January 6, 2014, 3:03 PM

Savvy consumers and business buyers converge

ShopVisible’s co-founder and CEO Sean Cook suggests retailers need to bring a B2C mindset to B2B e-commerce.

Since its emergence in the mid-1990s, the e-commerce industry has treated business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) end buyers as two separate audiences with distinct goals, habits and experiences.

The industry has been slow to realize that consumers, acting in their capacity as business buyers, do not check their expectations at the door. Consider soccer mom Jane, who leaves the house each morning for her job as an officer manager at a mid-sized business where she is in charge of making all corporate purchases. Or consider middle-aged sports fan Bill, who spends most of his day running a manufacturing plant where he is responsible for recruiting employees and sourcing vendors and machine parts.

For Jane and Bill, the lines between B2C and B2B retailing have blurred. Jane wants to purchase office supplies from Office Depot with the same convenience and elegance that Macys.com provides her at Christmas. And Bill wants to find new employees and vendors on social media the same way he connects with his old college buddies.

Not surprising, B2B buyers like Jane and Bill are turning to the Internet to make buying decisions in increasingly large numbers. A 2011 survey from B2B marketing publisher Demand Gen Report says 83% of B2B buyers do informal research, often online, before talking to a sales representative. Despite the different buying needs of B2C and B2B buyers, the expectations for rich user experiences and predictable transaction capabilities are becoming universal.

B2B Sales Aren't Simple Companies that sell to these savvy B2B consumers must rise to the occasion and deliver on their high B2C expectations. Meeting these high customer demands isn't always easy. Very real complexities underlie B2B e-commerce. B2B e-retailers often must contend with contract pricing requirements, limited product assortments based on their contract or role, multiple approval processes and more.

For these reasons, some B2B sellers have been timid about broaching online retailing. Forrester Research Inc. estimates that domestic B2B e-commerce sales will surpass $550 billion in 2013—more than twice expected online B2C sales. Yet only 25% of B2B sellers currently have an e-commerce site, according to a 2012 survey from Oracle Corp. Meanwhile the 2011 B2B Marketing Benchmark Report from MarketingSherpa LLC says only half of B2B companies consider their web sites effective marketing tools.

Clearly, B2B sellers face a complex environment. When a consumer buys a product online, the transaction is typically a one-to-one interaction. In a business situation, you often have people with different types of purchasing authority, requiring unique workflows and permissions. In fact, consultants from FitForCommerce Inc. estimate the implementation of a B2B e-commerce platform is typically 10 times more complicated than B2C.

Fortunately, these unique challenges and necessities can be supported by a new breed of technologies that have the potential to simultaneously meet the complex requirements of a B2B transaction environment while delivering the rich customer experience buyers expect when buying online in their personal lives.

These platforms allow B2B consumers to track purchases and view order histories, as they do with B2C sites. Some also provide shoppers with cross-sell and upsell recommendations based on buying behaviors and enterprise-wide delivery options to streamline complex business approval processes.

Some B2B companies are retooling existing sites to take advantage of tools common to consumer sites, but with a B2B twist, such as adding a LinkedIn login option instead of a Facebook login. Meanwhile, other companies are building sites from scratch to offer more advanced technologies, like the ability to track returns in business settings that require complex sets of approvals.

How B2B Sellers Can Cater to B2B Buyers "Click here to download a PDF of our catalog" simply does not cut it.

B2B buyers, who at one time may have been satisfied with a hefty print catalog or price list and an occasional sales call or free lunch, bring their expectations as consumers to work with them. Product sites that do little more than emulate print catalogs are outdated, and if a B2B e-commerce site is hard to navigate or makes it difficult to locate products, they leave. Think about it: Would you rather drive to a dusty warehouse to choose products from stacks of indistinguishable pallets or visit a mall and browse among beautiful storefronts? It's a no-brainer. Sizzle sells and convenience converts.

West Music Co. is a music instruments retailer that sells directly to consumers, to institutions and schools, and other retailers. For more than 70 years, the company has developed a B2C shopping experience for its musician customers, including its first e-commerce site in 1996. As its institutional and B2B business developed, West Music wanted to serve its B2B customers with the same experience it provided its B2C shoppers. In 2013, West Music launched a combined B2B and B2C e-commerce site powered by ShopVisible's platform that features e-commerce functionality to support the ever-expanding needs of its buying audiences. For example, the site lets purchasing agents from each school district manage what an individual teacher or school is authorized to order and monitor purchasing activity across their schools.

Customers have come to expect an Amazon.com-like experience with rich shopping features on all commerce sites: great design and navigation, search, filtering, detailed descriptions, images, rich media, personalization, product reviews, social media and mobile interfaces. But it is not all about sizzle. Once a B2B e-retailer has mastered the art of presenting its products, it has to facilitate a very complex sale in a much more strategic and technical way.

A good B2B e-commerce platform supports the needs of the organizational structure where it can, such as facilitating purchases through a reporting structure for approvals. The technology must also exchange data easily with accounting, inventory and customer history systems.

Despite the dizzying complexity, there is good news. Technology has evolved to serve up configurable and pleasing customer experiences within the confines of corporate rules and regulations, and e-commerce is now within B2B sellers' reach.

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