Strong relationships with customers and partners are critical for B2B businesses, and successful B2B ecommerce strategies need to reflect that. Today’s B2B ecommerce models go beyond automated ordering systems, putting more emphasis on relationships and less on transactions. Relationship-centered B2B ecommerce addresses more complex transactions, multi-party deals, and extended interactions with long-term business clients, while reducing the effort spent on low-value tasks.
Here’s five guidelines to help B2B companies make ecommerce the new corner stone of an old-fashioned growth model: more relationship + higher-quality = revenue.
1. Enrich the commercial process.
For B2C businesses, ecommerce often starts with the addition of an online shopping cart. For most B2B businesses, however, doing business is a matter of personal involvement, and not just adapting to marketing automation. Large product catalogs, product configuration needs, unique terms of purchase, custom pricing, and higher price points equate to a lot of personal attention—something a B2C shopping cart alone can not replace.
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But much of this personal involvement is dedicated to menial tasks —from handling nitty-gritty customer service-type details to researching detailed account history — these tasks are those that can and should be automated. By expanding upon the traditional shopping cart approach, B2B ecommerce solutions consider speed and quality throughout the end-to-end commercial process, allowing businesses to reduce the amount of time spent on menial tasks, and offer customers information in a more convenient and comprehensive way.
For example, say a company offers a wide range of products used a large B2B audience, such as teachers and educators. They use online configuration to allow customers to explore possibilities in self-service mode. This results in more informed customers, who feel comfortable finalizing orders when speaking with sales representatives. In this way, ecommerce doesn’t replace the personal touch that comes with helping and assuring customers; it simply enriches it.
2. Enable interactions first; transactions second.
Even the most complex B2C purchases, such as automobiles and major appliances, are usually handled by only one or two people and, at most, require a couple of face-to-face meetings. But most consumer purchases are far less involved.
In a B2B context, the term “interaction” describes a more complex sequence of steps than a transaction. Enabling an interaction produces value that enabling a transaction cannot. Identifying the right product specifications and commercial components for a customer, for instance, requires consultation beyond what’s found in a standard FAQ section or within user reviews.
When a provider of construction equipment sells to a construction company through a dealer, for instance, multiple parties are involved in a series of conversations necessary to specify the applicable maintenance contracts. A shared online hub for presenting the options and recording decisions facilitates the interactions among these parties. Success in these interactions is required to complete these multi-party deals.
3. Reducing complexity is more important than gathering information.
For B2C businesses, ecommerce represents an opportunity to gather information that informs decisions on product features, pricing and promotion. The opportunity to gather data is also available to B2B businesses, but in a relationship-centric world, the first objective is to increase value to customers.
When it comes to making a decision between collecting data about customers and keeping it simple for them, B2B businesses must choose in favor of keeping simplicity first and gathering information second. This decision manifests in the real world often when it comes to offering customers and prospects gated content in exchange for contact information.
One such example is a B2B high-tech supplier that, as one part of their ecommerce solution, required prospective customers to provide information before ordering a trial of their product. By limiting the required information to a short form rather than a longer questionnaire, the company achieved more trial customers (as compared to previous attempts with a longer form) and provided a far more favorable overall experience to prospects. For this company, reducing complexity first resulted in the ability to identify a larger number of prospects.
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4. Differentiate by providing information resources to partners and customers.
In B2C businesses, customers have access to information about products, their personal information on file, their order history, and other related information. That’s a great start, but many B2B businesses have the opportunity to deliver more value by providing more information such as maintenance and service records, contract and correspondence history, information about customer installations, product roadmaps, and lead time.
In some cases, such as installation maintenance locations, customers may get value from maintaining the information themselves. B2B businesses can use these information resources to efficiently differentiate and personalize their customers’ experience.
As an example, a recreational equipment company will provide information to its dealers about that dealers’ history which personalizes the experience. In addition this company will also differentiate by sharing information about the aggregate volumes it does with all dealers to support dealer purchase decision making.
5. Evolve your offering to engage the market in ways you previously could not.
In a B2C businesses, once an ecommerce solution is in operation, self-service ordering on line allows customers over an endless geography to place orders with little marginal cost to the B2C provider.
In a B2B setting, similar benefits can be achieved by making a simple portion of the overall offering available as a “starter” or “entry level offer” for prospective customers. Current customers may value an option of buying simple product extensions or contract renewals online. The efficiency of these simple on line transactions is a benefit to both the B2B business and to its customers.
As an example of selling extensions online, a software provider supports purchase of incremental units of complex software via on-line digital signature. Many customers use this online option as the most efficient way to expand their installation.
*This article was originally published in 2012 and is frequently updated.