Self-Service Buying Goes Mainstream
When it comes to their purchasing decisions, B2B buyers, like other consumers, want to learn about products on their own, and their first step is rarely contacting sales reps. In fact, recent research from TrustRadius found that 77 percent of B2B buyers said they started their path to purchase with their own research. That means only 23 percent contact the vendors’ sales reps, down from 43 percent in 2021.
In the 2021 TrustRadius report, 87 percent of buyers said they wanted to self-serve part or all of their buying journeys. Today, it’s practically 100 percent.
In a similar report, McKinsey notes that the power in B2B e-commerce has shifted from the seller to the buyer, following the same trend that began in B2C commerce some years earlier.
“Customers are doing their own research online and finding out about a company or product before the seller has an opportunity to pitch it, whether it concerns transactional items or complex systems,” the McKinsey report says.
So if they’re not going to salespeople to find out about products, where are they going? Well, the new self-serve buyer wants content, like pricing, product demos, free trials, and customer reviews, readily available on the vendors’ websites. Other sources include online communities and user forums, analysts and consultants, recommendations from friends and family, customer case studies and references, company blog posts and marketing materials, and their own prior experiences, according to TrustRadius.
“Self-service commerce revolves around the customer. This means making sure your customers have access to everything they might need to have an easy purchase process, including relevant content, detailed product descriptions with multiple photos, and intuitive sizing guides,” says Gaurav Saran, CEO of ReverseLogix, a commerce returns management solutions provider.
Self-service commerce also includes other capabilities to make purchasing easier, including subscriptions, loyalty programs, and alerts for sales and promotions.
“Self-service for customer service and support is just one step in a much broader digital engagement strategy enabling brands to engage with customers online and via mobile devices throughout the entire customer journey, before and after they buy,” adds Volker Hildebrand, senior vice president of product marketing at SugarCRM.
Reviews have become increasingly important, Hildebrand notes, because many buyers pay close attention to them before making the purchase decision. This is true for both B2C and the growing B2B self-service buying market.
IT STARTS WITH SEARCH
For companies, ranking high in search engine results placement is important because search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing are probably the most important tools when it comes to self-service buying, according to Hildebrand.
“There are a lot of different applications, tools, and technologies that support customers and prospects in their buying journeys,” Hildebrand explains.
Search engines are at the top of the list because many buyers know they want a particular product or service but also want to see what’s available from a variety of other potential vendors. Buyers might have very little knowledge about a product or service or might already be leaning to a particular product or brand but will use search engines to comparison-shop.
It’s also critical that companies use search engine optimization strategies to build their websites in such a way that their listings show up earlier (without paying sponsorship fees) in web searches, Hildebrand says.
The more content (like reviews and other information) that is readily available, the higher the company will be placed in search results. Of course, companies could also pay for sponsored placement, ensuring they are at or near the top of search engine results.
Luckily, for online merchants trying to reach these self-service buyers, there are plenty of other technology options available. For many, it starts with the e-commerce platforms they choose.
Some of the e-commerce platforms are very basic, with simple purchasing capabilities and limited payment options. Others are much more robust and include various payment options, embedded reviews, and self-configuration tools, according to Hildebrand.
The self-configuration tools have advanced far beyond just showing different colors and sizes to the point that they are important in the buying process, Hildebrand points out. The most advanced self-configuration tools enable buyers to see how a piece of furniture might look in a home or enable an automobile buyer to see how the vehicle would look with a variety of options.
Gartner expects growth of these platforms in B2B to outpace growth in B2C. This is because clients are thinking about solutions that are not used solely for simple cart-based transactions but also for complex B2B sales that sometimes involve other systems (such as configure-price-quote and sales force automation) and humans in the loop.
Gartner lists Shopify, Salesforce, Adobe, Commercetools, and SAP as the top vendors in its 2023 Magic Quadrant for digital commerce.
Top digital commerce engines like these have out-of-the-box capabilities to provide, or APIs to support, a self-service, interactive commerce experience that includes storefronts, product catalog navigation, product pages, shopping cart and checkout functionality, and customer accounts, according to the research firm.
These platforms also allow shoppers to search for products, add products to their carts, and fully price orders inclusive of product-, customer- and order-level discounts or promotions. In some B2B scenarios, this might require assistance from sales personnel. Additionally, the platforms support interoperability with customer, product, content, and order functionality, and with data via APIs.
Buyers and sellers both want online transactions to flow through the sales funnel, from initial search to actual purchase, with as little friction as possible. Conversational chatbots can give them that capability, with 24/7 availability—a huge benefit for customers who want fast and easy service, even during off hours or peak times, Saran says.
Research has shown that conversational chatbots boost self-service purchasing efficiency and allow for the following benefits:
- faster resolution of customer inquiries;
- higher customer satisfaction rates;
- data collection to improve or create a deeper understanding of customer needs;
- more engaging and personalized experiences with customers; and
- a better understanding of target audiences.
Companies can also leverage chatbots to gather valuable customer feedback by embedding survey questions or customer satisfaction scoring into the purchase flow.
REAL-TIME ORDER TRACKING
The benefit of empowering customers with self-service purchasing technology is lost if the customer needs to contact the company to find out where their purchases are in transit and when they will be delivered, Saran says.
