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.

Internet Retailer

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.

After a supplier determines a visitor's interests, it can begin to cross-sell and up-sell her with items and offers likely to appeal to her. That can increase order size and brand loyalty. Suppliers can also engage customers through e-mail containing relevant offers to bring them back to their site.

"Merchandising based on a customer's persona allows suppliers to be more proactive with their customers," says Egner. "So much of what a supplier knows about its customers can be used to deepen the customer relationship. Just enabling a B2B customer to place an order online is the tip of the iceberg."

It all comes down to price

While B2B customers like to see ample product information, they need to see accurate pricing. That can pose challenges because each company doing business with a B2B supplier may negotiate a different price for a product. To further complicate matters, there are a multitude of price schedules buyers can negotiate ranging from discounts for large quantities, premium prices for custom-built products and lower prices for older models of a product.

"Nothing upsets a B2B customer more than showing them the wrong price when they have negotiated a price as part of their contract," says WebLinc's Hill. "That's why it is critical for suppliers to know who their customers are soon as they log into the site."

Even if a customer has not negotiated pricing in advance of a purchase, many B2B buyers expect to negotiate the price when placing a large order. The customer's motivation can vary. Sometimes she is confident she can secure a lower price; other times she is looking for a price that fits her budget. Regardless, merchants can help keep buyers happy by prominently displaying a phone number for a sales representative with the authority to adjust prices.

"It's not uncommon for B2B buyers to order $1 million of product, then pick up the phone and start negotiating with someone, so B2B e-commerce sites should offer that option," says NetSuite's Lloyd. "Price negotiations constantly take place in the B2B world."

'Can I make a change?'

Because many B2B buyers turn to e-commerce sites for the convenience of ordering when they want to, experts suggest suppliers offer self-service features, such as letting a customer modify an order after it's placed.

For example, if a few hours after a facility manager places an order he realizes he forgot to split the order between two plants, he can access his account through the supplier's web site, find the order and determine whether he has time to adjust the delivery destination. That's faster and more convenient than having to call up the supplier.

"If an order has not already been picked, then the supplier should allow the order to be changed," Lloyd says. He adds that NetSuite provides an order-modification module as part of its e-commerce platform.

Before suppliers can allow order modification they need to make certain that there actually is enough time to make the change. That's not always the case, because many B2B suppliers have shortened fulfillment cycles to meet customer expectations for fast delivery, says InsiteCommerce's Taddonio.

"The big risk with online order modification is missing a customer's expectation," she says. "With most organizations today, once an order is submitted, the fulfillment cycle has begun automatically. We believe, like Amazon, that when an order is submitted it is best to have customer service interact with the customer to protect his experience and meet or exceed his expectations."

No surprises

Ensuring that there is enough time to change an order requires suppliers to break down data silos that prevent the sharing of real-time information between their order management and warehouse systems. Once those systems communicate smoothly, experts suggest merchants show customers their order status and what changes the system will allow at that particular point in the fulfillment process to avoid any confusion.

"If an order is past the fulfillment stage and can't be expanded, or if there is a cost to cancelling a custom order, the customer needs to know that information up front," says EPiServer's Egner. "B2B customers appreciate transparency and the more transparent B2B suppliers are about what options a customer has with managing his order at each stage of the fulfillment process, and what each option will cost, the more customer loyalty they will build."

The supply chain is also becoming increasingly complex, with drop shipments, for example, becoming more prominent. There may need to be a formal process for B2B merchants to communicate with the drop shipper if a supplier has unique business reasons to allow changes to be made to an order. Employing order work-flow verifications or customer service interaction prior to submission is another good option.

B2B merchants can also keep customers satisfied by offering order tracking. It's not uncommon for orders to be filled from multiple warehouses, and coordinating the same delivery date for each portion of the order can be tough. Informing customers when each portion of an order will be shipped and the expected arrival date of those parcels eliminates the unwelcome surprise of receiving a partially filled order.

"If suppliers have the systems in place to expose their customers to that level of detail about a shipment, they should do it," says NetSuite's Lloyd.

NetSuite's B2B platform provides an order status tracking module that can follow orders as they are filled from multiple warehouses.

B2B merchants can also provide customers with other tools, such as a self-service feature that lets them track their credit limits and make changes to their accounts' parameters. B2B customers should be able to set up credit lines by department or individual accounts. Letting buyers see the remaining value of their credit lines prior to each purchase helps them stay within budget.

