The Foundations of a B2B Ecommerce Strategy: How to Give Your Customers What They Want

The Foundations of a B2B Ecommerce Strategy: How to Give Your Customers What They Want

B2B ecommerce is taking over.

By the end of 2017, 52% of B2B buyers are expected to make at least half of their business purchases online. According to Forrester’s Death of a B2B Salesman report, nearly 75% of B2B buyers say that it’s more convenient to buy from a website than it is to buy from a sales representative.

What’s more, if they’ve already decided what to buy, 93% say that they also prefer buying online than from a salesperson.

What does this mean?

If businesses want to take home their piece of the $7.661 trillion B2B ecommerce pie, then creating and optimizing a customer-delighting B2B ecommerce strategy is essential.

Here’s what that foundation looks like …

1. Root Your B2B Ecommerce Strategy in B2C Soil

Amazon has set the bar high.

Now, it seems B2B ecommerce businesses need to catch up.

“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that B2B is fundamentally different than B2C. There are nuances depending on your customer’s level of technical proficiency. But at the end of the day, we are still selling to people. Ecommerce expectations are being set by others outside your industry like Amazon.”

Bryan Eisenberg, Co-Author of Be Like Amazon

So what exactly are B2B buyers looking for?

Business customers rank the following B2C capabilities as increasingly essential to their own online buying experience:

  • Enhanced search functionality: 62%
  • Ratings and reviews: 56%
  • Personalized recommendations: 54%
  • Promotions and special offers: 51%
  • Mobile-optimized website: 41%
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Those are just a few of the reasons — along with a dedicated Wholesale Channel for B2B sales — our merchants are growing 126% year over year.

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Driving all these increasingly essential capabilities are three factors …

  1. By a ratio of three to one, B2B buyers want to self-educate.
  2. The average B2B prospect is 57% through their purchase decision before engaging a supplier.
  3. 86% percent of B2B customers prefer self-service tools to reorder than talk to a sales representative.

As Ben Chidiac, the co-founder of Beard & Blade, explains:

“As in retail, business customers benefit greatly from the time and effort savings of online ordering, in their own time, with full visibility of the status of their order.”

In fact, self-service preference is set to continue. Forrester estimates that by 2020, one million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service ecommerce.

B2C businesses looking to expand into B2B ecommerce have a huge head start because they’re built around self-service options.

What if you’re already in the B2B space, but bereft of the B2C elements customers expect?

Marketing consultant Shane Barker offers what might at first sound like an overly simplistic starting point:

“Your website is your virtual storefront, so you need to make sure visitors can easily navigate it to find what they need. That’s true whether you’re selling your goods/services to individual consumers, or to other businesses.”

Maykke sells designer home goods through their online store.

Their website’s navigation is stellar. The minimalist design and familiar layout are intuitive and practical.

Maykke website navigation

Image via Maykke

The search function pulls up previews of product listings as the visitor types.

Maykke preview product listings

When online B2B bookseller BookPal improved their customer experience to be more like B2C stores, they garnered:

  • 40% boost in conversion rates
  • 15% decrease in bounce rates
  • 19% rise in AOV in the first 90 days
  • 211% lift in AOV over three years

Tony DiCostanzo, President of BookPal, said:

“We looked at, ‘What is the experience like for that person when they shop … Nordstrom, a Pottery Barn and other retailers in the consumer space?’ So that, ultimately, the decisions we made on our own site from a design and functionality standpoint would be very familiar to them when they approach our store having tremendous experience shopping at other retailers.”

However, copying B2C’s play-by-play won’t always work. BookPal had to innovate due to their pricing model:

“We recognized that what we did was unique from a Nordstrom or a Pottery Barn. We had tiered pricing. We had a model whereas they bought more copies, they would save on the price. So, it became really important to make that flow into the overall simplicity.”

In the end, BookPal integrated a responsive tiered pricing table on each product page:

B2B ecommerce strategy BookPal pricing table

Image via Marketing Sherpa

The number of units a customer selects changes the price highlighted in the table.

