Anything can be sold online, but not every product is easy to sell. Traditional manufacturing companies used to sell using teams of salespeople. But customers expect more and more convenience, speed, and remote control. This is why companies providing their services or selling products in the B2B sector are increasingly implementing B2B eCommerce platforms. No wonder, since it saves time – both for employees and customers, increases sales and streamlines many business processes, plus it builds loyalty.
From this article, you will learn what functionalities to include, how to design and implement an effective and easy-to-use B2B platform, and what customers need.
The process of selling industrial products or B2B services is demanding and lengthy. Employees spend a lot of time answering the phone or replying to emails with questions about prices or stock availability.
Communication relies heavily on email, as companies have a wide range of customisable products, and customers often have access to personalised offers, negotiated business terms, and unique product requirements. Therefore, this communication is often based on contact with a sales representative who is well acquainted with the customer’s needs and the company’s own offering. However, e-mail correspondence is not always fast and effective. Messages are difficult to find, and offers are sent in Excel files, which are lost in the communication history or become outdated in a world of rapidly changing raw material prices. This results in an extended customer service process.
Added to this are the challenges of keeping customers informed of sales or new products on offer from the company.
In addition, negotiating prices is difficult, and it is also difficult to maintain consistency and a clear pricing policy for the entire company, as offer files are often stored on employee computer disks and are not updated.
The lack of integration with an ERP system forces orders to be rewritten between systems, which increases the risk of errors and delays order processing.
A B2B e-commerce platform avoids most of these problems. Although it forces the alignment of processes and requires resources to implement, it allows you to increase the efficiency of your sales and service, ultimately increasing the efficiency and profitability of your entire organisation.
What is a B2B e-commerce platform?
A B2B e-commerce platform is, in the simplest terms, an online shop where the buyer is another company. It allows for the sale of products, management of the purchasing and logistical processes involved in delivering goods to business customers, as well as payment and billing. Often, but not always, it is used for wholesale or recurring transactions. It is not always just physical products – increasingly, services are also offered in the self-service model.
However, if we stop treating the concept as just a sales channel and look at it more broadly, we don’t have to limit ourselves to just shopping. We can also look at the B2B platform as a tool to enable communication and online relationship building between business partners.
The B2B platform designed by the EDISONDA team for our client is an example of such a solution. In this system, clients purchasing a debt collection service can keep track of outsourced cases in real-time, as well as communicate with the people who deal with contacting debtors on their behalf. Before the platform was implemented, clients were forced to call customer service to find out the status of a case – this was much more labour intensive and required a large team on their side. After implementing the platform, the number of calls made to check the status of a case decreased by around 80%. Customers simply preferred the quicker and easier solution of a self-service system.
Benefits of implementing a B2B e-commerce platform for customers
Implementing a self-service platform for business customers greatly facilitates communication and business operations. The main benefits of implementing a B2B panel include:
- easy access to personalised product offers and special prices
- information about the availability of goods and prices available 24 hours a day
- all information about products, offers, terms and conditions, payments, and deliveries are in one place – you don’t have to search your mailbox to find an email with an order
- full control over the order – you can check whether the order has been dispatched, where it is, and why it hasn’t left the warehouse (as long as the appropriate order statuses are assigned).
Benefits of a B2B e-commerce platform for a company
Despite the initial expense and time required to design, implement and launch, the implementation of a B2B platform comes with very tangible benefits for the company. These include:
- saving staff time when carrying out repetitive and simple tasks – thanks to automation, they do not have to rewrite customer orders from emails or
- inform whether goods are in stock and can therefore speed up order processing
- eliminating mistakes – data can be automatically downloaded to the ERP system and WMS and TMS, if the company has them
- easier access to customers with marketing communications and promotions, which can also reduce surplus products in stock
- increased sales – the ability to reach new customers through this channel
- improved communication throughout the sales, delivery, and after-sales process, ultimately improving the customer experience and increasing
- customer loyalty
- reducing the cost of customer service
What is the difference between B2B and B2C e-commerce?
Everyone uses the internet but also needs to go to shops from time to time. We can transfer our habits from the consumer market to the e-commerce platform we are building, which is obviously helpful. But there are some important differences between B2C and B2B customers and the context of business transactions. These are worth taking into account before we start designing and implementing the platform. After all, it may turn out that our customers have different needs than we initially thought due to the specifics of their business or industry.
A complex decision-making process
In the B2B sector, the decision on what product to buy is often preceded by quite a thorough analysis. Sometimes you have to justify in front of your boss why you choose product A and not product B. This is because buying into companies often involves more risk or product value, or both.
The number of people involved in this decision-making process can sometimes be quite large, making it sometimes several months before a final decision is made. Of course, it all depends on the product – few people consult their supervisor about buying a stapler, but buying a machine tool or a harvester often already requires the involvement of the purchasing department, engineers, or management. During the preparation phase for platform implementation, it is worthwhile to address customer segmentation to diagnose what are the primary motivations of each of the participants in such a process.
Our advice: consider what functionalities in your platform can support long decision-making processes. Perhaps, for example, a pdf with a summary of the key benefits of your product, which the analyst will send to their manager.
The decision to buy is usually a very rational one. A given product may not appeal to the decision-maker, but if it benefits their business, it will be bought. This benefit is interpreted in different ways. For some, it will be the quality of the product itself or related services, the guarantee, and after-sales service. Others will place more importance on price.
Our advice: find out what your customers want and adapt the platform’s functionalities to their expectations. E.g.: special prices to reflect previous purchases.
More detailed product descriptions
When buying ordinary consumer goods, decisions are often made on impulse, sometimes only based on pictures. Of course, this depends on the product – if someone wants to buy a computer or white goods, they may need detailed specifications, and such a decision is often also preceded by a process of comparing and analysing the parameters over several days.
In the case of B2B, due to the need to better justify the purchase, platform users may require more detailed information. This may be technical drawings, a more detailed description, or more information on parameters.
More accurate does not always mean more – sometimes there is an art to presenting key information or showing it only after the user has expressed a need for it. It is also worth checking the level of factual knowledge of customers. It may turn out that they do not understand specialised terms or the units presented. In this case, you could consider including a glossary or additional explanations by experts (for example in the form of a video).
A limited number of customers
The volume of customers on B2B platforms is generally smaller than on B2C, but on the other hand, they can generate large one-off purchases and repeat purchases. This smaller number of customers allows you to take better care of them, and offer better service, which can result in more purchases in the future.
Additionally, this is an important aspect from the point of view of the platform implementation process. You can collect their needs and expectations on an ongoing basis, conduct various forms of research – e.g.: individual interviews, and finally, some of them can become our beta testers – as key users, they can be consultants for the introduction of new features.
As a rule, these are buyers who are committed to a company for the long term, often for many years. It is therefore worth considering what might attract them for this longer period. Is it the low prices? Or the ease of shopping on a trading platform? Or the quality of the products and services or the customer service process itself?
When it comes to B2B platforms, customers attach less importance to packaging. Of course, it is important that the goods are properly protected. It should reach the addressee intact.
However, the appearance itself is not that important. The exception here is when this product is later resold to B2C customers.
Instead, this market is characterised by larger one-off purchases. Hence, there is a need to switch from unit to bulk packaging. There may also be a need to switch units – from pieces to kilos or tonnes, possibly to meters.
Which functionalities of a B2B e-commerce platform to implement
Simplified sales process
Start with the presentation of your products, their search, and their order. If you have a website where you present your products, this is often not enough for the B2B customer, as they still order through other sales channels.
Prepare your search engine and catalogue in such a way that products can be found easily. Add a so-called suggestion, i.e. an additional layer with a hint that will be displayed when a fragment of the product name is typed in.
Remember that your regular customers are probably familiar with the product codes and may want to search by this code to get more precise results.
And don’t forget filters to narrow down your results. If you are in doubt about which categories to divide your products into, we can do a study called card sorting.
Because of the need to minimise the risks involved in a purchase, business customers sometimes need more data about the product. This does not mean that much more text needs to be added. The research we have carried out (including with an eye-tracker, a device that allows you to see what a user is looking at on a page) shows that users scan the page. With the help of large headlines and eye-catching elements, they pick out what allows them to judge whether it is valuable information. And only then do they look at the details.
