How can B2B e-commerce be more than transactional?

When tied together, digital resources, human recommendations, powerful analytics and a checkout process can build customer engagement.

Photo of gold gear with money symbol on it.

By Michael Rasmussen

Posted on 04-05-2021

When tied together, digital resources, human recommendations, powerful analytics and a checkout process can build customer engagement.

In their business and personal lives, your clients are researching products, comparing prices and shopping online. In the business-to-business marketplace, just as in the consumer arena, companies that sell products or services but have not implemented an e-commerce platform are missing out.

Decision-makers in today’s businesses grew up with computers and have different expectations of digital interactions than the previous generation. However, just because customers can fill a cart and check out by themselves does not mean they should be left to browse unattended. The sales relationship, with product recommendations, negotiated prices, product up-sells and bundling can be an important aspect of e-commerce operations.

Business-to-business (B2B) organizations are taking cues from the consumer online shopping model and adding specific functions that apply in B2B sales. Those who differentiate themselves are diving deep into their customers’ data to improve the purchasing experience — before and after the sale.

Several businesses have already recognized the advantages of a robust B2B e-commerce platform and are reaping the benefits. According to the 2020 B2B Ecommerce Market Report from Digital Commerce 360, digital sales grew 18 percent from 2018 to 2019. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing slowdowns in 2020, electronic commerce, electronic data interchanges and e-procurement channels grew about 10 times faster than total manufacturing and distributor sales.

It is no longer enough to just maintain a serviceable online order portal. Business must adapt to stay competitive. For those just starting to sell online, that means introducing a digital element into current client relationships. For others, who have been at it for some time, the next step may be setting alerts to know when to step in and work through a complex sale with a client through a digitally enabled conversation.

For their part, customers today prefer a streamlined and intuitive e-commerce experience. Delivering an approach that educates the consumer and establishes trust, while creating a shopping platform that integrates with your other marketing and resource management software systems can result in client loyalty, and reduce the cost of acquiring sales.

Ch. 1 — Meeting customers’ changing expectations

B2B customers want self-service e-commerce portals with the ease of B2C shopping.

In business-to-consumer (B2C) and B2B online sales, customers are looking for a personalized shopping experience and an easy-to-use, efficient interface. In both groups, customers conduct their own thorough research prior to buying and tend to prefer using a digital platform unless they need assistance. Despite the crossover in user expectations, B2B buyers’ needs and purchasing processes are much different from those in B2C, which requires separate built-in technologies that do not apply to retailers.

B2B sales have traditionally involved long-standing relationships and personal sales calls, and therefore, a B2B e-commerce site must be about more than completing a transaction. An e-commerce site should be a customer service tool that guides the sale from beginning to end, addressing customers’ inquiries with automated and human interactions as needed along the way. For example, you can offer product expertise a first-time buyer may not have thought of and recommend components that work well with their existing equipment.

A customer-facing portal can be used to promote transparency and aid business leaders in planning and budgeting. Customers want access to their account history with records about everything they bought (whether purchased online, over the phone or through a spreadsheet order form), along with which high-frequency products will need to be reordered soon and how much they paid last time.

Just as in B2C, today’s B2B buyers are also interested in sustainable procurement. They want to know where their goods are sourced. What materials or ingredients are used? Which farm was this grown on? By giving your clients all the product details upfront, you can make your site relevant and set yourself apart from the competition.

Unlike consumer sales, where choices are individual and can be emotional or impulsive, B2B purchasing decisions are based on facts and often involve groups of people with multiple approval processes in place. Users may have different shopping permissions, depending on their role in an organization, with some users selecting products and others authorizing transactions.

Personalized pricing is another consideration for B2B sellers. Whereas retail shoppers all pay the same listed price, in B2B sales, pricing may have been negotiated at a different rate or based on volume. Clients logged into their dashboard would see the costs that apply to them. In short, customers who can track their shipments at a glance, check availability and reorder with just a few clicks are more likely to continue doing business with that seller.

Your software can take sales a step further by providing guided selling. A program can use AI to recommend products that complement an existing purchase or are a required component of an item in the digital cart. If your e-commerce store does not sell all the items a customer may need to complete the system they are building, customers may also benefit from an online marketplace that allows them to buy from one of your affiliated vendors without leaving your site. A marketplace allows other companies to sell and promote their goods through your site, often in exchange for paying you a sum of the profits. Customers are still guided through the sales process to complete their purchase.

CH. 2 — The sales team’s evolving responsibility

Shifting into a consulting role, they service the relationship, rather than the transaction.

A robust e-commerce site allows customers to set the tone and timeline for a digital sale and frees the sales team from administrative order-placing tasks. It allows sales associates to step into a consultative capacity, focusing on serving customers, answering specific product-related questions and developing new sales strategies to attract or retain clients.

The role of the salesperson has evolved, but sales reps must still develop a thorough understanding of their customers and the product lines. By studying detailed analytic reports based on their customers’ data and shopping history, sales teams can create a more nuanced view of the customer and discover insights that can help save time or money or drive loyalty. For example, a customer who regularly orders a consumable good may be offered a subscription service for that product or a comparable one that may cost more but require replacement less often. A customer may be alerted that inventory on one of their recurring purchases is running low or has experienced a fluctuation that may affect availability or that there may be an issue with shipping to multiple addresses.

These check-ins can happen electronically. By integrating back-end systems, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), product inventory management (PIM) and customer relationship management (CRM), your e-commerce platform can automate programs and systems, triggered by a specific rule or action. If a problem arises with an order, during transit or after delivery, the sales team must be able to step in to support and assist the customers, using the communications channels of the customers’ choosing, such as text, chat, email, phone or an in-person appointment.

Sales associates involved in complex sales services, such as product bundling, can use information collected in these integrated data platforms to walk a customer through buying the right equipment for a large system. This configuration capability draws from a mix of human input and programming that requires a company’s ability to collect and connect their available data from IT, sales and marketing.

The future of B2B marketing

Wherever a company is in its B2B e-commerce journey, online shopping is here to stay. Creating a good e-commerce experience means putting yourself in the customers’ shoes along their journey from awareness to consideration to shopping to purchasing again. It means understanding their pain points and removing obstacles from the sale.

The future will continue to bring new capabilities, such as virtual reality, virtual showrooms and augmented reality. Businesses will continue to rapidly innovate to keep up with changing times and customer needs. The keys are examining how you can make it easier for your customers to buy from you, rather than your competitors, and differentiating yourself based on the expertise you provide.

Using the extrapolated knowledge from interconnected resources will help you create custom offerings even before clients think of them and will keep you ahead of the curve. In the end, you want your customers to trust that you have met their needs and created a flexible and frictionless online buying experience that complements your existing channels.

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