And this solution is not only elegant. It’s also vital. 74% B2B customers are “extremely” or “somewhat likely” to switch brands if a company has a difficult purchasing or checkout process.

It also works well because the pricing is so transparent.

85% of buyers want full transparency from merchants, which includes “all relevant shipping fees, duties, and taxes, so they know what they are paying.”

Transparency in pricing and product details is also the number one factor in repeat B2B purchases. Surprisingly, “consistently lower prices” is only the fourth most important factor.

“[One B2B ecommerce myth is that] you can’t publish prices on the website. That’s nonsense. B2B people are still people—talk to them like normal human beings.”

Peep Laja, Principal at CXL Institute

And the insatiable demand for a B2C-like experience doesn’t stop there.

Buyers also want flexible payment options. 69% of business buyers prefer direct payments like credit cards or online gateways over purchase orders and invoices.

Renzo Costarella, business development at Flint, calls special attention to this misstep:

“The number one myth is that businesses only want to buy with credit cards when, in reality, they like to use many types of payment options.”

“You need to have multiple payment methods, including ACH/e-check, debit and credit, digital wallet, email/text payments (P2P) and even cryptocurrency.”

This is backed up by research from Accenture, showing the relative popularity of other channels:

B2B commerce strategy buyers purchasing options statistics

Image via Accenture

“Limiting payment options to either immediate or invoice only can hurt sales.”

“Offering a finance option (where you outsource the risk) is an effective way of increasing conversions and perhaps more importantly, raising average order sizes and repeat business. But offering a variety of options is a must.”

Ed Leake, Managing Director of Midas Media

Bottom-line: Buyers want the ease, simplicity, and self-serve functionality of B2C ecommerce for their B2B purchases. Gartner has predicted that by the year 2020 a customer will manage 85% of their relationship with an enterprise without interacting with a human.

So, start thinking B2C.

2. Make Support the Heart of Your B2B Ecommerce Strategy

No customer ever thought, “I wish this buying experience was less enjoyable.”

Econsultancy asked companies to state the single most exciting opportunity for 2017.

The result? Customer experience.

Econsultancy most exciting opportunity statistics 2017

Image via Econsultancy

But why is customer experience such an exciting opportunity?

According to Genesys, the top reason businesses invest in customer experience is to improve customer retention.

And customer retention is certainly worth a business’s attention.

Repeat buyers spend 33% more than new ones, and gaining new customers costs 500% more than keeping current ones.

Then there’s the Bain study which found that a 5% improvement in customer retention rates can result in a 25-95% increase in profits.

When looking to improve customer experience, customer service is surely a good place to start. Jake Rheude, the director of marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, drives this home:

“Customer support is critical. If you receive a call or email inquiring about the status of an order, your warehouse management system had better be able to provide a detailed explanation of the order’s status.”

“Whether your customer is waiting on a critical part to fix a machine, or the desk for a new employee starting next Monday, a lack of detail in the order status can cause serious issues.”

And while 64% of B2C customers expect companies to respond and interact in real time, the figure rises to 80% when talking about B2B.

Support is crucial to a B2B ecommerce strategy

Image via Salesforce

So which customer service tools do buyers prefer?

According to Zendesk, chat sees the highest customer satisfaction rating at 92%, while Twitter sees the lowest at 77%.

Zendesk customer satisfaction ratings customer service tools

Image via Zendesk

So why is chat so popular among buyers?

According to Software Advice, no hold times and convenience are key:

Software Advice reasons for choosing live chat

Image via Software Advice

From a demographic perspective, millennials have now surpassed Gen Xers as the most prominently represented generation in the modern workforce. Dubbed ‘the anxious generation,’ it probably won’t surprise you to learn that millennials aren’t keen on phone calls, and prefer chat based communication.

“The myth is that businesses don’t want to create a relationship with the businesses they buy from, but they want brands to create special experiences for them.”

“You need to have a chatbot that can be available to engage with customers around the clock and whenever customers want to buy but have a question. That will increase the number of transactions.”

