TechnologyMay 09, 2016

B2B Ecommerce: Bigger Orders, Bigger Expectations

Hugh DeWitte

Developing an industrial-strength business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce infrastructure while achieving an acceptable business-to-consumer (B2C)-like customer experience is difficult.

Until recently, most B2B companies relied on thick print catalogs, armies of sales reps, and well-staffed call centers to drive and support customer purchases. Now B2B customers have substantially shifted their research and transaction activities online—and onto mobile devices.

B2B organizations have learned from B2C online retailers. B2B selling typically involves more complex processes: configurable product offerings, bulk shipments, advanced pricing and promotions, custom catalogs, etc.—all based on the individual business buyer and sales force integration.

There are three key areas of B2B ecommerce effectiveness:

  1. Advanced configurability – Not only of end-user capabilities and pricing options, but also complex product combinations and bundling for quoting and ordering.

  2. Clear customer data, analytics, and segmentation for creating custom catalogs, distinct product offerings, pricing, quotation, and contracts.

  3. Sophisticated workflows – Supporting complex buying cycles, selling executions, inventory visibility, and purchase order requirements and delivery logistics across multiple channels, systems, and markets.

Effective B2B ecommerce requires a centralized ecommerce platform that adapts to customer’s local delivery expectations. This engine must be able to dictate all product, pricing, and promotion strategies across the entire enterprise.

B2B Buyers Expect B2C-Like Shopping Experiences

It’s no longer good enough for B2B companies to compare favorably with direct B2B competitors. B2B customers expect Amazon. Amazon’s tenets of price transparency, immediacy, and convenience are now core B2B buyer expectations.

Self-Serve Online Procurement Portals Are Now the Norm

Direct sales and customer service representatives are alive and well, but what they do is changing. They are now expected to know more about their high-value clients. They direct low-frequency and low-volume purchasers to self-service. Because customers can complete transactions entirely on their own online, field representatives are becoming more consultative and of higher perceived value. B2B companies are building these self-serve websites and leveraging innovative tools to recast their whole approach to engaging with customers. One of our clients, Ben E. Keith, a premier distributor of top-quality food service products and premium beverages, has seen a 30% increase in sales and marketing efficiency since our launch of their new customer service platform and a 33% average decrease in time spent on managing recurring orders.

Consultative Selling: The B2B Deciding Factor

A few companies offer advanced B2B customer experiences: Grainger in industrial supply, Home Depot with it’s pro services, and Staples for office supplies.


Grainger was among the first companies in its industry to launch an ecommerce site. They have now joined forces with Ariba to deliver expanded ecommerce access to buyers worldwide. They are the poster child for B2B commerce, proving that billions can be made online. They have modeled sustainable double-digit growth year over year. The observable lessons include:

  • Staying ahead through innovation – Grainger launched a “live chat with photo” iPhone application. Photos help to easily locate products; the chat enables direct links to product pages, helping customer service representatives streamline the accuracy of their interactions.

  • Leverage scale – Grainger continues to build on what it started by adding additional consultative videos, content, and context to the products they sell making complex industrial installs easier.

  • Manage purchasing and order delivery to scale – Grainger helps its customers with very large scale ordering, global logistics, and sequencing on-site deliveries through a team of experts aligned to customer objectives.

The difference? Grainger customers believe no one does bigger, better. Grainger has become an indispensable partner. But it does not stop there. Customers are fickle. They will only continue to believe this promise as they continue to experience the right products, services, and smart advice that help them manage their procurement spending wisely.

Staples Advantage

Staples has made a business out of easy ordering. They have a simplified shopping experience, customized product assortment, and saved shopping lists. These features, combined with order tracking, proof of delivery, and easy online returns make Staples Advantage more than an inspired B2C retail experience. Tailored offerings, increased levels of customer service, and useful tools keep customers coming back to Staples. Core B2B services include:

  • Personalized programs – Tailored solutions for each user type.

  • Account management – One-point person for every need, which ensures a personalized, reliable experience.

  • Fast, free delivery – Next day delivery, for free. Most office managers do not have the time to leave the office. Convenience is key.

  • On-the-go friendly – One-step approvals, lists, and quick reorders. Also, the ability to control spending, approve orders, and view historical transactions.

  • User-friendly tools – A streamlined online shopping experience.

The difference? A designated, single point of contact. Staples account managers handle every aspect of their accounts, including product recalls, simplifying ordering, and identifying savings opportunities. This person-to-person interaction builds trust and allows Staples to identify other ways to increase the customer’s yearly basket.

Home Depot Pro

Home Depot is the world’s largest home improvement retailer and the fourth largest retailer in the U.S. When they decided to improve their services to professionals they determined to offer their pro customers a full range of business services. The benefits included:

  • Contextual location services – Automatically locate closest store, while selecting an occupation results in tailored categories.

  • Transparent and time-saving – Real-time inventory levels tell exactly how much product is in stock, as well as which stores carry all items in your shopping cart (if your store is out, order online and get it deliver there or to your work site).

  • Way finding when you have little time – Tells customers exactly where to find the product in your store. Provides a store map. Scan a product to see warranty and return information and measurements.

  • Rich product data – Ratings and reviews are readily available at the product level, as well as detailed specs and assembly instructions.

  • Easy re-orders – Reorders with recorded receipts up to two years later. Managers can give their employees access to order, then they can manage and approve purchases in real time. Frequent purchases make repeat orders quick and easy.

The difference? Organization, ease and convenience. The most popular feature with pros is the receipt tracking and review feature. Another innovation is barcode scanning on the job site. Simply scan the product you are running low on and get it delivered. Real-time inventory checks help workers avoid wasting time at stores that don’t have the right product.

Where to Start

Understand what your customers want and put the systems and technologies in place to make customer service smarter and more customized.

  1. Get an honest assessment of your current B2B ecommerce maturity.

  2. Outline a strategic road map based on best practices within the your industry and the needs of your customer. Then connect those priorities to the digital capabilities needed to perform seamlessly.

  3. Act to align your people and processes with your key priorities.

Three Key Differentiators

  1. Outperform competitors – Customer experience is really a priority. That means your key strategic and operational execution capabilities are more important than ever and will need to improve.

  2. Start “from the back” – Technology-enabled service is particularly important to successful B2B customer experiences that translate into bigger and more frequent orders.

  3. Focus on digital, augmenting physical – Keep your customers across the buying spectrum happy. Use digital across sales and service to impact the end-to-end experience delivery.

Have questions about B2B commerce best practices? Please contact us. We are happy to connect you with one of our digital and ecommerce experts.

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