Eye on B-to-B: Must-Have Features for B-to-B Websites

Mar 15, 2002 10:30 PM  By

To be effective, all e-commerce sites need intuitive navigation, speedy load times, and clear disclosure of privacy statements. But business-to-business Websites must focus on some criteria that consumer Websites can downplay. Among those criteria:

  • Lack of clutter

    B-to-b customers are “looking for functionality, not esthetics,” says Tom Shinick, president of Merrick, NY-based catalog consulting firm Shinick Business Development Group. Chances are, visitors have to come to the site with a specific product or service in mind, not to browse. Too many pictures, words, or boxes will prove distracting rather than enticing.

    For that reason, industrial gases and supplies marketer Airgas streamlined its site by eliminating unnecessary clicks. “Customers have told us they want to get on the site, get the information they want, and get off,” says director of e-business marketing Steve Max. “They don’t want a lot of pop-up windows or fancy graphics.”

    To further minimize distractions, the Radnor, PA-based company is adding an application that will allow customers to click on an icon on their desktop that will link them to a page where they can place an order. This enables them to avoid drilling down from the home page or product page. Ordering fields such as the ship-to address, shipping instructions, and payment method will be preselected, based on the customers’ previous orders, so that they can simply choose from a list of products and submit the order.

  • Real-time information

    For your customers, time is money, so they need you to offer real-time inventory information and shipping status. Such features save time and money, not just for the customers but also for you, since customers who can access that data for themselves online are less likely to be calling your contact center for the information.

    Groton, MA-based business supplies cataloger New England Business Service (NEBS) lets its online customers know whether a product is in stock before they go through the entire order process. And if the product is out of stock, the site will give a date for when it will be available, says e-commerce market planning manager Annette Woodle.

  • Customer-specific information

    “Access to information such as invoices and order history makes a site much more than an ordering tool,” says Airgas’s Max.

    Todd Gilmer, marketing communications manager for Seattle-based outdoor apparel manufacturer Pacific Trail, agrees. Customers no longer have to “sift through last year’s order files to determine what they purchased,” he says.

    The Airgas site shows the negotiated pricing the company offers its customers offline. The customer inputs his user name and password so that the system can identify his company’s contract pricing and display it on the site. The function is tied to Airgas’s legacy database in real-time, so any changes in pricing or availability are reflected immediately on the site.

    Similarly, NEBS customers who input the promotional code from their print catalog, e-mail newsletter, or postcard are shown the special offers associated with that code. If the customer’s code is tied to discounted pricing or a special offer, the Website will adjust the transaction accordingly.

  • Comprehensive product information

    Airgas provides detailed product specs with links to material safety sheets and manufacturer product literature. The Website also offers a product comparison feature designed to simplify the process of selecting the right product.

    To provide visitors with the maximum product information, NEBS has a section on its Website that allows customers to see the most relevant products for their line of business, as well as to view what other products companies in the same industry are using, Woodle says.

  • Personalization

    NEBS, which sells personalized apparel, promotional products, and business forms, has on its Website a feature called WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). This enables customers to view exactly how the colors, logos, and fonts they’ve selected will appear on their merchandise. It also allows customers to check that their company imprint information is accurate.

    The NEBS site also provides prefilled data personalization. When customers register on the site — although registration is not required — the site will have all of the company’s information automatically entered into the fields for personalizing their product. This saves customers time when ordering online, as they will not have to re-key their personalization information, Woodle explains.

    In January, Airgas added a feature to its site that allows its customers’ supervisors to review orders before they are submitted. Each user can be set up with a unique spending limit. Any order over that limit gets forwarded to the customer’s supervisor. Giving clients this information makes it easier for them to do business “by allowing greater flexibility and control in all stages of the procurement process,” says Max.

  • Direct access to CSRs

    Ordering industrial supplies, technical equipment, and other business products often requires a great deal of explanation and assistance. For instance, a supervisor ordering a networking cable component may not know which items are compatible with his company’s existing equipment. For that reason, your site should provide easy access to service reps — no matter how detailed or comprehensive you think your Website is.

    NEBS credits an increase in its online conversion rates partially to the “live chat” function that the company added last March, Woodle says. Live chat has enabled NEBS customers (mainly small businesses with only one phone line) to get their questions answered while they’re online and complete their transaction.

Quick Tips for Improving Your Website

Catalog consultant Tom Shinick offers a few suggestions for enhancing your site:

  • Make sure that the graphics reflect those of your offline advertising and promotional materials.
  • Don’t require visitors to register merely to view products. It creates a barrier and may deter prospects from becoming customers.
  • Provide complete corporate information, including the names of your top executives and a toll-free phone number.
  • Limit text to short paragraphs, and avoid long copy blocks. But to ensure that you include comprehensive details for each product, offer a link on each product page to a page with technical details and item specs.
  • Detail your return policy clearly and in an obvious location. B-to-b customers order more frequently, with a greater number of SKUs in each order, so there is a higher chance for error in the transaction process than there is with consumer purchases.