Several clicks behind: B2B ecommerce plays catch-up

B2B vendors have much to learn from etailers when it comes to providing a user-friendly online shopping experience. What barriers are holding them back – and how surmountable are they?

B2b Online Sales

Consumer brands have benefited enormously from ecommerce over the past 20 years. Innovations such as online marketplaces have enabled them to reach new customers, boost sales and expand their offerings. Many B2C firms have come to derive most of their income via digital channels, using the wealth of data these provide to refine their products and optimise their bricks-and-mortar presence.

Most business-to-business companies are lagging them badly in all these respects. Why is that? According to survey data published by Wunderman Thompson in its B2B Future Shopper Report 2023, 46% of global B2B buyers find purchasing products online frustrating, while 45% consider it to be a more complex process than buying offline. Moreover, 51% of respondents believe that B2B vendors don’t understand which parts of the digital purchasing experience typically cause the most friction.

 B2B companies must enable their customers to move seamlessly across whichever channels they want to use

“The way in which goods and services are introduced, explained and sold is similar on all B2C ecommerce sites,” observes Josh Tilley, brand strategy director at Initials, a customer experience agency. “The technical specifications of a product will be laid out carefully alongside layman’s descriptions, with a clear focus on the benefits it offers the customer. The vendor’s ambition is to provide seamless transitions through product discovery, comparison, brand assurance and purchase.”

He contrasts that approach with that taken by “an equivalent B2B category, where there’s an assumption that the brand already has sufficient credibility. There’s a lack of emphasis on the benefits, which creates a huge barrier for buyers who may not be experts in what they’re purchasing. Add in tricky website navigation and it’s no wonder that the customer experience is frustrating and so many transactions are abandoned.”

Improving B2B’s online sales experience

Standard sales practices among B2B vendors can be problematic too. Their commercial managers often jealously guard access to their contacts, while their sales teams are concerned about losing commission payments. Pricing is more complex when companies sell to other companies, as many vendors are wary of sharing information such as the discounts they have given. 

The payment process can also present challenges for B2B sites, notes Gabriel Le Roux, co-founder and CEO of Primer, a provider of payment processing software. 

“Card payments are relatively straightforward in B2C transactions, whereas employees commonly use expense cards tied to more expensive acceptance rails for B2B transactions,” he explains. “B2B payments often involve higher average order values, frequently resulting in the use of bank transfers. This approach, while common, can feel clunky and manual.” 

Foreign exchange requirements can gum up payments even more and many B2B ecommerce sites don’t invest enough in easing the process, according to Le Roux. Despite this, he is optimistic that improvements will come. 

“There is potential for account-to-account payments to gain more traction in the B2B space,” Le Roux says. “With open banking in Europe and the rise of variable recurring payments, there is an opportunity to address challenges and offer more seamless and cost-effective processes than traditional bank transfers.”

Learning from B2C

Research by McKinsey & Co suggests that many of the features that appeal to customers on B2C platforms can and should be incorporated by B2B vendors. The study also shows that B2B buyers typically interact with suppliers via at least 10 channels throughout the purchasing process (research, supplier evaluation, ordering, reordering), compared with five in 2016. 

“B2B companies must enable their customers to move seamlessly across whichever channels they want to use to find whatever they’re seeking whenever they need it – without having to enter the same information several times,” says Dr Isabel Huber, a partner at McKinsey. “Sellers need to ensure that they can identify customers and track them as they journey across the sales ecosystem.” 

She believes that there is still a role for traditional B2B sales reps. But, in addition to talking to customers in person, they should also make themselves available remotely, conducting virtual product demonstrations, for instance.

Craig Smith, UK and Ireland country manager for ecommerce platform Scayle, believes that B2B vendors must rethink how they develop and implement their digital tech if they’re to radically improve the customer experience they offer. In this respect, they would also do well to learn from the B2C world.

He explains: “A B2C retailer will often treat its IT department and its digital team as separate entities. This means that the latter can focus on improving the customer experience through testing and learning with an agile, iterative approach, while the former can concentrate on matters such as data security.” 

By contrast, many B2B ecommerce platforms still operate with “a traditional IT department, which has to go cap in hand to the finance department for funds to build any software”, Smith says.

How B2B can be more innovative

Some B2B marketplaces are experiencing strong growth and are seeking to improve the customer experience., for instance, has taken what it describes as “the best parts of our B2C platforms” to introduce innovations such as live-streaming, hybrid trade shows and virtual factory tours to make the B2B buying process more user-friendly. 

“We use virtual reality to enable buyers to ‘visit’ potential suppliers’ factories in their own offices, cutting out international travel while giving them assurances about the supplier they ultimately choose,” says Roland Palmer, Alibaba Group’s general manager in the UK, Benelux and the Nordic region.

B2B marketplaces have much to learn from their B2C counterparts, according to Palmer. He believes that “the most important thing is to facilitate a seamless relationship between buyer and seller. This means enabling a streamlined purchasing process from beginning to end. Wholesale buyers should be able to easily explore and discover products from suppliers around the world.”

The appetite for ecommerce is strong among B2B buyers. More than two-thirds (68%) of those responding to the Wunderman Thompson survey are planning to increase their use of digital shopping channels. Indeed, Vantage Market Research has forecast that the global B2B ecommerce market will nearly quadruple in value from £5.6tn in 2022 to £21tn by 2030. 

The players that secure a good slice of that pie will be those that learn from B2C online retailers, upgrade their digital offerings and make life as easy as possible for their customers.