The Growing Art of B2B Ecommerce

11 Sep 2017

While growth rates in Business to Consumer (B2C) e-commerce are gradually decreasing, Business to Business (B2B) e-commerce is on the rise. To date, investments in B2B e-commerce platforms have not been top priority for B2B firms, however, this is quickly changing. 

Numerous B2B companies currently have some sort of online portal but many are behind the times and market leaders are starting to recognise that their competitive advantage doesn’t come from having a quick-fix B2B solution. It comes from the measure of having the right platform and an experienced provider who understands business rules, processes and issues. 

The result? Big investments are being made to upgrade to born-in-the-cloud B2B e-commerce platforms. In fact, US companies are forecast to spend US$2.1 billion on their e-commerce platforms by 2019 in order to offer their buyers a high-quality online buying experience. By the time 2020 comes around B2B e-commerce is expected to be worth US$6.7 trillion worldwide, twice that of the B2C e-commerce market at US$3.2 trillion. 

Getting Ahead of the Game

Over 50% of B2B firms who have been focusing on their e-commerce strategies for five or more years say that more than half of their customers complete transactions online. These companies are also the ones who make the biggest investments in their e-commerce technology and are seeing the benefits. Not only would B2B buyers choose a supplier with an online ordering system over one with manual ordering processes, they also believe the quality of the overall online experience is important. 

The direct correlation between the maturity of the platform and the percentage of online sales is not news to e-retailers. Those who are working with a well-established provider and continuously re-investing in their e-commerce platform are getting the desired returns as they can offer their customers a superior online shopping experience. Those businesses who fail to make the right investments are being left behind. As a leading New Zealand and Australian ecommerce solution provider, we have seen exactly that at Solutionists in 2016. Our top 10 performing web stores enjoyed a whopping 53% increase in online sales for a 2.5% investment of their online revenue. Improved cross-device usability and process automation was where the greatest gains came from – both of which are equally critical in B2B. 

What can B2B learn from B2C?

Customer Experience front and centre

One of the most important learnings from B2C e-commerce is that customer experience should be at the very core of everything you do. The omnichannel approach has seen many retailers aim for an integrated shopping experience across sales channels from brick and mortar stores, to the phone, to the desktop and mobile device. Every experience with the brand needs to be consistent and seamless. This realisation has developed alongside technological advancements and has shaped customer expectations. Shoppers have been trained to expect a certain level of sophistication, speed and simplicity from their personal online shopping experience so in order to stay ahead in the game, retailers need to deliver on customer experience. 

What a lot of traditional B2B online ordering systems fail to acknowledge is that those same customers buying their clothes, electronics, homeware and beauty products online are also business people trying to complete tasks in their professional lives. A clunky B2B online ordering system can steer away potential customers to your competitors that offer a better customer experience online, however, if you offer a good online experience, your customers will keep coming back. 

As a successful B2B company, you will have worked hard on customer service to make sure that when your customer meets with your sales representative or makes any form of contact to submit their order, your staff will provide the best customer experience possible. However, service could end up being hindered due to the frameworks available to your workforce so, to rectify this, it’s important to implement the right systems. Again, working with a specialist provider is imperative as they can deliver a B2B e-commerce solution that integrates with other business systems, streamline business processes to increase profitability, help to reduce costs, and provide a quality experience for your customer from start to finish.

The New Generation of Online Shoppers

The buyer’s age is changing and, with that, the playing field is too. The new generation of online shoppers grew up with technology and they use it daily in their personal lives for convenience and improved efficiency. They are not only comfortable with navigating their way around the web, the clear majority prefer to buy online when they have decided what it is they want to buy. According to a recent study by Forrester, 93% of B2B buyers today would rather place their order online than through a sales representative, proving that having a strong online presence these days is a must. B2B organisations need to shift their focus to digital marketing strategies that appeal to the younger generation of the B2B buyer, and fast. More and more millennials are moving into roles in which they are involved in B2B purchasing decisions, so the need to revolutionise traditional B2B sales channels is as profound as ever.

B2B Ecommerce Done Right: A Close-Up on Key Ingredients

Shaped by the B2C online shopping experience, the new generation of business people have come to expect sophisticated B2B e-commerce solutions. But what exactly should you look out for in a B2B online ordering system? Leveraging on the B2C customer experience is important, but not enough. A well-designed B2B solution will act as the missing link between your CRM, ERP, product information management, warehousing and accounting systems. It will be flexible, allow your business to embrace growth opportunities and empower your other channels.

Scalable and Configurable

A B2B online solution should make it easy for your business to enter and compete in new markets, both locally and internationally. This requires support for multi-currency, multi-language and multi-sites to provide customers with a personalised experience. A robust solution will not only enable easy configuration for customer specific catalogues and order forms but also take into account customer needs around delivery, payment methods and business rules such as tiered pricing structures and order approval options. B2B product specifications can vary greatly from customer to customer, so the right B2B platform will have built-in support for complex product configurations to accommodate for product variants that go beyond just colour and size. Any B2B online solution, which is to succeed in this global and highly competitive market, requires this level of flexibility to keep up with international players.