That makes real-time order tracking a must-have tool for self-service buying, according to Saran. The tracking tool should include all the comprehensive shipment information customers need, from tracking data to notification communications, and it should be available on demand and through the comfort and convenience of any smart device with internet capabilities, he adds.
Order tracking communications serve as a way for companies to feature branded images, promotions for additional products, coupon offers, and upselling/cross-selling opportunities, Saran adds, noting that these are “consumer touchpoints that drive loyalty and keep your brand front and center throughout the entire ecommerce journey.”
“It’s all about convenience, speed, and reliability,” Hildebrand says. For consumers, receiving an order a day or two late might be nothing more than an inconvenience. Knowing and being able to count on delivery time is much more important in B2B transactions. Manufacturers in particular rely on this information because the production line is dependent on an on-time delivery of orders.
“The reliability of that information is absolutely critical,” Hildebrand goes on to say. “Providing visibility into inventory, or even into the supply chain, is very important in certain industries.”
Many B2B sellers have a mix of direct and indirect channels but lack unified visibility for this mix of sales operations, Hildebrand adds. “A unified platform for sales, marketing, and service makes more data readily available to sales for better, faster decisions key to revenue growth. Organizations trying to drive their go-to-market strategies by looking in the rear-view mirror of customer insights will quickly find themselves outmatched by competitors with forward-looking sales strategies.”
Tools that enable hassle-free returns also play a major role in whether consumers choose to purchase from an e-commerce retailer, according to Saran.
“A customer self-service portal for returns enables customers to easily start their return or exchange and even choose from one-click replacement products, all within the same workflow. Giving proactive updates to customers regarding the status of a return provides an additional touchpoint to enhance your brand as well as an opportunity for cross-selling products,” he points out.
With most electronic consumer purchases, payments are made at the time of purchase, or there is a checkbox or something similar for periodic payments, which might also include interest charges. Purchase agreements are more complex when one business is buying from another, and the legal requirements are more involved, Hildebrand points out. So many of these agreements include legally binding electronic signatures through DocuSign or a competing service.
“There are a lot of contracts that need to be signed, especially in B2B,” Hildebrand says. And electronic signatures took prominence during the height of COVID-19 pandemic. “Now I can go online, review the contracts, and sign the documents. They don’t have to be mailed around or faxed like they used to be. It makes a big difference because it saves a lot of time.”
INTEGRATED TOOLS FOR SEAMLESS EXPERIENCES
B2B buyers in particular look for seamless buying journeys, according to McKinsey. But they will also quickly abandon their purchases if there are anything beyond simple glitches (and sometimes even then) in the buying tools mentioned earlier.
Five years ago, B2B customers had around five distinct marketing and sales touchpoints during their buying experience—now they can have as many as 10, the McKinsey report says. “This journey can be cumbersome, and ensuring consistency between touchpoints can be difficult for B2B sellers. They could consider dismantling the barriers that have long separated marketing and sales, smoothing the experience as customers move from one touchpoint to the next.”
Accomplishing this requires some bold moves, like replacing marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) with measures of a customer’s readiness to have a conversation and combining marketing and sales forces to create frictionless experiences, according to McKinsey.
“MQLs have long forced marketers into a demand generation trap, where they are incentivized to push customers through a funnel to sellers without knowing whether those customers are ready to advance. Customers can get annoyed, while marketers become frustrated by artificial targets that call on them to engage in low-value activities,” McKinsey adds. “Smart companies are shifting from a sales funnel mentality to a customer buying journey mindset, with sales and marketing working together.”
Many tools designed for self-service buying are fully automated, while others are designed to be fully automated but also provide opportunities for human salespeople to step into the buying process if necessary.
These hybrid tools support the information available through search engines and e-commerce sites. Particularly with technology and other complex products, the product information and other content might not answer all of the questions buyers might have, and the common way to deal with this is to have a chatbot offering to help within a few seconds (sometimes immediately) after someone visits the site. While some of these chatbots are fully automated, others are overseen by human agents who can step in if the potential buyer still has questions.
“We are witnessing the emergence of seller-assisted interactions—hybrid selling scenarios where self-service B2B is supported by sales agents, often using a digital sales room,” Gartner says in its Magic Quadrant report. “We expect more convergence of B2B digital commerce and sales (revenue) technology.”
Another hybrid tool used as part of the e-commerce process for many retailers is buy online/pick up in store (BOPIS). Another byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is still a preferred arrangement for many buyers and provides another branding opportunity for online sellers, who might also pick up a few incremental sales dollars by having buyers come to the store to get their orders.
And the technology advancements related to e-commerce are showing little sign of stopping. Online retailers have only begun to explore the possibilities with the metaverse, using augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies to further enable self-service buying.
“Looking ahead, we will see self-service capabilities becoming highly relevant beyond the traditional after-sales service use case to include the advent of sales and deal room scenarios, online contract negotiations, collaboration with channel partners, and easy online access to all relevant business documents and transactions,” Hildebrand says. “As an example, a salesroom can be an online portal for sharing personalized content, relevant sales and order documents, and facilitating contract negotiations for prospective customers to access and request discounts for an item. In addition, self-service capabilities will modernize customer onboarding at scale.”
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at email@example.com.