What B2B customers see on an e-commerce site—and in complementary print catalogs and other forms of online marketing—can make all the difference in whether they buy.
Paul Demery , Managing Editor, B2B E-commerce
The Hubert Co., in business since just after World War II, has for more than a decade used its e-commerce site in tandem with paper catalogs and the phone to help its customers choose among the thousands of products it sells to commercial and institutional kitchens and food merchandisers. The company distributes more than 40,000 SKUs, ranging from commercial ovens and refrigeration units for restaurants and university cafeterias to display racks that prop up steaks, fruit and pastries in food stores.
Handling all the information and images for those products isn't easy. With constantly changing product lines, descriptions and prices, Hubert has struggled to manage all the product descriptions, images and pricing for its products to help its customers and sales reps find the right items customers need and want to buy.
Add to the mix the fact that Hubert also offers specialized web sites for large customers—with their own contract pricing, packaging and other services—and sites in multiple languages and currencies for a growing number of international customers, and maintaining fresh information for all customers is indeed a chore. "It's a constant challenge," says vice president of marketing Mark Woodrow.
And there's more. The fact that many Hubert customers still shop mostly via print catalogs while others prefer its e-commerce site only increases the challenge of managing all that product information in both online and offline versions.
But the distributor has cobbled together several technology systems to keep its product information and images fresh and engaging across its print catalog, e-commerce site and various forms of online marketing, including e-mail campaigns and Internet search. How Hubert does it can serve as a helpful example to the many other B2B e-commerce companies struggling to keep information consistent and current across channels. How well a company responds can determine how well it keeps customers happy and sales growing. The right mix of technology from vendors or developed in-house can help.
Industry analysts say the cost of running a web site on a B2B e-commerce technology platform can vary widely, based on such criteria as sales volume, number of SKUs, and the extent of integration with accounting, inventory management and other software. B2B e-commerce software alone can start as low as $25,000 to $30,000, analysts say, with additional costs for integration and other services typically bringing the total for mid-sized companies into a range of $75,000 to $250,000. Unusually complex deployments can run up to $1 million.
The payoff for doing things right, Woodrow says, is that as Hubert draws more customers into self-service buying through both its e-commerce site and print catalogs, they buy more and are more loyal. Woodrow says customers who order from both channels spend more than 2.5 times what customers using only one channel spend.
What's more, that provides Hubert's customer service reps with more time to help customers through complicated purchases. "Some customers only shop through our web site, some only through our catalog," Woodrow says. "Our best customers use both. When we look at their lifetime customer value, we get a considerable bump."
He adds that 60% of customers shop both online and through the print catalog, with the remaining 40% evenly divided between customers who shop exclusively in one channel or the other.
B2B e-commerce sites often are complex because they must offer different prices and products depending on the customer. That requires the sites to build sturdy links among several technology systems, says Gene Alvarez, vice president and e-commerce analyst at technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.
A web content management system, or CMS, enables a manager of an e-commerce site, whether B2B or retail, to add and delete product images, pricing and descriptions for use on web pages and in various online marketing channels. It also enables a site manager to control the placement of non-product content on web pages, such as Buy buttons, navigation menus and signage for store locators. A CMS application typically includes the use of Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, to format such characteristics of page elements as size and font before an element like a Buy button is positioned on a page through the CMS.
But B2B sites typically need to take things further with complementary technology that ensures accurate and updated product information, and that lets buyers share product information and images with their coworkers and superiors before completing a purchase, Alvarez and other experts say. In some cases, a buyer may also want the ability to "punch out" product content from a seller's web site to his own procurement systems, enabling the buyer to automatically generate purchase orders and update his accounting applications.
A crucial piece of the puzzle is a product information management system, commonly called PIM, that ensures the images, descriptions and pricing associated with each product are current and accurate. It does that by integrating with a company's back-end business software, including inventory and order management systems, to keep web content current with the latest product data and inventory availability. A product information management system can operate as a separate application integrated with a CMS, or operate as a built-in part of the CMS itself.
Although PIM systems also are important in retail e-commerce—particularly for large merchants with extensive and quickly changing inventories that must be constantly updated—they're even more important in B2B e-commerce, where a seller might have hundreds or thousands of contract customers who log in to see products and pricing tailored to their contract terms.
