It’s Time for B2B Brands to Embrace e-Commerce

If you’re in B2B, chances are you’ve been thinking about e-commerce. You wouldn’t be alone — according to McKinsey & Company, 65% of B2B companies across all industry sectors are already offering e-commerce services. But maybe you don’t know where to start and questions about launching e-commerce for B2B are keeping you awake at night.

We asked one of our B2B digital experts, Eric Von Zee, VP of application development, to identify some of the questions he hears about B2B e-commerce. Below are the nine most common B2B e-commerce questions Eric is asked with answers that will help your B2B company get started on your e-commerce journey.

Q: What is the difference between e-commerce for B2B vs. B2C vs. C2C?

Eric: The biggest differentiators for B2B are purchase size, product selection (often involving significant engineering effort) and shipping logistics. Purchasing processes (invoice agreements, net 30, pay on delivery, etc.) are common — credit cards are rare.

Tie-ins to an ABM program are ideal, as B2B e-commerce often involves many stakeholders and each might respond to different messaging. There’s rarely an Amazon-like product catalog, and much more often there’s a smaller set of products with many configuration dimensions. This requires a different experience for product selection and specification than a B2C or customer-to-customer (C2C) e-commerce engine would provide.

Q: What is the role of ERP for B2B e-commerce?

Eric: With the complexity of both the products offered and the logistics of delivering them, most companies will want to connect their B2B e-commerce solution with their enterprise resource planning (ERP) to provide the most accurate information about product availability, configuration options, lead times and (if applicable) regional stock. Rather than duplicate all that information and logic in the e-commerce engine, it’s most efficient to stream it in real time from the ERP in response to customer demand.

This is often a highly complex effort, where multiple business owners (or sometimes multiple ERP systems that have been acquired) must work together to standardize the data structure needed to conduct commerce. At MX, we have lots of experience working with customers with complex environments and architectures and can help ideate and implement connectors between systems.

Q: How do you know when an e-commerce website is successful for B2B?

Eric: Conversion and customer opinion. Some B2B e-commerce sites drive sales outside the website — customers use them to spec and select and then call their rep to place the order. It’s hard to track this digitally, but customer sentiment analysis and/or post-purchase surveys can give some ideas.

Q: What are the major challenges of B2B e-commerce?

Eric: Complexity of product selection and complexity of logistics. Timing the shipping is often a challenge as well — if some of an order is ready now, and some won’t be ready for three weeks, but the first part isn’t a full truckload.

How can you present customers with options that give them control while not violating your business rules? Solutions are likely custom — you can’t bring a packaged product to B2B e-commerce and expect to install, configure and leave. There’s always a lot more business logic and structure to implement in order to make the customer experience (CX) any good.

Q: What is an example of a B2B e-commerce solution?

Eric: Our client Zekelman Industries — the largest independent steel pipe and tube manufacturer in North America — has several in-house ERP systems and several products with surprisingly different specifications and buyers. What’s common to all of them is the logistical process to get the product to customers. So we built a system that lets users select parts from any brand and build their own truckloads — always requiring full tonnage to actually ship.

We also have a combination of on-demand and vendor-managed inventory (VMI) ordering. This interface combined the two systems, so knowledge of upcoming automated orders, as well as lead times on fabrication, all played into the truckload building exercise. Combined with supporting cross-customer “milk run” matching logic, we targeted both the mid and low ends of the market while still providing full visibility and control to the largest customers.

Q: How can you secure your e-commerce website?

Eric: Because of all the information needed, the e-commerce system needs to protect all its data sources just as much as it protects customers’ data. Your agency partner needs to understand modern web security standards, DDoS protection, scalability, and reliability, as well as infrastructure, connectivity, and maintenance standards. You might use any or all of VPNs, dedicated network links, client certificates and firewall configurations to achieve secure connectivity between your in-house ERP and product information management (PIM) systems and your internet-facing commerce engine — one way or another the separation between these systems must be as wide as possible.

Q: How do you integrate complex pricing models and product data for enhanced CX in your e-commerce solution?

Eric: Unlike B2C, B2B pricing is often per-customer per-product. Product availability is sometimes regionally limited (U.S. vs. AMEA, etc.). Product options are always varied and complex, and sometimes engineering-driven. Since maintaining all of this for each product for each customer would be a huge undertaking, our clients often build rule engines instead. This way they can target products and customers categorically rather than individually. This also facilitates product selection tools, when rules are customer-selectable. This reduces both administrative complexity and customer complexity, connecting customers quickly with the best products for their requirements.

Q: Why should you work with an agency that knows your industry and business?

Eric: Unlike many dev partners, we seek to understand your customers and CX as well as your business logic requirements. Unlike many marketing partners, we do tech work in-house and can quickly make recommendations that balance cost and complexity with business value.

Q: Which technologies provide the best e-commerce experiences for B2B?

Eric: Because of the wide differences in product model, logistic and pricing complexity, it’s important to select a system that is right for your needs. Buy too big and you’re wasting money every year on capabilities you’ll never use — and that probably gets in the way of a simple administrative experience. Buy too little and you won’t be able to represent the complexity.

Compatibility with your existing systems is a concern as well — the closer your e-commerce system’s model is to your enterprise system, the better your experience will be. Finally, customizability is a concern — some frameworks are opinionated and doing things any way other than their out-of-the-box experience is very painful (looking at you, SAP). MX works with several platforms and can help select the best value for your needs.

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