If you close your eyes and think about slick, modern, seamless e-commerce experiences, most likely you imagine one of the new direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands that have ridden the social-media wave to massive sales. Or maybe your mind goes to a legacy business-to-consumer (B2C) retailer that has stayed on the bleeding edge of digital. What you’re less likely to think of is a business-to-business (B2B) brand—because for a long time, B2B e-commerce websites have lagged behind their B2C counterparts in terms of best practices. But that is finally starting to change.
B2B e-commerce has become a massive market. Digital B2B sales were growing even before the coronavirus pandemic drove all communications and purchasing online in the early months of 2020. Globally, the B2B e-commerce market is likely to exceed $20 trillion by 2027, and in the near-term in the United States, Forrester estimates that B2B e-commerce will hit $1.8 trillion by 2023.
To meet the moment and seize the opportunities created by the shift to online purchasing, B2B companies must elevate their digital presence to deliver robust, meaningful online experiences to their customers. Failing to meet buyers’ needs digitally will put B2B brands at risk of developing what Episerver calls a “customer-centricity gap.” And in a recent survey, Episerver found that 71% of B2B executives say their company’s digital experience does not meet the needs and expectations of its customers.
The distance between what customers expect from online experiences in 2020 and what B2B brands are delivering is clearly far too wide. For leaders in the B2B space who are ready to commit to building sustainable, scalable digital platforms, these best practices for B2B e-commerce are key to closing that gap.
The supply-chain disruptions that wreaked havoc for both individuals and businesses alike in the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis demonstrated the importance of having accurate and up-to-the-minute product data. No matter how attractive and intuitive an e-commerce experience is, if a B2B buyer clicks “Add to Cart” just to be met with an “out of stock” message, they’re going to leave the platform dissatisfied.
There are a number of ways that B2B e-commerce websites can convey real-time inventory information to buyers. For example, search result pages should automatically display in-stock items first—or perhaps even exclusively. Tools like Episerver Product Recommendations allow B2B sellers to display only in-stock products in their catalog feeds.
Why shouldn’t a B2B e-commerce website be just as pleasant and easy to use as the sleekest DTC brand’s app? Reducing customer frustration and helping to guide users to the products they want to buy are among the most essential objectives for any changes to B2B digital platforms—and following three best practices will help achieve those goals.
First, every B2B e-commerce website must be mobile-friendly and responsive. Any B2B brand whose digital platform is challenging to use on a mobile device definitely has a “customer-centricity gap.” Fixing the mobile UI and UX so that they are both attractive and intuitive is step one to improving B2B e-commerce websites. We do this by advocating for solutions that align with customers' needs and anticipating them to increase user satisfaction making it easy for new and returning users to transact successfully by improving functionality and utility.
Second, every product page on a B2B e-commerce website must include robust content, including high-quality images or even video. Just like a B2C clothing retailer will be more successful if it allows shoppers to see a jacket from all angles, so too will B2B brands see more e-commerce sales if their websites promote products with detailed copy and multiple photos.
Finally, a successful B2B e-commerce UI must have intuitive search functionality. According to Shopify, “customers who use site search are almost 2X more likely to convert” on a B2B site. Making the search bar easy to find and use is key, as is assessing and improving the quality of search-result pages.
The paragon of e-commerce, Amazon, skyrocketed to success in part due to the power of its product recommendation and easy reorder features. Those are perfect examples of e-commerce website personalization, a strategy that every B2B brand should incorporate into its digital presence.
From contract-based pricing to predictive ordering, website personalization makes B2B buyers’ lives easier by vastly simplifying the purchase process. And it works: research has shown that 19% of B2B buyers would be persuaded to select a vendor based on their ability to offer a personalized online buying experience (Sapio).
B2B sales were for a long time a high-touch process, involving in-person meetings and phone calls between sellers and buyers to discuss products, pricing, shipping and more. But the trend towards digital platforms has meant that many of those sales touchpoints can now be done through self-service online tools.
Meaningful, robust customer experience on a B2B e-commerce website will include self-serve options for actions like requesting a sample, checking the status of an order and more. While this may seem like a radical shift in how B2B sales are done, Episerver contends that “the ability to self serve is not about losing visibility to your customers, it simply changes visibility,” while also increasing efficiency.
According to Accenture, long lead times for delivery/fulfillment and missed delivery dates tie with pricing as the top reason that B2B buyers ditch their sellers for a new partner. With Amazon setting a breakneck pace for product delivery, it’s essential for B2B brands to at least offer customers the choice of rapid-turnaround shipping, if not making that speed the default.
In addition to giving buyers flexibility in shipping options and pricing, B2B e-commerce platforms should also offer robust order tracking and status updates. It is the rare company that never misses a scheduled delivery date, but if a customer can anticipate delays thanks to real-time digital alerts about the status of their order, that’s likely to mitigate their frustration.
Glitches happen. And being able to solve user issues quickly is absolutely critical to B2B e-commerce websites’ success. Automated customer service, like getting answers from the chatbot that’s always floating in one corner of a digital platform, has increased the speed with which users can get answers to common questions, which is great. But few customers want AI-exclusive assistance. In fact, 71% of Americans would rather interact with a human than a chatbot or some other automated process, according to PwC.
The best approach for B2B e-commerce websites when it comes to customer service is a combination of human and machine, and smart companies will test a few approaches and interfaces to see what works best for their customers.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is among the most crucial tools in a digital marketer’s belt, just as important for B2B e-commerce platforms as it is for any other site. Making it easy for interested users to find their way to the products they’re searching for is a great way to drive customer satisfaction and sales.
Armed with a list of popular search keywords that are relevant to its products, a B2B brand can improve its search rankings and increase its website traffic by optimizing key pages and other elements of its e-commerce platform. From creating keyword-specific landing pages to ensuring backlinks to website content, SEO can be time-consuming—but worth the effort, especially when a partner agency can advise and guide the process.
Protecting customer data is a non-negotiable responsibility of B2B e-commerce websites. For some businesses, like those that provide financial services, security measures are an ever-present concern—but even for those that deal in less sensitive matters, the nature of selling online requires that measures be taken to keep customer information protected from breaches, hacks and bad actors.
B2B leaders should consult with their product and digital teams, or with their partner agency, to ensure that their e-commerce websites have appropriate security protocols in place. These can be as basic as using Https on the site or as complex as a Content Security Policy (CSP) to protect against XSS attacks.
To avoid getting trapped in the “customer centricity gap,” B2B e-commerce websites must deliver exceptional user experiences. See how simple improvements to your digital platform can lead to significant growth using our B2B E-commerce Growth Calculator.