E-commerce is the future of B2B transactions. While many companies have already staked out a claim in the vast digital landscape, others have been reluctant to concentrate their energies on their digital channels. If a business hasn't yet started to shift its attention to developing a viable e-commerce platform and connecting it with their operational processes, they risk missing out on a crucial competitive advantage.
While e-commerce has been seeping into B2B transactions over the last few years, its impending full digitization is the most profound force affecting supply chain and sales efforts since process automation and real-time management first found their enterprise footing. It presents some fairly drastic changes to enterprise operations, which can quickly become obstacles if companies do not make a concerted effort to integrate their supply chain and sales concerns and develop robust, omnichannel e-commerce strategies. The catalogs, sales reps and call centers that formed the main body of the commercial enterprise supply chain are being supplanted by online stores and virtual assistants, according to a recent Forrester report.
"B2B customers have substantially shifted their research and transaction activities online - and onto their mobile devices," Forrester analysts observed. "As such, B2B companies have been forced to fundamentally rethink critical customer engagement strategies and core investments in commerce infrastructure."
Practical Ecommerce contributor Dale Traxler noted that companies that invested early in B2B e-commerce were able to reduce their operating costs while simultaneously increasing revenue, customer satisfaction and market share. As more companies invest in similar strategies, thinning margins will make the gains realized by early adopters harder to come by. The winners of the mature B2B e-commerce battle will be those that excel in nearly every area.
B2B e-commerce: Barriers to optimization
Traxler also highlighted some plights common to companies struggling to launch an integrated B2B e-commerce platform. These factors included:
- Expanding locations means growing headaches: While the digital marketplace makes it easier to close deals in far-flung locales, the physical infrastructure involved in delivery can be difficult to ramp up quickly. On the back end, warehousing and shipping can be complex, especially if multiple carriers are involved. On the front end, delivery and billing often present more problems. Trying to optimize inventory or use real-time data for supply chain management may encounter barriers.
- Speed and availability are not just appreciated - they are expected: E-commerce has also led to a shift in attitude. More B2B transactional relationships are taking on an air of B2C interactions, with buyers increasingly demanding premium service. In the digital landscape, a company's chief competitor is also at the client's fingertips, and any aspect of the transaction that does not meet a company's heightened expectations, fair or not, may send the organization scuttling off to a different partner. Enterprises have to be able to make promises about the availability and delivery speed of their products or services and then ensure they can follow through.
- Business practices and corporate hierarchies have more variables: B2B interactions have long dealt with a certain amount of specialization and siloing - products, customers and content are not likely managed by the same department. However, omnichannel e-commerce has increased the number of different duties, roles, responsibilities and even job titles in most companies. At the same time, multiplying departments are expected to divide their attention between their direct activities and overall performance. This can complicate B2B integration, making it difficult for a company to interface with partners. They may be dealing with distinct and unfamiliar roles, buying processes and authorities for different segments of their client's company.
- Pricing can turn into a high-wire act: Organizations are starting to experiment with variable pricing, using advanced analytics strategies to plot dynamic pricing models that take custom options, including loyalty programs, rebates and tax credits, into account. Online, pricing models have hidden value - while not as fluid as their B2C counterparts, B2B pricing options can be altered to help convince a prospective client to buy or used as a bargaining chip that is part of a greater service package. Many companies will succeed at making price modeling part of the omnichannel experience, leaving organizations struggling with it in the dust.
Leveraging B2B e-commerce for lasting ROI
The success of B2B e-commerce platforms hinges on breaking down the barriers to optimization and incorporating the fluidity and flexibility online interactions demand without sacrificing the company's individual identity or commitment to service. Developing a viable cross-channel commerce strategy is about more than just deploying order management software - companies need to couple technological investments with targeted improvements in customer engagement and sales effectiveness.
Although this sounds like a tall order, an approach that only focuses on the operational aspects of B2B relationships and none of the marketing and sales techniques will have almost as low of a ceiling as a company that makes high promises they cannot follow through on. Of course, the two parts help one another - without a solid infrastructure and supply chain management system, businesses cannot effectively integrate its back-end operations into client-facing interactions.
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