Whatever industry or vertical you serve, B2B ecommerce represents a lucrative and largely untapped opportunity.
And — if you’re already operating on a B2B ecommerce platform — but haven’t yet optimized your customer journey for an increasingly online world … the opportunity is even more profitable.
As Accenture reports, over half of B2B buyers expect to make half or more of their work purchases online.
The trouble is … while B2B and B2C ecommerce have much in common, there are some important characteristics that set them apart.
B2B deals are far more complicated than B2C transactions. The number of decision-makers is larger, the length of the sales cycle is longer, and the stakes are higher.
As such, it’s important to map out the specific B2B ecommerce features you need for (1) acquiring, (2) selling, and (3) retaining B2B customers.
Wholesale doesn’t have to be hard
Are you interested in carving out or optimizing your own piece of the $7.7 trillion global B2B ecommerce market?
Shopify Plus’ wholesale channel includes:
- Password-protected storefronts
- Fully customizable price lists
- Minimum and maximum orders
- Third-party platform integrations
- Flexible payment and negotiation options for customers, and more.
Already on Shopify Plus? Launch wholesale today
B2B Ecommerce Features for Acquiring New Buyers
1. Supplier-Agnostic Content
No longer are sales teams and one-size-fits-all catalogs sufficient for B2B persuasion …
B2B customers now research at a variety of online destinations. Forrester writes:
Increasingly they are starting their research at online consumer marketplaces (33%), search engines (26%), and business marketplaces (17%).
This research takes place because of the information gap early on in the B2B ecommerce purchase journey, long before any supplier has entered the picture.
As Brent Adamson explains:
Independent online learning represents the single largest category of time-spend across the entire purchase journey.
People aren’t interested in suppliers or products, they’re interested in solving a problem.
Product details and pricing are a concern later on in the process, but at the top of the funnel, your marketing should be focused on educating customers and being useful. Customers need diagnoses and prescriptions, not pitches. That difference isn’t mere semantics, it’s in the approach.
The research organization CEB, now Gartner surveyed 600 B2B customers and — in the Harvard Business Review — reported, “We evaluated the impact of dozens of selling tactics on the purchase process and saw a clear pattern: Whereas the responsive approach typically depressed purchase ease, a proactive, prescriptive approach increased purchase ease by 86%.”
How does the difference manifest itself?
“Prescriptive suppliers give a clear recommendation for action backed by a specific rationale; they present a concise offering and a stable view of their capabilities; and they explain complex aspects of the purchase process clearly.
“A simple prescription might sound like this:
“‘One of the things we’ve learned from working with customers like you is that purchasing folks are going to get involved, and probably late in the process. And when they come in late, things tend to blow up. So you’ll want to bring them in earlier. When you do that, they will have two main questions: X and Y. Here’s how to answer them.’”
As a B2B ecommerce feature, supplier-agnostic content solves problems instead of selling products.
Start by creating a customer journey, and mapping out the information gaps that require your insight, expertise, and opinions. Unearth the struggles customers have within their business, deconstruct these challenges, and share insight on how to get through or around them.
After you map the customer journey and determine the information gaps, fill them in. Avoid one-size-fits-all methods. As HBR highlights, “Beyond following the framework outlined here—work across functions, tap star reps’ expertise, involve customers—there’s no rigid blueprint.”
2. Online Account Sign Up and Registration
Every B2B ecommerce customer also shops at consumer websites. That person’s expectations of B2B ecommerce are conditioned by their experience with B2C ecommerce.
This trend is known as the consumerization of B2B buying:
“Business buyers expect every commerce experience to be as easy as shopping anywhere online, including streamlined mobile websites and apps, effective on-site search, integration with social channels, and personalization.”
The keyword there is easy. According to a Forrester survey, 72% of B2B customers value self-service access to accounts and orders. Even simple barriers can cause friction, frustrating and repelling visitors.
Herein lies the tension: the further down the funnel a buyer goes, the more they expect a tailored experience, personalized reordering, and negotiated terms.
During the research phase of their journey, however, B2B buyers want full transparency and instant access.
To solve this problem, B2B websites often display universally applicable pricing tiers while inviting leads to connect directly for negotiated terms.
A true B2B ecommerce experience should allow visitors to instantly create B2B accounts in order to access non-universal pricing tiers and products.
After all, if only approved accounts can view your catalog and pricing, but your approval process isn’t responsive … potential customers who haven’t been approved will wander off to an alternative.
Ideally, the bulk of your visitors should sign up, get approval, and browse your full B2B ecommerce store at their convenience.
3. Sync with Existing Admin and Marketing Integrations
Aside from outliers, the distribution in average order value of B2C customers tends to cluster together; the disparity between B2B customers is much larger. Major accounts have the ability to significantly influence your bottom line. And this makes servicing high-volume customers crucial.
