B2B eCommerce Guide -- Executive Summary

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B2B eCommerce sales are growing explosively, and most experts attribute that growth to companies that are borrowing design and user-experience tips from B2C playbooks and creating better user experiences for their customers. Every business buyer is also a consumer who often appreciates the conveniences and personalized design features that retail websites offer. However, there are real functional differences in how business platforms operate, so comparing the two marketing strategies is similar to comparing a car to an RV. Both types of transportation can get people to the store, but their underlying purposes, functionality and capabilities couldn't be more different.

This guide to building a B2B eCommerce platform explores those issues to educate company decision-makers about the benefits, risks and details of designing a world-class business platform. It's appropriate to note here that the guide often refers to business-to-business websites and operating software as "B2B eCommerce platforms" instead of websites, software and eCommerce stores or websites. That's because building a platform has many requirements that regular B2C commerce doesn't. For example, installing a software product -- regardless of features or advanced capabilities -- always has areas where customizations and configurability are needed. Each B2B platform has unique needs, sales processes, third-party integrations, enhanced shipping and handling requirements and other variables. No out-of-the-box software will adapt to every business, and only a few of the most basic operations can work within those limitations without changing their business processes to accommodate the software.

B2B eCommerce & Integrations understands these issues and developed this guide to expose planners to some of the intricacies involved in building, designing and launching a thriving B2B eCommerce solution. The company’s years of combined experience in developing B2B platforms and customizations have revealed deep insights into functionality, core features, custom features, front-end applications, back-office systems, the design process, deployment architecture, how to build a development team and how to select an operating platform.

 

Customization Is Key

 

If a business is a startup company or an operation with little business infrastructure, an eCommerce software product might suffice for handling today's needs. However, even the most basic operations may find that their needs evolve dramatically in just a couple of years and will discover that a more robust platform is needed. About 99 percent of B2B companies don't fit that simple business model, however, because they need complex integrations such as custom workflows, customer analysis, segmentation and personalization, multi-tiered pricing, multiple currency conversions, expanded payment options, expanded shipping and handling features, custom user interfaces and user experiences, drop-shipping capabilities and special ERP and CRM customization needs.

A B2B platform, as opposed to a software product, adjusts software to fit the business and automate operations. Platforms are built in modular fashion from "building blocks" that can be configured in multiple ways to handle business today and rearranged to meet new challenges and business opportunities. A robust API is the engine that provides access to all the endpoints of functions and features within the platform that transfer data throughout the system. This layer is used to integrate with applications, open source software, sources of business intelligence, offsite databases and internal operating systems to customize sales reports, user experiences, responsive design, special products and pricing features and hundreds of other business applications.

 

 

Approaching Development Like a Racing Team

Never think that any business in today's competitive market is safe because of its loyal customers, unique products or superior quality of its inventory or customer service. Business is a competitive race where passing a competitor doesn't mean anything when there are thousands of others in the race. The race is a continuous process involving many vehicles where each racing car represents one of the company's interests. Racing teams need pit crews, and B2B companies with many cars in the race, need an extraordinary crew to monitor analytics, develop sales leads, manage inventory and internal accounting, market the company through multiple channels, develop new products, and customize platform capabilities to drive new business.

Developing Core and Custom Features Instead of Changing Business Processes

Each time a company's operating software requires the company to adapt -- even if only marginally -- business operations become less efficient. The mandate for using software is to make work operations more efficient and automatic, so software should be customized to the business instead of businesses adjusting to the software. The savings in operational costs, increased sales opportunities, expanded leads for salespeople and greater customer loyalty deliver a premium benefit that easily justifies development costs.

 

Fostering B2B Functional Design

Responsive design refers to website architecture that adjusts to each device that site visitors use when accessing the Internet. This isn't always a simple problem of just scaling the size and reducing the number of areas shown on the screen's display. Even B2C companies commonly personalize site displays for their customers and design attention-grabbing site overviews for new site visitors. This approach is especially critical for B2B companies because they only have a few seconds to answer preconceived questions that B2B researchers have when they browse suppliers for their businesses. Returning customers also want highly personalized displays that remember them and their ordering histories and site behavior.

 

Making Design a Team Effort

Any robust B2B eCommerce platform will have dozens of areas where customizations can drive business and increase back-office efficiency. The functional design process includes everything that a platform does and how it appears and functions for each company stakeholder and customer. It's not possible to design this kind of platform without building a team, managing standards for interoperability and collaborating with third-party business associates, design developers, content writers and editors and other content providers and generators like video production services. Each area of design requires custom planning, content curating, design elements and stakeholder input to build something useful, easy-to-use and aesthetically appealing. Savvy companies work closely with developers in the design process by assembling IT teams and assigning other company staff to develop content material based on originality, compelling copy, the specific context where each copy iteration will be used and targeted customer profiles or personas.

