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B2B eCommerce in the 21st Century

Considering how successful retailers have been in utilizing the online channel for communicating and selling to their customers, the B2B market, by and large, has yet to make this a reality. Despite having always had a much stronger need for automating tasks and making processes more effective, the B2B market as a whole has failed to bring itself into the 21st century in this area and, despite a decade of successful online adoption in the B2C market, in many enterprises the same old traditional channels are used.  The time has come for B2B organizations to evolve from having a static, impersonal and often inconvenient online presence to being able to offer modern, relevant, personalized and comprehensive websites and to sit up and take notice of some core lessons that can be learnt from the B2C market.

Make the move to the 21st Century: Sell to them – wherever, however they want to buy

While there are undoubtedly greater complexities involved for the B2B market than the B2C, the simple truth applies for both: the success of acquiring and retaining customers depends heavily on the ability to deliver exactly what it is that they want.

In the last two to three years something critical has happened: the Internet now surrounds us.  Quite literally.  Fuelled by mobile devices, it’s everywhere and is always on. Although I constantly hear from organizations that B2C best practice does not matter for B2B, B2B merchants can no longer ignore how B2C has changed our way of shopping online and the implications this has for them. Although the number of channels (phone, sales person, catalog, online) has remained fairly stable in the last decade, the number of customer touch points has exploded. And these multichannel strategies must become integral for B2B enterprises too and they must let their customers interact with them whenever and wherever they choose.

Create B2C-inspired user experiences.

In addition to this, it’s essential to remember that customers who use your B2B site have been B2C consumers also. Although it’s shopping on a different scale, your customers now expect from you what they have learned to value in their private shopping experience. For this reason, it is surprising what some B2B websites continue to get away with. While you may be lucky enough to be offered search functionality, it can often feel like you’ve travelled back in time to pre-2000.

In many cases your customers know what they want to buy from you, but there are many occasions when they don’t. In fact they might not even know that you offer a product that’s a solution to their problem. But if you don’t give them options such as guided navigation, search by field of application or even reviews, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that they can key something into Google and find their way to your competitor’s door.  Let customers find your products – what is true for B2C is true in the same way for B2B: if your potential customer doesn’t know or find a product you’re offering, he can’t buy it.

Ultimately, B2B customers appreciate when vendors deliver a B2C-class user experience. When it’s done correctly, mimicking B2C-style merchandising, it can improve your conversion rates and increase average order volume through simple, effective search and navigation, detailed and informative category pages, dynamic and in-depth product displays and ratings, cross-selling, up-selling, and offering bundles and special promotions.


Guide customers with targeted content and help them make purchasing decisions

When we opened our UK office we were looking for a stationery provider. The company we eventually chose offered hundreds of different kinds of pens, however, for many of them, they didn’t show a picture or provide any more description than a very crude product name. Without exception we only bought those pens for which we had a picture and a fairly comprehensive description. Now that was just pens and the investment small, but consider buying much more expensive machinery or equipment. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable to make that decision if you had enough accurate information about the product you are looking to buy?

Rich content will help your buyers to make those purchasing decisions. It will enable you to offer an accurate representation of complex and specialized products as well as allowing you to add editorial and user-generated content, enrich catalog data with videos and display content in multiple languages. It can even provide the basis for you to sell configurable products online.

By providing rich content, your website will not only be considered as a purchasing site, it could also become the number one source for your customers’ research, thus strengthening the bond between them and your organisation.

Managing Complexities and Resources

We are certainly not downplaying the intricacies of B2B markets. There are enough examples where processes have grown over years and have created a great deal of complexity - much of it which should in fact remain.  Unfortunately, in B2B , many of these complex processes are very cumbersome - starting with providing the right product information, prices, etc. and ending with placing and fulfilling the actual order  - and are still handled manually by the sales team. And these complexities increase even further when you are running a global enterprise where product ranges and prices on your site and on your customer site may vary by market.

Thankfully there is software today that can cope with these complexities and which will free-up vital revenue-generating resources. While the personal relationships that your sales teams have forged are important to maintaining a long-standing commercial relationship - which is something that online can’t replace entirely – automating many of these intricate processes will not only grant them with precious time to invest elsewhere in the business, but it will help to keep those crucial customer relationships intact even when the sales person is not around. One sales person can scale only so far, but assisted by online he or she can do so much more.