By the close of 2017, B2C ecommerce sales are pegged to reach a mind-blowing $2.4 trillion worldwide. Even more staggering? That number is just a fraction of the B2B ecommerce market share, which currently sits at $7.7 trillion and is projected to hit $12 trillion by 2020.
The sky-high rise of the ecommerce machine has brought with it some massive shifts in the way B2B organizations need to operate. Wholesale companies have been challenged with migrating their businesses to online platforms in order to cater to the evolving expectations of the digitally empowered consumer. This includes high-quality product images, robust search, social proof in the form of reviews and recommendations, personalization based on previous history, and mobile-optimized sites.
"There are still a huge number of companies that haven’t made the switch to an online B2B channel, which presents vast opportunity for digital ecommerce agencies to identify valuable ecommerce solutions, and win B2B business."
Despite this pressure to transition to digital, there are still a huge number of companies that haven’t made the switch to an online B2B channel, which presents vast opportunity for digital ecommerce agencies to identify valuable ecommerce solutions, and win B2B business.
In this article, we'll cover some of the challenges you might face when trying to convince your wholesale client to take on the digital world. We'll provide advice on how to address any client concerns, how to scope and plan a project, and how to ensure you provide expert leadership and maximum value to your client.
The power of wholesale automation
Your wholesale client might pride itself on personalized customer service as a point of difference, but in the digital era of ‘always on’ connectivity, and expectations of streamlined ecommerce experiences, good customer service is no longer enough.
In fact, many people no longer have the time or inclination to answer a sales call. Today’s buyers are used to having detailed data on product availability, pricing, and reviews at their fingertips.
Convenience is king, and clunky, time or paper-heavy ordering processes are the fastest way for wholesalers to get left behind — particularly given the rise of B2B ecommerce disruptors like Alibaba.com.
Wholesalers need to consider the ways in which B2C ecommerce has added value to the customer, and adopt these principles in their own processes to satisfy clients who are no longer happy with the traditional wholesale experience.
There is a huge range of personalization and automation technologies you can offer to your wholesale clients to ensure they effectively digitize their customer service, without compromising on things like upsell capability. For example, marketing automation technology allows an ecommerce site to suggest content to customers from within their order pages, personalizing the digital interaction to ensure they don’t lose the client connection.
Streamlined price rules can be created for wholesale customers to make it easy for the business to manage their pricing, while also creating greater transparency for customers (who in turn are more likely to complete their purchase). It’s a win-win.
Equally as important is wholesalers recognizing the benefits of automation for their own profit margins and operational efficiencies. For example, premium stationery brand Elm Paper created a second Shopify store specifically for its wholesale business, which allows customers to browse its range of products the same as a customer, but view custom pricing depending on their customer account status.
Often your clients simply don’t understand the true power of automating their wholesale processes, and it’s the job of a good ecommerce agency to highlight these benefits.
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B2B psychology: Old habits versus best practices
As ecommerce experts, it’s up to us to deliver solutions that will increase sales and efficiency for our clients, provide consolidated user-friendly experiences for the buyers, and create the processes that will become the norm in the future.
Often this requires sensitive conversations with clients who may be fearful and resistant to change. These conversations require a mixture of knowledge of current best practice, along with a respect for your client’s business and historic operational processes.
Longstanding client relationships require mutual respect in order to flourish, so use this opportunity to connect and add value, with a balance of integrity and authority.
Below, we’ve listed a few of the client challenges that may arise, and strategies that will help you ease their mind.
Challenging the status quo
With the enormous value of wholesale transactions, many businesses (understandably) don't want to make changes out of fear they may lose valuable business. In many cases, B2B buyers are still used to old-school methods like spreadsheets, faxed order forms, PDF catalogues, or one-on-one phone calls with reps; businesses fear that by changing these processes they may alienate their customer base.
This particular objection can generally be overcome by providing case studies of businesses in the same industry as the client (or different industries that are offering a similar service) that have successfully capitalized on B2B ecommerce.
Sometimes clients can also be sceptical about the scalability of SAAS platforms like Shopify, but luckily there are heaps of great examples of large, well known businesses using the platform.
The mindset of a B2B buyer
It’s important to highlight some of the psychology behind how and why B2B consumers make purchases — often, your clients are resistant to changing their wholesale processes based on long-held assumptions that have been overturned by current research into buyer behavior.