"Product information management stands out for B2B, where sellers often need to support personalized online product catalogs for their customers," Alvarez says.
At Thule Inc., the U.S. arm of the Sweden-based Thule Group, which manufactures high-end products like ski and bike racks that can lock onto cars, a Sitecore Corp. content management is integrated with Thule's back-end Oracle Corp. business software, including order management and product databases. This integration lets Thule provide accurate product content on a B2B e-commerce site, which was built using the InsiteCommerce program from Insite Software. That integration essentially serves the same purpose as a PIM system, says Suresh Devanan, president and CEO of Nish Tech Inc., a web development and digital marketing agency Thule retained to oversee the site's November 2012 launch.
The overall system enables Thule's B2B site, ThuleConnect.com, to present content in a way that makes products relatively easy to find and purchase. Within six months of the new site's launch, Thule tripled the number of orders placed online rather than through customer service reps, freeing up time for customer service staff to focus on advising customers on technical product issues rather than assisting in placing orders, says Annie Scopel, director of North America customer service.
Thule put Scopel in charge of relaunching its North American B2B e-commerce site after she noted that the old site was difficult for customers to shop. Thule's B2B customers were placing only about 10% of orders online and 90% through the customer service center.
The task was sizable: Thule has a product catalog of more than 10,000 items and some 5 million pricing records associated with individual distributors and retail dealers, and it needed to present each customer personalized product information based on their contract terms and even how they log in. Within the same customer's contract, different information can be presented to different buyers based on the authorization associated with their credentials. "Thule has very complex business rules and pricing rules," Devanan says.
In addition to developing personalized content for customers, Nish Tech worked with Thule to let it show content based on an online customer's geographic region. Sitecore integrates with MaxMind Inc., a company that provides technology designed to personalize web content based on a site visitor's I.P. address and geographic location. Thus, in winter a Thule dealer logging on from the Boston area might see information on snow-ski racks, while a dealer in Los Angeles might see content weighted toward equipment related to surfboards and bicycles.
And as Thule builds online marketing campaigns, it uses its content management system and related applications to ensure that accurate and up-to-date content is used across its multiple e-mail, search and social media campaigns. The Sitecore CMS technology, Devanan says, is designed to coordinate with digital marketing campaigns, so that Thule can send out accurate replications of page content in e-mail marketing campaigns. If a customer abandons a shopping cart, for example, Thule can send her a remarketing e-mail showing the same product content she had viewed before leaving the site.
Thule didn't comment on the effectiveness of such campaigns, but it has managed to get a significant portion of its B2B customers to switch to placing orders online. Since ThuleConnect.com's launch, Thule has gotten about 80% of its B2B customers—up from 10% two years ago—to place orders and check the status of shipments online instead of calling into customer service, Scopel says. That resulted in a 45% improvement in Thule's customer service reps' response time. Scopel says that the improved response time was also helped by additional training of customer service reps, such as how to better handle backlogs of orders. But she says most of the improvement has come from the e-commerce site and the ability of customers and sales reps to place orders through ThuleConnect.com instead of through a customer service rep.
Although Scopel declines to note the actual average response time for her customer service team, she says it's steadily improving and on track to be close to 30 seconds—the industry standard for the outdoor recreational equipment industry—within a year.
In addition to presenting available inventory, comprehensive product details and information regarding order value thresholds for getting free freight shipping, the site also features content in French and English and prices in Canadian and U.S. dollars. Those features aimed at Canadian buyers led to the number of online Canadian B2B shoppers doubling within the first two months of the site's launch, Scopel says.
While the old B2B site made it difficult to find a product if a shopper didn't know the item number—which gave customers another reason to call customer service—the new site lets them search by product description or item number, or by clicking the logo of the Thule Group brand they want to purchase, such as Thule, Chariot baby strollers and UWS truck-mounted racks used by tradespeople. The site also supports more cross-selling among Thule's multiple product groups; as customers log in to ThuleConnect.com, they can see items from categories they don't usually purchase.
