This summer John Bruno of Forrester released a new B2B eCommerce Playbook entitled Make Your B2B Business a Digital Business. After working with Bruno on a couple of projects this past year, including co-hosting a webinar on the future of B2B eCommerce, I was eager to absorb and review the information. Providing a pragmatic perspective combined with deep knowledge of our industry, Bruno has, in my opinion, emerged as one of the best new voices in our industry.
Points of convergence between B2C and B2B
Although I’ve often written about the dangers of assuming too much similarity between B2B and B2C eCommerce, there are areas where requirements do converge. The new Forrester Playbook touches on these common points including the need for well-designed taxonomies and multiple points of access. Bruno covers his points extremely well in this section, explaining the nuances needed for B2B organizations to use these digital tactics to achieve success.
A major area of convergence is the need for an intuitive, easy-to-navigate experience. Buyers, researchers and other People of B2B involved within online commerce have had their professional expectations set by their personal buying experiences. That “bar” continues to rise as Amazon and other online B2C giants introduce new ways to locate, organize, and purchase items. In much the same way, the shopping cart has become an iconic requirement of the online transactional experience, no matter the context. I think it’s also important to note that individuals involved in the B2B buying cycle not only want a strong user experience, they want a fully functional mobile experience as well. This expectation is driven not only by B2C but by the changing preferences of new generations of workers.
Search is another area where we can learn from B2C eCommerce, as Bruno points out. But within B2B it’s not only critical for SEO purposes, but also AFTER potential customers land on a manufacturer or distributor site. B2B companies may have thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of SKUs. Not all of them will be relevant to the person searching for information. Personalizing search externally as well as internally is perhaps even more critical in B2B, where a major goal of online commerce is not just to increase sales, but to increase productivity and efficiency.
Points of Divergence between B2B and B2C
Bruno and I are in agreement on several areas where eCommerce diverges between the consumer and the business experience. Perhaps the most notable difference is that B2B buying experiences are not “one to many” as in B2C, but actually “many to many.” This makes the B2B commerce cycle exponentially more complex, with multiple people involved in the decision making process. Not to mention the varying roles and responsibilities that fall under the umbrella term of a B2B “buyer.”
B2B customers don’t shop, they buy. B2C is all about the transaction and the “impulse” buy. Due to the nature of procurement programs, complex contract agreements and unique catalogs, B2B buyers rarely have the ability to act on impulse. Instead, they determine the value of the experience on its efficiency, including the eCommerce system’s ability to handle the complex transactions that come from so many varying points of contact.
Logistics is another area of divergence between B2B and B2C. In our world, we have a myriad of shipping scenarios including inventory that may be spread across many locations, unique aspects like will call and pickup branches, and even multiple billing accounts. This creates massive complexity post-purchase, which in B2C is mainly a rewards or loyalty concern.
What happens when the B2C eCommerce expert migrates to B2B?
It can be extremely challenging to find B2B eCommerce expertise, so we’re faced with many companies hiring eCommerce experts from retail environments and other B2C-based industries. Unfortunately, this has contributed to the overwhelming failure of B2B eCommerce initiatives, in which roughly 80% fail to meet their goals.
Although it is an area of convergence, B2C marketers often get too caught up in the front end experience. For that reason, and others, they are inclined to make the wrong technology decisions. Basing a B2B eCommerce solution choice on personalization is smart, but not if you’re using a definition of personalization based on a consumer buying experience.
What I mean by this is that in order to drive amazing experiences for B2B customers from a user perspective, we need several foundational capabilities to be included. To start with we need to drive that experience from the “middle” by having an eCommerce core that is built for b2b, and has the important rules, processes and workflows included. Secondly it must integrate with key backend systems to get the right information to the eCommerce environment. The data needs to be real time, and synchronous, to drive B2B transactions involving custom pricing, credit limits and approvals, multiple shipping and billing locations, workflows and approvals, just to name a few. Next you must have critical catalog management capabilities to manage your product data, and other relevant content. The combination of these three capabilities are truly what allows the CMS to be designed and built to drive the critical nature of user experience.
When B2C marketers arrive on the B2B scene, they’re often unfamiliar with these core eCommerce capabilities, the data that resides in key backend systems, and the mission-critical nature of real time, synchronous data as a recipe for B2B commerce success. Instead, they get enamored with B2C-like bells and whistles which make up a small percentage of realistic B2B digital buying experiences. In return, that leads to a bad software choice that doesn’t map to the needs of the organization. And THAT equals failure.
Bruno’s Playbook reads as a bit of a cautionary tale, one that I heartily endorse. Although we continue to learn from some areas of B2C eCommerce, most B2B commerce is vastly different from a personal shopping experience. New B2B marketers have to acknowledge and endorse these differences if the success rate of digital commerce for B2B is ever going to rise in any meaningful way.