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The power of voice: using voice to automate the B2B buying process

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/polkadot_photo)

According to a recent Google report, “The Changing Face of B2B Marketing,” 42 per cent of B2B customers use mobile devices during the purchasing process. This trend, in combination with a younger and increasingly more mobile B2B workplace, is driving the changes to the way companies buy and sell products and services online. As the buying process changes, technology, such as AI and M2M, is enabling B2B companies to deliver a new and more convenient buyer experience. But it’s voice that looks set to be the new e-commerce service area that could take advantage of buyers increasing mobility and deliver growth to online B2B sellers.

It’s not hard to see the important role that voice could play in increasing online sales. The ease and convenience of ordering whenever or wherever you are is gaining momentum, and being able to do that hands free brings further benefits. With potential B2B buyers often on the road, convenience is key. Think about a plumber who is on-site at a job and needs materials or a spare part for a repair. While he could easily place his order using his mobile, voice ordering would improve his experience, convenience and potentially his propensity to buy from that company.

In this way voice ordering could become a whole new channel to market for some B2B companies whose sales are commodity-based or have a low threshold for ordering goods online. You only have to look at the growth of voice assistants such as Alexa or Siri to see the role that this technology could play. 

For B2B buyers that are on the road and stuck in traffic there is great convenience ordering products using their voice. And while this might sound a bit niche, one of our customers sees peak traffic and orders to their web store during rush hours with buyers placing orders via mobiles. This, of course, could be more conveniently achieved by voice.

Perhaps one of the biggest (and possibly unseen) benefits of voice ordering happens when the e-commerce platform is integrated with the seller’s ERP system. If voice ordering is about streamlining the front end (ordering), then integration with the back-end (ERP) will help to optimise the customer experience. Using the data contained in the ERP (stock, pricing, availability etc), voice orders could be cross-checked and even offer predictive ordering based on past order history or push offers verbally to the customer. Because the customer buying history is held in the ERP system, it can help make voice ordering more accurate.

It’s not just orders where voice becomes a powerful e-commerce tool. It could also be used for service enquiries. After sales, for example, could be done through a voice assistant. Whether the customer was looking to request a return or even log a complaint, a voice assistant could respond and drive these actions using pre-determined key words. Voice could help simplify and make the process easy and convenient for both pre and after-sale.

So why isn’t voice ordering widely offered by e-commerce platforms? There are a number of challenges faced by those offering B2B web stores. This is down to the complexity of a typical B2B order. In many cases, each order could have multiple variations, with differences in price, volume and delivery for example.

Change is coming

B2B purchases also benefit greatly from a visual element. Often buyers will need to see a product (particularly if it’s a spare part) in order to ensure that they’re ordering the right thing. Many e-commerce platforms offer videos showing customers how spare parts fit or even blown up images to help improve order precision.

Accuracy of orders is key for both buyer and seller. In B2B, buying volumes are often greater than those in B2C so one mistake can have big repercussions in terms of costs and product availability. In this case it might be worth considering using voice technology to create wish lists or even placing them in the basket without completing the sale. Orders could then be reviewed and approved at a later time using a mobile or desktop where the customer has a complete overview of the order.

By ensuring that the e-commerce platform is integrated with the ERP system, voice orders could review buying history and place the order based on a likelihood of it being accurate. For example, if the buyer has previously bought the item, or an element of a product they previously ordered. The web store could advise the customer if an order is outside of previous behaviour and the customer could make the decision whether to progress with the order or not.

The more data available in the ERP system, the smarter the e-commerce can be. Take coffee beans for example. This simple, commoditised product will often be re-ordered in the same volume, same product and at the same time. By building out patterns based on data in the ERP system, the web store can simply automate the re-ordering of these products freeing up the buyer to focus on more complex buying decisions.

Voice technology has developed massively over the past few years. And it is possible to develop voice technology features for e-commerce platforms but the key to success lies in reducing order mistakes and keeping the services short and simple.

Without doubt voice ordering is going to help change the B2B buying process for the better. We think that there is a power in integrating voice with other potential buying technologies such as predictive ordering where the e-commerce platform utilises the data within the ERP system, and then combines this online with offline behaviour to predict the next order.

But we also see these working in tandem with more sophisticated search tools where traditional search engines operating within the e-commerce solutions search through the web store. These search engine tools can combine with external factors such as the weather to show products that are purchased more often during warmer days higher up on the page ranking.

For many B2B voice ordering may feel like a step too far – we believe that it’s simply the natural evolution of e-commerce. E-commerce 1.0 focused on simply adding an extra sales channel to existing offline offerings; e-commerce 2.0 focused on improving the customer experience; and e-commerce 3.0 looked at integrating the back-end and front end systems. Voice ordering simply sits at the next stage: e-commerce 4.0, where all three stages are pulled together to deliver powerful of e-commerce technology.

Arno Ham, chief product officer, Sana Commerce
Image source: Shutterstock/polkadot_photo

Arno Ham
In his current position as Chief Product Officer at Sana, he combines the requirements of customers and partners and Sana’s vision on B2B e-commerce in a comprehensive product strategy and product roadmap. Arno is responsible for guiding the product management, product development and product marketing teams and works with his team every day to make the ERP integration of Sana Commerce better, faster and easier. Arno earned his bachelor’s degree in software engineering at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences.