5 Lessons for Successful B2B eCommerce

June 9, 2016
With B2B eCommerce growing rapidly, here are five ways manufacturers can build an engaging digital relationship with existing and prospective customers.

Last year saw a significant amount of traction in the B2B eCommerce space. According to Forrester Research, B2B eCommerce grew by 7.7% in 2015, with $780 billion in sales, and it is estimated to top $1 trillion by 2020. Manufacturers and distributors are finding ways to capitalize on that traction and movement to the online space does not have to be limited based on budget, company size or experience.

Here are five lessons for successful B2B eCommerce for manufacturers of any kind that will yield immediate value and return for the organization.

Understand Your Ever-changing Customer

Even in the B2B space, customers are researching you via the Internet before they engage with you directly. B2B customers are coming to expect that same omni-channel experience they are accustomed to with B2C. In addition to researching through multiple channels, they are expecting to have access to robust product content (manuals, videos, spec sheets, etc.) as well as the ability to view order history, receive order updates and gain information on expected delivery dates across multiple channels.

It’s critical to understand who your customers are and how they are buying, which can be easily done by identifying user personas. A persona is a representation of the type of customer(s) who you want to target and includes information about motivations, frustrations, expectations, personality and basic demographics. This information is put together in a profile or story format so that the persona can be related to as a real person using your product or service.

These personas can be further categorized by influencers and decision makers. Decisions made about how your website functions must be influenced based on who the user is, what information they need and where they are when they need the information. Customer surveys and analytics analysis’ are both great ways to start this process. Once you have identified your user personas, all content considerations need to be tied back to a specific persona.

Don’t Get Replaced Over Bad Digital User Experience

I’ve seen this happen to terrific manufacturers time and again in my career. It does not matter how good your product is, if you are not making your customers’ lives easier, they will replace you.

Consider the two key components of user experience. First, design and search. A positive user experience through great design helps your customers quickly get the information they need from you to make their jobs easier. Information needs to be easy to find and relevant to your customer. For instance, providing the customer with shortcuts that let them easily reorder an item or shop for accessories and parts for previously purchased products not only makes their experience better, but also increases your profitability.

The second key component is personalization. Look to add customer portals with personalized content and negotiated pricing. Creating a personalized experience optimized for your customer at their time of need (on the shop floor or in the field), increases order frequency and decreases the likelihood of them going to a competitor.

Elevate Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)

B2B digital engagement is being driven by lifetime value through increased customer loyalty and larger and more frequent orders.

Unlike the traditional face to face interaction, today customers are focused more on the digital relationship with your company and brand. This digital relationship is built in phases. First, engaging them before they are buyers with relevant and helpful content creates value for them in the buying process.

Second, going beyond the transaction of your product or service by understanding and integrating into their day-to-day business workflow increases customer loyalty, order frequency and overall customer lifetime value. Any solution should integrate with the customer’s workflow, reducing the work needed to purchase your product.

Offer Self-service

This is another direct carry-over from the consumer space; today’s buyers want to engage (research, shop, order) on their own terms, wherever (mobile) and whenever (off-hours) they want.

Critical tools of self-service include online product catalogs, detailed products specs, product manuals and imagery. You can empower your customers by offering PO automation, product availability, online quoting and supporting interactive order workflows, such as product customization or schematics ordering.

Two examples follow:

  • Distributors, dealers and wholesalers are faced with increasing demands to provide their customers with more and better information faster than ever to keep up with the B2C and B2B2C selling process. By providing a self-service portal and allowing access to marketing content, imagery, and release and product availability dates on upcoming products or models, these customers are able to react quicker, thereby giving them a competitive advantage.
  • Outside sales teams are often challenged with a lack of information and see themselves competing with online customer portals. One way to engage outside sales is to provide them with their own self-service functionality with similar access to content, while also giving them the ability to place orders on behalf of their customers. Leveraging this type of integrated platform also provides them access to information such as sales reports, quota tracking, etc.

Leverage an Integrated Platform

An integrated B2B solution improves the customer experience by providing bill of material (BOM) level specifics on products, visibility into the supply chain, multichannel order history, integrated order processing and on-demand reporting.

An automated product feed into your internal systems and online product catalog reduces your customers’ investment to offer or update your product lines, while an automated inventory feed allows them to improve customer experience with product availability and reduces time-consuming backorder issues.

In an effort to improve the customer experience and increase the CLV, manufacturers are starting to offer related products, which are normally purchased together, by partnering with other suppliers and dropshipping product as part of the same transaction. Having an extendable and integrated platform allows you to subscribe to product and inventory feeds, as well as automate order processing and thereby reduce the impact on the manufacturer to almost nothing.  

While B2B eCommerce has trailed behind B2C in many respects, the day has come where a successful online presence means the difference between long-term viability and struggling to keep up with the changing landscape. These lessons provide a framework to success, regardless of industry, and will open new doors for manufacturers and distributors in the years ahead.

Michael Moores is the CEO and founder of Envalo, Inc. He is an 18-year veteran of the eCommerce industry and his expertise includes eCommerce, WebSphere Commerce, Magento, Strategic and Fiscal Planning, Organization Management, Project Management, Business Analysis and Product Management.

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