Industry Example: Alibaba

Alibaba’s success story illustrates just how powerful scalability can be. They have been able to secure their share in both the global and domestic marketplace and are one of the leading B2B organisations in China today. Worldwide Alibaba is used by over 30 million users in over 240 countries. Its international online marketplace focuses on buyers and suppliers for raw materials and finished goods. On the other hand, the local marketplace targets buyers and suppliers operating within China. To expand its market even further geographically, it also has websites in several other languages. Alibaba’s digital strategy enables the company to sustain its domestic market and tap into global markets with an online solution that is able to adapt as the business grows.

High Quality Cross-Device Experience

The internet never sleeps. Being able to research and purchase online whenever and wherever the customer wants has fuelled a steep increase in mobile usage. The new generation of online shopper is a big contributor. Millennials use their smartphones more than any previous generation, so it is no surprise that the cross-device customer experience has been a big focus for businesses worldwide to ensure mobile sales continue to rise, and it’s working. According to BI Intelligence, mobile commerce will make up 45% of total online sales by 2020.

Instant access to information online also makes it easier doing business. Today more than half of B2B buyers conduct their research on their smartphones comparing prices, reading about products, checking stock availability, comparing features and completing their orders online. Our busy lifestyles mean that many of these activities take place on the go, between jobs or in meetings. An advanced B2B platform will be optimised for a high-quality cross-device experience to make online ordering easy and fast no matter where you are.

Industry Example: Electrical Distributors

Let’s take a look at electrical distributors. Around 91% of US electrical contractors use a smartphone at work. Laptop and desktop usage on the other hand hovers around 60%.

Quick and easy access to live stock availability, product information, specifications and installation sheets is key when working out in the field and their mobile phones can give them exactly that. Unfortunately, many distributor websites are not optimised for mobile traffic. Only 61% of distributors have mobile-friendly sites, so the mobile experience for electrical contractors is fairly limited. A bad customer experience doesn’t just reflect poorly on the distributor but also means that contractors are far less likely to complete that purchase while on-site with a client. If the process is tedious and takes too long, distributors may miss out on a sale they would have otherwise secured.

Integrated and Automated

In the B2B world daily tasks are often still based around outdated systems and manual processes, which can cause a simple job to take longer than it otherwise would. For example, processing a customer order that was faxed in and has to be inputted manually, then emailed to your closest distribution centre, is likely to take a lot longer than the order your neighbour placed last night on Amazon for their new toaster, which created a sales order automatically and jump started the order’s processing immediately. 

It’s obvious – inefficiencies that come from labour intensive business processes increase operational costs, yet many B2Bs heavily rely on an array of spreadsheets, printed order forms and product catalogues. One big hurdle to overcome in the B2B world is the complex data structures and numerous system workflows, which is one of the reasons why so many firms have not yet made the jump. The good news is that a competent online solution provider will work with you to maximise profitability every step of the way. They will take the time to listen to your business issues and in turn provide a slick B2B solution that is integrated with other business systems and frameworks. 

Seamless integration between each system means that product information and inventory availability is real-time. Customer and order data from your B2B online ordering platform will therefore flow through to the ERP or CRM automatically, thus increasing your service representative’s productivity. With staff spending less time on administrative tasks and more time on high-value activities, it won’t be long before your revenue reaps the benefits. 

Integrating customer and sales data with your ERP also means that your sales and marketing department has full visibility in relation to customer insights. This makes their job easier next time they visit the customer on-site. Your sales representative can then safely process a repeat order through the B2B online ordering platform when on the road and have full confidence that it will automatically create a sales order with the distribution centre, taking into account complex purchasing workflows and the customer’s delivery preferences.

Industry Example: Argyle Schoolwear
With a history of over three decades of operations in the school wear market, Argyle Schoolwear today supplies New Zealand retail shops, primary, intermediate and secondary schools through their B2B sales channels. They also sell direct to parents through their B2C ecommerce website. With growing demands from their online channels, it was time for Argyle to refine logistics, fulfilment and the handling of returns to ensure business processes around their online channels were streamlined. The company teamed up with us at Solutionists as the ecommerce experts to assist in achieving this goal. The result was increased efficiency throughout the entire order processing workflow. When an order is placed online, the transaction integrates with Argyle’s ERP system for stock control, forecasting and financial reconciliation. What’s more, the ecommerce solution is also integrated with their courier company, to enable easy and accurate tracking of orders. Today Argyle can pick and dispatch their online orders efficiently, allowing their customer service team to operate in real time.

Multi-Tier Distribution Selling

In a B2B model where there are several players involved i.e. partners, distributors, dealers, resellers and service providers, there will be concern around competing channels. A good B2B ecommerce solution can help a B2B firm break through this perceived channel conflict. For example, offering dealers access to the B2B online ordering system with their branded product catalogues, specific pricing schemes and rebates, courier integration and preferred payment methods can all be pre-configured for them, making the online portal a valuable everyday tool. A shared platform also allows for data to be shared, which can present new opportunities to channel partners so that it’s everyone’s gain.

Industry Example: Automotive Parts Manufacturer

For a manufacturer of automotive parts, business is generated from several different channels, such as the auto service and repair companies, wholesale parts distributors, car dealers and retail outlets. There are significant differences in product range and pricing structures for each of these clients. With an easy-to-use B2B online ordering platform, the automotive parts manufacturer can offer everyone products and prices that are relevant.


Sina Braeuning

date published:

11 Sep 2017