Thule is still trying to get more of its customers who order via the call center to move online. To elicit feedback on what those shoppers want in an e-commerce site, it's been asking its dealers through an e-mailed online survey what would make ThuleConnect.com easier to shop. One early suggestion was to move the pervasive shopping cart from the left side, where it appears now, to the right side of each page, where it appears on most consumer-oriented retail sites, Scopel says.
The manufacturer also designed ThuleConnect.com to be easy to use for Thule's customer service reps. Rather than having to manually calculate customers' shipping price discounts based on the order volume for different product lines, for example, the reps can view freight prices automatically calculated based on the volume of the entire order.
Scopel says it has plans to make more improvements, including improved site search and navigation. "This is an ongoing work in progress," she says.
As a privately held company, Thule doesn't comment on sales or the effect of its new B2B e-commerce site on sales. But for Scopel, the impact includes improvements in both the morale and effectiveness of her customer service staff, and in customer satisfaction as shown in Thule's own surveys. Thule's last peak season—from May through August 2013—"was our strongest season for the past seven years, yet our customer service reps said they were happier and not overwhelmed," she says.
At Hubert Co., the answer to its product and web content management needs came through a mix of in-house and commercial software—a development that took off after the company began expanding internationally following its 2000 acquisition by Germany-based Takkt AG. In 2010, it migrated from homegrown e-commerce technology to an e-commerce platform from Intershop AG for Hubert.com, its e-commerce site for the United States and Canada. That included deploying several versions of its site for multiple markets, including Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Hubert manages the content in its print catalogs with a content management system from Agility Multichannel, a U.K.-based company that has long-specialized in managing content for print catalogs. Agility was formerly known in the United States as Pindar, which continues to operate a U.S. headquarters in Chicago. Although Hubert had used the Agility system for its initial web site developed in the 1990s, the move to new e-commerce sites with multiple languages, currencies and different local content called for a new content management system for its online operations, Woodrow says.
For its e-commerce sites, Hubert decided to build a new CMS in-house on .Net technology, complete with its own built-in PIM system. Hubert integrated its CMS system with the Intershop e-commerce technology, which enables it to work with a similar content template across its multiple sites and easily modify them as necessary, Woodrow says.
"Now we deal with different languages and currencies, so our business is more complex—and we need more help to manage that," he says. With its CMS and PIM software integrated across the Intershop platform, he adds, Hubert can display the same content across multiple foreign market sites, then directly modify through its CMS each site to its local language, without having to worry that the product data and images are accurate and up-to-date.
"We can take web site content for one country and make it applicable for another, taking the product content from the CMS and, for example, layering in the French language and currency." For example: the same "chafing-dish Multiset" display appears in the pertinent local language on its German site, Hubert-versand.de, and on its French site, Hubert-online.fr.
Hubert also uses its CMS and Intershop technology to develop its more than 100 specialized microsites for individual customers, including pricing and products that can differ for each client or groups of clients. When selling to a larger number of clients within the same industry—university kitchens, for example, or chains of gourmet food stores—Hubert may develop different site content depending on the level of service a client wants under its contract terms. Under a basic level, for example, customers within a group of university kitchens may see a limited range of food trays and platters for, say, presenting pizza and fried chicken in cafeteria displays. But a national chain of gourmet food stores, Woodrow adds, is likely to want to see personalized content showing a wider variety of brands and price levels for trays, platters and racks that suit its high-end shopping atmosphere.
Going forward, Woodrow says Hubert will continue to look for ways to use its CMS and the Intershop technology to present product information and the overall look of shopping pages to make buying online easier and faster for its customers. The company has little choice but to keep improving, he says, as B2B customers get more accustomed to helpful online shopping experiences on consumer sites and other B2B sites.
"As our customers become savvier about buying online, and they see the capabilities of other business as well as consumer sites, their expectations are definitely something we're well aware of," he says. "It's something we have to keep up with."
How the numbers rack up for Thule
With better organized web content on ThuleConnect.com:
- The percentage of B2B shoppers completing orders online rose to 80% from 10%
- A sharp drop in the number of calls to Thule's contact center resulted in a 45% improvement in customer service reps' response time
- The improved customer service response time is nearing the industry standard for the outdoor recreational equipment industry of a maximum 30 seconds
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