B2B digital commerce is not just a B2C experience with tacked on functionality. With an increased focus on B2B in the digital space, companies are investing in establishing the right package of platforms, solution providers, third-party integrations and more.
Many parties have arrived on the B2B scene, from specialized vendors to digital platform giants like Amazon and Alibaba. And this move is not made without merit. Buyer preferences are evolving – the slight towards purchasing online is increasing, and B2B buyers are influenced by their B2C digital experiences. This trend will only grow as more purchasers find that procuring products and services from a website is more convenient than buying from a sales representative once a decision is made.
While customer experiences driven by ecommerce strategies are becoming the biggest competitive advantage for B2B companies, I often find that most businesses are working under a false belief that B2B ecommerce is simply an enhanced B2C model.
The rising complexity of the B2B customer experience
While the B2C market has elevated the desire for online experiences, it does not mean that B2B companies should use it as a template. The rising demand for an “Amazon-like” customer experience requires B2B organizations to support very complex aspects of the purchase process. From complex, individuated product and service configuration, pricing, and quote processes to cross-geography delivery and purchasing information gateways, the B2B ecommerce customer experience couldn’t be more different than that of a B2C.
First of all, unlike B2C models, B2B sales typically have multiple pricing tiers for the same product. The pricing structure depends on the customer, product group, and order bundling. For this reason, incorporating complex pricing into the ecommerce experience can be quite challenging.
The diverse array of stakeholders involved in the customer relationship also makes it difficult to provide a consistent experience for all. In fact, a CEB survey revealed that 5.4 people, on average, are involved in the B2B buying decision. Each line-of-business owner and customer’s client base come from a wide variety of roles, teams, and locations that are focused on addressing different – and at times, conflicting – needs. Because B2B companies are trying to address a broad range of needs of one customer account, ecommerce systems that are disconnected from existing and legacy systems can yield areas that get in the way of customer experience excellence.
And last, but certainly not least, the existing culture of traditional B2B companies is not entirely conducive to online procurement experiences. An environment that relies on sales reps in the field to close deals and build highly personal customer relationships may struggle with a fear that ecommerce will be too impersonal.
Despite these challenges, customers are demanding their B2B vendors to integrate their offline business with an ecommerce operation. Increasingly, buyers prefer to purchase products and services online at work with the same level of convenience experienced in their personal shopping experiences. IDC echoes this reality by concluding that 75% of buyers use social media to support purchase decisions.
What true B2B ecommerce means
If Forrester Research is correct, B2B ecommerce sales in the United States alone will soar as high as $1.8 trillion by 2023. To truly seize this opportunity, vendors must create a landscape that connects all business functions with marketing, sales, and service activities. Uniting this information provides a full view of the customer that enables every touch point to personalize content and interactions in the moment of need and provide additional services on demand. More important, such insight uncovers new opportunities and emerging risks within the buying journey of new and existing customer accounts.
The B2B customer experience should be driven by buying personas and data. Various organizational and industry nuances will drive the ideal customer experience. As an example, sales cycle length will determine differences in cart and checkout management. It is vital to understand how, when, and why customers buy to craft an experience that meets B2B buyer’s needs. In addition, customer experience should provide navigation to support the discovery of complex products. In contrast to B2C, B2B products can be complex and indistinguishable via imagery alone. Features like guided navigation enable customers to find products by technical details or applications.
Although the channel may still be a pervasive part of the B2C retail experience, the real potential of an ecommerce or marketplace solution resides within the B2B world. By using the ecommerce store or B2B marketplace as an extension of an omnichannel strategy, the B2B experience is as simple as B2C interactions and comprehensive enough to answer every business question and sales requirement – all on one platform.