Business-to-business ecommerce describes Internet-enabled transactions between businesses, such as a manufacturer and a wholesaler, a wholesaler and a retailers, or a wholesaler and a business user. The B-to-B ecommerce market was expected to exceed $550 billion in the U.S. last year, offering great opportunities for distributors and manufacturers to streamline sales, boost profits, and engage with new customers.
Since the late 1990s, businesses have been using the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system to transfer purchase orders and similar structured information electronically, representing, if you will, a form of B-to-B ecommerce.
Separately, some B-to-B sellers have created websites on which business customers can make purchases as if they were shopping on a business-to-consumer site. Examples of this newer form include Grainger, Vistaprint, Uline, Stickercutting, and Amazon Supply. This category of B-to-B ecommerce may enjoy the most growth and offer the most opportunity.
There are at least four important points that a business thinking of running a B-to-B ecommerce site will want to consider.
1. Shopping Is Part of Your Customer’s Profession
One of the most significant differences between B-to-B and B-to-C ecommerce is that shopping is part of the B-to-B ecommerce customer’s daytime job.
This means that the stakes can be higher for the B-to-B seller. If the shopper has a good experience, that shopper is likely to return and reorder repeatedly — even suggesting the seller to co-workers or other divisions. But if something goes wrong, particularly something that would cause the shopper to miss deadlines at work or appear in some way to have done a poor job, that shopper will likely blame the B-to-B seller. Depending on the unhappy shopper’s influence, the B-to-B seller might lose the entire account, including many individual buyers or divisions.
This means that order handling and transactional communications must be top notch. Some B-to-B ecommerce sellers will call customers to confirm orders or shipments when the customer has ordered a large quantity, very expensive items, or requested express shipping, since these orders may represent important transactions to the customer.
2. B-to-B Customers Are also B-to-C Customers
B-to-B sites often trail consumer sites in technology, function, capabilities, and design. That is typically just not good enough.
As an example, the U.S. B-to-B site for a major multinational manufacturer, which includes information for dealers in the U.S., can only be viewed on Internet Explorer, and won’t work in any other browser, including Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or Safari. And don’t even think about visiting this site on a mobile device. It just won’t work.
This is a ridiculous business decision. It forgets a fundamental fact about B-to-B ecommerce customers. They are also B-to-C ecommerce customers.
It is extremely likely that the professional shopper on an ecommerce-enabled B-to-B website has had at least some experience shopping on consumer ecommerce sites, such as Amazon, Black Milk Clothing, or REI, which all have compelling product photography, good navigation, good search capabilities, and good content.
A B-to-B ecommerce site must provide the same visual and functional experience as the best B-to-C ecommerce sites.
3. Personalization Is Vital
B-to-B shoppers may require a greater level of personalization than B-to-C customers, since businesses may have contract prices, special payment terms, or negotiated shipping rates.
Business relationships may be very deep and complicated. It is not unusual for B-to-B ecommerce sites to require registration before showing prices or shipping rates or offering a quote. This login requirement allows the B-to-B ecommerce site to personalize almost every aspect of the transaction.
A good B-to-B ecommerce site may take a little longer to launch since the system for handling relatively complex business relationships can take some time. But once it is in place, this personalization will mean that the relationship could be longer lasting.
4. Salespeople Are the Primary Marketing Vehicle
While it is both possible and likely that B-to-B ecommerce sites will be able to acquire new customers simply by making products easy to order online, salespeople who contact customers are probably the B-to-B ecommerce seller’s primary and best marketing channel.
Salespeople can attract new customers or deepen relationships with existing shoppers. Sometimes, it can be enough to follow up after a B-to-B sale with a call to make certain that the transaction went as expected.
What Ecommerce Can Do for your B-to-B Business
If you sell to other businesses, ecommerce should have three potential benefits for your business.
First, it may help new customers find you. Having an easy-to-find and use ecommerce site means that new customers — customers with a need — will be able to locate your business regardless of geography or prior relationships.
Second, B-to-B ecommerce may streamline sales for existing customers. Some of your current customers will appreciate the ability to order online, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The process may also be faster than sending emails or, even worse, faxed orders.
Finally, B-to-B ecommerce may improve margins and boost profits. It may be possible to provide customers with a better ordering experience and better customer service using ecommerce while spending less on labor and order processing. Any cost savings that B-to-B ecommerce brings may drop straight to your business’s bottom line.