The Covid-19 pandemic sent consumers flocking online to buy everything from groceries to workout equipment — and it catalyzed a similar shift among B2B enterprises, too. Surveys show that B2B sellers now believe digital engagement to be 2-3X more important than real-world selling, while most B2B buyers now prefer digitized, self-service purchasing methods to traditional, salesperson-directed buying experiences. With showrooms closed and both buyers and sellers having worked from home, the pandemic dramatically accelerated B2B brands’ shift toward digital commerce.
To understand why that’s a big deal, think about how B2B differs from B2C commerce. Mention e-commerce and most people think of Amazon, Wayfair and Overstock, the Target and Walmart websites, or maybe popular direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands like Casper or Bonobos. The strategies these B2C players used to achieve success, however, have little in common with the requirements of B2B enterprises, which have significantly more complex products and sales processes.
From variable pricing to wholesale and bulk ordering, and from customization and certification requirements to distributor and broker relationships, and even the safety and handling issues associated with managing multiple complex product lines for disparate customers, B2B selling brings a slew of unique challenges. Complicating matters further, few e-commerce software platforms and support providers are robust or fully-featured enough to support both B2C and B2B e-commerce.
To change that, B2B brands are increasingly seeking out platforms that offer end-to-end e-commerce capabilities designed to meet all their needs. But finding the right software platform isn’t a silver bullet: to successfully pivot into e-commerce, B2B enterprises also need a new strategic toolkit. Here are several key steps that B2B businesses should take as they seek to establish themselves as digital commerce leaders.
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Think like a brand
When you’re selling online, branding matters — even if you’re a B2B business that doesn’t ordinarily think of its brand as much more than its name and logo. A brand, in the truest sense, is the distillation of all the things customers think and feel about your company and its products. Without in-person salespeople to build rapport, digital sellers must rely on their brand to convey credibility, authenticity, and trustworthiness.
Digital selling offers convenience and scale, but it can be impersonal. Thinking like a brand lets you close that psychological distance, and secure more deals by establishing a relatable digital persona. This means being intentional and thoughtful about the words and images you use on your website and social media. It means making time to create content that establishes you as an authority in your field. And it means investing in big-picture initiatives that use inspiration as much as information to generate interest and drive conversion.
Above all, it means re-imagining the typical B2B customer journey and ensuring a seamless experience for customers. As every B2B seller knows, good salespeople — far more than pricing — are the difference between winning or losing an account. The same holds true for e-commerce: the economics matter, but it’s your brand that will help you to close deals.
Get strategic about channel conflict
We frequently find that B2B companies want to drive growth with digital commerce, but are wary of creating channel conflict with existing distribution networks. While valid, these concerns need not be obstacles to harnessing the power of e-commerce.
Enabling online buying can make B2B purchases more efficient for repeat customers, while also delivering enhanced visibility and searchability to drive customer acquisition, without creating channel conflict. In fact, an increasing number of B2B companies are using online storefronts and marketplaces to sell to existing distributors and wholesalers, as well as to provide a convenient point of reference for brokers and channel partners.
e-commerce also represents an opportunity to reconsider existing distribution models, and to reach potential customers directly and at scale. Disrupting the distribution model that supports your business is a difficult decision, but the benefits of going direct to the customer shouldn’t be dismissed outright.
Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or decision. Many B2B merchants are developing mixed strategies — selling direct for certain SKUs or regions, for instance, while maintaining existing distribution partnerships in other areas. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so the key is to find e-commerce tools that will let you lean into the right strategy for your business.
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Pay down your technological debt
To control costs, many B2B companies allow legacy systems to persist, resulting in a fragmented and inefficient tech stack that requires heavy maintenance and a portfolio of middleware. This technological debt deters B2B companies from embracing e-commerce, as their existing tech stack doesn’t communicate with the newer technologies required to sell and fulfill products in the digital age.
As time goes by, technological disintegration becomes more difficult to address. People and processes become dependent on suboptimal systems that actually inhibit performance. The sunk cost of maintaining these systems grows over time, further reducing the appetite for change and extending legacy technologies’ lifecycles for years, or even decades, longer than is optimal.
Technology is like infrastructure. You want to build bridges that last, but when they start to crack at some point it becomes more cost-effective to replace rather than repair them. The if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality is precarious when it comes to technology because of the dynamic nature of competition. Competitors who invest in the latest software and hardware will be able to reduce costs, lower prices, increase production, and boost profitability, giving them a significant competitive advantage.
Left unaddressed, tech debt can hold back progress — but e-commerce-driven growth can create momentum for long overdue investments in technology. Being able to harness the promise of e-commerce requires the appropriate technological infrastructure, and it’s vital that B2B enterprises start tackling technological debt today so they can leverage the power of e-commerce tomorrow.
Getting B2B e-commerce right depends on bringing the right tools into alignment with a clear strategy that complements and extends your real-world selling capabilities. As the pandemic fades, B2B businesses that take a cohesive and thoughtful approach to digital commerce will be positioned to bounce back faster, and grow their businesses both online and offline in the months and years to come.
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Remington Tonar, Chief Commercial Officer, Cart.com (opens in new tab)