Last year I contributed to the UBM B2B eCommerce Report. Below I’ve reprinted the questions posed by the UBM team, and my responses to them. The full report is available here
WHAT DOES B2B ECOMMERCE LOOK LIKE TODAY?
B2B ecommerce is currently dominated by industrysponsored marketplaces relying on low-cost Internet platforms and ‘harnessing the value proposition of collective bargaining/selling’*4. While large and international enterprises have started independent markets to migrate services such as aftermarket, support or lead generation to online platforms most B2B business models vary from single firm-sponsored, e-procurement solutions and consortiums to collaborative marketplaces that aggregate demand and supply services. B2B models are also moving away from legacy systems which used EDI (electronic data interchange), toward online platforms where buyers and sellers can meet from anywhere in the world on the Web to transact goods and services with only a PC and the Internet.
B2B ecommerce is fragmented at the moment, with very different solutions being available across the market, depending on the size of the customer base. For large corporates and the public sector eprocurement on agreed contracts through marketplaces such as Ariba, Procserve and Science Warehouse is commonplace, whilst for the SMB sector it’s much more usual to have a very similar setup to a B2C site. The challenge comes with the mid-sized corporates; those which haven’t invested in linking their ERP to their online purchasing, but who require workflow to be implemented on the supplier’s website.
IS THERE A DEMAND FOR ECOMMERCE IN THE B2B LANDSCAPE?
As consumers become ever-more comfortable researching, making purchasing decisions and ultimately buying online in the B2C environment, it is only natural that the same demand for an easy online buying experience will permeate their professional surroundings. A recent survey*5 conducted by Accenture found that 49% of B2B buyers prefer making work-related purchases on B2C websites, with 52% expecting at least half of their purchases to be made online in three years’ time. An additional 69% of B2B buyers prefer to pay direct using credit cards or payment systems rather than via purchase orders and invoices. In response, 83% of B2B suppliers surveyed are either in the process of implementing or upgrading their ecommerce platform or planning to do so within six months. The survey also found that 66% of B2B suppliers acknowledge shifting customer expectations and these are driving their technology investments. 83% acknowledged that Omni-channel strategy is critical to a company’s long term success and 85% identify Omni-channel as the crux for tech investment decisions
There’s huge demand for ecommerce in B2B – the UK public sector alone has separate systems for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments, as well as NHS and University focused systems. Personally, I’ve dealt with global corporates like Atkins, Thomson Reuters and Oracle as well as smaller UK based firms of every size. The benefits of reducing administration and human error at both supplier and purchaser side are clear. The EU has set a deadline of 2016 for eprocurement implementation and they believe that they will save €100bn (£82bn) annually from the €2 trillion (£1.6 trillion) procurement spend by government organisations across the EU by mandating eprocurement.
WHAT CAN BE LEARNED FROM B2C ECOMMERCE AND WHERE DOES B2B DIFFER FROM B2C?
B2C ecommerce provides B2B with a challenge, because it sets the standards for our users. So B2B users are coming to expect Amazon or Tesco style performance when purchasing in their work life, because they are used to that at home. So clear product presentation, quick faceted search, access to supporting media – all are prerequisites for the B2B buyer. B2B clients are typically operating against an agreed, personalised price structure, with a contract in place to refer to. Their need for eprocurement is often to handle the ‘dayto-day’ business, whilst a relationship with the existing sales operation is needed for the more complex projects or to negotiate terms in the first place.
The ongoing relationship, the ease of use of the site and ease of access to business critical information like invoices or Proof of Delivery notes matter a great deal when a B2B client is selecting the supplier they are looking to purchase through. At my last company we had almost 50% of users whose roles were not to place orders, but to process invoices and to ensure that goods had arrived at the correct delivery address.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES TO A SUCCESSFUL B2B ECOMMERCE OPERATION?
Most B2B businesses either wishing to launch an ecommerce arm or strengthen their online presence are faced with some multifaceted challenges. These include the complexity of the proposition, especially when compared with B2C, and modernisation of the organisational infrastructure. Other challenges include:
• Buying cycle (lengthy and complex)
• Big data
• Implementation costs
• Conflicts of interest between direct and online sales channels
• Online marketplaces – competition and raising customer expectation
When you couple the requirement for a B2C experience with the challenges of a much larger product range (typically 20k products would be a small B2B website), a requirement for much greater product detail in the form of associated PDF or media documents, and the need to implement personalised pricing with a workflow structure, you start to see the complexity of a B2B site is an order above that of a typical B2C operation
WHERE IS INNOVATION NEEDED?
Innovation in both people skills and software is needed for B2B ecommerce to be able to really take off and offer the customer a personalised, seamless customer experience online. Developments and enhancements that will help organisations meet the challenges described above will go a long way toward helping to develop B2B ecommerce in the right direction.
The major areas where innovation is needed is not so much in technology but in organisations culturally understanding where eCommerce fits into their sales and marketing operations. Essentially eCommerce shouldn’t be seen as a threat to the relationship building operation that sales teams undertake, it should remove much of the administration that bogs sales teams down – if it’s positioned correctly. I’ve seen sales directors who don’t appreciate what eCommerce can do for them blindly head over a precipice where their teams simply cannot support the work they are trying to commit to – winning contracts that you cannot fulfil is the biggest danger to the organisation’s reputation if the benefits of ecommerce are not realised.
On the marketing side, a greater understanding of when to use a digital message and when a traditional media message is required – so many companies are still not on top of their social media presence, and don’t have a programme to boost their followers and presence online, not appreciating the value that this gives in search terms and therefore new business. One of my old companies still has the same web presence and marketing structure that they had 6 or 7 years ago – although the majority of their lead generation is now via Google
WHERE DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE FOR B2B ECOMMERCE HEADED?
If those of us in the industry work with the traditional elements of sales, marketing and operations within our organisations, then there won’t be any need for a dedicated ecommerce team in the future – we will have embraced a true Omni-channel approach to business structure, such that web sales and sales will just be “sales”. That said, I don’t think we’ll be there in five years, cultural change in British business is much slower than technology change.
What I expect is that the majority of companies will have recognised that there are significant efficiencies in embracing ecommerce and specifically eprocurement, and therefore procurement teams will be leaner and will be responsible for negotiating agreements and contracts rather than processing paperwork, with decentralised buying the norm in organisations. This will mean more web purchasing of product by people operating out in the field, and therefore B2B websites will become just as responsive and dynamic as the giants of retail.