Ecommerce drove 13% of total B2B sales in the U.S. in 2019. Forrester projected in December that share would reach 17% by 2023.
Now that we’ve seen the impact of COVID-19, that number may well be higher.
Effectively translating your offline business into the digital space can fundamentally change the way you do business and serve your customers. But why have B2B sellers’ ecommerce transitions been much slower than their B2C counterparts?
With longer sales cycles to navigate and more stakeholders to persuade, the task of taking existing offline processes into the digital era can be overwhelming. But the ecommerce tools available today have made it easier than ever. And COVID-19 has made it more important.
Ecommerce itself is a growing trend in B2B. As mentioned earlier, the share of ecommerce transactions is growing, but adoption still lags behind B2C. But the pandemic has forced many B2B companies to reckon with digital transformations they’ve been putting off.
An April report from McKinsey boldly stated, “We believe we are at a digital inflection point, where B2B sales operations going forward will look fundamentally different from what they were before the pandemic.” A couple of key stats from that report:
- B2B companies perceive digital interactions as twice as important to buyers than traditional sales interactions.
- More than half believe that sales via video, phone, or web are as effective, if not more, than pre-COVID sales models.
Digital Commerce Consultant Pete Robertshaw of Space48 said, “In the last three to four months, we’ve seen just how vulnerable B2B business can be. Even the ones that were already online don’t quite have the optimized digital journey they need yet.”
When people talk about B2B ecommerce today, there’s a lot of talk about the “B2C-like” customer experience. Otherwise known as the “Amazon” experience. With companies like Amazon changing the game in so many ways, consumers’ expectations have changed.
“Some of the B2Bs we see think they know what their users want, but when it comes to optimizing their digital journey, they really don’t,” said Robertshaw. “UX and CX aren’t just important for B2C; they’re important for B2B too. Buyers want their shopping experiences to be seamless.”
Let’s look at the latest trends driving B2B ecommerce to meet customer needs.
1. Progressive Web Apps
The future is mobile-first. In 2021, it’s expected that 73% of overall ecommerce sales will be made on a mobile device — and this will become increasingly important to B2B sales. One popular way to deliver a mobile-first ecommerce site is by using a PWA.
Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) deliver highly engaging, mobile-friendly user experiences. Using PWAs, merchants can provide the same high-converting, app-like experience of a native app to a much larger audience on the mobile web.
Here are some of the advantages you may see by using a PWA for your ecommerce site:
- PWAs can be installed on the home screen of mobile devices, increasing accessibility to users.
- PWA push notification functionality can engage customers and provide real-time order updates.
- Using a PWA means that you don’t have to develop a native app, which will save you time and get you to market faster.
- PWAs are fast — which is great for both your user experience and your SEO.
Business is moving faster than ever — on a good day, anyway — and buyers have to keep up. That’s why the quicker you can move them through the purchase process and deliver their goods, the better.
The goal of automation is to accomplish a task with as little human intervention as possible. That can mean anything from scheduling emails in a CRM or marketing tool, using Zapier to automate tasks, or leveraging advanced technology to help with hiring.
One of the most important automation tools is machine learning/artificial intelligence, but we’ll talk about that later. Let’s first look at how robotic devices are driving efficiency in the supply chain.
Robotic devices, drones, and other autonomous vehicles are being used across the supply chain — for instance, to find, identify, and transport items in warehouses — and the U.S. is closer than ever to seeing fully autonomous freight vehicles on the road. Alibaba’s smart warehouses deployed 60 robots and reduced human labor by 70%.
Today’s B2B buyers want to have agency in the purchase process. Calls with sales aren’t going away anytime soon, but buyers are doing more and more self-education before reaching out to begin discussions. An Accenture report found that most buyers are 57% of the way through the purchase process before they first meet with sales
Self-service isn’t new, of course, but it’s a differentiator. Giving buyers the information they need to do their own research will give them more confidence into their decision. This varies by industry, but many B2B sellers are investing heavily in content — including FAQs, step-by-step guides, etc.
When buyers come in with a solid understanding of the product and its use cases, that can elevate the conversation with sales, giving them room to support the potential client in a more strategic way.
Creating a smoother path to online purchase is also rising in popularity. When possible, many buyers want to complete their purchases without having to pick up the phone or interact with a sales representative.
Buyers want to do their due diligence in making sure they’re getting the right products for the best deal. It follows that a product streamlining that process would gain traction among B2B buyers.
