B2B businesses are beginning to jump on the e-commerce bandwagon, but it’s important that technological priorities are identified before large investments are made, writes Mark Troselj.
There has been a significant shift in the way companies sell to their B2B customers in recent years, largely driven by two key factors: new opportunities for business growth brought about by the digital evolution, coupled with the changing purchasing behaviour of consumers.
The previous generation of customers, whether business owners, buyers or contractors, is now being replaced by new tech-savvy internet and mobile users. They want the same, advanced level of functionality that they see on their favourite B2C sites. This includes features like an interactive marketplace with real-time product inventory, up-to-date pricing, mobile support, online support forums, live customer service reps, as well as a database that contains their corporate purchasing history, shipping preferences, payment records, available credit and pending returns data. Providing this in real-time allows business customers to tailor each order based on available credit or they may want to pay with a combination of credit and cash/card.
B2B ecommerce companies that don’t quickly adapt to the new reality of rapidly evolving expectations of B2B customers will soon find themselves at a competitive disadvantage and miss out on a huge opportunity.
Unfortunately, few B2B websites today offer the rich features their B2C counterparts provide. That’s poor planning. Research suggests B2B ecommerce is poised to leapfrog B2C online sales. In fact, Forrester Research estimates that just last year B2B ecommerce sales doubled B2C online sales.
It’s not just B2B competition you have to keep an eye out for, however, with many leading B2C e-commerce companies turning their sights on the B2B marketplace and they’re moving in fast. AmazonSupply.com, for example, offers more than 750,000 essential products for businesses, labs, workshops and factories products. This is a disruptive new mega-competitor not to be taken lightly, especially given that it can ship a good proportion of its products to Australia within 2-5 days with priority shipping.
Survival for many B2B ecommerce businesses depends on their ability to adapt to meet the new demands and competition of the market and differentiate themselves locally and internationally. To take advantage of this opportunity, B2B companies must provide stronger ecommerce functionality, which includes:
- Faceted search – Each product is defined by various categories, such as size, color and style. This saves buyers from having to browse through hundreds, or thousands, of SKUs looking for the one that meets their specifications. Faceted search is particularly important in B2B sites where products may have many more descriptors and attributes than in B2C. A shirt or a purse may have three or four characteristics, but imagine the differences that exist between screws. They can come in different lengths, thicknesses, thread patterns, materials, etc. Without faceted search, locating the right screw might require hours of combing through different suppliers catalogues. A faceted search capability might well become a major competitive edge for the ecommerce company that provides it.
- Configurator – Another invaluable feature in B2B ecommerce is the configurator. Configurators may be developed to solve all sorts of problems, such as the pricing for a custom project, the specifications for a part that must be able to bear a certain weight or temperature, or freight. Configurators help customers make purchases quickly and can help vendors reduce the cost of human sales support while simultaneously boosting sales.
- Mobile support – Buyers everywhere are using mobile devices to conduct business, and that includes making B2B purchases. They may want to complete a purchase on their way to a client visit, or perhaps calculate a bill of materials for a client at a job site.
- Online, real-time inventory – If a customer is in a rush to get an order, they need to know how much stock is available and ready for immediate shipment. They don’t have the patience to receive an email 24 hours later that states that half of the order is back ordered.
- Customer-defined nomenclature – B2B sites should support each customer’s unique product names and numbers, so that someone ordering a part doesn’t have to hunt for a cross reference.
- Continuity orders (a.k.a. subscription or repeat orders) – Often a customer places the same order each month, much like a consumer may have a weekly grocery list. They can save a lot of time with a recurring order that automatically reorders items at a set interval. With online self-service, customers can also adjust those orders if something changes.
Keep in mind that not every ecommerce platform supports these B2B capabilities, with many focused on B2C ecommerce only. But there are a few that support both B2C and B2B, which is good news for firms that sell through both channels as it’s more efficient to operate both sites off of the same inventory, financial and customer systems.
Successful B2B companies are listening to their customers’ demand for a more user-friendly and feature-rich ecommerce experience and are improving their websites to meet this demand. Investing in a flexible ecommerce platform, whether to upgrade an existing site or to get a first site off the ground, will help maintain a competitive edge in the near future.