For each industry and product, it may be different information. Maybe it’s an explanation of a difficult term – a dictionary can be useful here (it can also be helpful for SEO, i.e. increasing the search engine positioning of the sales platform). Or maybe they need detailed technical drawings. So it’s worth talking to existing and potential customers and diagnosing what they need.
In our experience, however, adding technical specifications, downloadable instruction files or legally required certificates (for concrete, for example) is crucial for a B2B platform
Shopping cart and ordering process
B2B customers carry over their expectations from regular online shops because they also shop privately. So it is not surprising that they expect similar platform functionality when they buy something on behalf of their company.
They need fast product catalogue search and ordering (e.g.: adding products to the shopping cart), but also fast order processing. Although it can vary with the latter – they may also want to order products for later to ensure continuity of supply. This has been particularly relevant recently due to Covid and the economic turmoil caused by the war in Ukraine.
What differs between B2C and B2B purchasing processes is customers’ expectations of stock information. Nobody likes to find out that an item is out of stock (especially once they have made a purchase). In the case of B2B sales, this can be all the more annoying because this type of customer generally makes larger purchases and spends more time on this activity. And he often has other duties to attend to. Therefore, information about the availability of the goods and the expected lead time for shipping and delivery is even more important in B2B than for the individual customer.
Our tip: Ensure that you can quickly access your current stock.
Offer multiple shipping options. People like to have a choice. Depending on the situation, they may want to be sent by courier, by a logistics company, by your transport, or even by parcel machine – if the ordered product fits there.
You may also wish to allow customers to collect themselves. It is worth making this as efficient as possible – you can give them the option to book an appointment in the calendar in your B2B sales platform after selecting self-pick-up. This will save you and your customers time. The platform can also be set up to provide an appropriate reminder system.
Multiple forms of payment
You can integrate your trading platform with a payment gateway that will offer multiple forms of payment. Keep in mind, however, that there may be methods that are more popular in other countries. In Poland, Blik is becoming more popular, but fewer people are using credit cards.
Do not forget an important function of the system, namely trade credit. Deferred payment is extremely important, especially in Polish conditions. Some customers pay 14 days after receiving an invoice. Others make payments on specific days of the month, and yet another group prefers (or is forced) to pay on delivery.
When preparing the system, it is necessary to differentiate between these customers and implement solutions that will allow you to block a customer’s purchases if they fall behind with payments. The platform can also be equipped with the automation of debt collection processes, e.g. payment reminders if the system records information about non-payment.
Personalisation is important in online sales because it saves time. When you convert the minutes to complete an activity by the number of employees, you may find that in the long run, this can significantly reduce costs. Therefore, it is worth considering what personalisation options to implement into the e-commerce platform.
This does not at all mean that the business customer will have to create their dashboard or configure the functions themselves. Personalisation should largely happen on its own – the system knows the customer, what he or she is ordering, and which segment he or she belongs to so that it can display the right set of functions or the most suitable products or articles to him or her. An element of the implementation should be an algorithm that calculates prices based on previous purchases, their frequency, special deals, and discounts. The advantage of a B2B eCommerce platform is that each of your customers can see different prices after logging in, taking into account your pricing policy and order history.
If you have multiple outlets and multiple ordering users, you will need to create individual accounts for each customer user and suggest default addresses, payment, or delivery methods for each.
Specific features of the B2B platform
The list of non-standard system functionalities can be long. It all depends on the industry and the products being sold. However, there are a few that can be universal for many platforms and can particularly enhance the efficiency of this sales channel:
- repeat purchases – through the functionality of duplicate orders, or ‘Order Again’ or multiple saved baskets
- multiple lists of favourite products – perhaps some people order certain products once a month, others say every 2 days – so customers should be able to configure such lists in an advanced way
- customised product and order codes – this makes it easier to link data between the customer’s internal system and the B2B platform
- import or export of orders and products – this allows data to be quickly loaded into another system or reports and presentations to be made to management
- integration of the platform and ERP systems – in the case of very advanced and large platforms, it is worth considering issuing a so-called API, so that customers can integrate their system with the platform – although they will not visit it as often, such integration means even greater customer loyalty and the facilitation of commercial activities
Mobile B2B e-commerce platform
Business users are no exception when it comes to using mobile devices. Of course, not every process can be easily transferred to a smartphone screen, but a large proportion of the functions of an ergonomic B2B eCommerce platform should be mobile-friendly.
