In 2019, only 13% of all B2B sales were generated digitally. By 2023, when U.S. B2B online sales are projected to reach $1.8 trillion, this is expected (based on a pre-pandemic forecast) to reach 17% — which is not an insignificant slice of the pie.
And with COVID-19 still impacting the ways we live, work, and purchase, the call to ecommerce is growing stronger. Across every industry, businesspeople and consumers are learning tough lessons about agility and resilience.
It’s increasingly clear that both require at least some degree of digital presence.
Couple that with the growing financial opportunity, and you may wonder what’s holding traditional B2B companies back from embarking on their journey of digital transformation.
There are a lot of answers to that question, but one is that B2B sales tends to be quite a bit more complex than a typical B2C transaction.
The traditional sales-meeting, hand-shaking, demoing, negotiating, contracting, and procurement process isn’t easy to translate to a consumer-like digital experience online. Or, at least, it wasn’t always. And besides — the modern B2B buyer has different expectations.
Between the evolution of customer expectations and advancement of ecommerce technologies, taking your business online has a lower barrier to entry than ever.
Let’s take a look at what’s changed over the past decade in B2B, and what challenges merchants still face when moving from bricks to clicks.
The Modern B2B Buyer
Today’s B2B buyers are increasingly tech-savvy — 61% of all B2B transactions now start online.
In fact, buyers want to be empowered to go through as much of the process on their own as possible. According to a report from Accenture, most buyers are about 57% of the way through the buying process by the time they speak with a rep.
That they’re willing to shoulder so much of that research is a good thing, considering that same report notes today’s buyers are more cautious — more than 90% of decision-makers never respond to cold outreach.
But buyers are also growing more demanding, with expectations highly impacted by their personal buying experiences. Thanks to sites like Amazon, customers expect fast page load times, effective, easy-to-use on-site search, intuitive navigation, detailed product images and descriptions, self-service options, and quick checkout.
B2B ecommerce has lagged behind B2C counterparts in their ability to deliver a positive, holistic customer experience.
The primary challenge of B2B ecommerce, then, is to deliver a beautiful, easy-to-use ecommerce site that also supporting complex business workflows like customer-specific contract pricing, custom catalogs, purchasing approvals, payment on credit terms and other business-specific types, easy re-ordering, delivery and pickup methods, and digitization of other traditionally offline processes.
B2B Ecommerce Challenges
Your B2B buyers want the same experience as B2C shoppers: efficiency and ease of use. But they have different needs — and therein lies the major challenge of B2B ecommerce sales.
1. B2B relationships are personal.
You probably don’t have an account manager to be the liaison between you and your favorite department store. But B2B relationships often are personalized in this way and have developed over time.
These personalized needs include customer-specific pricing, whether based on a tiering system or specifically negotiated deals, and bulk pricing. You may also have customers who don’t need access to your entire catalog.
B2B buyers expect pricing, catalogs, and product selection to be organized according to their particular requirements. How will those relationships translate online? How do you keep relationships unique and personalized at scale?
Assigning customer catalogs to specific customer segments is a way for you to start to personalize the B2B customer shopping experience for your users. This enables logged in customers to see only what is relevant to them, showing the prices that have been specifically negotiated for their account.
2. The B2B buying process involves a lot of decision-makers, and the buying cycle is long and complex.
The B2B purchasing workflow can consist of a wide range of people with their own specific roles and responsibilities. There will be people researching the solutions, stakeholders whose buy-in is needed to move forward, financial representatives to approve the spend, and so many more. And depending on the value of the purchase, this could take up to a year or more — a far cry from the one-click purchase button on Amazon.
All that complexity means there’s a lot to keep up with. This is where solid back-office management comes in. You have to be able to efficiently provide each stakeholder your business interacts with the information they need to do their jobs.
This is not a job for a manual process. You need powerful tools on your side, like customer relationships management (CRM) software, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to integrate all your data, and self-service options so buyers can find as much information on their own as possible.
3. Buyers have complex procurement processes.
B2B buyers expect flexibility on how they order and how they pay — and they need it, because some companies’ purchase processes are as complex and analog as the laggards they buy from.
