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Catch Them While You Can: Why You Can No Longer Afford to Ignore the Value of B2B e-commerce

At first, B2B e-commerce was pretty simple. Storefronts, the ability to reorder consumables, or request service. Basic steps in response to an emerging desire by customers to serve themselves, online.

Now? Your customers no longer distinguish between you and Amazon or any other consumer outfit. To them, online is online and they expect speed, simplicity, an elegant user experience, and complete control.

Yes, this presents more challenges to a manufacturer than to a typical retailer, especially in light of the dependence on legacy ERP systems. Unfortunately, your customers are unsympathetic. Give them what they want, or risk losing them to somebody who will.

Nobody can predict what the e-commerce landscape for manufacturers will look like going forward, given the breadth and speed of the disruption that’s taking place.

Just one example: what’s going to happen to channel partners and distributors as customers continue to seek a more direct relationship with you? Will the middlemen adapt? How? If not, will they cease to exist? Big questions that currently have no clear answers.

But here’s something we do know for sure. If you’re not learning from the example of B2C and e-commerce pioneers in B2B, and looking for ways to adopt their best practices, you’re already falling behind because you can bet that at least some of your competitors are not waiting. They’re diving in, working hard to deliver the online experience customers now demand.

Why are so many manufacturers embracing e-commerce now? How are they making it happen? Here are a few thoughts to consider.

Four reasons why it’s time for you to take e-commerce seriously

  • Money (lots of it) – Forrester Research says the U.S. B2B e-commerce market is worth about $829 billion now. They expect it to grow about 50% in just the next five years, reaching $1.2 trillion. Frost & Sullivan predicts worldwide BB online sales could reach $12 trillion by 2020.
  • B2C has set a high bar, and it’s not coming down – Your B2B buyer has been exposed to great online experiences by the likes of Amazon and eBay, sites that treat returning customers like well-known friends. Fair or not, your buyers increasingly expect that same degree of personalization from you.
  • Nobody really wants to talk to your salespeople – In addition to being treated like individuals, B2B buyers want to do their own research. Already, most of them get more than halfway to making a purchase decision before they’re willing to engage with sales. To the extent you can support their fact-finding, you’ll encourage critical engagement.
  • You’re already behind – Moving to a B2B e-commerce model may be relatively new to you, but that’s not a universal situation. Many manufacturers and other B2B companies are well along in their journey (our own customer roster includes companies like Pacer Group, Regenesis, Direct Energy Solar, and Helix Linear). The longer you wait, the further ahead of you they’ll get.

Three lessons you can learn from B2B e-commerce first movers

  • Reimagine the role of your sales team – Since customers and prospects are doing basic research before they reach out to sales, what should sales be doing instead? The detailed answer varies by company, but the broad idea is to focus them more on discrete, complex transactions; negotiating price, hand-holding on high-consideration purchases, staying engaged through installation to ensure success.
  • Consider cloud-based solutions – This is not a small initiative. If you’re like most midsized companies, you lack the expertise and the manpower to pull it off on your own. Working with a vendor who offers a cloud-based solution keeps your precious IT resources free for other things, limits your upfront investment, and makes it easier for you to scale whatever works.
  • Prepare to meet new competitors – Engaging in online commerce will bring you into contact with a new group of competitors, including global enterprises who may have never even noticed you before. But they will now, because you’ll be swimming in their pond. Incidentally, once you’re online your customers there will compare the shopping you provide to your direct competitors, but also to all their other online shopping experiences.

The bottom line

Yes, manufacturers face challenges in delivering e-commerce that satisfies customer expectations. But you must find a way to meet those challenges. Start small. Learn from the successes of others, and from your own mistakes. Most importantly, keep moving forward.

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