April 2, 2014, 1:22 PM

Sponsored Special Report: Meeting the challenges of B2B e-commerce

Businesses buying online want B2B e-commerce sites to be as appealing as consumer-facing sites.

Slick, multifaceted business-to- consumer e-commerce sites have changed the expectations of buyers for businesses, governments and nonprofit companies. On their own time, they shop retail sites that are easy to navigate, personalized to their preferences and full of the information consumers want before purchasing. They now expect the same when they go online to place orders during work hours.

That means business-to-business web sites can no longer be utilitarian versions of a print catalog, with online processing added in. B2B buyers expect all the features they've become accustomed to on top retail web sites. And, just as they do when shopping for themselves, they want a B2B e-commerce site to be formatted for their mobile devices.

While the most forward-thinking businesses have built B2B sites that share many elements with business-to-consumer sites, there are many differences under the hood. For example, B2B sites often must incorporate complex business rules that determine pricing for each customer, corporate spending limits for departments and individual buyers, as well as a myriad of legal and regulatory restrictions. For example, certain products cannot legally be shipped to certain states or to certain countries—and a top-notch B2B site has to build in business rules that reflect those restrictions.

"B2B buyers want a great experience, just like B2C shoppers, but the architecture of a B2B platform is much different from a B2C platform, because the objectives and motivations of B2B buyers are different than those of B2C shoppers," says Andy Lloyd, general manager of commerce products for e-commerce platform provider NetSuite Inc. "The B2B experience is as much about efficiency as it is a good user experience."

Simplified shopping

Most business buyers want to be able to quickly reorder products. That isn't hard to achieve, say experts. For instance, a B2B merchant can store its customers' recent orders—including the items they purchased and the quantity—and display them each time the customer logs onto the site. The buyer can quickly select the order he wants to refill, change the quantity as needed, and click the Buy button without having to navigate to the product page to place the order. That saves him precious time.

Reorders can be grouped in several ways, such as by date of purchase, frequency of purchase or by season. The latter is an appealing feature for apparel and sporting goods companies because their inventory changes with the season.

Another way to make online buying easier is to set up an automatic reorder of frequently purchased items. The order can include the usual quantity, which the customer can change if needed. If no change is needed, the customer doesn't even have to sign on to the supplier's site to place an order. The order is processed automatically on a designated date.

"Repeat orders are a big part of B2B e-commerce, and the more suppliers can automate the process the simpler it becomes for the customers," says Darren Hill, co-founder and CEO of WebLinc, a provider of B2B e-commerce platforms.

Even business can be personal

Simplifying repeat orders is just one way that B2B merchants can tailor their sites to their customers' needs. Personalizing a B2B site is increasingly important for B2B retailers looking to boost sales, experts say.

That requires suppliers to understand their customers' business needs. An engineer, for example, may require highly detailed product specifications about the raw materials or machinery he's considering buying. But a procurement officer placing a monthly order for cleaning supplies is not likely to need that kind of in-depth information.

"Every B2B buyer has a different persona that is driven by the nature of his job," says Linda Taddonio, chief e-commerce strategy officer for B2B e-commerce platform provider InsiteCommerce. "Focusing on customer needs and how to meet those needs will pay greater dividends than focusing on what competitors are doing."

One way suppliers can identify the personas of buyers within their client companies is by leaning on the knowledge of their field sales representatives. "Field reps can help fill in the blanks about the kinds of buyers they work with so when they log into their account, the supplier knows what type of experience to deliver," Taddonio says. "Understanding the needs of B2B buyers is a complex journey, so suppliers should take a well-thought-out approach to how they will undertake that journey."

However, suppliers can't always know much about their customers. That's especially true online, where tactics such as search engine marketing and banner ads may attract potential customers from anywhere in the world. A B2B e-commerce site is likely to draw in buyers that the supplier has never met, and may know nothing about.

But that doesn't mean B2B merchants can't personalize their sites for those new customers. Like business-to-consumer retailers, B2B suppliers can tailor what they display to visitors based on what brought the visitor to the site. For example, if he clicked on an online ad about cleaning supplies and his IP address indicates he is from California, the site can show items relevant to that search ad that meet California's environmental regulations. Or a B2B retailer can simply ask new customers to fill out a brief questionnaire on its home page, and tailor content accordingly.

"Asking what industry the buyer represents, her job title and the type of products she is interested in can yield a lot of information about the type of content that is relevant to a first-time buyer," says Bob Egner, vice president of product management for e-commerce platform provider EPiServer.

Such information can be gathered while the buyer is setting up her account, a requirement on many B2B sites that is not as common in online retail. Once she sets up her account, the site can gather behavioral information as the buyer moves through the site. It can then link that data to her account for use during future visits.

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