Why E-Commerce Still Isn't Clicking with B2B Executives

May 6 2014, 12:12pm CDT | by

Consider the typical B2B buyer: following a hard week at the office, she goes home, maybe binge watches the latest season of House of Cards and spends hours in a consumer’s paradise of fun, engaging, anytime, anywhere shopping experiences. On Monday morning, she heads to the her shop, and after her second cup of coffee kicks in, she decides to refill the stick with the required supplies and inventory for the next couple of months.

Does she start calling vendors for pricing? Browse the stack of print catalogs collecting dust on her bureau? Maybe fill out an internal procurement form? Not a chance. Instead, she goes online, expecting to find the same high quality commerce experience she enjoyed over the weekend. And in many cases, she is sorely disappointed by what she finds.

A major shift is happening in B2B commerce. It’s an online-driven, omni-channel transformation that is forever changing the way the world’s most successful B2B brands connect with, engage and retain their customers. In fact, B2B e-commerce has now more than doubled B2C, with $559 billion in 2013 sales. In many ways, it’s a brave, new world in B2B commerce—and it’s happening right now.

The Beginning of An Important Transformation for B2B

Awareness isn’t the problem. To be fair, many B2B brands already realize that the B2B commerce journey is evolving. A recent study conducted by Forrester Research (commissioned by hybris Software) showed that 67 percent of North American B2B firms believe that e-commerce is fundamentally changing B2B commerce.

But what these same firms fail to understand is that they are not just competing against their direct competitors. The market for B2B commerce buying experiences has the attention now of massive online marketplaces like Amazon, Google, eBay and Alibaba, creating a scenario in which the kind of marketplace transformation that occurred in B2C will happen very quickly in B2B. The B2B buyer already uses their sites and apps, and understands what to expect – that it will be easy.

So, when our well-intentioned procurement officer fires up her laptop on Monday morning, there’s a good chance she will visit some of the same marketplaces that she relies on for her B2C purchases—unless B2B businesses can significantly improve their ability to support the B2B buyer journey.

  • Impact of Mobility. The use of smartphones and tablets in the retail marketplace is boring, tired news. But in the B2B space, too many companies are still stuck on first generation commerce strategies (i.e. websites), even though buyers use the same mobile devices to interact with B2B product and service providers. The Forrester study showed that 54 percent of B2B companies selling online report that their customers are using smartphones to research products and 52 percent are using their devices to make online B2B purchases.  In fact, what can be easier than placing reorders on the shop-floor from your smartphone?
  • Role of Digital Channels. Many B2B businesses are messing around with a sales force mentality that is dominated by concerns about channel conflict and other barriers to an omni-channel commerce approach. However, Forrester research showed that online B2B customers are more active than offline customers and have higher average order volumes (AOVs). The lesson? The transition is already happening, whether B2B brands like it or not, and by providing people like our Monday morning manufacturing procurement officer the opportunity to engage across a range of mobile and digital channels, B2B sellers can become rock stars for buyers in today’s marketplace.

Nailing the B2B Commerce Experience

With large, global e-commerce brands like Amazon and Alibaba zeroing in on the B2B space, businesses have no time to spare when it comes to developing and improving the B2B commerce experience they deliver to their customers.

  • Invest aggressively in the B2B customer experience. Forget about trying to match your competitors’ omni-channel customer experiences. Who cares what they’re doing. Your real competition is the customer expectation. This is what Amazon understands and why they keep accruing online demand. Invest early and often in delivering exceptional online buying experience and upgrade legacy technology infrastructure to ensure your ability to deliver a top-notch, wherever, whenever commerce experience across all channels.
  • Prioritize mobile. We shouldn’t ignore the importance of mobile as an integral part of your brand’s next-generation, omni-channel commerce strategy. Enhanced mobile commerce opportunities are emerging at a rapid pace. For example, B2B brands that prioritize the mobile channel can offer in-the-field sales opportunities and personalized customer service possibilities that are impossible to deliver without a mobile-heavy commerce strategy. Forrester found that 52% of B2B customers are using smartphones to research products for their businesses, this is a wake-up call.
  • Court omni-channel B2B customers. Approximately 80 percent of B2B firms that currently sell direct to customers online identified omni-channel customers as “profitable” compared to 57 percent of online-only customers and 53 percent of offline-only customers. Here’s what that means to you: omni-channel customers are your brand’s best overall customers—and that means you need to pull out all the stops to convert single-channel customers into more active, more loyal and higher-spending omni-channel customers.
  • Broaden your view of the competition. Stop thinking of your competition as just your direct competitors. More than ever before, stakeholders across the entire B2B supply chain (distributors, wholesalers, manufacturers) are all selling directly to customers. Forrester research showed that 41 percent of the B2B companies surveyed are now selling directly against their own wholesalers, distributors and suppliers. Your company needs to be prepared to sell against the same companies you categorize as valuable supply chain partners.

What you don’t know can kill your business. Whether they’re on the prowl for manufacturing supplies or sophisticated IT solutions, today’s buyers expect to have it be easy, and that means web and mobile self-service shopping experiences that compliment the other channels which may still serve a role – this is omni-channel. Going forward, the best B2B brands will rise to the challenge and deliver mobile-enhanced, omni-channel opportunities that rival the best the B2C space has to offer. In fact, B2B businesses know far more about their customers than B2C businesses do, which means there is no excuse not to deliver relevant, contextual experiences to those customers.

Technology obviously plays an important role in helping B2B brands compete in the new world of B2B commerce. But the challenges to becoming omni-channel reach far beyond technology into core business processes, how you are organized, and how you even compensate people. But this is an important a time as any to ensure your business survives and thrives, because the customer is changing and you better be there with them or risk seeing that business go elsewhere.


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