The Five New Rules of E-commerce and the Path to Successful B2B Online Sales
Does business-to-business e-commerce figure prominently in your organization's strategic plans? If not, you are missing a key inflection point emerging in the market today. Industry analyst firm Forrester estimates the B2B e-commerce market is expected to reach $559 billion by the end of 2013. This significant opportunity has been recognized by Internet heavyweights Amazon and Google, who have recently ventured into the B2B e-commerce arena.
If your organization is still mired in discussions of channel conflict, sales rep conflict, or beliefs that your business is too complex to be executed online, you are missing the boat. There is significant opportunity to reengineer your business to drive top line revenue, and operate with increased efficiency by incorporating B2B e-commerce strategies into your business plan.
Imagine if you could wring five to 10 percent or more of the cost out of the equation for each order processed. And imagine if, as a result, you could reallocate the time and energy of your staff to create relationships with five to 10 new customers.
If you presently have a first-generation shopping cart e-commerce solution — or no e-commerce presence at all —your organization is not set up to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity. While most first-generation B2B e-commerce storefronts allowed businesses to capture orders and show some history, they do not embody a rich B2C experience that is now expected by buyers.
What's more, their integrations are incomplete, which results in additional work and decreased efficiency. This type of site quickly becomes a glorified fax machine—capturing orders but requiring manual importing of batched orders or a complete manual re-entry of the orders into the back-end system. If your organization is still using a first-generation e-commerce solution, you're running the risk of being outgunned by your competition.
The Five New Rules of E-commerce
So what are the requirements for enterprise-grade B2B e-commerce? Read on to learn the five new rules that must be followed for companies to succeed — rather than struggle — in bringing their business online.
1. Plan the journey. B2B e-commerce is going to revolutionize businesses in many ways. To avoid the chaos that can result from these initiatives, seek out a B2B e-commerce partner that understands the strategic elements of this landscape, and that will collaborate with executive leadership to plan the journey. Try the "land-and-expand" approach, which allows the core elements of a B2B strategy to be landed quickly to take advantage of the low-hanging fruit that often exists for an organization or to meet immediate buyer demands.
During this process, additional opportunities will emerge and can evolve. Many organizations, however, become bogged down in projects with multi-year time lines or fragmented efforts, which can compromise ROI.
2. Maximize the power of e-commerce via integration to the back-end systems that run and drive the business. E-commerce is an extension of your business. Therefore integration with multiple systems, especially core systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), or content management system (CMS) applications is essential.
In 2012, Forrester estimated that the average number of integrations to support Web requirements was 10 to 14, and predicted that in two years that number would rise to more than 20. A key characteristic of an e-commerce platform versus an e-commerce product is the architecture to support multiple integrations in a plug-and-play environment.
Inefficiencies, upset customers, and lost revenue are just a few negative outcomes businesses face without an integrated e-commerce platform. Consider the following situations:
- Orders received via the e-commerce site must be re-entered or imported into the accounting or back-end ERP systems, resulting in duplicated effort and reduced efficiency. Instead of reducing costs via orders being integrated, costs increase.
- Customers are not synchronized between the e-commerce site and the ERP system. To maintain an accurate customer database, contact information must be manually entered into the ERP system for each order—resulting in more costs increases.
- Pricing and customer account history is not synchronized from the ERP system to the e-commerce site, thereby providing incomplete or inaccurate information to your buyers.
- Customers who order on the site are not able to see their negotiated pricing, resulting in orders that must be manually adjusted behind the scenes, introducing more cost and time into the equation.
- Product information, if not supported by a solid integration protocol for ERP and rich content is at risk of duplication or error.
- Shipping costs cannot be calculated and tracked online.
- "Real-time" order tracking for all orders — whether initiated online or not — if not available for customers results in the phone continually ringing with the same questions, "Where is my order?" "Do you have the tracking information for my order?" These status phone calls occupy a large portion of sales or customer service staff's productive time each day.
Integration bridges the gap from one system to another and ensures that each operates with the most accurate information available in the system as a whole. If integrated, information captured on the e-commerce site streamlines the way you do business and reduces order turnaround times and overhead costs.
3. Make sure your e-commerce foundation is flexible and scalable for the long term. A majority of e-commerce solutions only support specific types of e-commerce sites — B2C but not B2B, for example, or B2B but not mobile.
The platforms that can carry an organization into the future support multi-channel architecture. Being boxed in by a platform that isn't agile and flexible can put you at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace, especially as your competitors add certain functionality, go mobile, and segment their markets. When choosing an e-commerce foundation, make sure it is flexible to support your requirements today and in the future.
4. Craft your e-commerce content to set you apart. The days of ordering from a plain HTML catalog of products via part number are over. Product listings now include images, detailed descriptive copy, and the specifications and technical details for each product. This increase in information keeps buyers from having to guess that what they are ordering is actually what they want. The bar for e-commerce has been set by the B2C world; buyers expect an easy-to-use, highly informative, and visually appealing experience where it is easy to find what they need and make purchases.
5. Don't underestimate customer service as an e-commerce differentiator. Driving customer loyalty will be a key topic as the B2B experience is integrated into the overall strategy of a business. While the efficiency of an online model is welcomed by your buyer, your touch points and loyalty programs must make up for the difference to build and maintain a relationship with your customers.
As you weave e-commerce into your business processes, you can begin to extend the online experience into the organization. Authorize your customer service and fulfillment team members to do what it takes to delight each customer, strengthen every engagement, and go beyond expectations to ensure the current sale and future loyalty stays with your organization. As you know, customer loyalty depends on reliability, expertise, and responsiveness to customers' needs, and exceptional customer service is an excellent way to solidify your customer relationships.
Meeting the E-commerce Imperative
Just about any company can benefit from bringing sales and operations online. E-commerce will help you succeed in increasing revenue within your existing client base through expanded purchases or introduction to new items using up-selling and cross-selling techniques, and aiding your efforts to reach out to new potential customers, resulting in new streams of revenue and relationships. What's more, it can greatly improve your brand visibility and make it easier to do business with your organization.
Today, e-commerce is a multi-faceted, increasingly powerful spectrum of integrated tools and technologies that organizations must have to remain competitive and relevant in today's challenging business environment. Abide by the new rules of e-commerce, and you'll be on the path to successful B2B online sales.