Replicating the Customer Service Experience Online is Key to Driving E-Commerce Adoption

When distributors and dealers start out on their e-commerce journey, there can be a temptation to replicate what established B2C businesses are doing. But, as Art McManus points out, B2B selling includes complexities that require a different approach than simply listing items online.

The major difference is that B2C retailers are selling to individual consumers, while B2B companies are serving clients, says McManus, the chief technology officer for FitForCommerce, a FEDA associate member and a boutique consultancy focused on helping companies in the digital space through data-driven decision-making and benchmarking research.

Because of that, B2B companies such as equipment distributors must integrate service more closely into the e-commerce experience than their B2C counterparts. “You need to make sure the online system can handle all the same requirements that a customer of yours would get when they pick up the phone and talk to a person,” McManus explains. “If it’s not, then the adoption will not be as high as you like – because they aren’t getting as much information as if they call someone.”

The key features of a B2B e-commerce system, says McManus, include:

  • Ensuring all product information is visible and easy to find, including literature, safety information, images, and a complete product description;
  • The ability to take orders, facilitate the order, and capture procurement;
  • Accepting all forms of payment; and
  • The ability to conduct returns.

E-commerce systems following these guidelines helps distributors ensure they have the equipment and supplies available to customers when they need it – and that it can be delivered when they want it. Ultimately, the goal should be to create an online buying experience that provides the client with all the information and options they would get through a more traditional purchasing process. “You need the B2B experience to be very similar to that because the buyers expect that level of capability and satisfaction,” McManus says.

Improving the Online Experience
Satisfying B2B buyers begins by providing an intuitive online experience. Equipment and supplies should be easy to find and the checkout process should be painless. Any obstacles, missing information, or errors that obstruct the buying process increase the likelihood that the buyer will look elsewhere. Platforms such as BigCommerce and Shopify can help companies set up their e-commerce systems and will often provide fundamental features such as secure payments and fraud protection.

“If you are competing against distributors out there that have an easy-to-use online presence and you don’t, the customers are going to tend to gravitate to those easy-to-use sites,” McManus cautions.

Even after the sale is completed, dealers and distributors will want to continue providing service and demonstrating their value. McManus suggests being proactive when it comes to informing customers of the status of their e-commerce order and the location of their product. That means being able to tap into data about not only their inventory but also product availability and lead-time information from the manufacturer. “The difference between successful retailers and distributors and others is the constant communication with the clients on where things stand,” McManus says.

Creating those communication feeds often requires new technologies to connect the distributor, manufacturer, and end customer. ERP systems can feed information between channel partners, while customer relationship management (CRM) tools can help dealers track client information and anticipate their needs. From there, dealers and distributors can leverage their visibility into all their locations to strategically move inventory and eventually expand into a true omnichannel solution that’s capable of fulfilling orders regardless of where they originate.

As distributors and dealers map out and refine their e-commerce strategies, they should constantly be aware of how they stack up against their competitors, McManus says. This has become especially important as the prevalence of e-commerce has broadened that competition base: Companies are no longer contending with just the like-minded outlets in their own market – they now must compete with businesses across the entire country.

To better measure where they are along the e-commerce curve, says McManus, dealers and distributors should benchmark their capabilities against the competition. Look at factors including:

  • How many clicks it takes for a buyer to go from identifying a product to actually purchasing it;
  • The quality of product images; and
  • Whether the user can sort by store availability.

Through this process, distributors and dealers can gain perspective within their vertical, and learn the best practices they should consider adopting, he says.

Moving Toward Personalization

New features are constantly changing user expectations for e-commerce. Just a few years ago, 360-degree product photos and chatbots to greet visitors were innovations. Now, both are common ways of engaging prospective customers. So, the question leaders often ask themselves is “what’s next?”

The answer, McManus believes, is personalization. Rather than having every visitor seeing the same assortment of products and offers on an e-commerce portal, personalization gives them individualized listings based on past purchasing behavior, how often they visit the online store, and which items they’ve previously searched for.

“It’s making sure you’re leveraging machine learning – the ability of the tool to learn from experience with this buyer, and to tailor an experience that’s unique to them,” McManus says.

This concept has seen a big push in B2C e-commerce in recent years, and McManus believes the B2B market is now ready to follow. Equipment distributors are in an especially good position to capitalize on personalization, he explains, because they have detailed information on every client; plus, they can provide follow-up services, such as maintenance programs or suggestions for replacement parts. Companies that aren’t providing some level of personalization through technologies such as Kibo Personalization risk falling behind, he adds.

“Personalization is what’s going to separate distributors and manufacturers from each other,” McManus continues. “It’s really nurturing that customer relationship – something different than if you just walked into a store and tried to buy something.”