Still, this attention can’t come at the cost of ignoring your low-volume customers. CloudCraze found that low-volume customers can deliver up to 40% of a B2B brand’s revenue. Demand Gen Report Associate Editor Glenn Taylor writes:
In enterprise, [the buying] process rarely involves one individual, but does make qualities of buyers at the account level more predictable.
Unfortunately, even with a dedicated account manager knowing the B2B ecommerce customer and influencers, it’s difficult to keep a consistently strong relationship these B2B ecommerce customers. It’s even more difficult to free the knowledge and context siloed in each of these managers’ brains.
CRM solutions like Salesforce try to solve this problem, but not every system integrates with other ones by default. You want a platform that specializes in talking with your other system.
In a joint study by CapGemini and Oracle, the two companies discovered “29% of retailers lack the inventory visibility across stores, vendors, and warehouses in order to accurately promise multi-channel fulfillment.” If that’s the case for operations, imagine how restricted marketing visibility must be …
If your marketing team can’t synchronize your data and access it easily, they’re stuck without personalization, recommendations, and other meaningful techniques to keep B2B customers coming back. Instead, they’re stuck blasting one-size-fits-all messages. That dog simply doesn’t hunt!
Gartner predicted in 2015 that by 2018, “B2B sellers that incorporate personalization into digital commerce will realize revenue increases up to 15 percent.”
Synchronization is a crucial B2B ecommerce feature. Your wholesale ecommerce platform must have the ability to easily pull customer data and make it accessible to your marketing team.
B2B Ecommerce Features for Selling at the Bottom of the Funnel
Let’s say you’ve got the potential B2B customer visiting your site. They’re on the fence. Now, it’s time to give them every reason to say yes …
4. Multiple Product Catalogs and Price Lists
B2B orders tend to have more variables than B2C orders. For example, sometimes larger customers might want first dibs on or exclusive access to products. Other times, it’s volume discounts. According to this Forrester report, “Transparency in pricing and product details is the number one factor in repeat B2B purchases,” and is even more important than lower prices.
These variations mean you want flexible catalogs and pricing as a feature.
Effectively, you want to set up an ecommerce system that can automatically display different catalogs and pricing, depending on the B2B customer. Companies are catching on quickly.
In 2016, Gartner predicted that “40% of B2B digital commerce sites will use price optimization algorithms and configure, price, quote (CPQ) tools to calculate and deliver product pricing dynamically.”
According to CloudCraze, that time has come:
“[B2B buyers prioritize customized pricing, advanced payment features and connections with sales representatives significantly more so than B2C respondents.
“For some features, B2B respondents were nearly twice as likely to label them important to customers. This gap makes sense as B2B commerce transactions are much more complicated, a fact that B2B organizations must keep in mind when selecting their solution.”
In short, your ecommerce platform needs the ability to automatically generate fixed price, percentage-off, tiered, or volume-based discounts for customers. This pricing should also consider factors such as minimum and maximum quantities, quantity increments, and minimum purchase.
5. Intuitive and Robust Onsite Search
If there was one feature that enables high intent customers who find what they want, it’s search. This SLI survey shows that nearly three-quarters of B2C customers leave a site if they can’t find what they’re looking for in two minutes.
Search is equally important in B2B, because of consumerization of B2B buying — B2C experiences transferring into B2B expectations. As research shows, 62% of B2B customers are looking for enhanced search functionality.
You need to take care of the highest intent shoppers — the ones who know exactly what they’re looking for! We’d previously looked at how you can do that with B2C sites, and those tactics are equally applicable to B2B sites.
This can be a simple upgrade. Shopify Plus merchant V-Belt Guys made on-site search the heart of their B2B ecommerce experience with the Shopify app Live Search. Customers can easily gather information, find products, and place orders through three separate search options: their homepage, auto-completion, and previews of both images and prices while visitors type.
Make sure your searches are incredibly relevant by adding filters such as:
- Context – search should be personalized by who the user is (industry, company, role)
- Contract – what products they can buy and agreed upon price
- Warehouse inventory
- Manufacturer part number
- Competitor cross reference
- Part number matching (strip out special characters)
- Automated spell check
- Past orders – search and filter based on what the user has purchased in the past
Search is the feature your highest intent B2B customers will rely on. Improve it, and you’ll see the return on investment.
6. Multiple Purchase Options
Convenience is crucial at all stages of the process. Although we’d already talked about accessible, quick, sign-ups for B2B customers, payments need to be equally flexible for them.
As this survey with 200 respondents CloudCraze highlights, “More than half (52 percent) said that convenient payment processes are their top priority, the second highest identified, just behind mobile access to a seller’s commerce platform.”
Similarly, this Trellis blog post citing a Forrester study says customers prefer direct, instant payment offered by online payment cards and payment services like PayPal. They report that “50% of B2B buyers say they prefer online payment cards, and 19% prefer services like PayPal, while only 28% prefer transacting through traditional purchase orders and invoices.”
According to Intershop, 47% of respondents reported that flexible payment options such as PayPal, credit card, or debit card were one of the B2B ecommerce system characteristics that appealed to customers the most.
