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Lessons learned from a decade of B2B eCommerce

Four common points of failure in B2B eCommerce initiatives, including ways to avoid re-platforming, massive customization and other costly misfires.

Steve ShafferBy Steve Shaffer

For mid-size manufacturers and distributors, and many other B2B (business-to-business) organizations for that matter, eCommerce has become a major challenge for the operation. Despite the early promise of added sales and increased efficiencies, these companies are often experiencing what can only be described as a failure to meet the initial goals and objectives of the eCommerce system itself.

At some level, these project misfires are often attributed to factors such as poor rates of adoption after an initial launch, a platform that can’t map to complex B2B processes, and/or a need for major and expensive customizations. Although these factors certainly impact the success of the system, the actual issue stems from an underestimation of the differences between B2C (business-to-consumer) and B2B commerce. Adding fuel to the fire is a common message of “convergence” from B2C eCommerce vendors eyeing a huge opportunity projected by many analysts to be more than $1 trillion by the year 2020.

The fact is that B2B organizations operate in a vastly different manner from B2C when it comes to the buyer’s journey. Behind common functions such as user navigation, shopping carts and menu structures lies a complex set of processes, business rules and integration requirements that not only vary tremendously from a B2C buying scenario, but can even be unique to organizations within the same industry. Trying to customize a B2C retail eCommerce engine to a B2B commerce environment is the epitome of the “square peg in a round hole” metaphor. Most of the time, it simply doesn’t work.

business to business, eCommerce, business to consumer, platform customization, manufacturers and distributors, enterprise applications

B2B organizations operate in a vastly different manner from B2C when it comes to the buyer’s journey.
Photo Courtesy of | alexmillos

The good news is that after several years of experience building eCommerce systems specifically for B2B, we’ve learned the functionality and capabilities that can be standardized and the processes that typically require customization. We can use these lessons to build stronger, more efficient manufacturing and distribution eCommerce systems.

However painful it may seem, we need to examine the major points of failure many B2B initiatives have already faced. In my experience, there are usually four common areas where mid-size manufacturers and distributors struggle when it comes to designing, implementing and maintaining their eCommerce systems. These four areas typically map to several different scenarios:

1.The need for massive, expensive platform customization. Too many software decisions are made on the easy promise of an “out of the box” solution from a vendor with an eCommerce solution based on a B2C retail engine. Unfortunately, those operating within the retail industry are not fully aware of the many complexities surrounding B2B operations, particularly those within the ever-changing manufacturing and distribution industries. Although there are similarities between B2B and B2C eCommerce requirements at a design level, what most retail eCommerce vendors fail to understand is that the underlying purpose of B2B eCommerce is different from that of B2C. B2C eCommerce is meant to increase sales. The goal of B2B eCommerce, however, is to maximize efficiency in a complex world of “many to many” relationships between buyers and sellers.

The system must acknowledge and handle the fact that B2B is driven by the need to connect complex business processes and data from the back office in order to create a more robust, user friendly experience across the enterprise. Those B2B business processes and data must drive that experience in order for the technology and the project itself to succeed. B2B eCommerce is about making it easier for people and customers to engage and do business. eCommerce engines built for retail simply cannot handle this complexity without expensive customization efforts, as they are built to encourage more sales.

Having said that, it is important to point out that B2C shoppers and B2B buyers do share some common needs when using an eCommerce system. From a purchasing standpoint, both require a user experience that is familiar from a consumer perspective, whether it’s incorporating best practices around menu structures and labels, or using a typical shopping cart icon. The experience has to be relatable to the individual and that requires using common consumer navigation standards. Yet the ability to seamlessly navigate a shopping cart experience is where the convergence of B2B and B2C ends.

2. A rush to launch. Mid-size manufacturers and distributors often adopt a sense of “transform or die,” which creates added pressure to not only the development cycle, but also the communication methods surrounding the new eCommerce capabilities. Adoption within B2B eCommerce can be a tricky, and at times frustrating process. Sales may feel that they’re now “out of the loop” in terms of the buying cycle. Customer service representatives may view the eCommerce site as just another channel they have to manage. Buyers may not feel comfortable or well-educated in terms of gaining maximum value from the system. Both internal and external stakeholders, from existing and new customers, to employees, channel partners and others, need the value proposition of the new eCommerce not only communicated, but marketed to them. This includes robust training components and highly developed help sections, not to mention building a bridge between field representatives and the online system.

The lack of strong communications before, during and after the launch of the new eCommerce system creates a major point of failure all on its own. Key stakeholders must be identified at the beginning of the project, and communications requirements must be outlined and begun well before the launch of the system. Anything that is related to educating internal staff, partners and customers regarding the capabilities of the new system such as required training components, common visual and messaging assets, and other critical communications tools, needs to be identified during the analysis phase, not during or after implementation of the new B2B eCommerce system.

3. Poorly designed integration with enterprise applications. B2B commerce requires strong integration between the organization’s critical backend processes and software, and the eCommerce system. In most cases, the complexities of the B2B operation require communication between sophisticated ERP (enterprise resource planning), fulfillment, and other enterprise applications.  Those applications are often ill-equipped to integrate with a B2B digital experience, which involves much more than just adding a shopping cart. A strong B2B eCommerce solution must unify the entire commerce environment and support a wide range of buying scenarios, from transactions that are 100 percent self-service to those that are almost completely sales-supported.  Acknowledgement of this requirement often comes too late in terms of the eCommerce launch, and is one of the reasons we see so many initial B2B eCommerce systems re-platformed within a year of launch.

Unlike B2C eCommerce, there is a myriad of business and operation scenarios that are unique to the buying cycle of B2B commerce. In fact, the differences between B2B and B2C commerce often reflect the nature of the stakeholders involved. The relationship is many to many: many solutions, many buyers and influencers, and many different contractual agreements. Accounting or payables departments may want access to download historical invoices or pay outstanding balances. A salesperson may need specific information about a buyer prior to a meeting. Fulfillment departments may require information on multiple shipping locations and ship-to contacts. Each of these complex scenarios, and others, needs to extract and update data from enterprise systems, often in a real-time manner. Enterprise application integration requirements should be identified and taken into account during the software selection process, not afterwards. And certainly, they cannot be based on the promises of an eCommerce software salesperson that it only requires a simple “plug in.”

4. Burdensome, multi-application environments. Mid-size manufacturers and distributors often try to solve specific needs by purchasing individual applications for each unique requirement of the B2B commerce environment. In addition, solutions primarily built for B2C usually include features that result in more overhead, but simply don’t translate to B2B needs. This scenario creates a complex web of tools and solutions that cannot easily communicate with each other or the organization’s enterprise systems. Many of these applications are cloud-based, making integration even more complex. In some cases, the purchases and implementation have been made entirely outside of the IT department, turning support into an ongoing nightmare. A mashup of applications cobbled together as needs are identified results in the opposite of an efficient, unified eCommerce environment, one that is also destined for failure.

The rush to provide a usable eCommerce system, poor communication and solutions chosen without enough planning and analysis can all create massive dysfunction for the organization as well as the development team attempting to launch a successful B2B eCommerce system. The answer to creating a unified B2B commerce environment lies in selecting a platform that can be easily customized to meet the unique needs of your organization without requiring massive customization or the purchase of extraneous, additional applications. In other words, choosing and customizing software that, where eCommerce is concerned, is specifically built for the complexities of the B2B world.

Steve Shaffer, CEO of Insite Software (“Built for B2B,”), has more than 20 years of experience as a technology entrepreneur and executive.

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