How can B2B companies leverage e-commerce capabilities?

Key considerations for enterprises venturing into e-commerce

In our "new normal," many B2B companies are looking to monetize their digital presence by adding ecommerce capabilities to the mix. We asked our Innovation Director, Matthieu Gadrat, for his thoughts on how B2B companies can effectively leverage ecommerce capabilities. He talked to us about functionality to consider, use cases, and comparisons between platforms.

Matthieu, you’re our Innovation Director at Symetris. What are some examples you've seen of B2B companies looking to generate revenue via digital channels apart from their primary business model?

One example that comes to mind is private wine importers in Quebec. These importers have gone from ordering for and selling to restaurants to ordering for and selling direct to customers.

The premium content model is another way to monetize a company’s expertise, by putting high-production value training materials, templates, or reports behind a paywall, or charging a subscription similar to what popular media outlets are doing.

Wholesalers are increasingly streamlining their retailer experience by allowing orders to be placed and tracked through commerce-like portals that replace traditional catalogues and sales reps.

Something more radical would be a B2B2C transformation where the B2B company or a wholesaler will also offer the final B2C experience on their platform but branded with the distributer identity. This is useful when the distributers are small shops that are not able to operate individual ecommerce sites. You can think of a high-end product distributed in small specialized shop like skis, mountain bikes, or watches. This also resolves concerns around the distributor/wholesaler relationship where wholesalers don’t wish to compete with their main clients.

What are some considerations for enterprises venturing into ecommerce for the first time?

For me, it comes down to three things: your ecosystem, your purchase process, and friction.

First, if you want to move into ecommerce, know what your existing commerce and martech ecosystems are like. Do you have enterprise resource planning (ERP) software? Do you already have a distribution network? What's the user experience on your website? Can it funnel users to your buying process or does the information architecture need to be rethought? What platforms are you using? You need to map all these factors because your ecosystem might have a bigger impact on the ecommerce solution you chose than you think.

Next, how typical or atypical is your purchase process?

If your customers’ buying journey is relatively straightforward, you can probably stick to the best-known ecommerce processes. An out the box solution might be enough. 

But, if your customers’ buying journey is more complex because of your product or business model, you might want to consider a completely custom solution. Often, however, you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle, and you’ll need help from an expert to figure out your best solution.

Keep in mind that payment processes can be different for each client and be the result of a pre-sale agreement. Integration with your CRM is key in B2B.

B2B clients expect to pay in 30, 60, or 90 days depending on their client status. In some cases, it can be better to separate the payment process or to replace it with an electronic order confirmation sent to the accounting department through the ERP.

And finally, a big part of growing revenue through digital is to make the customer experience as frictionless as possible. You want the customer to, first, continue doing business with you and, second, tell their friends and colleagues that you are awesome

Do you have tips on creating a frictionless buying experience for B2B customers?

Ecommerce can substitute (or supplement) in-person or over-the-phone relationships with your customer. 

You’ll need to support the customer’s decision process by ensuring product and services pages are up-to-date and highly descriptive and interactive. Inaccurate specs, inventory data, or product imagery can frustrate your customer, especially when they are making a significant order. Information that updates in real-time can be a challenge depending on the systems and processes that feed product pages.

You’ll want a customer portal where they can easily access support, ask questions, consult past orders, and call up past interactions with your brand. You can also tie in your social media interaction between customer and brand if you have a customer data platform (CDP). You want your customer to feel that they are talking to you and that you know them.  If they have a problem with your product, they don’t want to explain their issue ten times to ten different people. Remember that B2B buyer expectations are driven by their interactions as consumers and their tolerance for disjointed experiences are waning. 

What are the different solutions or approaches available to B2B companies looking to expand into ecommerce? What types of businesses would be a good fit for each model?

There are as many solutions available as there are business models, but to compare options let’s bundle all the variables under two categories: out-of-the-box solutions and advanced ecommerce platforms.

If you’re a “mom and pop” store, a small business, or an organization with a discrete ecommerce use case, an out of the box, commerce-ready solution could be a good fit. Examples include Shopify, Squarespace, Wix, or Woo commerce. With the exception of the latter, these are SAAS solutions, which mean cheaper implementation, a wealth of features that can be used immediately, straightforward purchasing process, and easy-to-use configuration options that you can likely set up in-house

Downsides to consider:

  • Very rigid processes
  • Limited integration with other business platforms
  • Tedious when managing large inventory
  • Hard limits to personalization of the theme
  • Multilingual capabilities always feel “hacky” on those tools

On the other hand, if you’re a medium to large company with a lot to gain (or lose) investing in ecommerce, or a business that requires customization of the purchase process and integration with external tools, you’ll want to look at an advanced ecommerce platform. Examples include Magento, Drupal Commerce, and Shopify Plus.

These solutions also have quite a few out of the box features while supporting complex integrations with other business platforms. They can handle high traffic, multi-stores, geo-localization for currency, shipping, and even show product availability in real-time. Plus:

  • Back-end administration WILL satisfy more tech savvy shop operators 
  • No limit to theme personalization
  • Custom functionalities and integrations can be developed to extend the application
  • Built-in multilingual capabilities

Advanced ecommerce platforms are more costly to implement than the commerce-ready SAAS solutions I mentioned earlier. They are harder to install and configure, so you’ll need professional help from an implementation partner to get up and running. Also, with each solution being different from the other and requiring different expertise to maintain, you’ll want to get expert advice on which platform is best for your business.

Where should someone start if they are asked to implement ecommerce for their organization?

Definitively mapping their current commerce/ops/martech digital (and physical) ecosystem. That includes websites, marketing automations, data platforms, and CRM. But it also means understanding shipping, inventory holding capability, and all the touchpoints the customer may have with your business. You may need to bring stakeholders to the table with whom you normally wouldn’t interact on a marketing initiative with functions in Accounting, Operations, and Compliance, in addition to Sales and IT. Everyone needs to have a shared understanding of the business rules being proposed and how they will impact their existing processes or you will find yourself walking decisions back late in the game. 

In the end, an ecommerce platform is a piece of a larger puzzle, and you want to know the big picture before putting that piece in place.

Is your B2B company interested in adding ecommerce to your business model? Share what you're looking to achieve in the form below. One of our digital solutions experts will be in touch with you within one business day to talk about your options.