The data leaves no illusions: according to a December 2022 report by Gemius, more than 65 % of users in Poland use a phone, 27 % use a computer and some 2 % use a tablet.
When designing a platform, consider (or find out during customer interviews) under what circumstances your users are or will be using the platform. Will they do so during their working hours sitting in the office at a computer? Or do they want to quickly check product data while on a construction site or in another situation that requires them to open the platform on their phone?
Maybe they will make a purchase there, or maybe they will only add products to their basket and then finish at the office making a larger order. Or do they have a need to check on their phone where their order is and when they will receive it?
Knowing this will help you decide how the platform should be prepared. You could design it as a responsive website prepared in RWD, which will adapt the width of the screen to the device on which it is displayed. Or you may want to consider preparing a downloadable mobile app or a PWA (Progressive Web App). Such a solution may work well where the recipients will use our tool very often – for example, several times a week. They will then be motivated to download such an app to their phone, and the benefits of faster performance and more convenient navigation will convince them to make the effort to install the app (which is not so easy).
How to get started – what the B2B platform implementation process should look like
There are different approaches to implementing business systems – some companies prefer to use so-called ‘boxed’ products. Their advantage is lower cost and quick implementation. Unfortunately, such products, despite their authors’ declarations, are often difficult to adapt to the company’s context. Therefore, if your company is prepared to compromise and has standard products and processes, you can use a ready-made B2B platform.
However, check first if you will have the possibility to adapt it to the needs of your organisation, the way you present and offer it, and the expectations of your customers. This is not always possible or proves to be very costly later on.
An alternative is to design a dedicated platform – a more expensive and time-consuming solution, but one that may prove paradoxically cheaper and more effective in the long run. This approach allows you to implement a solution that is exactly tailored to the expectations of your customers and your business and have full control over it.
Summary – how to implement a B2B platform well in your company:
- Conduct a business analysis and understand the context of your audience
Know the needs and expectations of your existing customers, but also those of potential customers. See what problems they face, what needs they have, what they report to salespeople, and what problems on the hotline occur most often. With this information, you will be able to find what makes you stand out from the competition.
- Conduct research with users and customers – preferably with the help of another company – then you will avoid the cognitive error known as the confirmation effect (confirmation bias). As humans, we succumb to many cognitive errors. The human mind prefers information that confirms previous opinions). From a large amount of data, it picks out those that confirm the correctness of its thinking. You can avoid these by having people who are not emotionally involved in the project do the research.
- Design and prioritise
The functionalities in the platform should meet the expectations of customers and the business, while also being easy to use. Don’t just rely on engineers, but use the expertise of interaction designers (user experience designers) who know how to design such a tool correctly. Remember, too, that you do not need to implement all the functions at once. It is worth planning a roadmap for the creation of the platform and deciding which elements will be implemented at the start (these should be those that are critical and bring the greatest value to the largest group of customers or are valuable to strategic customers), and those that will be added in the future.
A picture says more than a thousand words, so creating a design BEFORE implementation eliminates a lot of questions and doubts about how something will be implemented. Not only for the developers, who will then know how to implement the solution but also for all stakeholders (management, sales representatives). The company team will be clear about how something will look and work, making it easier to accept changes.
Performing usability tests, which can already be done at the design stage, eliminates ambiguities and reduces the risk of implementing a tool that is difficult to use. It may turn out that customers do not understand the navigation, descriptions, operation of a form, or other functionality, which may result in a reduced conversion (customers will abandon the tool and use the “old” ordering methods). At the design stage, you can still change the design before incurring the large costs associated with implementing the system.
- Implement the B2B platform agilely and analyse
With a finished, tested design, get on with implementing the system. If you don’t have in-house developers look for a company to do this. Do this in advance, however, as finding a trusted partner, signing a contract, and getting the process up and running often takes many months. Involving the implementation team at an earlier stage – solution exploration and design – allows you to consider the technology in the target system and find faster and less costly solutions.
However, launching the platform should not be the end of the work. Analysing platform traffic, and collecting feedback from customers and colleagues should start the continuous development of the platform – even if further functionalities and improvements will only appear on the platform after some time.