I personally have worked in the B2B eCommerce arena my entire career and let me tell you – oh how times have changed. When first entering the B2B world back in 2010, the primary focus was on orderability for digital commerce experiences – and not so much on how the site looked.
Fast forward to the past few years, and though the goals remain the same (getting B2B buyers to order comfortably) there are new tactics being leveraged to help these customers feel comfortable in placing orders – but it may not be what you are thinking.
Let me explain.
“Back in the day” (2010) – B2B brands were leveraging very legacy platforms. Product detail pages were lucky to have any high-quality photos, descriptions typically came through in ERP jumbled type formats, and most sites did not really have any additional tools or list ordering functionality that exceeded expectations. However, this all changed over the next few years when B2B organizations started to take note of what B2C brands were doing. Content rich experiences that offered easy, intuitive ordering workflows from either a PC or mobile device. Many B2B organizations had their ‘ah-ha’ moment and decided to invest not just in a piece of technology that could take orders, but in how they could take orders through an experience that yielded all the above-mentioned characteristics.
Well, it has been talked about quite frequently by many – especially me. The reason B2B organizations took this approach has to do with their B2C counterparts. Yes, B2B and B2C are different – but they both have one key element in common – humans ordering. Before you jump off the ledge, do not worry – I am not going down the AI rabbit hole here, hear me out.
Humans are exposed to hundreds if not thousands of experiences each day, and because of this – we expect these considerable expectations in all areas of our life – even when placing orders for the company we work for through a B2B ordering portal. See what I am getting at? We are all consumers and just because we are ordering within a B2B setting, does not mean that we want to be dazzled and charmed by great looking websites and intuitive workflows.
So, I know what you are asking – is this still true? Can B2B brands separate themselves from the pack by re-designing how their site looks and flows to increase customer adoption and retention? Well, sort of.
Let me explain.
Sure, the last ten years B2B organizations have re-invested in great looking digital buying experiences, and this will continue to be a cornerstone of success as time moves forward. What will change however is how they acquire new customers and what these customers as well as their existing customers desire.
Here are three focused feature sets that will redefine what a successful B2B Commerce iteration looks like for 2023 and beyond:
Inventory Transparency, Flexibility and Choice
Are you leverage an Order Management System (OMS) within your business today? If not – seriously consider it. One of the most significant changes to exceed customer expectations surrounds being able to give customers insight into when they will receive their order once placed. We can all thank Amazon for this one, but it is true – B2C brands are now offering extended ways to receive products. From lockers to curbside pickup to the good old home delivery (within 24 hours now, I may add). We as B2C consumers have been spoiled with choice and option when it comes to product delivery options. This will continue to bleed into the B2B space, and do you know what? B2B organizations stand to excel here as many have the fulfilment infrastructure in place to achieve such greatness. By leveraging and OMS – B2B organizations can provide CSRs with additional tools to process, pivot and change orders based upon customer needs. The B2B brand also can increase profitability by leveraging their existing distribution network in a way that ships products to reduce costs – leverage warehouses that may be closer or make more sense to ship out of. There are numerous benefits to having an OMS – but the most important is this. Consumers want accuracy and transparency, B2B buyers want accuracy and transparency. If your site says a product will be delivered on a certain date and time and it is not, you will lose customers.
Next Level SEO
Wait, what? Why do B2B brands need the next level SEO? Won’t the sales reps find new accounts? Short answer, no. I have gone on record numerous times saying salespeople will not be replaced, and I continue to stand by this – instead, their role will pivot. Gone are the days of salespeople finding new customers. Today, new customers will be generated through search engine optimization efforts which spans past search engines. Huh? Listen, Google will always be an important lead source – but the world is changing. Social and marketplace searches are increasing massively. As B2B buyers look for new sources to procure products due to tough economic times – they will turn to unconventional areas. Many will start their search on Amazon to price shop and it provides all the products they may need in one place (unless we are talking CPQ type complex items) and will purchase here. So, guess what, it makes sense for you to be there too. What about Google and the social sites? Yep – there too. Sure, social media commerce is not big currently for B2B buyers, but it will be at some point. In the meantime, make sure your business is active within the channels your customers are. Create some funny TikTok’s or Instagram reels that customers might find interesting. As for Google and proactive SEO efforts on your site? YES. It is necessary. Just like buyers are taking to Amazon, they are still taking to Google to find new sources and your site must be optimized in a way to attract these customers to visit, but also to convert. Consider offering some of your products to be sold to customers without accounts at higher prices – this will allow you to accept orders without having that customer create an account. From here, you can pivot them into account-based ordering with contract pricing and assign a sales rep to oversee the relationship.
AI Driven Unified Commerce
You knew I was going to come back to AI, right?! Listen, AI is such a loaded term by now that I do not want to sit here and beat a dead horse. What I will say is this. AI is here and will not go anywhere but can be leveraged in bite sized approaches to your B2B strategy, especially around creating Unified Commerce. Unified Commerce is like Omni-channel, but different in one key area. In omni-channel approaches, consumers are having a monologue with brands – it is a one-way conversation. In Unified Commerce, it becomes a dialogue. A Unified Commerce approach allows brands to listen (through technology) to what buyers are purchasing, clicking on – interested in. From here, the experiences change, and pivot based upon this behavior. By leveraging technology like AI driven search (Coveo is a great example of this) or personalized content and product recommendations (Adobe Experience Manager or Optimizely) – your B2B organization can have conversations with your customers, and based upon what they are telling you through their actions – pivot their experience. Why is this important? It is important because, like we talked about at the start of this article – B2B buyers are consumers in their own life and desire the same experiences wherever they are active – even within their work environment.
The long and the short of it is this – B2B organizations have a unique opportunity to take charge at this pivotal time. By adopting the three tactics above, they lay the foundation of what the future could look like for their business – from potentially going Direct to Customer to leveraging autonomous vehicles for delivery. Albert Einstein once said “life is like a bicycle, to keep your balance, you must keep moving” – Indeed Mr. Einstein. So, remember, your business cannot stand still – to keep balance for your revenue, your customers, and your employees, you must continue to keep moving and invest in what the next generation of exceptional B2B customer experiences – your customers will demand them.