B2B ecommerce is an interesting conundrum. It has the ability to both cut expenses and drive up sales, however it rarely gets the funding or attention needed to succeed. There are exceptions of course, like Staples, that understand the massive value capture that can be made with a solid ecommerce presence. However the development of a B2B ecommerce site usually falls not under marketing, but under a sales executive, who has no experience in driving ecommerce in a way that really gets to the value available.
On the buyer side, B2B ecommerce is in high demand. Business buyers shop online in their personal lives and are very comfortable with it. In fact, research here and here (as examples) show that B2B buyers are digitally moving through the sales funnel without assistance from salespeople more and more. Sales is focusing on closing (as they should) but if your digital isn’t doing the work, you’re missing out on long-term growth opportunities. Add to that the ability for digital to personalize, which translates to upselling and cross-selling to your buyers. This drives real value that is difficult to get through a salesperson in 2015.
The world is moving and many, many businesses are missing the boat.
What is the problem? As I mentioned above, a lot of times the problem is in the structure of the company. B2B sales is under a sales team and lead by an executive who doesn’t really understand why marketing matters. But ecommerce strength comes from marketing, not sales, and requires an experienced marketer to do well. In order to excel, a business needs to bring in the skill set from outside and give them the support they need. Which takes us to the second problem: money.
It takes investment. In a time where we’re cutting costs left and right, investing in a strong ecommerce platform seems expensive. Isn’t it just exchanging one channel for another? In my experience, a good ecommerce and digital marketing arm can give you a significant lift in sales from your current customer base in addition to cutting costs over time (typically you can reduce customer service and sales team members with a good ecommerce presence). The initial bump is seen from your smaller or less important customers, because they aren’t getting the sales attention they need now. But even the bigger guys will respond as well.
Finally, the single biggest problem is that B2B executives often don’t realize the potential value of ecommerce in their business. It takes real digging to understand the costs of taking an order today versus taking one online. And it takes experience to realize how digital marketing can lift sales; e.g. why the investment should be made. This is a cultural shift in the company and a political problem over and above the first two issues. It’s more likely to change due to competitive shifts or threats than it is due to a lightbulb going off in someone’s head. Unfortunately, that means a lot of businesses are going to be eaten alive in the new digital world. That’s already happening now (taxis, department stores, even cigarettes are being eaten by digital) and will continue to happen. Is your industry next?
My recommendation is to bring in talent and invest in the plans. Early on focus on email and paid search to start supporting your sales them. Then add ecommerce and make it world-class instead of focusing on reducing the investment. Long-term it has a massive payoff for most companies. It won’t save a company with poor products, but it absolutely can drive good product to the next level. Your customers are shopping online just as they do at home. You should be there to meet them.