Musings of an early-stage B2B eCommerce vet
At the risk of dating myself, one of the first roles I had as a professional was at a B2B distributor working as a field-based consultant with our industrial customers, trying to convince/train/coerce them to trust our eCommerce site for placing orders. This was forward-looking stuff back then. At that point purchase orders were either called in, faxed or sent by carrier pigeon (we had a crack team of pigeon handlers back in the day).
The struggle for me at that time was selling the shift to using eCommerce, a new way of buying which was met with some excitement but also skepticism. And rightly so! The user experience was not all that great. The product catalogs weren’t easy to navigate - you usually had to do double-entry back into your ordering system and you could forget about any sort of customized or intuitive system-generated recommendations.
The main feature of an eCommerce site then was basically...that it used the internet. Thanks Al Gore! (another reference that makes me sound old). Since then there have been incredible advances in both the front-end eCommerce user experience as well as the back-end integrations between suppliers and a company's ERP system.
The recent refinements in B2B eCommerce have been substantial. They have streamlined procurement operations, reduced processing errors and is at this point the leading channel for transacting large-scale business. With advancements in AI and Machine Learning tools coupled with the changing demographics of procurement organizations, we have started to see another fundamental shift in the B2B eCommerce landscape. Working now full-time on the technology side of the business world, I’m reminded of some of the same reactions I encountered back in the olden days of eCommerce. It might take some time for these trends to impact broadly across all industries, but they are coming and at some point, will become the new normal.
I realize I’m starting off a diatribe about the changes in the B2B eCommerce landscape with a point that has nothing to do with technology but bear with me. The reality is that the folks running procurement departments are in fact changing and they grew up in a world where electronic commerce wasn’t a novelty, it was commonplace. By 2025 it is predicted that 75% of all workers will be aged 20-36. They are tech-savvy, comfortable with data and analytics and have high expectations around the user experience when it comes to technology.
“Millennials are ushering in a new era for client/vendor relationships”
- 69% prefer to engage vendors during the sales cycle using e-mail
- 36% weigh the opinions of friends and family before deciding to buy B2B products/services
- 69% will post a positive comment on social media if they’re happy clients
- IBM Institute for Business Value
So, what does this mean for B2B companies? Their eCommerce presence needs to come with a great user experience, or this group will defect and be vocal about their dissatisfaction. An eCommerce platform needs to address the 4 “I’s”; it should be interactive, intuitive, intelligent and instantly responsive. These qualities sound pretty familiar, don’t they? They are the same attributes found in a great salesperson.
Your eCommerce platform can no longer be a repository for catalogs and a portal to place orders. It needs to evolve and become a member of your selling team. Just like field-based salespeople can’t just be order-takers, neither can your website. The folks that will be running the show soon won’t tolerate it. They will simply take their business to the companies that cater to their needs.
As web platforms have advanced, interactivity and responsiveness have improved as a function of infrastructure advances. Let’s talk about how data is adding intelligence and intuition.
Data and Intelligent Deal Negotiation
Given the incoming class of B2B procurement professionals, how can organizations enhance their eCommerce experience? Without being cliché, it’s going to be data-driven. Now I realize we are at least a decade deep into an era in which every consulting organization, business magazine and talking head on the internet has been screaming DATA!!!! The good news is, with big data, we are progressing nicely through the Gartner Hype Cycle and are really chugging along into the “plateau of productivity.”
So, how can we use all this information to improve how our B2B platforms engage their target clients? A great start is price setting and automated deal negotiation. This area used to be exclusively the purview of experienced deal makers - salespeople with years of experience who “know their clients.” These are still incredibly critical team members in any great selling organization.
But the reality is software can now ingest incredible amounts of data in real-time, detect patterns in buying behavior, and abide by rules that align with an organization’s go-to-market strategy while simultaneously learning with every single transaction. This has resulted in the ability to allow for eCommerce sites to auto-negotiate pricing with clients. It sounds a little creepy, right? Sentient computers, rapidly computing prices that are likely to be accepted by customers in a negotiation cycle? Feels like vintage 1983 Matthew Broderick in “War Games.”
The fact is, that capability is now a reality and your customers will expect to be able to interact with your eCommerce platform to get a negotiated price without a salesperson’s involvement.
Read more: The Art of Intelligent Automated Negotiation
Intuitive Sales Analytics
Another key trait of a great salesperson is the ability to understand not only the current needs of their clients, but to anticipate their future needs. Historically it took years to learn a market sector, educate yourself on your company’s full product offering and learn how to present innovative new product lines, while keeping up with the day-to-day rigor of maintaining a sales territory. This again is where data, ever-improving algorithms and customer expectations come together to create more opportunities. To a significant degree this is where B2C is driving the expectations.
“The average B2C customer is accustomed to fast and painless digital shopping. When that same customer is making purchases in a professional capacity—as a B2B client—their expectations are heightened, and companies typically fail to deliver. B2B organizations that do not improve their digital purchasing experience will fall behind their competitors, much as many B2C companies did”
- Harvard Business Review
Data-driven technology can identify patterns to recommend complimentary products at the time of purchase. Selling campaigns for new products or specific targeted segments can be built that zero in on the customers that are statistically likely to be interested in what you are offering. Driven by computing speed and data, this seamless process results in end users feeling understood and satisfied.
Time is money, on both ends of the sale. Buyers do not want their time wasted and sellers do not want to spend cycles trying to maintain knowledge about every potential marketing effort being generated by their corporate teams. Modern eCommerce technology is giving buyers and sellers the time back to focus on bigger priorities.
eCommerce is no longer a portal, it’s a member of your sales team. It takes orders, it makes recommendations based on your history and profile, it can negotiate prices, it has product expertise, it works 24 hours a day and you don’t have to go to lunch with it. The generation that grew up with Amazon has high expectations and they are continually raising the bar. B2B has always traditionally been behind the curve of B2C in this area. Rightly so: the sale is more complex, it’s technical and you are dealing with professional buyers. But the technology is catching up and the new generation of procurement folks will continue to prefer a more web-based experience.
Professional sellers will always be an important part of a B2B organization. The advances in eCommerce give them more time to manage the complex sale, provide technical insight and guide product teams toward the critical innovations that will differentiate their company from the competition. B2B companies have an immediate opportunity to evolve and leverage the tools that are becoming available in their eCommerce environment.
About the Author
Mick Naughton, M.S., MBA, is a sales director at Zilliant where he helps global B2B companies realize improved financial performance using advanced technology. Prior to joining Zilliant Mick spent 20 years in the life sciences industry in a variety of pricing, sales and technology roles.More Content by Mick Naughton