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B2B ecommerce: What are the complexities and how do you overcome them?

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16th Jun 2014
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While business-to-consumer ecommerce tends to attract the headlines due to the profile of trailblazers such as Amazon and retail giants such as John Lewis, online stores aren’t purely a B2C phenomenon.

A recent survey of European and North American business-to-business organisations by Intershop revealed that 92% already sell online, and the remaining 8% have plans to. Furthermore, almost a quarter of those organisations (23%) reported they were planning to increase the percentage they sell online by a further 40% or more.

This is unsurprising given the returns that B2B players are reporting from their online endeavours. The 2013 E-commerce Report found that almost half (49%) of B2B organisations said that bringing business buyers from offline to online could result in a higher overall bottom line, with 44% saying they expected higher average basket values, and 43% suggesting that bringing buyers online could result in more return customers and higher brand loyalty.

But it’s not all plain sailing. Because despite these figures, almost all B2B organisations (96%) reported challenges – and many of these are growing in magnitude. One of the most pressing concerns, are growing customer expectations of the B2B ecommerce experience.

“B2B businesses would have historically sold through retailers and distributors and wholesalers, but these days they are trying to reach out directly to the consumer so that they can take revenue directly and not have to give up 40%+ of the margin away to the retailer,” notes Chris Fletcher, research director at Gartner.

“However, B2B companies are used to selling in a crude B2B environment. There is a very different platform in the consumer world. You have to understand who the consumer is, you’ve got to really step up your game in terms of personalisation and marketing to the business consumer, and it’s a much more challenging environment than it used to be.”

Complex and convoluted

David Winterbottom, technical director at Tangent Labs, says: “B2B sites are generally complex beasts, rich in convoluted processes and business rules. Without a robust approach to fully understanding the domain at hand, B2B sites are prone to not accurately modelling the core business that they are there to support. This manifests itself in confusing workflows for the end user, that aren’t natural to the way they want to work.”

Of those questioned for the 2013 Ecommerce Report, half of B2B organisations reported that they found it difficult to provide intuitive and user-friendly interfaces for multiple touch points such as B2B online stores, mobile apps, etc. A similar number (48%) said it was difficult to manage complex organisational structures such as different user roles, multiple business models, multiple commerce touchpoints and multiple data domains.

All of this presents a problem, because – as Fletcher highlights – B2B customers increasingly expect a ‘B2C experience’ when they are shopping online. The world of B2B commerce is undergoing a radical transformation, and B2C trends are reflected in the B2B environment. Reflecting this, 81% of respondents to the Ecommerce Report said that customer expectations represented a major challenge.

When it comes to the features their customers expect, intuitive search and navigation were said to be important by more than three quarters (77%) of B2B organisations, followed by online order approval (75%), self-service account management (74%), category and product pages (73%) and online store analytics / monitoring in real-time (72%).

Unsurprisingly, supporting mobile commerce is also a priority, with 65% of those questioned planning to create a mobile-optimised store version that allows business buyers to see products, to purchase, to access their account profile and to track orders. 56% also said they plan to create a mobile app that allows business buyers to see products, to negotiate the price, to click and buy and to track orders.

Responding to the tipping point

All of this reflects the fact that the world of B2B ecommerce is undergoing a period of radical transformation, with B2C trends becoming increasingly prominent in the B2B environment. Jochen Moll, member and spokesman of the board of management at Intershop, reiterates that B2B ecommerce is hitting a “tipping point”, with pressure mounting on B2B organisations to cope with a large number of challenges and fast changing expectations.

He has the following advice: "B2C has become the test ground for B2B companies to understand how ecommerce technologies can support their sales strategies. After all, every B2B customer is also a B2C customer so if you want to understand the future of B2B, that is where to look.”

Jeremy Vernon, joint managing director at Core Fulfilment, says that to help respond to the new expectations, it can be useful to adopt a B2C mindset:  “In terms of B2B online selling, it’s important to remember that you are still selling to a person. The basic requirements are still the same: that customer wants to be able to find the product and prices easily, navigate through the website with ease, have the product delivered in a convenient way for them, for example.”

Kath Dawson, creative director at Strategy Digital, elaborates how to take this to the next level: “B2B companies’ etail challenges are comparable to the consumer sector in many ways, save for the fact they have very specific and sometimes niche audiences.  As such, the buying personas the digital content is created for must also be very specific, with a great deal of research and background information included, to ensure the brand’s knowledge in the space is conveyed. As B2B vendors are competing based on their specialist knowledge and experience, digital content such as case studies will work well to reinforce this.”

Jacqueline Toms is marketing director, Northern Europe at Hybris, adds: “In the B2B sector the traditional focus has always been on tangible, quantifiable things – supply chain optimisation, lean manufacturing, procurement, and process improvements - vital considerations but hardly the stuff to excite today’s media-savvy consumers. To embrace their experience, B2B operators need to get right inside it.

“Creating an efficient ecommerce operation is also something that has to be planned with people, not just around them. And this means involving the right people; not just IT but everyone from board level to marketing, supply chain to sales, back-office to ‘channels’. Devising a game plan has to be a multi-discipline process of consulting, motivating and involving all key players in an organisation.”

Internal challenges

Indeed, the challenges presented by the new B2B ecommerce environment aren’t just from outside the company walls. There are also internal issues that must be addressed.

“There are two types of B2B business,” notes Chloe Thomas, author of the eCommerce MasterPlan. “Firstly, there are wholesalers who have decided they want to go direct to the consumer because they can get better margins and have more control. The second group are the ones that have a website that is fully ecommerce, selling direct to consumers, as a kind of grocer for your B2B clients who your sales reps talk to.

“However, this type often ends up having to have discussions within the high level of the business because sales get annoyed because their income is being stolen by the ecommerce website. Some of the customers just want to click and order, they’re not worried about the 5% they’d get off if they go via the guide because they just want to get it done – they don’t have time to for the phone calls and all that kind of stuff.”

She adds: “Watching those businesses try to work out how to rebuild their ecommerce platform so that it keeps everyone internally happy is a far bigger battle than trying to keep the external customer happy.”

The solution, Thomas suggests, is to shift the mindset away from who ‘owns’ the customer, because often this only results in sales reps insisting that customers can only use the site if they use a special log-in to access their special prices and ensure they’re accountable.

“They need to understand that to succeed with B2B ecommerce, you’ve got to enable all of your customers to use the website; let it be their choice,” Thomas continues. “Then, your salesmen become a value add. They’re not grafting for the sale, they becomes the guys who go ‘I noticed you just ordered eight boxes of paper, we actually have a deal on that - if you order another two I can add them on, and how about you buy some pens at the same time?’. It becomes more retrospect than proactive, and that’s quite a different mindset for the traditional sales team.”

Commercial revolution

What is clear is that B2B ecommerce is entering a transformative phase in its development. There is mounting pressure on B2B as they adapt to the challenges and growing expectations they are encountering, both from inside and outside of their organisations. However, the savvy organisations will recognise that this kind of environment can enable leading-edge businesses to pull away from the competition.

"Where there is complexity, there is also opportunity,” notes Moll. “Organisations that can develop their B2B commerce channels now and offer a consumer-like approach will be well placed to capture market share. They will need to understand how to manage the complexities around their new channels, but the effort will pay off.”

Toms concludes: “By embracing B2B ecommerce we are embracing a fundamental shift, a process of reconfiguring the entire way in which we do business in order to give the consumer the same experience they already enjoy from their B2C suppliers of choice. This is exciting. Living through a commercial revolution is big enough by itself; being in there and influencing it right at the start is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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