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Digital Strategy, Ecommerce • 18 min read

Remain Relevant With The Right B2B E-Commerce Solution: Adapt and benefit in the face of change

Steven Coymans | 23-03-2021

Ever since COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives and purchase patterns last year, B2B e-commerce has become more important than ever. And while salespeople still have to be able to reach customers, and capture demand as it happens, B2B businesses have to execute their e-commerce channels and digital marketing efforts with excellence.

Today’s B2B Customers Expect B2C Customer Experiences

In the wake of the pandemic, the economy is still adjusting to new realities. Nearly all businesses have been forced to transform, especially in the B2B world. Many B2B companies have pivoted their businesses in order to continue to provide great customer experiences, even in these uncertain times. Historically, B2B companies have not been overly eager to adopt new technologies that promise to reshape how they approach their customer experience. However the COVID-19 crisis, a catalyst for this change, is accelerating the adoption of technology and is forcing B2B companies to adapt to the needs of their customers by offering B2C-quality experiences within their digital channels.

B2B companies have embraced the importance of investing in (long-term) customer relationships and loyalty, while at the same time accelerating innovation. The changes in customer behavior are part of an acceleration in digital trends that were already set in motion before the pandemic hit. Traditionally, the main role of B2B e-commerce is to deliver great shopping experiences to business customers, in addition to accommodating back-office processes such as shipping, ordering calculations, evaluating system integrations, the digitization of pricing, and addressing customer needs for omnichannel and self-service experiences. But times have changed.

Facing change head on

B2B companies face many challenges. Adapting to your customers increasingly elaborate needs and wants demands more than occasionally adding new digital tools to your arsenal. To truly enable your company to overcome gaps in the customer experience, better serve your customers, and increase your market share, you need to think about changing the way people engage across the entire value chain. This is relevant for both your own people in sales and marketing, as well as your customers.

The line between B2B and B2C experiences is disappearing, and customer expectations to options and quality are spilling over from B2C to B2B. Faced with the need to explore new routes to market since the pandemic, B2B organizations are either building or speeding up their B2C capabilities, resulting in a hybrid of the two also referred to as B2E (business to everyone). Companies are becoming increasingly interested in doing both, and they’re looking for technology platforms that support this ambition.

Intelligent automation becomes mandatory

There is an untapped potential in the B2B world when it comes to fueling a CX transformation with the capabilities of artificial intelligence. Automation is the name of the game. For example, B2B organizations benefit greatly from anticipating or predicting customer orders and automated e-commerce fulfillment, requiring access to the right data when interacting with customers. Your e-commerce system needs to be able to automate manual processes to be truly successful at improving selling efficiency.

Fortunately, there are positive side effects to the impact of COVID-19 on businesses. It accelerated innovation and automation around B2B, increasing efficiency and reducing costs. With automation done right, you can build more agility into your business and supply chain. And while B2B organizations may never aim to become completely ‘zero touch’, they should certainly embrace a more ‘low touch’ approach wherever they can. Intelligent automation, such as chatbot technology, makes it easier for people to find content and interact with it, and helps customers with basic product, service, or aftermarket support.

B2B companies are rapidly embracing data and AI to predict future disruptions. A couple of the biggest distributors are already exploring the best ways to leverage COVID-19 data to uncover early indications of outbreaks, and predict the kind of demand they generate. Businesses able to embrace the kind of churn and bumps that are likely to occur over the next 12 months will continue to do well.

B2B customers get hyper-segmented

Customers nowadays value the quality of their shopping experience over price and product quality. B2B customers want personalized shopping experiences, whenever or wherever they make a purchase. Personalization has long been a focus for B2C brands, but now B2B customers are also looking for an empathic and problem-solving approach from their business suppliers. The challenge B2B companies face is successfully shifting focus to a more human approach, putting the customer experience first. It’s no longer just about the value proposition; the cultural proposition is taking precedence. B2B buyers want to work with partners who understand their wants and needs, and actively try to solve their biggest pain points. To provide a high level of personalization, some B2B organizations are using customer data to add more segmentation to their customer base and, in many cases, micro-segmentation.

Enterprise agility at the core of transformation

Before the corona virus outbreak, many B2B buyers bought directly from salespeople. Now that this number has dropped significantly, many B2B companies have been forced to make fundamental changes in an extraordinarily short amount of time. A transformation of this magnitude requires significant employee training, automation, IT support, and more than anything, agility. Combined with experience management we call this the business experience technology space.