For example, while many businesses assume a sale is pivoted by a conversation with a sales rep, recent research suggests 60 percent of buyers will have actually finished their buying journey through self-directed research prior to reaching out to a sales rep — if they reach out at all. Most buyers are also heavily influenced by reviews and recommendations from social sources (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), or online ratings and feedback pages.
Familiarize yourself with some of these facts so you can have informed discussions with clients, and assure them of the benefits of a responsive, automated wholesale channel.
Name the fear to remove its power
To combat the fear of change, start by sitting down with your client and identifying what their biggest risks are, and how to lessen them. Encourage them (or undertake it yourself) to do some customer research to involve customers in the change process — it’s a great way to not only gain valuable insight, but to also get customer buy-in for any procedural changes.
Once you know what your client’s misgivings are, you can provide reasonable and effective solutions. One of our clients had feedback from a major B2B buyer that the human interaction was a really important factor in them making the move from their competitor; the extra level of attention helped them feel supported and guided through the process. Our client voiced concerns about losing these conversion opportunities by going completely digital.
A move to B2B ecommerce doesn’t mean doing away with all personal interaction, so we highlighted the ways they could merge physical customer service with the digital ordering experience. One solution was to include assisted selling functionality for customer service reps on their website, which enables the rep to mirror the buyer on the website and complete orders on their behalf. By linking each customer’s account to a sales rep, we were able to alert sales staff of customer activity so they could follow up activities, such as abandoned carts, with a phone call.
Most B2B customers are happy (and prefer) to use a digital self-service for simple transactions or to re-order, but as highlighted above, a new B2B buyer may want to have a digitally enabled customer service rep to walk them through the process. It’s about what works best for the business and the buyer; we have found that talking through these fears one-by-one really helps allay any lingering doubt on the client side.
The fact that any project is completely customizable to your client’s needs means there really isn’t much that you can’t overcome with the right strategic conversation points.
"The fact that any project is completely customizable to your client’s needs means there really isn’t much that you can’t overcome with the right strategic conversation points."
Above everything else, you need to illustrate how much better their new solution is going to be.
Often the brief for a wholesale project can be limited to slight improvements on existing processes and functionality. Be prepared to suggest things that go above and beyond the brief to create an amazing customer experience. Showcase your expertise.
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Are you ready to deliver a wholesale channel?
If your clients have already identified the importance of wholesale automation and are ready to jump aboard the B2B ecommerce train, then there are a number of key questions you need to ask your client to assess their operational needs, and define the scope of the project.
Define the problem
Why is a new platform needed? What are some of the common issues that are making life difficult for customers and staff? Once you’ve defined the problem, the solution you propose can align with it.
Define the objectives
What will your work be measured on? Businesses will likely measure your work based on sales and operational efficiency, but the exact goals that fit under this vary, depending on the nature of the business.
Understand the size of the business
Understanding the value and breadth of the wholesale business helps you prioritize the requirements. We’ve had clients who have needed a wholesale website for only one client, while some businesses want a wholesale website to manage small wholesale orders so they can focus on working directly with their large wholesale customers. Getting clear on the scale from the beginning is crucial to deliver an appropriate, effective solution.
Identify integration requirements
Are there accounting, inventory management, fulfilment, and other platforms that need to be linked to the wholesale channel? Successful integration is a key factor in your project and needs to be scoped appropriately to ensure you can deliver what you promise. We will explore some of the roadblocks that can occur in the integration phase later in this piece.
Get the right team in place
If you’ve scoped a project and it requires integrations you’ve never worked on before, don’t just assume that your front end developers are going to be able to handle it. Make sure you’ve got staff who can handle the project or find people to help you. For example, our agency doesn’t have much experience working with MYOB, an Australian inventory management software. So, we recently teamed up with another Shopify Expert who were able to deliver a custom MYOB integration for one of our clients.
There are several ways to deliver a wholesale channel on Shopify, depending on the scope of the project.
Why it’s great: Shopify Plus stores can create fully customizable price rules, custom payment options, and shipping options at the checkout.
Considerations: Shopify Scripts can only be edited by a developer with an understanding of Ruby.
Why it’s great: A built-in sales channel in Shopify Plus that allows you to create a password-protected wholesale store with easy to manage price rules. Uses the same inventory as your Shopify store.
Considerations: When a customer places an order it’s created as a draft order so admin can review and make any changes before sending an invoice.
