a B2B eCommerce rollout is to make sure the website is a tool for the sales team. It should help them close more business by enhancing the buying experience. It can help your sales team sell larger orders to more customers in less time. Just make sure processes are reoriented and compensation plans are updated. Then instead of battling to keep their jobs, the sales team becomes an advocate for and contributor to the eCommerce initiative. 

Read more about how to get your B2B sales team on board for your eCommerce migration

When eCommerce is bad, it’s really bad. 

When Dunder Mifflin Infinity launches, it’s a big flop. The website works—kind of—but it doesn’t generate new business on its own. It also launched with a lot of trendy experiences (like an online community) that really didn’t add any value. While moving to eCommerce was a good move, the company poorly executed on launching their eCommerce site, because they did so without the support of someone who knows eCommerce. 

Selling on the internet is just a whole new game. In some ways it’s similar to traditional selling methods and brick and mortar retail, but mostly you have to learn a lot of new concepts. The complexities of B2B commerce make the learning curve even steeper. That’s why it’s important that you launch (or re-launch) your eCommerce initiative with the support of the right partners. 

Look for technology and service vendors who have successfully launched B2B eCommerce experiences. Make sure they can provide metrics that articulate their value add. Make sure they understand the distinct complexities of B2B commerce. Just because they’ve launched a bunch of B2C retail eCommerce stores, it doesn’t necessarily make them equipped to launch yours. 

Learn from these partners. Learn about the new concepts you’ll need to be successful: web content management, search engine optimization, design, credit card processing on the web, data integration workflows, etc. The right partners will help your business grow, but they’ll also make you and your team better professionals. 

Dunder Mifflin took it on themselves and they dropped the ball. Don’t follow in their footsteps. 

Dunder Mifflin was a fictional paper supply company run by fictional characters on an NBC TV show that ended years ago. But, it did a phenomenal job capturing the experience of working for a company that might be a lot like yours. Big and small, there are bits of reality in that show.  

Ryan Howard’s eCommerce initiative is definitely one of them. I hope this helps you learn from his fictional mistakes, and I hope you were just a little bit entertained in the process. 

Download Free Guide: How to Navigate B2B eCommerce – Your Go-to-guide for taking action to start selling online.

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