Business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce, whereby companies rather than individuals are buying and selling with each other, is perhaps the less glamourous sibling of business-to-consumer (B2C) online shopping.
Whether a wholesaler is selling tractors, computer software or hairdressing equipment, the homepage of a typical B2B ecommerce site often resembles a static, somewhat overwhelming catalogue of goods. It’s the sort of clunky user experience that sends people straight into the arms of a slicker, more responsive website and this is a growing problem for B2B businesses.
It’s because business buyers are getting younger. Increasingly, they are digital natives, who grew up online. Brought up on the speed and ease of Amazon and eBay, these business customers demand the same seamless service they expect in the B2C space, in the B2B arena.
Failing to meet the expectations of this growing group of decision-makers could have serious consequences for businesses. The growth opportunity is huge: in 2019 alone, sales on B2B ecommerce sites and marketplaces jumped 18.2 per cent to reach $1.3 trillion, outpacing the B2C sector, according to Digital Research 360.
B2B buying process evolves in wake of COVID-19
The reasons B2B is playing catch-up with B2C are several, but it is in part a legacy of B2B sales largely taking place in the physical realm. It is still not unusual for company salespeople to travel across the country to court clients with product catalogues and brochures. Cold-calling prospective clients has been the accepted B2B sales method for decades. Payments are still often made using paper purchase orders and cheques.
However, coronavirus lockdowns imposed around the world have made travelling salespeople redundant. This is creating an urgency for B2B ecommerce, says Christina Augustine, chief operating officer at Bloomreach, a business which builds ecommerce tools for brands such as Capital One and Puma.
“If I work in construction and I need face masks, I probably needed them yesterday,” she says. “The businesses that really invested in their B2B ecommerce, over physical transacting, they’re going to be the winners both now and in the coming months.”
Meeting the expectations of digitally savvy business buyers comes with unique challenges for B2B. A key issue is pricing. Unlike in the consumer world, product prices are not always visible and one client or sector can pay a different price for the same product than another. Discounts for bulk or repeat purchases are also commonplace. But rather than a sales rep revealing or negotiating the price over the phone or in person, business customers now want to see the price immediately on a website.
“A company needs to have a solution for that,” says Iain Forrest founder of digital marketing consultancy Forrest Digital. Without a salesperson mediating the sale, companies now need “to make prices transparent or come up with a solution where a prospective or existing client can log on to a specific portal where they have tailored sets of prices”, he says.
“Some companies are getting around this by making unique versions of their ecommerce store, if the client is big enough. Products and prices will be tailored to that specific client.”
B2B traditionalists must deploy digital marketing skills – and fast
Businesses hoping to take a slice of the B2B ecommerce opportunity must overcome other key differentiators between B2B and B2C purchasing. One is specificity. For example, if a hospital client wants to buy medical-grade supplies, they must receive the correct product. “You can’t be kind of right with business transactions,” says Augustine. “In B2C, consumers have been trained to be OK with substitutes, but in B2B you really need to get the right product to them.”
The second is understanding the intent behind the shopping experience. Spending time perusing products can be enjoyable when you’re buying a non-essential for yourself, but for business customers “it’s not about browsing; it’s about getting the job done”, she says. This means reducing fruitless browsing, and shortening and smoothing the path between first entering a B2B site and a closed sale is vital.
Both issues can be resolved, she suggests, by deploying artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning to predict what a customer needs from often vast inventories of business products. “If you use AI to learn user behaviour, you start to learn that when someone’s searching for something, this is actually the specific product they mean or need,” says Augustine. They can then be guided through a B2B site accurately and quickly.
Businesses can give themselves an edge over their competitors by not only mastering the ecommerce basics, such as tailored homepages and prompt delivery speeds – Amazon Prime has trained us to expect we will get our products within 24 to 48 hours, Augustine points out – but by also creating the content-rich personalised experience consumer websites have spearheaded.
Forrest adds that social media and an explosion in self-led product research in the B2C market are influencing expectations of what a B2B ecommerce site should look and feel like.
Facebook and Instagram are generating really good quality leads for our business clients
“We’ve had a decade of people saying ‘content is king’,” he says. “It’s really just an extension of that idea in this very specific sphere. We encourage our B2B clients to invest in video, for example to show people how their products operate and to show client testimonials. Facebook and Instagram are generating really good quality leads for our business clients too, because they engage people.”
From AI to mastering social media, many businesses have a steep learning curve if they are to meet the demands of the new B2B buyer. As Forrest concludes: “It’s a completely different mindset to the sales-rep-in-a-car way of thinking.”