Murray Newlands, Forbes Contributor and Founder of Chatty People

Coca-Cola is utilizing live chat on their dedicated B2B ecommerce site,

Coca Cola B2B ecommerce strategy live chat

Image via My Coke

“Coca-Cola’s answer has been to build an effective live chat system that gives customers and customer service agents an alternative way to communicate outside of telephone calls, email, and in-person dialogue,” says Marta Dalton, director of ecommerce for Coca-Cola Refreshments.

Dalton also noted that live chat not only gives customers the information they need but also improves the efficiency of My Coke’s customer service department.

According to Deloitte, 62% of companies view customer experience delivered by the contact centers as a competitive differentiator. Likewise, a Walker study found that customer’s experience with a brand will surpass product and price as the key differentiator between brands by the year 2020.

All told, B2B organizations will need to invest in a multiplicity of support options if they are to thrive in the future.

3. Humanize Your B2B Ecommerce Strategy through Social Media

The 2017 B2B Report from Content Marketing Institute found that social media was the second “most critical” tactic that—along with email newsletters—B2B marketers are using.

B2B ecommerce strategy most critical in 2017

And like it or not, Salesforce shows how social media is only becoming more important to businesses:

Salesforce social media importance statistic

Image via Salesforce

“As a B2B brand, there are always clever and highly-effective marketing tactics to be deployed via social networks.”

“Use LinkedIn and Twitter to build an authoritative, active, and personal brand. The tight relationships that employees and executives can forge on social media are truly impactful, leading to many sales opportunities — in addition to the possibility of partnerships and countless other business ventures.”

Sam Hurley, Founder of OPTIM-EYEZ

Social media straddles many departments—in particular, branding and customer service.

And that’s why 84% of high-performing marketing teams align their social media marketing strategy with other activities such as customer service.

Salesforce B2B ecommerce strategy social media marketing and customer service

Below, B2B ecommerce heavy-weight Grainger demonstrates their personal touch on Twitter:

Grainger social media marketing twitter

Image via Twitter

“B2B just means that you’re working with a business … but you are still connecting with people. They just happen to be the decision makers within businesses.”

“The number one must in B2B ecommerce is creating a brand that people want to connect with. Make it funny, cheeky, snarky, educational, entertaining — anything — as long as you aren’t boring.”

Rachel Pedersen, Managing Partner of Influence Tree

Below, Grainger showcases their personality. And for an @reply, the tweet has a surprisingly high amount of engagements.

Grainger twitter personality

B2B or B2C—people still want to be engaged and emotionally invested in your brand in some way.

Perhaps Chris Goward, founder & CEO of WiderFunnel, said it best:

“The biggest myth in B2B ecommerce is that their customers are purely rational decision-makers. Many marketers don’t realize that B2B buyers still buy based on emotions and rationalize their decisions irrationally.”

“People are people, whether they’re buying a technology platform for an enterprise or socks on Amazon.”

So, don’t be afraid to get personal with your brand on social media.

Chat with Shopify Plus

One-on-one guidance for B2B ecommerce growth …

Shopify Plus hosts ecommerce’s largest ecosystem of Merchant Success Managers, ecommerce Gurus, and award-winning Agency Partners.

Those are just a few of the reasons — along with a dedicated Wholesale Channel for B2B sales — our merchants are growing 126% year over year.

Get started today

Bringing Together Your B2B Ecommerce Strategy

As B2B ecommerce grows, businesses need to adapt to changing customer expectations.

When planning your customer-centric business strategies, keep these three points in mind:

  1. Root Your B2B Ecommerce Strategy in B2C Soil
  2. Make Support the Heart of Your B2B Ecommerce Strategy
  3. Humanize Your B2B Ecommerce Strategy through Social Media

Of course, ultimately, you only need to do one thing to take home your share of the $7.661 trillion pie … give them what they want.

About the Author

Tom Joseph Law is a freelance content marketer. He specializes in writing long-form, data-driven articles on marketing and business topics. Find out more about Tom’s work at Kill It Copy or connect with him Twitter.