Marketplaces afford buyers the transparency they’re looking for in the purchase process — and in a streamlined, user-friendly way. B2B marketplaces make it easy to compare different products and suppliers, prices and product specs, delivery times and costs across a variety of suppliers.
There are a lot of advantages of selling on a marketplace. First of all, there’s a relatively low barrier to entry. You won’t have to spin up a whole new ecommerce site or undergo any crazy development — you can get set up quickly, and with a low up-front financial investment.
The biggest advantage, though, is the expanded reach. B2B ecommerce marketplaces are expected to increase their market share by a factor of four between 2018 and 2024. On a marketplace, your products will be in front of buyers you may not have reached otherwise, increasing your overall revenue potential.
B2B buyers want to research your company, find answers to their questions, and communicate with you across all channels.
Being where your customers are makes it easy for them to communicate with you when and how they wish. And enabling a faster, more seamless process will support customer retention.
B2B buyers are actively shifting transaction volume from single-channel offline to omnichannel and online-only. In fact, the average B2B customer is using six different interaction channels across the buying process, and 58% are even using social as a research channel.
You don’t have to be on every channel, though — and in fact, that’s a bad idea. Be strategic instead, and answer these questions before you decide:
- Where are your customers most active?
- On which channels can you deliver the most value?
Personalization is a hot topic across the board, but it really makes a lot of sense for B2B. Often, the B2B sales process is personalized.
Specific product configurations, special pricing negotiations, and more make B2B ecommerce needs just a little bit more complex. That’s why account management functionality is so important. Account-specific storefronts enable you to deliver customers with an experience tailored to their needs.
While these personalized portals are arguably the most important personalization in B2B, that makes them table stakes. Here’s how to take your personalization game to the next level.
50% of B2B buyers identified improved personalization as a key feature when searching for online suppliers. And it could make them more likely to spend more, too.
To get the most out of a personalization program, you’ll want to be able to integrate data from a broad range of inputs, so you can develop a more holistic profile of your buyer. That profile can guide dynamic content delivery surfacing the most frequently purchased products by buyers with similar profiles.
7. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are still predominantly used by large B2B companies, but as technology advances we’ll see smaller companies begin to leverage it in beneficial ways. Two interesting use cases are customer support and product recommendations.
Intelligent chatbots play an important role as the first line of defense when a customer visits your website. They can improve the customer experience and decrease support calls by providing customers with basic information about their orders or delivery.
“Websites that recommend items you might like based on previous purchases are using machine learning to analyze your buying history,” explains Jeff Goffinet of Dunn Solutions Group.
Based on customers’ browsing and buying behaviors, AI can deliver personalized product recommendations to encourage conversion or upsell. In B2B specifically, this can also help make buyers’ lives easier by anticipating their orders and making it easier to navigate to the items they need.
8. Customer Retention Programs
As more B2Bs undergo digital transformation, competition will grow. Here’s why: making the purchase process easier is a double-edged sword. It also makes it easier to buy from someone else. B2Bs will have to go the extra mile when it comes to customer retention if they want to have a competitive advantage.
You can do a lot with loyalty programs in the B2B space beyond something like frequent flyer miles. Some of the options include offering:
- Transaction-based discounts or rewards programs
- Referral rewards
- Priority partnerships
You can also add extra value by providing content and third-party partnerships they want.
9. Data and Analytics
If you can collect and process it effectively, your data has the potential to boost sales and take your business to the next level. Ideally, you’ll aggregate data from all channels, like your ecommerce site, omnichannel sales, and social interactions, for example.
Elliott Davidson, founder of UK digital agency Contrast, said, “In the future we will see more ecommerce businesses leverage data from an in-house perspective.
“In-house marketers are able to make a lot more strategic business decisions and really delve into the data to see what’s working and what isn’t. Data analysis is going to become a staple requirement for businesses to make any future ecommerce decisions.”
Some examples of meaningful metrics to collect:
- Sales over time by customer
- Sales rep performance
- Product performance
- Sales cycle length
If you’ve had an ecommerce store for any length of time, you know how it feels to always seem short on time. That’s why, when it comes to future trends, you have to prioritize relentlessly. Not every brand needs to capitalize on every trend.
A good guiding principle is to focus on usability before flash. That’s both from the customer’s perspective as they shop, and from yours on the operations side. No flashy onsite experience or other bells and whistles will replace a foundation of solid processes and best practices. Once you have that down, take measured risks and test, test, test.