 

 

Upgrading IT Infrastructure

Regardless of software, it's critical to upgrade B2B IT infrastructure for more efficient business operations today and collaborative eCommerce and third-party integrations in the future. Robust platforms include a middleware layer that facilitates connections with specialty applications and back-office operating systems, an application server for connection-pooling and load-balancing, browsers to run software, development tools to build applications and customize features and Web servers outside the firewall to connect to the Internet and act as security buffers.


 

Managing Collaborations

Modern B2B platforms provide the custom tools for collaborating on projects, connecting with third-party suppliers, allowing staff to intervene when needed during customer self-service and providing communications tools like emails, buy and supplier directories, scheduling applications, central information libraries, custom dashboards and proprietary apps. Part of communicating and collaborating includes matching dynamic content to customers and stakeholders, managing complex supply chains, fostering transparency and visibility and working with business associate teams on business and customer service projects.

A recent study by the Aberdeen Group found that the number of companies implementing collaborations doubled in just two years, and smarter eCommerce collaborations with partners and customers are the major driver of this trend.[1] Direct collaborations eliminate delays caused by system handoffs, speed decisions, reduce operating costs and eliminate errors caused by poor communications. Higher levels of visibility generate faster information, fulfillment processes and conversions. Businesses get a better view of their operations, customers and associations.


 

Building a Development Team

This guide mentions a lot about teams because building a B2B eCommerce platform is a team effort that includes the software vendor, internal IT teams, company stakeholders, customer input, employee opinions and information available through marketing channels. Best practices for B2B success include building a development team that can work with the developer, learn how the platform works and take over administering the operation when they go live. Having an experienced IT team is no longer optional for a robust B2B eCommerce platform, so decision-makers should try to put together their teams before getting too far along in the planning process.

 

Choosing a B2B eCommerce Platform

The single most important decision in B2B eCommerce development is choosing the right vendor. It's important to define the company's needs including desired integrations and user experiences. Out-of-the-box software, as mentioned earlier, only works for limited B2B operations. Best practices for choosing a platform developer is to select one who work with the company's team, offers pricing and development transparency and has experience in customizing eCommerce platforms specifically for B2B companies.

The Statistical Battleground for B2B eCommerce

Throughout the guide, readers will find many statistics because big data, eCommerce and business trends guide business decisions better than any single factor in the digital age. Companies profile their clients, find business opportunities, change operations and decide on critical strategies such as building a better B2B eCommerce platform based on reliable statistics. Some of the key statistics that decision-makers should consider when assessing development decisions include these insights from Handshake.com:[2]

  • Mobile searches are already topping desktop searches, so B2B companies need to develop mobile strategies because their customers are accessing their accounts from phones and tablets.
  • More than 52 percent of buyers research products on their phones, and many of these are Millennials who expect the latest technology and user-friendly features.
  • B2B platforms increasing offer unusual features such as selling products for other organizations in a Marketplace business model.
  • 60 percent of companies report increased customer spending after implementing omni-channel sales and marketing strategies.
  • B2B companies with integrated systems experienced a reduction in cart abandonment of 8.3 percent and visitor-to-buyer conversion rates of more than 20 percent.

Other statistics that favor B2B development include that businesses with 401 to 1,000 pages get six times more leads from their sites than businesses with only 51 to 100 pages. Leads developed through SEO efforts -- including inbound marketing -- have 14.6-percent conversion rates versus a 1.7-percent close rate for print advertising and direct mail.[3]

One interesting group of statistics regards the importance of connecting through other channels and developing a mobile marketing strategy. About 47 percent of Facebook users or 674 million people connect with the social site on a mobile phone at least once each day.[4] Many of these people use voice-activated searches, which creates a new way of structuring keywords that's more natural and less structured. That's a big trend for B2B marketers to consider. Even though mobile phones are the popular choice for searches today, that could easily change over the next few years because there will be more Internet-enabled devices such as smart appliances so that the total of all phones, laptops and PCs will only account for 25 percent of Internet connections. It's easy to see why B2B companies need to monitor trends and adapt to evolving marketplace conditions.

B2B eCommerce & Integrations proudly offers this guide as a starting point for decision-makers who have questions about building a B2B eCommerce platform, adding a business component to a retail operation or upgrading their website capabilities. Our team can help to guide you even further by working with your in-house development team, providing planning tools and templates and working with your stakeholders to develop a world-class B2B eCommerce platform. Read over the guide to get a sense of our company and our experience in developing custom platforms. Call or contact us anytime for answers to questions, further explanations or a consultation or price quote.


 

References:

[1] The Aberdeen Group: B2B INTEGRATION & COLLABORATION: THE TIME IS NOW! WHERE DO YOU STAND?v1.aberdeen.com/launch/report/benchmark/9316-RR-B2B-integration-collaboration.asp

[2] Handshake.com: 5 eCommerce Trends for B2B Companies to Watch in 2016 www.handshake.com/blog/ecommerce-trends-b2b-2015/

[3] Hubsport.com: Search Engine Optimization Stats www.hubspot.com/marketing-statistics

[4] Moz.com: Battleground Mobile: Why (& How) to Prepare for the Future moz.com/blog/battleground-mobile