Business-to-business sales and marketing have evolved rapidly over recent years as digitization has transformed the way buyers research and procure products and services.
Buyers are more conscious of the need to extract the maximum value from the supply chain, mainly because digitization has provided platforms and tools that allow them to collect and analyze more supply chain and procurement data than ever before.
Buyers also have access to richer and more diverse product and supplier information than in the past: Google is now a primary research tool for procurement professionals.
In short, there is an information revolution at all levels of the B2B market. Sellers no longer have control over the flow of information to buyers, and buyers are intolerant of systems and processes that attempt to limit their access to information: They expect relevant and detailed information to be available to them at their convenience, and they are wary of having to go through the gatekeeper of a seller's sales department. That's true of buyers of any size, from business units in global corporations to small local companies.
What can B2B suppliers do to ensure that buyers have access to the information they expect?
E-Commerce Is No Longer Optional
Not too long ago, B2B sellers could rely on a prospective buyer to pick up the phone early in the vendor selection process. Today, buyers get much deeper into the purchase funnel before they make contact with a seller's sales department. They often want to talk to a salesperson at some point in the sales process, but initial vendor selection is based on independent research informed by company and product information that can be found online.
Today, when a buyer can't find sufficient information online, their next step is not to contact the vendor's sales team but to drop the vendor from consideration altogether. That's most likely the case in highly competitive sectors.
In short, if several suppliers are acceptable to a buyer, those that provide the most useful data online stand a greater chance of making it through the initial selection stages.
E-commerce is perhaps the most effective way of ensuring that adequate information is available online. Modern e-commerce applications are designed for presenting products and services with rich details in the areas that buyers care most about, particularly product specifications and pricing. They are, essentially, content management systems built for selling, making them more effective at information presentation than the less sophisticated catalog or listing solutions of the past.
E-commerce applications also include features designed for B2B sales. Those more focused on consumer retail such as Magento and WooCommerce can be enhanced with extensions and plugins to adapt them to B2B. Meanwhile, enterprise B2B platforms such as IBM Websphere and Oracle's Netsuite SuiteCommerce come with bulk ordering, customer-specific catalogs, and other business-to-business sales features.
E-commerce is also essential for search engine optimization. Most business buyers start the research process with Google. There's nothing particularly surprising about that; it's the natural starting point for any research. But, because so many business buyers rely on Google, sellers that don't rank well are at a considerable disadvantage relative to competitors with e-commerce pages that rank in Google for relevant queries. If your products don't have a prominent spot on Google searches, your buyers may never know they exist.
Purchase Decisions Aren't Purely Rational
We expect business buyers to be more rational than consumers. Few procurement professionals make spur-of-the-moment decisions, and there is often a long list of criteria that a seller should comply with to be considered. Nevertheless, nonrational factors can have a surprising impact on procurement decisions.
In "The B2B Elements of Value," management consultants Bain & Company offer a hierarchical breakdown of the factors that influence B2B buyers—organized as a pyramid. The foundations are what you would expect: meeting specifications, acceptable prices, scalability, and quality, among others. Beyond those basic requirements, Bain lists less-concrete factors, including personal factors such as good design and reduced anxiety, and career factors such as reputational assurance.
Design and aesthetics are interesting factors because they're not something B2B businesses have focused on in the past. You may be familiar with the "design" qualities of older enterprise software and catalog sites. But, the prevalence of SaaS software, the elegant design of modern online retail stores, and a general improvement in online design have conditioned us to expect something better than traditional enterprise design.
The aesthetics of online information sources have an important, if unconscious, influence on business buyers' decisions.
Once again, e-commerce plays an important role here. The best modern B2B e-commerce platforms have learned many lessons from consumer retail, and it's easy today to construct an e-commerce presence that is both visually and functionally impressive.
Integration and Automation
As part of a push to exert greater control over spending and procurement, businesses have widely adopted e-procurement and spend-management platforms. SAP Ariba, Coupa, Jaggaer, and similar platforms allow businesses to enforce procurement policies and automate workflows.
E-procurement is far more effective when procurement data can be automatically gathered from suppliers and when tasks such as the generation and communication of requisition orders, purchase orders, and invoices happen automatically. To make full use of their e-procurement platform, buyers also benefit from punchout catalogs, which allow them to access supplier catalogs from within the e-procurement system.
This type of automation is only possible if suppliers support integration with their buyer's e-procurement platform, and, once again, e-commerce is the simplest way to meet the buyer's need for integration. Via new Cloud integration gateways, it is possible to integrate any e-procurement platform with any e-commerce application.
Earlier, we referred Bain's B2B Elements of Value pyramid. We mentioned only a few of the elements that go into a B2B buyer's decision. Others include time savings, reduced effort, and decreased hassle, along with information, transparency, connection, and integration. It's easy to see why buyers are enthusiastic about working with sellers who can offer integration and automation.
The B2B market has evolved at a slower pace than the consumer retail market, but we see many of the same pressures: the desire for transparency, superior user experiences, self-service, and automation. B2B suppliers who leverage eCommerce and other digital tools will flourish, and those who don't will be challenged as buyers seek partners who can better fulfill their needs.
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