Some B2B customers also want the flexibility to put in place purchasing rules, such as requiring purchases over a specific amount to receive approval from the chief procurement officer. Similar rules can be put in place when an order exceeds the remaining credit limit.

When orders have to be submitted for approval, WebLinc's B2B platform automatically e-mails a copy of the invoice in question to the designated procurement officer, who can approve the order with a single click.

"The ability for companies to put permission-based rules in place around accounts is a need we are seeing more of," Hill says.

A mobile shift

Like business-to-consumer retailers, companies serving corporate and government clients are finding a growing number of their orders are being placed on mobile devices. B2B buyers want to be able to place orders anytime, anywhere using the device of their choice. As a result, they tend to think of mobile as another way to access content on a supplier's web site, rather than as a distinct channel.

"The B2B journey is becoming more complex, because buyers are no longer undertaking that journey on a single device," says EPiServer's Egner. "Suppliers have to be ready to deliver the same customer experience through any device the customer may be using."

Adaptive web site design, which uses predefined layouts constructed for a variety of screen sizes, is one way to achieve that goal, Egner adds. When the web server identifies the type of the device contacting it and the size of the device's screen, it serves up the corresponding layout.

"Adaptive design is a way for suppliers to expand their reach to new customers that connect to the web through multiple devices," says Egner. "Connected consumers are also connected B2B buyers."

Like consumers, purchasing agents are shopping across a range of devices. And mobile B2B buyers expect to be able to start an order on a smartphone or tablet computer and finish it on their desktop systems, and vice versa.

"As the online channel becomes a preferred ordering method for B2B buyers, they want the flexibility to start an order at their desk, and if called away, complete it later from another location using another device, instead of having to go back and finish the order on the device where it was started," says WebLinc's Hill.

Businesses also see a growing need to equip their repairmen in the field with mobile capabilities to order parts as needed. "A manufacturer's repairman can order an out-of-stock part online rather than having to go back to the office, which speeds the ordering process," says NetSuite's Lloyd. "A sales rep in the field can do the same thing with a mobile device."

Consumers and 'pro-sumers'

While most companies that sell to other business have no interest in crossing over into the business-to-consumer world, opportunities exist for some manufacturers and distributors to broaden their customer base by selling directly to consumers. That's particularly true for suppliers of products that may be used by small businesses, such as contractors or landscapers, a category sometimes called "pro-sumers."

A manufacturer of shelving systems for commercial users, for instance, may want to remarket a portion of its product line to consumers looking for non-decorative shelving for an in-home business-to-consumer e-commerce business, workroom or garage. Rather than direct consumers to its primary site, the manufacturer can launch a separate site equipped to accept small orders and consumer credit cards.

"Suppliers crossing over into B2C can launch a consumer site on their B2B platform and manage the site separately," says Taddonio. "It's the same for a mobile site or a microsite. Maintaining separate sites on separate platforms is costly and unnecessary today."

InsiteCommerce's platform can support multiple versions of a supplier's web site. "One platform allows for more operational efficiencies and data sharing between sites," she says.

But moving into a new web channel requires merchants to master the basics of selling online. And some areas, such as search marketing, pose new challenges for B2B suppliers that in the past relied on sales representatives to find new customers. Learning those skills can pay off, however, because search marketing opens an avenue for reaching new customers previously unknown to the supplier.

Mastering search marketing requires a merchant to make sure the content on its site can be seen by the search engines. That's a special challenge in the B2B world because many suppliers lock up their online content so competitors can't see it. They often do that by requiring visitors to sign in at the home page, a requirement that also prevents a search engine from indexing the site.

"It can be really powerful for suppliers to let search engines see their site's content," says Hill. "Some of our clients have literally doubled sales through search optimization." With B2B buyers expecting supplier web sites to be easy to navigate and use, suppliers that fail to deliver in these areas are at risk of losing customers, even if they will give an incumbent supplier one last look.

"When a supplier can't meet their customer's needs those customers will move on," Taddonio says. "Success in B2B e-commerce comes from putting all the pieces of the technology puzzle together to deliver customers the experience they want."



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April Special Report, B2B, b2b e-commerce, EpiServer, InsiteCommerce, NetSuite, SRAPR14, Weblinc