B2B Customer Experience Design: More Challenging Than B2C

B2B Customer Experience Design: More Challenging Than B2C

Much has been written about the B2C customer experience. Amazon.com represents the gold standard for most shoppers. Certainly, the site has defined the type of navigation, search, product content, and checkout experience buyers are looking for. That is why most people start their shopping experience on Amazon today.

A key trend in B2B eCommerce is to improve the customer experience to be more “B2C” like. What does that really mean? Is it really true that B2B buyers want to shop for hydraulic valves or roofing shingles the same way they do home audio speakers?

One thing is clear. The standard that Amazon sets for product information is the goal. The  primary reason shoppers start shopping at amazon.com is really not price, its because of how quickly products can be found and the volume of content available to help the buyer make purchasing decisions. They offer manufacturers specifications, enhanced descriptions, alternate images, user generated reviews, expert questions and answers, related products and accessories and so forth. Even if I don’t start with Amazon, I usually check the product reviews and information available there before making a purchase. Admittedly, I also check price and whether its available on Prime for quick shipment.

Search and navigation is another key feature that comes over from B2C shopping experiences. In most cases, this is even more crucial for a B2B buyer as there may be millions of products on a site, and a buyer may have very little knowledge about the products they are purchasing.

Another feature that is table stakes for B2B today is designing for the mobile buyer. More and more research, purchases and approvals are being done on mobile devices today. That number is increasing more quickly than most experts expected, generally replacing orders previously handled on laptops. The B2B buyer expects the same experience on a smartphone at work as they have when they shop for personal items.

Much has been written about improving the B2B customer experience and how important it is to be B2C like. But, that is more than content, search, and supporting a mobile device. Here are some reasons why the B2B buyer’s user experience is really quite different than a typical B2C path to purchases. These add complexity to a B2B online site and must be a part of any enterprise level eCommerce solution.

Roles and Personas

With a B2C buyer, you are marketing to an individual. In most cases, they are making the purchase decision themselves. Though there are many buyer personas that require unique experiences, you are still selling to an individual with a single step in their buying process once a decision is made.

In B2B ecommerce, there are usually several different buying roles ranging from requisitioners to junior and senior buyers to administrators. Each role may be buying for several business entities and/or locations. On a given day, a buyer make purchase office supplies for a location in New York City as well as a hydraulic pump and associated hose assemblies for a location in Tampa. The product information available for those products will be quite different. But, the user experience to find the products and checkout must be very consistent regardless of the products being purchased. This presents a challenges for web designers and information architects.

Some buying roles may only be permitted to submit a purchase requisition, others have full authority to purchase. A senior buyer may spend most of their time approving or aggregating orders and not really ever do any research on products. Other buyers may leverage punchout capabilities directly from their procurement system to assemble an order from a customer specific catalog. They are really not even shopping, just assembling an order from a specific authorized list in an online store that then leverages the procurement system to complete and place the order.

In many cases, subject matter experts do extensive research and make product recommendations only. They require deep levels of product information including technical specs, diagrams, MSDS, repair documentation and such. In contrast, a buyer who orders replenishment items on a weekly basis probably just wants a start with a previous order and adjust quantities and never looks at the product details or specifications.

A well designed B2B site takes all of this into consideration. Tools for power buyers such as saved shopping lists, quick order forms, or reordering from a previous order will be available. For researchers, deep, detailed product content will be available along with views that will allow buyers to see a full product family or compare grids to quickly find product differences.

Workflows

Procurement workflows support the buying process and the various roles. The buying journey may start with a requisition order that is then sent to a more senior buyer for approval. That buyer may or may not be authorized to modify the order and then place it on behalf of the requisitioner.

Another example is quotes. In many cases, buyers want to ask for a higher level discount on products so they request a quote. That quote request needs to be routed to a sales representative. Once completed, the sales rep will sent back the quote for approval. Ideally, that quote is in the form of a completed shopping cart that just requires payment authorization.

To manage workflows and customer users, a self service portal is required. Business do not want to have to make additions or modifications to their customers authorized buyers, so those capabilities must be assigned to a customer administrator who will have web access for making those types of changes in real time. Buyers also will need some type of messaging and a dashboard that consolidates requisitions, quotes, orders for approval and so forth.

Although ERP systems are the system of record for customers, buying locations and in many cases users, they rarely are used to manage buyer roles or procurement workflows. That is a task for an eCommerce platform and the appropriate user interface to deliver a solid customer experience.

Context

This is one of the biggest factors in customer experience design for B2B. It’s the context of the buyer that is important, not their necessarily their on-site behaviors.

