June 24, 2014, 12:52 PM

Good B2B site design begins and ends with the user

B2B sites that sell primarily to businesses or individual buyers, can employ features and functions that mirror top online retailing sites, but it’s all about giving users the tools they need for quick and painless purchasing, a pair of design experts told attendees recently at IRCE 2014 in Chicago.

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Successful design for a business-to-business e-commerce site begins with a process that identifies key business and technology objectives, a pair of speakers told attendees at IRCE 2014 in Chicago this month.

Speaking on the topic “Smart B2B design: Strategy and experience principles boost sales,” Girisha Chandraraj, vice president of e-commerce at wholesaler United Stationers, and Alex Schmelkin, CEO of web site design firm Alexander Interactive, told attendees that having a business strategy in mind is the first step in prudent planning for a business e-commerce site. “Site strategy is a function of your commercial strategy,” Chandraraj said.

For example, if the B2B site sells primarily to businesses or individual buyers, the site can include features and functions that mirror top online retailing sites. United Stationers, a business-to-business retailer of industrial products and related items, in June acquired online tools retailer CPO Commerce, No. 256 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide for $30 million in cash and an additional $10 million if certain performance goals are met. The Top 500 ranks companies on their annual web sales.

United Stationers acquired CPO Commerce largely because it needed an established online retailing company with an available technology platform to grow e-commerce and introduce new online buying features. A B2B e-commerce site, for instance, may have to offer such complicated features as bulk ordering and pricing, splitting shipments among multiple distribution points, and processing payments through electronic invoicing, electronic funds transfer or credit cards.

But no matter how complex the site, a good design should always incorporate fast and detailed site search and lots of visuals and detailed product content that make the buying process easy and clear-cut for procurement managers, business owners, purchasing directors and others. “Your content needs to drive awareness,” Chandraraj said.

To begin the design process, designers and programmers need to break down how traffic will be driven to the site, Chandraraj said. Next up is deciding how to involve the sales force in the dialogue with online buyers, which partly depends on whether a site is primarily for displaying content or for generating transactions, and whether the site is publically available or limited to only a certain segment of buyers, Chandraraj said. “The key is planning what you want the site experience to be,” he told attendees.

While still in the planning process, a company that wants to build a lasting and profitable B2B e-commerce operation needs to know who its cutomers are, keep pricing simple, conduct lots of A/B testing to see what designs work and which ones don’t, and provide excellent customer service, Schmelkin said.

Also key to B2B e-commerce success is fast access to products and information, he added. On Fastenal.com, a B2B site that sells screws, fasteners and related items, customers can see detailed images of even very small screws to determine if they’re a correct match, Schmelkin said.

The home page on Fastenal.com also is clearly marked with categories such as fasteners, safety, tools and equipment, cutting tools and metal working and material handling and packaging that gets visitors quickly to the products they’re seeking, Schmelkin said. At Grainger.com, the e-commerce site that generates $3.1 billion in annual web sales for maintenance, repair and operations product seller W.W. Grainger Inc., for example, the left-hand navigation shows clearly defined product categories and product recommendations for repeat buyers.

Grainger also stays current with buyers by continually introducing new design features and functions such as in October, when Grainger updated its mobile commerce program with an iPhone app that lets users chat with trained Grainger customer service reps and send them photos of products to identify. Photos help a rep locate the product in question and then provide the customer with a direct link to the product, which the customer can use to check availability and make a purchase. “Fast access to pricing and products should be a priority,” Schmelkin said.

Other best practices Schmelkin recommended to B2B e-commerce site builders include adding robust filtering tools to site search, letting buyers shop by brands as early in the buying process as feasible, using very detailed product images and using video when it makes sense. “Great photography increases sales,” Schmelkin said. “Great design is all in the details.”

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