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B2B eCommerce: A Different Approach is Needed

The industry is preparing for the emergence of B2B shops, and hopes to repackage old concepts to fit the bill. In other words, bright new presentations of shops to hawk those inks and steel girders.

16 Jan. 2017 Johannes Altmann
B2B Teaser
Yet B2B shops don't in fact suffer from poor conversion rates. It's customer acceptance that is lagging behind. (Photo: Shutterstuck /

During my most recent projects for the dentistry, awning retail, publishing, furniture and office supplies industries, the eCommerce section of B2B sales was always considered only of minor concern. Companies had already dedicated time to formulating reasonable, well-considered specifications and employed professional agencies at ungodly rates to create attractive shops. The end results reflected their investment, and they could rightly proclaim: "We've gone digital."

Now comes the next step: draw on the previous constructions, typically with brochures and printed materials, processes for manual generation of offers and an outstanding call center with trained, pleasant employees, and add a shop on top. Scalable, standardized, structured and modern enough to adjust to future changes.

The Nice Gal at the Call Center is to Blame

Recent operators of B2B platforms have found, however, that acceptance among the current base of customers is significantly lower than anticipated. Customers don't seem to like buying from online shops. They prefer the good old-fashioned method of picking up the phone . Why?

The nice gal at the call center is to blame. Some customers have been calling her for 20 years now and have established a personal relationship. A little bit of small talk, a little office gossip and then an order, in many cases passed through with a wink despite being under the official minimum order threshold. The B2B field is an emotional one, even when you're dealing with a product as unsexy as dental implants.

Optimization of reach and conversion rates?

One would expect the classic eCommerce formula to apply: heavier traffic, higher conversion rate. Yet B2B shops don't in fact suffer from poor conversion rates. It's customer acceptance that is actually lagging behind. Average order values rarely achieve the targeted levels for demand-oriented purchasing. Customers simply aren't interested in buying in the online shop; the traditional way seems more attractive. While it's possible to lure customers with bonus points, add-ons and improved conditions, it hasn't proven an effective way to earn loyalty. Customers instead end up calling by phone — and requesting the same benefits. If refused, that new online shop can eventually lead to a sharp drop in customer satisfaction.

Productivity leads to motivation

Business purchasing is a far cry from an exciting shopping trip. It's an assigned task that is part of daily life in the office. As such, buying ink, toner and paper is no more fun that ordering hinges for awnings, abutment screws for dental implants or hygienic cloths. When an office setting is involved, productivity is key. Finishing jobs quicker, crossing mundane tasks and other items off the to-do list faster — everybody can get behind that.

So B2B shops really have one overarching goal: increasing user productivity. They must offer functions that allow for quicker, more efficient, transparent and secure completion of tasks.

Support the work

Daily office life has proven that tools that make work easier are always accepted. Ticket systems, checklist solutions, tools such as Evernote and Dropbox as well as delivery services are keep offices running more smoothly. A B2B shop needs to be more than just a friendly catalog alternative for younger, tech-savvy workers. Shops must establish themselves as a component in daily office life, and improve it in the process.

Find products quicker, confirm product selection through plausibility checks, assess combinations, take previous order history into account. One of our customers, Ratioform, puts a big focus on prior order history, showing you all recent orders in its packaging goods eShop — a logical choice, since mail order firms spend 90% of their time needed the same materials for their standardized product lines. It makes less sense for dentists' offices. Each patient needs a custom product, so the order history adds little value to the ordering process.

Our customer Warema produces awnings. I was surprised to learn just how unbelievably complex this seemingly ordinary product really is. Selecting the right components to mount the awnings in particular requires real specialized knowledge. An online shop for craftsmen hence needs to do more than just take an order; it also needs to teach and train. New employees can use a configurator tool to place orders, even without years of experience in the field. This frees up the master craftsman to delegate ordering to any of his employees.

A focus on methodology

You have to understand a company's daily office life before you can improve on it. Imagine a doctor's assistant is sitting at reception, waiting for the next patient. Since she's already at the computer, she can place a quick re-order for disinfectant spray, right? Actually, she can't. For security reasons, her computer isn't connected to the internet. The doctor's workstation is the only one with internet access, but she's got no time to place orders during the busy day. So who ends up ordering the disinfectant spray?

Within a B2B shop it's not easy to know who's selecting products at any given moment or ultimately placing the order. One thing is clear: it's rarely the same person. "Who's the boss?" — a core question that must be posed to understand office processes.

The workflow is nothing less that than the customer journey — a much-described but sadly underappreciated method. The customer journey tracks a user's progress and use of touchpoints . This is particularly interesting in a B2B environment, as it often turns out that customers need and use many touchpoints.

Motivation through productivity

Users will only be motivated to use a B2B shop if it actually adds value for them. These benefits are measured in terms of improved working productivity, not the attractiveness of the presentation. A great deal of non-starters are being produced today. We're simply trading 'old style' for 'nice game.'

New designs are often viewed as some sort of magic bullet for combating falling user numbers in B2B shops. Yet those overhauls often see functions eliminated because they are no longer implemented in the new shop system or pushed off to phase 2 planning. A panicked approach to digitization sees those helpful features go out the window in favor of the 'nonsense' approach. But this kind of solution is neither up to date nor actually improves productivity. Users will hardly be motivated to use such shops long-term.

B2B projects require understanding and planning and must lead to greater productivity — a major difference from B2C.