Much of B2C personalization is based on delivering content that is relevant to a given persona and further enriching it based on the buying path the consumer is taking through a site. Rules are set to lead the buyer down the most likely path based on their behavior.

For B2B, where Ia buyer has been previously is not really relevant in most cases. What is relevant is the context of the buyer. Variables include the location they are purchasing for, the entity they are buying for, the types of products they are purchasing, time of year, the specific customer, the roles of the buyer, the step in the procurement workflow, and similar contexts.

For example, if a buyer for a landscaping service company is logged into the ecommerce system and shopping for a location in Boston in January, you may want to present snowplows and accessories in the hero on the landing page once they log in. In contrast, if they are shopping for a location in Florida in January, you may decide to present a new line of weed whackers.

Customer Complexity

As mentioned previously, in B2C, the customer is a single person. With B2B, the customer is usually a company that may have many buying locations, different shipping destinations, many buyers, and even more end users of the purchased goods. A given customer may order some things from a direct sales rep, others from a distributor, and other items online. Your customer experience must take all of those things into consideration.

B2B customers usually negotiate contract pricing with their customers or at least have an option to purchase on a volume discount. Some customers may have a specific catalog with a subset of products they purchase.

Many times, customers order in a different unit of measure than the suppliers packaging. The customer experience will need to be able to interpret the difference so the buyer’s procurement systems will match an invoice to an order.

Other unique requirements for the B2B buyer include using their own part numbers for a given item when they search and place orders. They may also desire different freight solutions for locations or specific products. Is some cases, they may split orders from different warehouses in order to expedite a particular product.

For many distributors, there are product restrictions for where they may ship a product. In that case, customers may be able to purchase a given product in New York, but not be allows to buy the product in California. This also causes confusion unless the eCommerce system knows to only present certain products based on a ship to location.

Products

B2B products are very diverse. Many product categories are essentially the same ones sold to consumers – think office supplies. Others, like hydraulic pumps and hose assemblies, are typically not ordered by a consumer directly because of the complexity of the various components. There are also products like jet engines, that are not likely to ever be sold online because the products are related to other installed parts on a given airplane and extensive validation is required to ensure the correct part is being ordered.

Configurable products like hydraulic pumps and hose assemblies represent one of the biggest challenges. In many cases, this is a significant barrier to implementing eCommerce as companies are concerned about liability and invalid configurations being purchased. Some type of product configurator that is built upon rules or integration with the ERP system is required. Beyond supporting the rules, a graphical user interface that guides the process needs to be developed. For many ecommerce platforms, this is a challenge.

Other challenges are presented by large product families. Buyers want to easily select from a “Chinese menu” of related products. Ideally, a single screen can be used to capture quantities of various related items instead of searching through various categories and placing individual items into the cart.

For items that are reordered on a regular basis, buyers want to set up pre-defined shopping lists that include frequently order items or related products to expedite ordering. Other buyers prefer to simply start with a previous order and confirm or edit the list from there.

Subscriptions are becoming a popular way to lock buyers into recurring orders. Once again, your ecommerce platform must be able to support that feature and a user interface will likely need to be implemented to support the variety of choices required to place a subscription order.

Order Complexity

Another significant element of B2B commerce is order complexity. Rather than shipping items to a single address, B2B orders are frequently shipping to different locations. In some cases, the fulfillment may be done from different warehouses and use different shipping carriers.

In order to optimize shipping costs, many companies want to ensure that they are ordering a full container or truck load of products. In most cases, a custom solution needs to be developed to measure dimensions and weight and calculate when a full load is reached.

Finally, payments may add another level of complexity to an order. Most B2B transactions are done using purchase orders with payment terms that are pre-negotiated with each customer.  However, many companies have credit limits or project related budgets that must be verified before an order can be accepted. A backup payment method may need to be available in addition to purchase orders.

Summary

These things all add significant requirements to the design of your user interface. In many cases, they mandate an enterprise level eCommerce platform that is designed for these requirements or can be customized to meet them.

Understanding the customer journey in depth is a requirement. I highly recommend investing in customer journey mapping to really understand the customer experience that your customers are looking for. Individual use cases and user stories must be developed to ensure you are meeting requirements. Because of the complexity of things like configurators, prototypes and early user testing are generally employed.

In conclusion, they overall navigation and design of a B2B site must be on par with a B2C website today. In addition, all the other elements summarized in this post must also be woven into the overall customer experience. B2B sites that do not deliver a world class customer experience for B2B buyers will be challenged in the future.

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This article was written by

Dale is the Director of eCommerce Enablement for Agency Oasis. He's been in eCommerce as a practitioner and thought leader for since 2002. He thrives on helping businesses leverage technology to meet and exceed their goals. In his spare time he enjoys family, food, golf and music.