Long before a pandemic locked employees in their homes, there had been a blurring between personal and professional personas in online buying. Buyers procuring components for an HDMI cable manufacturer wanted the same experience as those buying an HDMI cable for their homes.

It shouldn’t be that surprising. Digital stalwarts have trained all of us to expect a baseline experience when shopping online.

• If we want something, we want to find it – even if we misspell it.
• If we can’t find what we want, we want a reasonable suggestion.
• If we don’t like something, we want to be able to return it.

Consumerization Continues to Define B2B eCommerce Experience

Forrester calls this the Consumerization of B2B eCommerce. Increasingly, B2B buyers expect B2B sites to mirror the easy-to-use consumer sites they go to for personal buying. In fact, Forrester has found that if a manufacturer has two sites, one for B2B and one for B2C – it’s not unusual for the B2B buyer to have each tab open – so they can use the B2C’s rich features.

In the report, Forrester finds that too often there is a business-like UI for the authentication screen — but rarely a more user-friendly one inside. Consumerization might as well be synonymous with instant gratification. Whether it is page-load time, millisecond search retrieval, or being able to have questions answered at odd-hours of the day, buyers have become an impatient bunch. If B2C buyers won’t stand for it – neither will B2B buyers.

And while that might not have mattered a few years ago, choices are becoming more prevalent and buyers’ loyalties are fluid. They will seek out more frictionless opportunities, like Amazon Business Services. Amazon has replicated the ease of buying associated with its consumer juggernaut and the results have been staggering. According to RBC Capital, ABS is growing faster than the consumer side and is expected to hit $31 billion in revenue by 2023.

Digital Natives Are Driving Changes

The embrace of ABS is no doubt being driven by the burgeoning group of digital natives (aka millennials). This cohort is not necessarily more technically proficient – but is certainly more at home with technologies than their non-native brethren. Thomas John, now Commerce Practice Director at Rightpoint Consulting, observed two researchers with a life sciences company on the same quest for product information. “The veteran researcher was more apt to browse the catalog and even reference print catalogs,” he said. “The junior researcher was more of a power search user that used the site search capabilities to sift through the data of the product catalog.”

But despite the yearning for feature-rich experiences, only 13% of buyers surveyed by Forrester rate their typical experiences as being better than Amazon. That’s an ongoing-challenge, says Dale Traxler, a longtime eCommerce expert at Rightpoint before joining Coveo, a leader in AI search experience technology.

“Most B2B sites are dated before they launch. B2B clients don’t have the staff to think about content strategies, experience design, or tailoring search to meet a customer’s needs. As a result, buyers get a one-size-fits-all experience that is frustrating to them – and they end up calling the customer service center and letting them do the heavy lifting.” And not happily.

It’s nothing personal. Your business customers just don’t want to talk to you.

According to Forrester 2019 Research, 61 percent of B2B buyers had reported preferring to search online on their own. As the economy is now pushing us all towards going online-only, Forrester is anticipating even more growth. That’s bad news for sales reps – and perhaps even worse for companies who have dreadful online search experiences.

Personalization Reduces Friction in Transactions

“B2B eCommerce is not a monolith,” says Richard Isaac, digital commerce guru and CEO of RealDecoy. “So the user expectation often changes by vertical.” And the key to understanding user expectation is through personalization.

Personalization is the process of rolling up data from CRM systems, ERP systems, log files from prior search histories, etc., and using machine learning to understand the buyer’s intent and context. This adds a layer of intelligence to the digital experience to create an intelligent buying experience.

Isaac gives an example of how one of his clients, a restaurant supplier, provides a restocking feature, that allows buyers to easily reorder commonly ordered items. With another client, a hardware supplier, the site needs to know when a buyer searches on “black” if it is the name of a brand or an attribute. “You need machine learning plus search in order to know the difference.”

Isaac hammers home the urgency. “B2B buyers are not out to browse — they are trying to get their jobs done. If they don’t have a positive user experience, you need to ask yourself, will they continue to buy from you?”

One buyer for a hard drive manufacturer relayed her ongoing frustrations with her experience. “The online catalog is never up to date – and neither is the pricing,” she says. “Even the rep says don’t look at the site, ‘it’s never right.’” If it weren’t for needing a very specific part, she said, “I wouldn’t buy from them.”

Consumer-Like Considerations for B2B Sites

So what are some of the areas B2B site owners need to focus on to create an always-open, consumer-rich site?

Digitizing Products and Catalogs

The full product inventory needs to be online – which can be a challenge when some component part manufacturers only send their catalogues in PDF form.

Understanding Naming Conventions

Product names are often born from a combination of manufacturer, distributor and supplier components, which gives the buyer a not-so-memorable moniker. If you can’t simplify the name, then create facets that help the buyer navigate to the right product collections.

Connecting to Real-Time Inventory

Buyers buy when they need to reorder something. Your online store should know and reflect what is actually available.

Managing Price Fluctuations

Prices fluctuate by sales volume. When a customer authenticates, the pricing should automatically reflect the contract price for the customer.

Finding Ancillary Material

Often the buyer is not the only decision maker – and need to provide product specs to domain specialists. Make it easy to find those materials.

Don’t BOM Out

If your site offers the ability to upload a Bill of Materials (BOM), then you better make sure you can identify, find, and price each of those items. Don’t ask the buyer to create work and then bomb out on them.

Fixing the Search

One buyer lamented keying-in a 12-digit product number – only to have 267 results return. Simple text search just won’t cut it with today’s sophisticated buyers.

Leveraging the Customer’s Digital Fingerprint

By clicking on some things and not on others, checking out some things and not others, customers are leaving a valuable fingerprint. Leverage that fingerprint by analyzing with machine learning.

Racing to Provide a Better UX

John with Rightpoint reminds us that technology has “reshaped our lives and digital interaction expectations.” And now, being marooned at home with online as the only channel available for almost all of our shopping, we will become even greater connoisseurs of good UX vs. bad. When the clouds lift, and the economy is in full force, B2B sites had best be ready.

Find out more about our B2B commerce solution, here.

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About Diane Burley

Diane Burley is an expert on what it takes to stand out in the digital age. She showcases her expertise when writing about the necessity of AI, NLP, and intelligent search in DX projects. She cut her teeth as a reporter, is a long-time technologist, and knows how to tell a story in a gripping way

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