B2B ecommerce is already thought to be around four times the size of the B2C ecommerce market, and by 2020 it’s estimated that business buying through ecommerce will be worth close to $7 trillion.
Alibaba, the Chinese B2B ecommerce giant, is now larger than both Amazon and Ebay combined. This huge growth in B2B ecommerce is both the result and cause of changes to the B2B user experience, which is now starting to resemble B2C much more closely than ever before.
Whilst business buyers might have different requirements to household shoppers, business customers have increasingly high expectations of any online purchasing experience.
Business customers buying online for work will almost inevitably have experience buying online for personal reasons, meaning the two experiences will often be compared against each other for ease of transaction and the overall user experience.
Customer expectations are high in the B2B world, and vendors are increasingly improving the experience in order to try and meet expectations.
Changes to B2B
This improvement in the user experience includes catering to customers using devices besides desktop. Forrester recently identified that mobile plays a significant role in B2B purchasing decisions, with over half of business customers using it for research.
It also includes offering features such as information on product availability, tracking and shipping options. Some sites also offer personalisation features so that repeat customers can be served the make and model or replacement parts that’s most relevant to their needs.
Perhaps the biggest change is the move away from a ‘one to many’ model of doing business to a ‘many to many’ system. Older systems of business transaction were based on electronic data interchange, which were costly to run and usually fairly clunky and inefficient.
EDI allowed for exchange of business documents such as invoices and purchase orders. In a typical example, a car manufacturer might require its suppliers to connect into its own EDI system with its own procedures and requirements.
These systems are now being replaced by online platforms that allow vendors and purchasers to connect with each other more widely and easily. Platforms such as Alibaba, DHgate or Madeinchina offer facilities familiar to B2C commerce such as search synonyms, auto-suggest, filters, relevance ranking and product reviews. These features enable buyers and sellers to find each other and compare products more easily. These sites also offer services to facilitate online purchases, such as order history, invoicing, and retained payment information. These are features of online buying that customers of any kind, business or consumer, now expect.
How B2B differs from B2C
But business buyers neither expect nor need the same purchasing experience as consumer buyers. The decision-making process for B2B will always be different, and much more complex, than B2C. Whilst B2B is growing and changing, business ecommerce is not going to replicate the B2C experience, nor would this be desirable.
Complexities are greater when it comes to B2B orders, and not only because of the obvious higher order value, size and frequency. Variables include shipping rates and methods, tax, customisation and regulation.
Prices are much more likely to vary in B2B transactions compared to the consumer sector. This is why many vendors on online platforms still see product listings as a way to open a conversation with a potential customer rather than a finite sales offer.
There are variables to discuss that cannot be completely covered in a single catalogue-style listing. This means that features such as livechat are likely to be of greater significance in B2B ecommerce than in the consumer purchasing sector.
The decision-making process is also far different when it comes to business purchasing, with the number of stakeholders involved likely to be much higher than in B2C. The more stakeholders are involved, the less likely it is that a purchase will be made. Where there’s only one stakeholder making the decision, purchases are made in over 80% of occasions. But on average there will be more than five key stakeholders involved in the decision-making process – according to research by the Corporate Executive Board.
How to support the B2B sales process
This complex decision-making process begs the question – how do sellers best support buying teams to reach a consensus?
It’s certain essential to understand that the stakeholders involved may not be in the same physical location, or have the same understanding of product features and they may all come from different backgrounds in terms of the professional role they fulfil.
And whilst the product’s obvious benefits in terms of return on investment, product lifespan or the specific features it offers carry benefits to the buyer’s business, there’s also a role for human emotion, personal preferences and values when it comes to making that final decision.
In the consumer sector, it’s easier to offer a personalised experience tailored to the individual customer because they are more likely to be making that decision by themselves and it may also be easier to identify their particular values and preferences.
A B2C company selling a healthy cereal bar via health food stores only has to convince one customer who is likely expressing their interest in healthy eating simply by being in that store. A B2B wholesaler selling to a chain of health food stores is likely to need to convince team from different disciplines such as buying, finance and marketing to stock their product.
The mix of disciplines and the different values they possess makes it difficult to tailor individual messages in the same way that delivers results in B2C. Harvard Business Review even suggested that tailored content could hinder decision-making processes, stating “When individuals in a buying group receive different messages, each one stressing that an offering meets his or her narrow needs, it can highlight the diverging goals and priorities in the group, driving a wedge between members and hindering consensus.”
The solution then is to try and find identify common ground between stakeholders and help them reach agreement, using shared language or topics that appeal to all parties. Shared learning is also a way to promote consensus by helping parties work together to understand product benefits.
One B2B packaging manufacturer, Greif, offers a diagnostic tool to support consensus through learning. Known as the ‘Green Tool’, it’s a calculator that requires multiple stakeholders to collaborate in order to understand how business changes such as using lighter transportation containers can achieve ecological benefits. The participation of different types of stakeholders in this strategic decision tool helps them understand how their interests align.
Research suggests approaching stakeholders using messages based on the personal value of buying is far more potent than the business benefits. This includes promoting the careers benefits of making a sensible purchase that will advance a person’s career, rather than appealing to partisan interests based on other values such as whether the product is the safest on the market.