January 24, 2014, 2:42 PM

How customer self-service is revolutionizing B2B commerce

Like consumers, purchasing agents want control over how they buy, don’t want to be pressured by salespeople and want to buy when it’s convenient for them, says the CEO of ShopVisible.

Increasingly customers value and prefer self-service channels to human interactions. Think about it. Our ability to self-serve is in almost every aspect of our daily lives, from checking out at the grocery store to banking, checking in at the airport, to even ordering lunch via a mobile app.

By contrast, many business-to-business customers still use “live” service channels for procurement—even if these experiences require significantly more time and effort on their part. Many of these buyers have an ingrained habit of thumbing through a catalog and picking up a phone to place an order. They may even enjoy having a relationship with the sales rep at the other end of the line.

Unfortunately for these B2B holdouts, these work habits are rapidly disappearing. According to Forrester Research Inc., in a survey of B2B e-commerce professionals, 80% of respondents either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that their customers’ expectations followed business-to-consumer shopper practices. They say, “Customer expectations are being set by best-of-breed e-commerce sites: Shoppers quickly transfer their expectations from these sites to all sites they shop and expect similarly robust, rich, informative, responsive, and personalized experiences.”

Researchers have observed a common behavior among B2B shoppers:  A B2B web site open in one window, a favorite B2C web site open in another.

What is it that makes self-service so appealing? It’s probably a compound effect of all these advantages:

  • Efficiency of the interaction
  • Satisfaction of being in control
  • Ability to “time shift” the service experience to fit the customer’s schedule, not the provider’s
  • Fear of high-pressure sales tactics
  • And maybe most frightening of all to corporate executives, the reduced importance of the “relationship” with customers in comparison to the customer’s “experience”

One question B2B companies should ask themselves: What is more important, a relationship or a satisfying customer experience? Most people care more about a good experience when they buy or use something. They want low-friction transactions, and they want to accomplish them now.

Self-service saves time, increases accuracy, improves retention and builds loyalty.  Consider these common scenarios:

While a facility manager is on the phone, he realizes he is low on parts for upcoming machinery maintenance. He goes online to his parts provider, views his previous orders, and re-orders. The system recommends the appropriate accessories and installation tools, and he realizes he could use those too. He glances at the delivery schedule and is back on track in minutes.

The marketing manager needs to order logo gear for the sales team across the country. He’s able to log on to the seller’s system, see his company’s logo wear, and the contractually agreed product assortment and price schedule. He can see that they have available inventory and places an order for golf shirts and logo pens—and selects from the different locations in his account history to have them split-shipped to the appropriate field offices.

Rather than lamenting this loss of control, B2B retailers should embrace self-service trends, especially for routine activities down the purchasing funnel, such as re-ordering, replenishment, accessories, shipping and tracking.  Providing self-service to customers for these types of activities will also free up your sales team to focus on higher value activities. Customers who go online and order for themselves are happier, and actually have higher order value. ShopVisible is a provider of e-commerce technology for running B2B or retail e-commerce sites. It offers a white paper on online self-service on its web site, ShopVisible.com.

ShopVisible provides e-commerce software for business-to-business and business-to-consumer web sites.

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