Why it’s great: Great for businesses processing small-to-medium wholesale orders that have consistent discount rules. Customers tagged as wholesale can have a discount code applied at the checkout.
Considerations: Only one discount code can be applied to an order, so you can’t use wholesale discounts in conjunctions with other promotions.
Why it’s great: Cheap, easy to install, require minimal custom development.
Considerations: Some apps may create new variants for products with different price points, which can make inventory management impossible. Other apps use discount codes (see considerations above).
Why it’s great: Keeps wholesale and retail stores completely separate, allowing you to publish different products and content to create a unique customer experience for wholesale customers.
Considerations: Requires inventory management software if both stores are pulling from a central inventory. If you want to offer different pricing levels you may require apps or custom development.
Scoping it out
Every project scoping activity is an opportunity to define clear objectives and goals, centering on achieving higher order value, improved operational efficiency, and a better customer experience. As part of our process, we always look at how we can simplify the scope of the project so that we can deliver a solution that is going to make life easier for the business and the customer.
Scoping your project starts with the broader questions asked above, and then assessing your client’s needs in terms of the essential components of a B2B website.
Mapping the essentials
Each project will have its own specific requirements and challenges and it’s important to know these upfront to ensure you can deliver the best solution.
To get started, consider the following scoping questions/topics:
- Does your client want/need multiple business models in the same platform?
- Consider if there are multi-site, multi-country, multi-language, and multi-currency requirements.
- Does your client require merchandizing business tools for personalizing the product catalogue experience, up-selling, cross-selling, or automated recommendations?
- Map the essential components of an ecommerce site, such as shopping cart, login, customer dashboards, access to profiles, etc.
- Discuss your client’s needs for search rules, live search, product filters, result sets, endless scrolling v.s. pagination, etc.
- Identify their product viewing and filtering requirements, e.g.,viewing and interacting with search, and category product results with faceted navigation.
- Define the product catalogue requirements, looking at the type of products supported, simple, configurable, grouped, custom, bundling, kitting, etc. Consider inclusion of business tools to update descriptions and attributes of products and pricing.
- Assess requirements for quoting functionality, such as ‘add to quote’, ‘quote to order conversion’, configure to order, etc.
- Identify what should be included in customer profiles — look at account settings, approval workflows, custom catalogues, custom pricing, terms and conditions, quotes, order tracking.
- Define the level of social commerce to integrate into the site, with interacting, sharing, engagement, and purchasing via social networks.
This list is not exhaustive, but provides a launch pad. For ecommerce agencies just starting out, it’s a good idea to use an RFP document in the project scoping stage.
Free Project Scope Template
During the scoping phase of a project, it’s essential to set clear objectives and ensure they’re executed with the best customer experience in mind. If you want to simplify the scope and deliver a solution that makes life easier for both you and your client, try out this free Project Scoping Template created by DO Commerce.Download your free template
Understanding project limitations and barriers
As we’ve already covered, every wholesale business will have unique requirements, particularly around functionality, such as warehouse integrations, accounting systems, and point of sale.
Seamless integration is always the goal; however, there can be occasions where system and data integration is technically impossible. Your client may be completely committed to the project, but also tied to a POS or warehouse management system they have been using for 20 years, which doesn’t have an API and hasn’t been updated for 10 years.
You need to have detailed conversations about your client’s integration requirements at the very beginning of the scoping process to prevent any surprises down the track.
It’s also important to always question the status quo and find out why things are done the way they are. Don’t get to the end of a project and realize that there were processes you could have improved if you had asked the right questions at the start.
And just to reiterate — do everything you can do avoid surprises!
Optimizing the future
The numbers speak for themselves — B2B ecommerce is a space with huge growth potential, and savvy digital agencies are perfectly positioned to help B2B clients maximize value by transitioning to an ecommerce platform like Shopify.
As ecommerce experts, it’s our job to provide leadership to our clients about what is possible, detailing the ways we can elevate their business and improve not only the customer experience, but also their operational efficiency and yield.
Hopefully this guide will help you in those crucial early scoping conversations, right through to launching successful wholesale stores.
"The end goal is always to achieve the most simple, efficient solution for the business and customer."
Just remember, the end goal is always to achieve the most simple, efficient solution for the business and customer. You will be saving your client time and money, and ensuring their longevity in this fast-paced, continually evolving digital space.
Do you have any B2B ecommerce tips or success stories you would like to share? Let us know in the comments section below.