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GUEST COMMENT B2B ecommerce finds growth opportunity by forging a different path

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By Stephen Hardy, managing director, FPX Ltd

B2B ecommerce is expected to grow exponentially in 2018. According to research carried out by Forrester last year, on average, ecommerce represents around a third of B2B sales, but the market is growing. Feedback from B2B businesses suggests that almost all have begun their digital transformations and are embracing some element of ecommerce, despite the acknowledged complexities.

The fact is that selling B2B products online is not straightforward and the majority of ecommerce platforms were not designed to support the myriad configurations, product variables, pricing fluctuations, bundles and promotions that frequently accompany B2B product sales.

B2B companies are all too aware that while their customers now expect a digital experience, they also want to be able to interact with them through traditional direct or indirect channels and continue to have face-to-face meetings and receive a response to a phone call. There is a good reason for this. A recent article in Harvard Business Review points out that while customers are better informed than ever, decision-makers are being pushed into unproductive, open-ended learning loops by the deluge of information. With each iteration, they work harder to ensure that they fully understand the requirements and the alternatives. More information begets more questions, with the result that, while customers are empowered to make a decision, it actually gets harder and more frustrating for them to do so. In the B2B sector, it is not a question of online or offline, but about merging online into a much broader and demanding omnichannel mix that helps, rather than hinders, decision makers.

For the same reason, sales people and sales teams working for today’s B2B companies are becoming more, not less important. This might sound counter-intuitive, surely the point about selling online is that it reduces human interaction and, as a result, allows companies to cut costs? Of course, it is a well-known fact that buyers across all sectors carry out research online to the point where they are ready to make a decision. In a B2B scenario, however, particularly across heavy industries such as manufacturing, engineering and automation, many buyers configure multiple parts to reach the solution they are looking for. In B2B, it is this need for a configuration that drives growth.

The cost and complexity of high-consideration purchases requires a human touch and a cooperative approach. A Frost & Sullivan study recently found that 92% of B2B buyers wished purchasing business products online had the same ease as buying consumer goods online and 49% who had intended to buy one product, purchased a competitor product instead because it was too difficult to buy online.

In an ideal world, these purchases flow through an omnichannel customer journey of investigating and educating through an online portal, perhaps configuring a solution independently, then sending an RFP of the configuration to a sales rep who then initiates contact to guide the buyer towards a fully-realised solution. It is a process of many parts and many channels.

The sales person is crucial, taking on a more creative and consultative approach in guiding buyers towards a purchase. Increasingly, sales people are moving beyond using just ecommerce platforms to leverage tools like Configure Price Quote (CPQ) applications to provide data-driven recommendations to buyers; they are delivering upsell and cross-sell suggestions; they are making use of guided selling tools to ensure the best possible solution is assembled; they lean on automated approvals and dynamic document generation tools to move the process along quickly and they use CLM and other applications to ensure the customer maintains the relationship over the long term.

This also helps to maintain the decision-making flow. The same Harvard Business Review story makes clear that the many options that buyers face can cause a kind of paralysis. They say that with a wealth of data on any solution, a raft of stakeholders involved in each purchase and an ever-expanding array of options, more and more deals bog down or even halt altogether. The advantage of tools like CPQ is that they help to create a seamless process that guides both buyers and sellers rather than just drowning them in information and choices.

This process can be difficult to imagine when compared to a standard B2C ecommerce scenario because it is multi-dimensional. It can range, for example, from a buyer looking for customised petrol pumps for a chain of new petrol stations through to a car manufacturer purchasing hundreds of component engine parts. Each element of the process is essential, and the knowledge of the sales person is crucial in helping to co-create the right solution or specify the exact combination of parts.

The trick for B2B companies is in finding a balance between allowing buyers to order the more standard parts and components online; using artificial intelligence and machine learning to facilitate slightly more complex requirements, and then introducing access to the expertise of sales people as they are needed. Solutions like CPQ, which can operate via mobile and offline and immediately deliver a quote or proposal in the field, are able to automate many elements of the process, from simple improvements in ordering and invoicing through to sharing data in real-time so that the end-to-end supply chain can be connected and delivery and revenue attainment can be fully aligned.

The truth is that B2B and B2C ecommerce are on very different paths because they are serving very different requirements. The turning point in the growth of B2B eCommerce is in acknowledging that multiple platforms and new technology are needed to support its complexity and that, unlike in B2C, the role of the sales person is an essential element in the process.

Photo credit: Sikov (Fotolia)

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