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B2B e-commerce: Top 3 areas of concern—and investment—in 2017

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What are B2B e-commerce executives most concerned about these days? Flexible payment options, personalized web content, and after-sales customer service.

That’s according to a recent survey of 400 executives spread across the United States and Europe, which found that 76% of respondents have already built a dedicated B2B e-commerce site; for 39 percent of respondents, that site is their primary sales channel.

Forrester Research says B2B e-commerce companies generated $780 billion in 2015. Revenues are expected to continue growing over the foreseeable future, with the market ballooning to $1.13 trillion by 2020. That being the case, it comes as no surprise that forward-thinking executives are doing everything they can to grab as big a slice of the pie as they can.

Here’s where they plan to invest in 2017.

Flexible payment options

According to the survey, 47 percent of respondents believe flexible payment options—the ability to pay with credit cards, PayPal, and pay-over-time methods such as using credit terms —are most critical to delivering the best user experience to their customers. It’s definitely interesting that this made the top of the list, but when you stop to think about it, it starts to make a lot of sense.

Traditional credit financing has been an integral part of business-to-business selling for hundreds of years.  Manufacturers and distributors selling to other business owners have leveraged credit terms and flexible financing methods as a standard selling tool and, even a competitive differentiation point, since the time of the cotton gin.

The SBA reports that over 65 percent of firms use credit to make business purchases.  Flexible payment options presented online represent a huge area of revenue opportunity. The easier it is for customers to pay, the more likely they will be to buy—it’s that simple.

New pay-over-time methods—such as PayPal Credit— are being introduced to the B2B e-commerce market, and hold tremendous promise to transform and accelerate the adoption of this time-tested method of purchasing for businesses.  What’s more, credit card payment is still somewhat nascent in B2B e-commerce.  While payment by purchase order is still responsible for a majority of transactions via online channels in B2B, this is ripe for rapid change over the next few years.

Personalized web content

Personalized, highly relevant content is what sets B2B e-commerce sites apart, which is probably why 42% of respondents said producing it is important.

Today, humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish.  Yes, sadly, the human attention span has reportedly dropped from 12 seconds in 2002 to only eight seconds in 2013, which is a second shorter than a goldfish, according to a recent study by Microsoft.  This is due to the fact that there’s so much information everywhere we look.

Since our attention spans are shorter than ever, e-commerce sellers have an extremely short amount of time to capture it. By presenting content and products that are relevant to individual users during their online sessions, e-commerce sellers are providing value and saving customers from having to do research on their own.

For B2B sellers, this means presenting items on the web site that are associated to products that the customer already owns (e.g. the chemical formularies that go with the medical research equipment I have in my lab), or providing data and information around the application of products (e.g. content around optimizing the efficiency of a piece of HVAC equipment I own, presented on my mobile device, upon logging in).

After-sales customer service

Beyond personalized web content, 40 percent of executives said that after-sales customer service is a critical component of e-commerce success.

This is critical for many products on the web. For example, it can be tricky for customers to figure out how to use, install, or service specific pieces of equipment. E-commerce sellers that provide troubleshooting advice or general information that help customers quickly resolve issues have a clear advantage over those that do not.

My take

While site search functionality appears on the list (29 percent), I believe it should be given more weight, given what I’ve seen in the B2B e-commerce world. People don’t have an infinite amount of time to search for something (and remember, we are now less focused that goldfish).  Site search is a clear indication of the user’s intent to learn something or to make a purchase. The easier it is for them to find what they’re looking for, the more efficiently they are able to do their jobs.

This bears out in the numbers – we see well-tuned site search driving conversion rates that are 5x or more site average conversion rates.  Make sure that keywords are configured correctly to ensure the search process is as quick as it can be, and take a hard look at your underlying site search technology to ensure it is capable of delivering for you.  Many of the default search tools built into e-commerce platforms are sub-par.

It didn’t make the list, but accurate product data and pricing should be on there, in my opinion.  This is foundational, and we see many firms not giving this enough attention.  B2B e-commerce sellers need to ensure that their sites clearly provide this information in a way that’s reflective of the quotes and contracts that are being executed by the sales force.

If they haven’t done so already, sellers should cleanse their data to make sure that the content on their sites matches what the sales team is communicating. Launching a site with inaccurate pricing and product information is a surefire way to earn the distrust of your customers, and quickly kill any potential benefits you might see from e-commerce adoption.

Finally, e-commerce sellers need to align the sales force and the web site, and use the web to empower the sales team.  With alignment in place, whenever a customer logs onto the site, sellers will be able to track the information the customer is looking at on the site, and activities they are performing (such as adding items to the shopping cart, or requesting a quote).

This information is gold to the sales force, and can be used to create immediate follow-ups that sales reps can act on and increase the likelihood of capturing a sale.  The customer benefits too, as sales reps are informed of their interests in advance of a discussion, and can arrange follow-up conversations.

In B2B e-commerce, the key to pleasing customers is to proactively suggest things that will save them time and ultimately make them more efficient and informed in performing their jobs. This is a bit different from the consumer landscape – B2B buyers, unlike consumers, aren’t browsing or primarily using the web while shopping to ‘get inspired’ – they are highly directed and on the site to do a job.  Efficiency rules the day.  The sooner B2B sellers realize this, the bigger the slice of the e-commerce pie they can capture!

If you would like to learn more about how you can leverage these trends for your business and capture the enormous revenue and efficiency benefits available you, reach out to me!  I’m a quick email away at bbeck@guidance.com.

Brian Beck
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  • Prashant Mahanti

    Spot on even the B2B clients who worked with us have stated flexible payment options to be their main cause of concern. To address that concern we have developed a successful module called know as the ‘Bill Pay module’ and implemented it successfully to our clients spanning various fields.

January 25, 2017
Brian Beck

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