June 30, 2014, 10:16 AM

Giving your B2B customers the e-commerce features they demand

NetSuite's Owen Fayle provides several tips on how to effectively engage online B2B customers.

Business-to-business e-commerce companies that don’t quickly adapt to the new reality of rapidly evolving expectations of B2B customers will soon find themselves at a competitive disadvantage—and miss out on a huge opportunity.

B2B customers today want the same, advanced level of functionality that they see on their favorite B2C sites. This includes features like an interactive marketplace with real-time product inventory, up-to-date pricing, mobile support, online support forums, live customer service reps, and a database that contains their corporate purchasing history, shipping preferences and payment data.

Unfortunately, few B2B web sites today offer the rich features their B2C counterparts provide. That's poor planning. Research suggests B2B e-commerce already has leapfrogged B2C online sales. Forrester Research estimates that B2B e-commerce sales more than doubled B2C online sales last year, topping $559 billion in U.S. domestic sales alone.

To take advantage of this opportunity, B2B companies must provide stronger e-commerce functionality. That includes:

  • Faceted search—in which each product is defined by various categories, such as size, color and style. This saves buyers from having to browse through hundreds, or thousands, of SKUs looking for the one that meets their specifications. Faceted search is particularly important in B2B sites, where products may have many more descriptors and attributes than in B2C. A shirt or a purse may have three or four characteristics, but imagine the differences that exist between screws. They can come in different lengths, thicknesses, thread patterns, materials, etc. Without faceted search, locating the right screw might require hours of combing through different suppliers’ catalogues. A faceted search capability might well become a major competitive edge for the e-commerce company that provides it.  
  • Configurator. Another invaluable feature in B2B e-commerce is the configurator. Configurators may be developed to solve all sorts of problems, such as the pricing of a custom project, or the specifications for a part that must be able to bear a certain weight or temperature.  For example, CMP Corp., a manufacturer of compressors for refrigeration and HVAC systems, provides an online configurator that enables customers to input requirements, such as voltage, bore size and horsepower, and allows them to order a customized compressor based on those requirements within minutes. Configurators help customers make purchases quickly and can help vendors reduce the cost of human sales support while simultaneously boosting sales.
  • Mobile support. Buyers everywhere are using mobile devices to conduct business, and that includes making B2B purchases. They may want to complete a purchase on their way to a client visit, or perhaps calculate a bill of materials for a client at a job site.
  • Online, real-time inventory. If a customer is in a rush to get an order, the buyer needs to know how much stock is available and ready for immediate shipment. He doesn't have the patience to receive an e-mail 24 hours later that states that half of the order is back ordered.
  • Customer-defined nomenclature. B2B sites should support each customer's unique product names and numbers, so that someone ordering a part doesn't have to hunt for a cross reference.
  • Continuity orders (a.k.a. subscription or repeat orders). Often a customer places the same order each month, much like a consumer may have a weekly grocery list. The customer can save a lot of time with a recurring order that automatically reorders items at a set interval. With online self-service, customers can also adjust their orders if something changes.

Successful B2B companies are listening to their customers' demand for a more user-friendly and feature-rich ecommerce experience and are improving their web sites to meet this demand. Investing in a flexible e-commerce platform, whether it be to upgrade an existing site or get a first site off the ground, will help maintain a competitive edge in the near future.  

NetSuite is a provider of business software for operations including e-commerce, point-of-sale, customer relationship management, inventory, merchandising, marketing, financials and customer service.

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