A Business Technology Place

B2B eCommerce – It’s different

Some thoughts about B2B eCommerce.

B2B eCommerce has been part of my life since 1999 when I worked for the John Harland Company. At that time, I was on a team creating and deploying an internet site for bank employees to order checks for their customers. In the last fifteen years I have worked with both B2B and B2C sites and I can say that B2B sites are different. Business approach B2B differently. B2B development efforts focus on different aspects of eCommerce.

Much of B2B eCommerce focus is on functionality and features. The development teams often focus on the business workflows within the customer’s business as a way to add value. As a result, there is less focus on customer experience created by UI designs than a B2C site. There is less focus on metrics like conversion and bounce rates. When I product managed a B2B site I liked to ask, “how can we create a flow that reduces speed bumps and just enables the customer to complete the transaction they signed-on to complete?” In other words, let’s not trip the customer and just let them create a transaction. B2C sites like to create diversions in hopes that customers will add more items to the cart before completing check-out.

Andy Hoar of Forrester recently blogged that US B2B eCommerce is forecasted to reach $1.1 trillion dollars by 2020.  This is not surprising, because technology continues advance to put capabilities in the hands of those that purchase for businesses.

Hoar cites a couple of contributing reasons:

  1. Today 70% of B2B purchases are researched online but only 30% are purchased online. Forrester predicts that gap will shrink.
  2. The economics of electronic order fulfillment are better than manual orders. Businesses know that electronic orders reduce costs in order entry labor, phone support, and supplies. Not to mention electronic orders typically create faster fulfillment times for the customer. When I worked for Harland we called this idea “Channel Shift”. There was a metric each year to incrementally reduce manual orders by increasing electronic orders. We even knew the dollar amount of cost take-out associated with shifting 1% of orders to our eCommerce channels.

But wait. Other factors are at play that influence the number of B2B eCommerce orders.

As I think through my experience and challenges my teams have encountered with “channel shift” a couple of things jump out:

1. Custom orders – eCommerce sites are easier when the product set for a customer is SKU driven from a catalog. The workflow changes when customers are allowed to customize a product. As the number of customizable features grows so does the level of complexity.

But more than the technology challenge with custom products is the education and knowledge challenge with the product set.  Buyers on B2B eCommerce sites are not necessarily experts on the products they are purchasing. They rely on the research and the company representatives for this expertise.

2. Relationships – Much of the B2B commerce marketplace is built on relationships. A successful salesperson will add value to a relationship by bringing product expertise to the discussion with the customer. The successful salesperson will show the customer how the product can be used within the customer’s business to drive value.

Believe me, I want to enable and influence channel shift. But this is more than a technology puzzle. There are businesses processes, product attributes, and people relationships that are part of the equation. I haven’t found a set magic formula or one-size-fits all approach. What is clear is that businesses and customers are looking for ways to use technology to make their processes more efficient. With both sides looking for a solution, success is there for the taking.

Onward and upward!

The B2B Lead Generation Puzzle

It’s the classic sales and marketing dilemma. How can I generate more leads to turn into more sales? When I worked in a marketing technology group one of my responsibilities was to connect digital media with B2B leads. I wanted to provide a framework and toolset to create leads for the sales team.

The question I kept asking myself was “where do business buyers research information at the beginning of their purchasing decision?” I wanted to insert credible information in front of buyers that created leads for my colleagues in sales. As I reflect on it, I wanted the answer to the question to have digital media somewhere in it. I wanted to justify marketing spend in areas of online content, social media sites, online groups, and online forums. At the same time I knew that successful sales employees create their leads through a strong network of people relationships, not electronic tools.

My plan was to use digital media sites and forums to plant information about products and services and then measure which ones were more effective in generating leads. To do this I first looked at membership in online forums, the content of the conversations, and the type of postings. I learned a few things and validated some others.

Know the etiquette of the location.

Don’t post sales ads in an online forum that is setup for discussion to solve. Online forums are for helping people solve problems and to present solutions to problems. Online forums are for learning and sharing.

Sales ads with call-to-actions for offers and promotions are more commonly accepted with email, printed materials, and case studies.

No surprises here.

Email can be a Trojan horse.

At the time many social media sites were blocked by corporate firewall and proxy servers. I could not create leads if prospective and buyers couldn’t participate. But email was a way to get to an inbox. All I had to do was to make sure that I didn’t violate spam rules. Recipients voted with clicks. If the content and offer were compelling then we could get click and maybe a lead.

The basics.

Bring value to someone by solving a problem for them. Business is based on the exchange of services that provide value to both sides.

Solving the puzzle

I don’t think there is one right answer or one right prescription. People, industry, tools, and products are all part of the equation. I don’t have the answer but often consider the puzzle. Kudos to those that find a niche.

Marketing technology thought readings 9

I participate in digital spaces by capturing, marking, and commenting on content around the internet. This is a recurring post of three links that I think others will find valuable for their thought lives.

  1. A hierarchy of business to business needs by Seth Godin.  A concise piece that gives thought to what makes a successful B2B sales pitch when you are selling to someone who doesn’t own the company. It presents a counter argument to conventional logic that you first prove how much profit the buying company can make.
  2. Software Raises Bar for Hiring by David Wessel from The Wall Street Journal. A nice read on the technology behind candidate screening for job openings. It’s no secret that companies use software to scan resumes to filter on candidates with certain keyword matches. But what happens when the hiring company expects the job description and resume of the applicant to be an exact match? I think they miss opportunity to find the best candidates.
  3. The office is shrinking as tech creates workplace everywhere by Haya El Nasser from USA Today. The traditional office space is changing. It’s not just working from a home office, but the office space is changing to make more creative work spaces. It’s less about egos, titles, and corner offices. It’s more about collaboration, innovation, and being nimble.

Let me know what links you shared, tagged, or commented on this week.

Co-branding for clients

There have been times in my work career when a software feature/solution comes up in conversation multiple times within a short period of time. When this happens, it makes me stop and think as if the event itself is raising a hand to get my attention. Pay attention, this is an important concept. Learn from it!

This happened to me recently with the ability to co-brand a website with client branding. One of the websites I manage is a B2B website that provides financial services to consumers on behalf of banks and credit unions. It’s a single set of code that is used to service multiple clients. Distinct branding is supported at the individual client level because the site supports a style sheet for each client.

There’s nothing fancy or complicated about that. But it is a big feature in the B2B space where clients want to maintain and front their brand to the consumers. It’s come up several times over the years as a competitive advantage in the marketplace for my company. When the feature is enabled, it maps the official logo, color palette, and fonts of our client into the base template of our site to create a near seamless transition from the client site. I call it co-branding instead of private label because there are a few minor elements where my company name shows (privacy link, contact us, etc.)

After a few recent implementations, the topic came up again this week while I was talking shop with a former colleague about his work in a different industry. His boss didn’t think they could use the build-it-once and brand model to get scalability from a single site. The boss thought that each client would require their own custom solution. So my friend showed him a live client implementation of a co-branded bank site as a way to explain the client branding approach. His point was that in a B2B model where the client outsources the operations of the business function, that the client is more accepting of the solution when they see the branding. It acts and feels like an extension of their site.

At the end of the day how you accomplish this is a technical decision. But if you work in the B2B space and service consumers for your clients, then make it a priority to support customer branding for each client.