However, Harvard Business Review reported that what matters isn’t so much offering numerous payment options. In fact, that can actually become a hindrance to sales late in the sales cycle:
Instead, prioritize the customer’s convenience and flexibility when accepting payments.
Be flexible with forward-thinking instant payments, as well as more traditional ones. For example, make sure customers can pay through purchase orders or draft orders:
As well as direct online payments:
Within Shopify Plus, check-out rules — like order value — can be automatically set to render either traditional invoicing or immediate checkout.
As a merchant, you can then edit larger orders above the set threshold for negotiated pricing and process payments through a customer’s existing account in the backend:
You’ve already gotten through the purchasing journey… Make sure you set yourself up to succeed in this final run!
B2B Ecommerce Features for Retaining
Every loyal B2B ecommerce customer starts with one purchase… Here are some features to retain these customers and keep them coming back:
7. Mobile-Responsive and Customizable Storefront
Over three years ago, mobile traffic exceeded desktop traffic for B2C companies. That trend also applies to B2B companies, as Econsultancy reports, “Mobile traffic grew to 58% of all online traffic, an increase of 42% over 2012. Sales completed via mobile devices were also strong, growing 63% year over year, and exceeding 45% of total online sales.”
Yet according to Statista, as of less than two years ago, “almost 20 percent of respondents said their B2B website was not responsive for mobile devices.”
This trend is forecasted to continue according to a new infographic by Usablenet, as mobile commerce appears to be crucial for B2B selling for 78% of companies.
The growth of mobile is a symptom of people’s multi-channel behaviors. Most of them typically do not browse, add to cart, and purchase in a single session on the same screen. Instead, their information search flows across devices. You must envision the experience across all these devices as one. That means designing for speed and performance across all screens, and ensuring each display makes sense.
Your mobile presence must meet people’s expectations of B2C ecommerce experiences. Ideally, you can get your B2B store running as soon as possible. If you’re setting up a new store, your ecommerce provider should be able to make bulk product and pricing uploads.
8. Self-Service Reordering and Management
In Forrester’s report “Death of a B2B Salesman,” they write, “Nearly 75% of B2B buyers now say that buying from a website is more convenient than buying from a sales representative. Further, 93% say that they prefer buying online rather than from a salesperson when they’ve decided what to buy.”
As we’d mentioned earlier, since B2B customers are people who are used to the B2C ordering experience, they expect their B2B ecommerce experiences to be similarly convenient. As highlighted in Digital Commerce 360:
“Customer expectations are being set by best-of-breed e-commerce sites: Shoppers quickly transfer their expectations from these sites to all sites they shop and expect similarly robust, rich, informative, responsive, and personalized experiences.”
Whether you’re just starting your B2B ecommerce program or have been in the thick of it for a while, the clerical role of “taking orders” is no longer necessary. In the words of Ben Chidiac, co-founder of Beard & Blade:
“Without a doubt, the biggest myth in wholesale is that the self-service ordering model used in retail won’t work in a B2B setting. As in retail, business customers benefit greatly from the time and effort savings of online ordering, in their own time, with full visibility of the status of their order.”
Ensure a self-guided customer can place orders and manage them at your B2B ecommerce site, with features such as order history, reordering, and an order tracking portal.
9. Low Maintenance and No Upgrades
It’s every merchant’s nightmare…
Even though International Military Antiques’ operations were chugging along smoothly, Magento let them know that their platform would no longer be supported shortly. This time-sensitive change forced IMA to upgrade to a new more expensive version — Magento 2 — which would likely cost IMA six-figures and take months to complete.
“It wasn’t really an upgrade, it was a replatform,” Cranmer says. “We were being rushed to make a decision and I just didn’t feel very good about it.”
These upgrades and maintenance costs add up. As Forrester reported, “the retailers surveyed for this study spend 7% of their online revenues supporting the technology that underpins their eCommerce operations.” B2B ecommerce software built on legacy technology often requires hiring dozens of “expert” consultants or specialists to solve problems, make simple changes, or even just to get off the ground.
Typical, and especially legacy, B2B ecommerce solutions are not cheap. Amidst the sunk costs, maintaining and upgrading still requires additional heavy financial, operational, and opportunity cost. It’s a huge gamble simply to change, or experiment, with something…
For example, these large costs require you to go through red tape in your company and put together a business case for it, instead of actually executing and capitalizing on the market. And, if the platform fails, you’re on your own — and need to pay for your own fix.
In this age where simplicity, agility, and stamina are more important than ever, there’s no need to spend time upgrading your platform or worry about downtime. Instead, focus on your business, and grow wholesale customer base and average order value aggressively.
Despite the potentially lucrative rewards, B2B ecommerce doesn’t have to be complicated. There are plenty of solutions making this market accessible to each and every merchant.
Whatever you do, make sure that your platform and business are ready to face the future with these features. The B2C experience informs customers’ expectations of B2B ecommerce… Don’t let them down!