B2B sellers need industrial-strength commerce software that connects all key aspects of their business.
When the pandemic closed shops, offices and public spaces, digital tools stepped up to take over where in-person interactions left off. To many, the change seemed to happen overnight.
The reality in retail is that digital commerce has been growing for many years. For two decades, Amazon helped train a generation of buyers to shop and buy online and expect free, even same-day, delivery as well as easy returns. Eventually, consumers were comfortable buying cars and major appliances online.
In the B2B space, by contrast, traditional channels ran deep. Digital tools threatened old processes. However, the pandemic not only closed retail stores and restaurants, it also canceled conferences and expos and shut down B2B sales calls. For B2B sellers, this was make-or-break-it time. E-commerce became the only game in town.
Digitizing the B2B sales process
The B2B sales process was changing even before the pandemic, with more and more B2B buyers preferring digital channels. Echoing the transformation in the B2C segment, B2B companies are now increasingly moving online.
For some companies, going digital was a godsend. At Atlanta’s Guardian Products, for example, president Dan Wise says sanitation concerns increased demand for the disposable car mats and seat covers his company sells to car dealerships. He switched to an online ordering portal.
“It’s not fun to order five rolls of seat covers; our customers would much rather be out there selling cars,” he explains. “Now they can because the online portal ‘is like the easy button.’”
And with more and more business buyers using smartphones to shop and order, no wonder by 2025, Gartner predicts that 80 percent of B2B sales interactions will take place in digital channels.
Inflexible systems cost B2B sellers revenue, time, and customers
End of story? No. The last twelve months have not only been a lesson in the potential, but also the limitations of B2B e-commerce. In fact, many B2B companies are still struggling to adopt online commerce.
A central challenge has been marrying online commerce platform data with a B2B seller’s legacy technology. For decades, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems have captured order, inventory, and shipping data. In some cases, companies tried to knit together inventory management, product databases, sales, and accounting functions, but the results often were clunky and brittle. They had pockets of valuable data—but also lots of gaps. And most were designed for large batch orders, not the real-time purchasing speed of online commerce.
Taking their place are second-generation, intelligent systems specially designed around the needs of the B2B sector. Many early commerce platforms could handle transactions with an online cart, but they had no ability to work with legacy ERP systems to turn existing data about customer preferences, vertical trends, buying habits, purchasing frequency, related brand affinities, and more, into insights to better market to both existing and new customers. Most of the data collected went largely unused.
Today, disparate data can be transformed into actionable intelligence using agile analytics. That helps sellers spot opportunities to boost revenue, lower operating costs, and increase customer satisfaction.
Intelligent, integrated, industry-grade commerce
These industry-grade solutions, increasingly known as I-commerce, combine tools and data from online selling and shipping and support a new, AI-enhanced approach to logistics. With an I-commerce approach, B2B professionals are able to gain immediate insights about online store visits, orders, shipping status and other metrics–and can adjust their operations as trends and patterns emerge.
Without those insights, you have digital myopia, an increasingly dangerous position in a world where millennials make up around 75% of B2B buyers.
Millennials demand a customer journey that is agile, targeted, personalized, and easy. Every time the millennial buyer goes online to order a Starbucks for pick-up, they have the option to review “recent orders” and click one button to trigger an extra-foam latte into production.
The same millennial business buyer restocking a restaurant’s paper goods or a machine shop’s fastener supply also has a lot of repeat orders. That individual will do business with companies who already have the company’s payment information and make that re-order effortless.
The question is, how well are B2B sellers meeting the expectations of the millennial buyer, whose preferences are quickly becoming the preferences of all buyers?
Rapidly ramping up customer engagement
The benefit of I-commerce is that it extends beyond being an enhanced revenue engine. Commerce sites can quickly become a critical customer engagement asset, not just a new purchasing channel.
For example, I-commerce platforms collect critical data to help them improve the online experience for customers, especially important when complex orders are at stake. Information such as where buyers are from or what information they seek when they visit–a mainstay of B2C e-commerce–are at least available to B2B merchants. In a traditional ERP system, the sales force is there to “walk” a deal quote through the process; now online sellers can build a site with educational content, videos, customer stories and other selling tools, and they can get a cart that efficiently collects basic details and leads to a rapid, efficient quoting response.
Unlike B2C, I-commerce platforms enable superior personalization. In fact, they can take collaboration between the seller and customer to a new level. Whereas traditional platforms in either B2B or B2C e-commerce relied on standardized products with limited personalization, with I-commerce, the seller can customize their offering according to the customer. In this way, I-commerce is setting the gold standard to which all areas of e-commerce should aspire.
Why I-commerce wins on speed, efficiency and service
I-commerce platforms, unlike the earlier first-generation e-commerce counterparts, are designed around the principles of speed, strength, and agility.
They are low-code, fast-to-implement, cloud-based, and–critically–truly integrated. Sure, B2B companies require the transaction capabilities of Shopify or Amazon, but they also need more robust and agile platforms, connectivity to existing systems, seamless logistics, and embedded financial services.
Thanks to built-in intelligence in the form of AI-enhanced analytic capabilities, sellers can really put their data to work.
Data about a single customer’s behavior can be used to shape the experience that customer will have when they log in, the prices they see, the special promotions they’re offered. At Guardian Products, for example, the prices the company presents to individual customers through its I-commerce platform are based on pre-negotiated rates. Customization, in the form of preferred orders and payment options, can be recorded to speed up sales and minimize friction.
Speed, shipping, and value all play key roles in determining a B2C purchase. Reducing friction at every stage of the process is just as important in B2B sales. The ability to interpret disparate data is integral when you are assessing buyer credit risk or trying to optimize logistics. In particular, logistics have bedeviled many companies trying to transition to online selling.
The future of B2B sales is data first
B2B companies in every industry have understood the need to digitize. Digital transformation, the act of adopting digital technologies to transform the business or a service area, is rightly seen as the best way of becoming more agile and competitive. And while many a digital transformation project promises insights, the reality facing B2B companies is that with data residing across several different platforms and formats, data integration is the necessary first step before companies are ready to reap the benefits.
For too long B2B online sales have relied on e-commerce platforms that automate the sales process in a piecemeal fashion. Little wonder, then, that sellers are increasingly turning to I-commerce, the second-generation platforms that support the sales cycle from beginning to end.
Unlike their predecessors, the new breed functions more as a customer engagement platform than just a new purchasing channel. Behind the scenes, I-commerce platforms focus on integrating B2B sales data first, then running AI-driven analytics that provide actionable business insights. The result is significant efficiency gains, increased revenue, and better customer traction. The best thing? From the point of view of the B2B buyer, it’s just easy.