Retailers have successfully utilized the online channel for communicating and selling to their customers, and have been doing so for the last decade, but the B2B market, by and large, has yet to do the same. Despite having always had a much stronger need than other markets for automating tasks and making processes more effective, B2B as a whole has failed to bring itself into the 21st century in this area. The time has come for B2B organizations to evolve from having a static, impersonal, and often inconvenient online presence to being able to offer modern, relevant, personalized, and comprehensive Web sites. To do that, they may want to sit up and take notice of some core lessons that can be learned from the B2C market.
Sell to them-wherever, however they want to buy
While there are undoubtedly greater complexities in the B2B market than in B2C, one simple truth applies to both: The ability to acquire and retain customers depends heavily on the ability to deliver exactly what it is that they want.
In the last two to three years, something critical has happened: The Internet has surrounded us—literally. Fueled by mobile devices, it's everywhere and always on. Although I constantly hear from organizations that B2C best practice does not matter for B2B, we can no longer ignore that B2C has changed how Americans shop online and the implications this has for them. Although the number of channels (phone, salesperson, catalog, online) has remained fairly stable in the last decade, the number of customer touch points has exploded. These multichannel strategies must become integral for B2B enterprises, too, which must let their customers interact with them whenever and wherever they choose.
Create B2C-inspired user experiences
It's essential to remember that customers who use your B2B site are B2C consumers also. Although it's shopping on a different scale, your customers now expect from you what they have learned to value in their private shopping experience. For this reason, it is surprising that some B2B Web sites continue to get away with what they do. While visitors to your site may be lucky enough to be offered search functionality, they can often feel like they've traveled back in time to pre-2000.
In many cases, your customers know what they want to buy from you, but there are also occasions when they don't. In fact they might not even know that you offer a product that's a solution to their problem. But if you don't give them options such as guided navigation, search by field of application, or even reviews, it's not too much of a stretch to assume that they can key something into Google and find their way to your competitor's door. Let customers find your products; if they don't know you offer it, they can't buy it.
Ultimately, B2B customers appreciate when vendors deliver a B2C-class user experience. When it's done correctly, mimicking B2C-style merchandising, it can improve your conversion rates and increase average order volume through simple, effective search and navigation, detailed and informative category pages, dynamic and in-depth product displays and ratings, cross-selling, upselling, and the offering of bundles and special promotions.
Guide customers with targeted content, and help them make purchasing decisions
When we opened our UK office, we were looking for a stationery provider. The company we eventually chose offered hundreds of different kinds of pens, but for many of them, their site didn't show a picture or provide any more description than a very basic product name. Without exception, we only bought those pens for which we had a picture and a fairly comprehensive description. Now that was just pens, and the investment was small, but what if you're buying much more expensive machinery or equipment? Wouldn't you feel more comfortable making that decision if you had enough accurate information about the product you are looking to buy?
Rich content will help your buyers make those purchasing decisions. It will enable you to offer an accurate representation of complex and specialized products, as well as add editorial and user-generated content, enrich catalog data with videos, and display content in multiple languages. It can even provide the basis for you to sell configurable products online.
By providing rich content, your Web site will not only be considered as a purchasing site, it could also become the number one source for your customers' research, thus strengthening the bond between them and your organization.
Managing complexities and resources
We are certainly not downplaying the intricacies of B2B markets. There are enough examples where processes have grown over the years and have created a great deal of complexity-much of which should in fact remain. Unfortunately, many of these complex processes are very cumbersome—starting with providing the right product information, prices, etc., and ending with placing and fulfilling the actual order—and are still handled manually by the sales team. These complexities increase even further when you are running a global enterprise where product ranges and prices may vary by market.
Thankfully, there is software today that can help B2Bs manage these complexities and free up vital revenue-generating resources. While the personal relationships that your sales teams have forged are important to maintaining a long-standing commercial relationship—which is something that online can't replace entirely—automating many of these intricate processes will not only give these teams precious time to invest elsewhere in the business, but it will help to keep those crucial customer relationships intact even when the salesperson is not around. One salesperson can scale only so far, but with online assistance, he or she can do so much more.
Carsten Thoma is COO of hybris Group (www.hybris.com), which he cofounded in 1997. He began his career at Hewlett Packard, where he first developed his ideas for standardized yet highly innovative flexible e-commerce software.