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B2B e-commerce and user experience: Stealing smart from B2C

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Driving your buyer’s purchasing activities to highly efficient web channels comes down to adopting the best practices from B2C web design, while supporting traditional B2B workflows online.

B2C merchants have honed the art of online retailing over almost two decades, beginning with the e-commerce revolution that started in the late 1990s. As a B2B seller moving into e-commerce, success starts with a foundation of an easy shopping experience.

There is good news here – there are many things that B2B e-commerce merchants can learn from their B2C counterparts. B2C merchants have set B2B buyer expectations for what makes an easy-to-use e-commerce web site.

Modern business buyers are informed by their experiences as consumers in their personal lives, and these buyers are increasingly digital natives (yes, people, we are all getting older, and the generation soon to enter the workforce was born AFTER e-commerce was invented – believe it or not!)

B2C-like expectations of the business buyer include how to navigate, search, and check out on B2B web sites. These expectations must be met by manufacturers, brands, and distributors in order to stay relevant and keep the business of the modern buyer.

Making your buyer’s job easier is the key to success

It is important to note, however, that B2B is not simply a copy of B2C e-commerce experiences. B2B merchants need to take a different, and expanded, approach to web design versus B2C merchants. The goal of online selling in a B2B setting is different than in B2C.

The main thrust of a B2B Ecommerce site needs to be focused around making the buyer’s job—and therefore their life—easier. Conversely, the typical goal of B2C e-commerce web sites is to provide a rich, deep, immersive experience that engages the consumer and creates a more emotional connection, often around lifestyle content.

In the highly competitive B2C world, retailers strive to use digital means to build brand and differentiate. B2C online shopping is about fun, adventure and browsing.

Not so for B2B e-commerce.

B2B buyers frequently know exactly what they want, and need to be able to find it quickly and with the least friction possible. B2B buyers don’t need to go on an extensive clickfest. They want to get in, buy their products, get out and get on with their day.

So, what exactly can B2B learn from B2C, and where do their approaches diverge? Let’s take a look.

B2B e-commerce and user experience: Stealing smart from B2C

There are number of elements of B2C user experience and web design that are highly applicable to B2B. These practices have been refined over the past 20+ years, and have been proven to work to drive online conversion (sales).

These elements are also the foundation of your business buyer’s expectations of what comprises an acceptable online purchasing experience. The most important components are:

  • Clear and easy site navigation – Web site navigation remains the most common way site visitors arrive at products, typically accounting for well over 50% of product views. Navigation incorporates the global navigation menu, normally found at the top of web pages (or via a menu icon on mobile), often delivered through a drop down menu when the menu categories are scrolled over or tapped on a mobile device. Major categories of interest to a web site visitor are presented through the navigation, which usually include product categories on an e-commerce site. Navigation also includes product sub categories, filters, and attributes presented for narrowing an assortment or content list to the most relevant selection or the user. Unfortunately, many B2B sellers make site navigation too complex, fail to follow best practices, and load the navigation full of internal jargon that web site users do not understand.
  • On site search – Many B2B e-commerce sellers have very large catalogs that feature thousands, in some cases millions, of products. In order to have a successful site, it is critical that your customers are able to quickly and easily find what they are looking for. As the assortment size grows, on site search becomes even more important to the user experience. B2C e-commerce has taught us much here in terms of best practices for implementing a successful site search experience. A well-optimized site search should convert browsers to buyers at 4 to 5 times the web site average. Site visitors that use search are exhibiting a high degree of buying intent. A great site search experience is key to making the buyer’s job easier, and therefore is a critical component of delivering a solid B2B e-commerce experience. Make sure you have a capable, modern search software solution that is powering your search experience.
  • Easy checkout – If you have ever used an e-commerce site that had a long and cumbersome shopping cart and checkout process, you know how frustrating it can be. Modern online buyers have no patience for an inefficient or confusing checkout process on e-commerce web sites. Streamlining the process is critical, eliminating barriers to purchase. B2C best practices are well established in this area, and B2B merchants should follow these practices (with some B2B-specific additions, as highlighted below). Online buyers have come to expect a number of standard features in the cart and checkout. In general, these include a persistent shopping cart (accessible anywhere on the site), fewest checkout steps as possible, early and clear indication of shipping charges, every step of checkout clearly labeled, and the display of the shopping cart contents (or summary of same) and order totals throughout the checkout process.
  • Web Merchandising and compelling product presentation – Web Merchandising approaches are well established in the B2C arena, and these practices can be leveraged in B2B. E-commerce provides an opportunity for sellers to make buyers aware of products they might otherwise not know the seller offers, and do so in a scalable fashion. Commonly utilized web merchandising methods that can be used by B2B merchants include product cross and upselling (on product pages and in the shopping cart), product bundling (a.k.a. kitting), promotions, automated product recommendations (based on customer click behavior on the web site), and manipulating product sorting order on category pages to highlight key products you want customers to see.