Procurement refers to the activities around acquiring the products and services that support business operations. It’s often tightly monitored and controlled, with clearly defined policies and processes. This can include a lot of documents, like contracts, requisition orders, purchase orders, invoices, and more.
According to an August 2019 survey of B2B buyers, almost three-quarters of respondents said they’d switch to a new ecommerce site for better purchasing options. The same share of respondents stated that they would purchase more products if they could pay by invoice.
eProcurement is the digitization of the procurement process. B2B buyers use eProcurement platforms to help improve efficiency and gain greater control over spending across the organization.
These platforms enforce best practices and consolidate data, but getting data into the platform can be tricky. An eProcurement integrator, bridging the divide between buyer and seller platforms, facilitates the flow of requisition, purchase order, invoice, and other data between ecommerce and eProcurement platforms.
4. Buyers need many ways to pay.
Offering flexible payment terms to B2B customers can help you win new customers and keep existing customers happy.
B2B credit solution
Using a B2B credit solution can give you the advantage of:
Improving customer loyalty and keeping pace with buyer expectations by offering
Net 30 (or longer) terms.
- Allowing you to keep growing your business with immediate capital instead of waiting for customer payments.
- Avoiding the financial risk of offering credit to new customers.
5. Data for multiple channels may be siloed.
Selling online requires locking together a number of moving pieces, and that number can be even greater when you’re talking about B2B. Particularly if you sell via multiple channels (e.g., B2B and B2C, or have multiple lines of distribution), you may have many different sources of data. Keeping that data siloed is not the best option for your business.
Enterprise resource planning (ERP)
ERP software integrates order management, accounting, and a 360-degree view of your clients into a single, real-time system, providing all the flexibility you need to customize the workflows and functionality of your back-office environment. A strong ERP integration provides you with a clear, holistic view of your business and your inventory levels so you can strengthen overall operations and meet buyer expectations.
6. Shipping B2B has its own set of requirements and constraints.
Determining the best shipping strategy for your B2B business comes with its own set of unique challenges, from freight shipments to client-specific requirements and more. Some of the factors you may need to consider include:
- Possibility and frequency of repeat orders
- Small shipments
- Bulky items that are difficult to rate
- Quoting and real-time rating
- Existing agreements and contracts
But the added complexity doesn’t mean you can shy away from the shipping options offered by B2C merchants. In fact, buyers expect a B2C-like experience that delivers on personalization, quick delivery and convenience. And the growing demand for alternative delivery options in B2C shipping is just one example of this.
Price transparency and tailored shipping options
As you develop your B2B shipping strategy, aim for complete price transparency, multiple shipping options, and tailored shipping options based on product, order, or customer. Two things you can do now? Use different rules per product group, especially if you’re introducing a brand new product line, and make sure you are fulfilling orders via appropriate services (e.g., no LTL freight for small package shipments).
7. B2B buyers need to find more complex products just as easily.
Modern buyers are moving away from in-person sales meetings and ordering via a paper catalog. Online B2B buyers, like B2C shoppers, want relevant search results, easy website navigation, and suggested product content.
But they also need accommodations that meet the complexity of B2B buying, such as a unique account with a custom catalog, specialized pricing, and sensitivity to product availability. The future of B2B is in ecommerce, and the need for personalized, intelligent, search-driven experience is essential.
Leveling up your B2B site search solution can turn your site into a dynamic, customer-centric shopping experience. Adaptive search is a technology that learns from and adapts to B2B buyers’ behavior over time. It uses machine learning to display products based on each buyer’s unique browsing and search behavior, thus personalizing the shopping experience.
When adaptive search is combined with autocomplete, it completes the word in the search bar and presents suggested answers or results based on the search term.
Here’s how to leverage adaptive search for B2B functionality:
- Search by exact part number or SKU
- Search by exact keywords, including industry terms
- Search by problem or issue solved
- Search by content
Back in 2017, McKinsey released a report finding that B2B companies lagged behind B2Cs in how they use digital tools and data to set strategy. Fewer than 24% of executives understood how their industries were being disrupted by digital.
A combination of factors lead to B2B’s slow movement toward digital transformation — like the ones discussed in this article. But today, with evolving technologies and buyer demands, you’ll be able to find more ways to easily enable successful B2B sales on an ecommerce website.