So, you’re a B2B seller and business is good. But, increasingly, customers want to buy online. And you know there’s an untapped opportunity out there but you’ve been hesitant to invest in an online store. Especially when most everything seems geared towards B2C ecommerce.
Well that’s changed. According to Forrester Research, B2B ecommerce sales in the United States are on the rise and expected to reach $1.13 trillion in 2020. They expect the growth will be driven largely by “channel-shifting,” where B2B buyers go online to make purchases versus using traditional channels. This presents B2B sellers with a huge opportunity to grow faster, maximize efficiencies and cut costs.
To be successful online, however, you must know your B2B customer, appeal to their needs and understand how they buy. Your online strategy will only be effective if buying online is just as easy and convenient – if not easier and more convenient – than traditional methods. While many of the principles of a B2C site do apply, consider these unique needs of a B2B buyer.
Merchandise that’s easy to find
While simple navigation is a core component of every website, remember that B2B buyers are paid workers who are “on the clock,” and they do not have the luxury of casually browsing. So consider the unique aspects of your business and design your site to fit your industry’s buyers. For example, you may organize by specific categories that match how buyers buy or how a merchant’s store is organized making it easier for them to populate a category in their store. For example, you could help them stock an entire section of their store by grouping point-of-purchase items that are typically placed near a checkout counter together on your site even though they consist of phone chargers, lip balm, batteries and candy bars.
Merchandise that’s easy to remarket
Product information on your website serves two purposes: to market to your customer and to market to your customer’s customer. Therefore, product information must be comprehensive, including core product attributes as well as other details that a consumer wouldn’t necessarily care about, like packaging dimensions, so buyers can gather all details about products in one place. Furthermore, the information must be easily accessible and preferably downloadable so the buyer can bring the product information in house to use for their own merchandising needs.
A supplier that sets proper delivery expectations
Communicate accurate available inventory so buyers are confident that what they are ordering is, in fact, in stock. They could be planning sales or using the item in a kit, assembly or bundle. Stock outs and backorders are not an option. Once you know the inventory is right, tell the customer exactly when it will be shipped and when to expect delivery. This will help them plan more effectively.
Online support for terms customers and payments
B2B customers expect price levels and term accounts to be supported online. Present each customer’s negotiated price levels online when they shop. This may require them to login to your site but the benefits will be worth the extra step to both them and you. And allow customers to manage their account online: apply for a credit account, make payments, view how payments were applied to specific invoices, and review order history. Not only does this improve the customer’s experience, but it will also cut costs by reducing your reliance on customer service reps.
There are two key features that accelerate the ordering process while a third helps to grow the order:
Reorders: Make it easy for customers to reorder previous purchases. When listing order history, provide an option to duplicate and place a new order. To sweeten the feature even more, allow customers to set a replenishment schedule and send reminders to users when it’s time to replenishment their inventory.
Approvals: Many B2B buyers require approvals, either on every order or over certain dollar amounts. Provide the ability for buyers to select products and save those items in a cart for management review and approval before making the purchase.
Wish lists/recommendations: Give your sales team (or the customers themselves) the ability to create wish lists or recommendations that can be presented to customers upon login. They should be able to select the items they want to buy and convert that list into an order. This personalization is a great way to introduce new products to customers and increase your average sale.
Be Flexible with returns: Make it easy for customers to return products. Where online orders are concerned, there are multiple ways, yet little control, for how a return originates (a call to a rep, shipped product back with no notice, etc.). As most merchant know, returns simply cause lots of headaches. However, the worst thing you can do is to insist that everyone follow the same process. You need to make sure that phone, web and shipping returns are all options, that they’re all easy to execute, and that you have planned processes for how to handle them expediently.
Because I’m in technology, I feel that I would be remiss not to mention that the number of ecommerce vendors out there that do B2B ecommerce well (especially for the midmarket) is small. The large, expensive ecommerce platforms can do anything you want, but require expensive customizations and months of months of labor to get a site off the ground. For most midmarket merchants, the needs are massive but the options are few. So in order to support the features needed to be successful, it’s likely you will need to pull together more than one vendor.
This happens in two ways:
- Many ecommerce platforms offer a library of add-on applications that complement and enhance their existing feature sets. These apps are prebuilt to work with their host ecommerce platform but are often simplistic in their nature and not terribly flexible.
- To get more robust functionality, you may need third-party applications to sit side by side with your ecommerce platform to manage things like order fulfillment, inventory synchronization or financial transactions. In that case, an integration provider is needed to tie those systems together to build seamless processes.
While I’ve listed for you what I believe are key components of a strong B2B site, there dozens of other features you could add that meet the specific needs of your industry or customer base.
The key takeaway here is that in order to do it well, a tremendous amount of planning is required to do B2B right – understanding customer personas, defining systems and processes, training your organization to support new operational procedures, designing the site, integrating systems and providing ongoing support.
But you don’t have to do it all at once. Create a plan that you can implement in phases. But do your homework up front and invest your time, attention and dollars early to get the most predictable and profitable outcomes.
Steve Weber is President & CEO of nChannel.