This is your ‘stealing smart’ from B2C list (from a high level, at least!) These elements are standard to delivering a well functioning web site user experience on an e-commerce site, whether B2B or B2C. B2B merchants would be well advised to adopt these approaches, and not try to re-invent these components or use a different approach than B2C best practice in these areas.

So, what is different about B2B?

Remember that B2B web sites have a different goal than their B2C brethren –to make the buyer’s job easier. As a result, B2B e-commerce sites need to accommodate a number of things that will make buyers’ workflows easier and faster, and the web site design needs to accommodate these factors.

Workflow considerations have a major impact on design decisions. The most critical unique features of B2B e-commerce design include:

  • Understand the buyer’s intent and needs – What does the buyer need from the design? In B2B, it is not just pretty product images. B2B sites typically need to contain very detailed product specs, technical data, and information about one product’s compatibility with other products (information on relevant consumables like chemicals, paper, or ink, for example, that a piece of equipment needs in order to operate). To that end, B2B e-commerce sites generally require more content, and the design and underlying software solution needs to support this.  Product information needs be easily findable and readable, but also extremely accurate, down to the product attribute level. For example, in the medical supply field, accuracy of product data could be a matter of a patient’s life and death. Life-saving equipment may not operate if incompatible products are purchased by a healthcare institution.
  • Accommodating B2B buying paths and workflows- Buying paths for B2B are often quite different from B2C. In B2B, it is common for the person buying the product (e.g. a procurement manager) to be different than the actual user of the product. To that end, there are a number of common administrative tasks that need to be considered in B2B that do not exist in B2C. These include using a purchase order as a form of payment, saving shopping carts or order lists, allowing for customer pick up of orders or customer-specific shipping methods, and workflows in the purchase process, such as sending an order for another person to review and/or authorize. Moreover, B2B purchases are often much larger and have more line items than a typical B2C purchase. This puts a premium on ease of use of the shopping cart, so that individuals can review items that are relevant to their roles, and not have to worry about others.
  • Customer specific pricing – The prices a B2B e-commerce seller displays online to logged-in customers must be aligned with the prices that are being shared across other channels—such as within contracts, by the sales team, and in print catalogs. All too often, companies only present a single price or basic set of prices to customers on the web, allowing pricing discounts and customer catalogs to be handled by the sales team or through the call center. This is a guaranteed way to miss the revenue and efficiency benefits that e-commerce can bring to your organization. Your customers do not view your company as two separate entities with different pricing depending on the selling channel, so do not present yourself this way.
  • Custom catalogs – B2B sellers often need to provide a limited set of products to specific customers. This might include products that are available only to that buyer, or combinations of products that are exclusive to a specific buyer. This is not a common requirement in B2C e-commerce, but is supported by a number of B2B e-commerce software platforms.

In short, B2B sites need to adopt many of the functional aspects of B2C e-commerce, but not necessarily the flashier elements. It’s more about efficiency and getting the job done. Function trumps form, and the clearer the workflow is, the more likely buyers will come back to make purchases in the future.

Summing it up

B2B can both draw on design and process considerations from B2C e-commerce, and B2B firms need to forge their own way to accommodate the unique needs of its buyers. All of these factors have an impact on conversions, and ultimately on the bottom line.

If you are a B2B firm ready to explore e-commerce or improve your operations, I’m here to help. Shoot me a quick email at bbeck@guidance.com, and we can work together to craft the best strategy for making your buyers’ jobs easier!

This post was originally featured on LinkedIn, and is republished here with permission.

Brian Beck
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Brian Beck

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