B2B Trails B2C in E-Commerce Effectiveness

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B2B e-commerce is growing rapidly, according to a report from Forrester Research, which estimates that it will reach $889 billion by the end of 2017 and $1.2 trillion by 2021. However, the report emphasizes that B2B e-commerce must deliver on the high standard set by B2C e-commerce and posits that B2B companies need to evolve their go-to-market strategies by adopting proven B2C principles.

“What we’ve seen is that all B2B buyers are also B2C consumers. It’s not like someone has a great experience on Amazon or Sephora or Target.com or Jet.com and then goes to a B2B-centric site and dramatically lowers their expectations,” says Andy Hoar, a vice president and principal analyst serving e-business and channel strategy professionals at Forrester. 

Three factors are currently exacerbating the quality gap between B2B e-commerce and B2C e-commerce, according to the report. First is what Forrester dubs the two-windows phenomenon: If a consumer has a B2B website open in one window, he likely has a B2C website open in another window. For this reason, B2B companies are directly competing with B2C companies that deliver more visual, relatable, and friction-free experiences. Second, B2B companies now need to be able to accommodate customers who want to purchase at odd hours, get instant answers, and receive same-day deliveries. Third, B2B customers now expect to be able to compare prices online like B2C customers can, which the report says is forcing B2B companies to compete on published pricing.

There are six B2C elements that B2B companies must adopt to be competitive, according to the report:

• Web pages that can be personalized and customized to a customer’s buying habits. The report notes that B2C sites have been using personalization and customization to increase conversion rates and customer satisfaction and says that B2B companies are beginning to do the same.

• Intelligent decision tools that can make important recommendations. The report cites collaborative filtering technologies and recommendation engines as important in delivering low-price guarantees as well as cross-sells and upsells that can increase average order value.

• Interactive product catalogs. The report notes that many B2B e-commerce sites are nothing more than digitized versions of print content and emphasizes that they need to evolve or be rebuilt entirely to become interactive selling platforms.

• Advanced site search capabilities. The report notes that B2B sites often have deep catalogs and can sell obscure products. For these reasons, the report states that simple search terms don’t always yield results that are specific enough.

• Self-help tools and how-to guides. The report notes that B2C companies have developed tutorials—first static and then interactive—aimed at assisting less sophisticated shoppers to use their sites and says that B2B companies are beginning to do the same.

• User-generated content. The report notes that rating and review functionalities have proven popular in the B2C environment and suggests that B2B companies incorporate them as well.

Some B2B companies are already succeeding in e-commerce by becoming digital-first, according to the report, which cites industrial supply companies MSC Industrial Supply and W. W. Grainger as examples. According to the report, MSC Industrial Supply now books more than 60 percent of its total sales online, up from less than 45 percent in 2013; Grainger’s e-commerce represented 47 percent of its total B2B sales in 2016, up from 25 percent online in 2010. Additionally, online sales growth accounted for nearly all of Grainger’s total company revenue growth in 2017.

“What [MSC and Grainger] have in common is a commitment from the C-suite on down to making digital work,” says Hoar (who left Forrester in September).

“Digital is a different way of approaching customer interaction. It’s not just another channel that happens to be online,” he adds. “The difference between this and every other channel is the level of interaction that you can ascertain. You can talk to someone on the phone, but you can’t be doing searches on the phone, you can’t look at video over the phone [at the same time], whereas in an online environment you can do all of those things.” 

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