For more than a decade, business-to-business firms have used the Internet to publicize their product catalogs. As a result of the rise in consumer sales on the Web and the rapid maturation and adoption of Internet technologies like Rich Internet Applications and Web 2.0, B2B firms are now rethinking their e-business strategies.
At the same time, the demands of B2B buyers have also changed, with many expecting sites to provide them with the experience, content and community collaboration they have come to expect in the business-to-consumer realm. What we are left with is a B2C/B2B convergence phenomenon.
There are several trends driving the shift including the desire to do the following:
- Deliver a B2C-Like Experience: Despite the presence of online self-service solutions, a significant percentage of transactions are still processed manually behind the scenes. As a result, B2B businesses are reacting by shifting from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 technologies to deliver a rich, customer-centric and interactive online experience that turns the self-service channel into a virtual salesperson who is available to service their every need around the clock.
- Improve Operational Efficiency: Streamlining the “quote-to-cash” process — and automating customer interactions through an online self-service channel — represents a clear opportunity for B2B businesses to reduce operational costs.
- Increase Sales Through Marketing and Merchandising: B2B companies want to turn their online interactions with buyers into ongoing sales relationships. To do so, companies are making the most of proven B2C-like merchandising techniques such as cross-sells, up-sells, targeted offers based on role, order history, promotional pricing, and search-driven merchandising to influence order size and drive additional sales.
Furthermore, due to the B2C/B2B convergence phenomenon, business buyers are also expecting to see relevant product information and other related offers, with the depth of information and the range of offers dependant on the product and its complexity.
- Innovate Business Model to Open New Markets: Traditionally, B2B companies have served a select set of customers with whom there is a predefined business relationship. Through a tighter collaboration with downstream trading partners, manufacturers can enhance the “sell-through” model to drive new sales and improve brand loyalty.
In some instances, manufacturers can also remove partners from the equation altogether. For example, one major food service supplier that traditionally served the commercial market recently decided to more fully leverage its huge product assortment. It expanded operations directly to the individual consumer, giving them the opportunity to purchase a variety of popular items directly from its website. By shifting its model, the company is now able to reach new markets and gain customer insights that it did not possess previously.
- Build Loyalty and Community Around the Brand: Today’s brands are being discussed in social media. As a result, businesses must listen, participate, and take control of their online brand image. Seventy-five percent of B2B firms use Twitter, and 66 percent participate in discussions on third-party sites, according to a B2B Social Media Benchmarking Study conducted by Business.com. This is a trend that is sure to continue.
Smarter Commerce Strategy
To respond to the trends outlined above, B2B businesses must embrace proven customer-centric concepts from the B2C world and employ modern Web technologies to deliver the next-generation of B2B e-commerce, or smarter commerce.
This new approach transforms the speed in which clients manage and adapt their buy, market, sell and service processes by putting the customer at the center of decisions and actions. By doing so, businesses are able to achieve new levels of company differentiation that lead to greater customer loyalty, revenue and agility. The three key elements in this B2B smarter commerce strategy:
- Operational Automation: The primary goal here is to reduce the cost-per-transaction and optimize the quote-to-cash cycle time, thus improving the bottom line by capturing a zero-touch, perfect order in an efficient manner. The key to achieving this is to replace manual processes with a Web-based, self-service solution that delivers a customer-specific catalog and product pricing.
- Buyer-Centric Marketing: Buyer-centric marketing is focused on a deep understanding of customer needs, segments and behavior, which in turn allows a business to deliver targeted and contextual marketing messages that influence decision makers.
As a result, B2B firms can transition from “order takers to order makers,” increase customer wallet share, achieve a higher retention rate and build brand loyalty.
- Rich Customer Experience: Delivering a rich experience is fundamentally about providing an easy buying experience. This includes a rich online experience, easy access to information such as entitled price or stock availability, and the presence of online communities to support customers after they make a purchase.
The challenge is that B2B sites typically lag when it comes to self-service adoption, which in turn increases call center volume and lowers customer satisfaction. By adopting some of the proven technologies and concepts from the B2C world — such as RIA, Web 2.0 technologies, and social commerce capabilities — businesses can help streamline buying experiences and accelerate the transformation to online self-service.
With the key elements in place, next come the four steps to implementing a next-generation B2B e-commerce strategy, a process that requires human behavioral changes on the part of both buyers and sellers:
- Online Order Taking: By replacing manual order taking processes with an online self-service channel, businesses can reduce administrative costs and errors and improve turnaround time. The key is making sure the online experience is rich and easy-to-use, while using incentives, discounts, and training to motivate online buyers.
- One-to-One Marketing: Businesses must take advantage of Web marketing techniques to serve various buyer personas by delivering targeted information that may influence the purchasing process. An engineer visiting the site, for example, will have a specific interest in viewing product specifications to understand technical details.
- Online Order Making: This step turns a B2B site into a virtual salesperson by offering relevant product promotions and marketing campaigns based on buyer profile, order history and behavior, both online and in traditional channels. Sellers must nurture an ongoing dialogue with buyers by responding to actions such as page views/clicks and abandoned shopping carts with promotional offers or other appropriate contact.
- Community Marketing: Online communities and social networks provide a huge opportunity for B2B firms to turn their sites into “destinations” by fostering collaboration with and among end customers through a forum to gather product feedback, elicit new product ideas, and address any product-related issues.
B2B e-commerce has rapidly evolved for both buyers and sellers, and now these businesses have begun to follow in the footsteps of their B2C counterparts. The result is the emergence of a smarter commerce strategy — one designed to help businesses respond to the shifting market trends by delivering a streamlined, buyer-centric and engaging online experience that enables buyers to efficiently interact and transact with the brand while at the same time allowing sellers to reduce administrative costs, increase sales and improve brand loyalty.
If the early returns are any indication, this new model is primed to propel B2B businesses like never before.