It’s worth noting that many B2B organizations are embracing design thinking, or lean start-up principles like agile methodologies, to accomplish this. They’re breaking down business challenges and seizing new opportunities through features such as customer collaboration portals or voice assistants, creating entirely new experiences in the process. Good CMO’s are creating closed feedback-loops for product, brand, and customer experience innovation. This allows for the democratization of data access and insights, and the scaling of a test-and-learn approach.

Overview of valuable B2C features that have found their way to the B2B market

1. Relevant product information and content

With B2B customers shifting to online channels, it’s important that all product information and content is relevant, fact-based, and up-to-date. Rich content can be of great help when deciding on the right product without the interaction with a salesperson. The B2B platform needs to ensure products are discoverable through search and cross-selling, in addition to availability and stock details for customers who do not typically order from these categories. Therefore, products have to be connected to accurate data, to ensure they come up in the right searches.

By having all this content and information available online, B2B customers are empowered by complete product transparency and a seamless purchasing experience. On other words, they are given all the tools needed for browsing, buying, and everything in between, all in one place.

2. Accurate stock information

Items have to be clearly marked and can’t be ordered when out of stock. This might seem obvious, but not all B2B systems are as properly integrated as they should be. Having products still appear in search and category listings, marked with ‘Sold out’, ‘Back ordered’, and ‘Expected on xx-xx-xxx’ provides a better service to your customers than simply omitting them from the results. Total transparency of your inventory will save customers time and aggravation. And while it may feel counterintuitive, B2B companies can even consider helping customers locate these products outside of their own ecosystem, from a competitor digital channel. Offering this level of service, and showing confidence in your own company and products, builds goodwill and can go a long way in establishing a long-lasting relationship.

3. Collaboration

B2B customers usually expect some kind of structural collaboration with you as a B2B company. Offering B2C features makes the B2B customers’ experiences and interactions with your business more efficient and enjoyable. These features can include cross-selling on product detail pages, up-selling, and recommendations during order creation.

4. Self-service

It’s not surprising that B2B buyers admit that buying from a website is more convenient than dealing with sales representatives. Like traditional consumers, B2B buyers want more control over their purchase experiences. All consumers have come to expect seamless experiences with as little friction as possible. In turn, as outlined in this blog, B2B sellers are responding to these trends with action, by investing in powerful, personalized self-service portals.

To successfully utilize these portals, the mindset of B2B companies has to shift from predominantly focusing on the numbers to focusing on the customers’ actual needs and wants. Many B2B customers re-order the same items, while others may need to request quotes or negotiate prices further. Self-service options that allow customers to be notified about product restocking, manage their order statuses, and interact with sales professionals have become essential for every modern B2B e-commerce platform.

5. The importance of the last mile

To date, much of the marketing focus for B2B tends to focus on the products or catalog. But recently there’s been a clear shift toward fair market pricing, fulfillment, and towards the last mile in particular. A customers’ experience, for both B2B and B2C, is completely dependent on your ability to actually deliver. An order is just a promise you have to keep after all. In the end, it’s the last mile of the delivery process that’s responsible for creating a positive or negative experience.
Marketers need to appreciate the importance of the last mile when trying to resonate with B2B clients. A customer can have an excellent experience buying a product, but if its delivery is delayed, you’ve just ruined and tainted the experience. It used to be all about the buy button, but now you have to think about the entire journey, including returns, if you want to succeed at B2B. The last mile has become the differentiator.

6. Multiple Shipping options

Shipping is an essential part of the customer experience. Even before the pandemic, customers would easily switch to a competitor if they offered more convenient delivery options. Today, B2B brands look for e-commerce shipping methods, strategies, and options to match the ways they do business. But you also need to be transparent about how delivery and fulfillment is handled, ensuring all this information is available upfront and easily accessible. This saves customers valuable time. Assume they are as busy as you. Auto-replenishment programs may also need to be adjusted, based on an increase or decrease in your clients’ business activity.

Partial lockdowns and re-openings muddled our understanding of the shopping experience. Alternative shipping options are exploding, as customers seek out the most suitable option for them specifically. For example, while some would prefer to get their items shipped to a specific address, others prefer a curbside or in-store pickup. Integrating the B2B commerce platform with your fulfillment and 3PL provider facilitates the flow of order information and other data between your shipping partner and your back-office systems.

How to come out on top

The achievements and successes of some of the greatest B2C brands are now within reach of B2B organizations as well. But B2B organizations have to make sure that the experience they provide their customers is always part of the equation and thought process when tackling business problems. Experience management is a layer B2B organizations can build into their digital channels using design thinking, customer listening, and data-driven insights. All these tools combined drive frictionless and reliable experiences that are ready for the future. Those who are quick to adapt and leverage digital channels at the core of their business will come out on top.

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Steven Coymans

Head of Commerce

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