B2B Online 2019: How to take your commerce practice from good to great

For more than half a decade B2B Online has been a go to destination for B2B digital business leaders. It has earned this acclaim by providing manufacturers, distributors, and commerce practitioners from B2B businesses a tailored forum to network with, learn from, and collaborate with their peers and their partners. However, any event of this nature or size, there are always a few looming themes or questions asked in need of answers. As I reflect on my time in Chicago with more than 500 B2B ecommerce practitioners, the top three questions on attendees’ minds going into the conference were:

  • Do we really need an ecommerce site if we have been successful thus far without one?
  • How can I deliver personalized experiences that are relevant for B2B?
  • Where should we take our digital transformation journey after the web storefront?

B2B Online 2019 did not disappoint. Attendees got their questions (and then some) answered but if you weren’t able to make it in person, I’ve synthesized the key takeaways here:

The digital part of digital experience is critical for B2B organizations

Manufacturers and distributors still use (and will continue to use) traditional channels such as engaging directly with sales reps or customer service reps. However, B2B buyers preferences have changed, and they now demand digital engagement and self-service. They already enjoy seamless experiences in their personal lives, but become frustrated when their professional experiences don’t mirror their personal ones when it comes to commerce. At B2B online, during panel discussions, successful companies like MSC Industrial Supply and US Food shared their B2B ecommerce journey creating digital catalogs for buyers. For example, now buyers can research products before reaching out to traditional channels. It helped these B2B companies to bridge the gap within their B2B selling model creating their digital presence. Most importantly, the digital channel didn’t replace traditional channels; it augmented them. The most successful companies don’t simply use ecommerce as a self-service tool. They also put digital ordering capabilities into the hands of their employees, improving the experience for buyers and sellers alike.

Personalization means something entirely different in B2B

Most B2B buyers now are millennials, and they expect relevant-nay personalized-information and experiences across devices. B2B ecommerce experiences must be aware of and support a wide array of personas that simply don’t exist in the B2C world. Jim Nerone, CIO at Buyers Products, shared his journey focusing on these personas and creating a two-way digital experience for shoppers and sellers. For example, a buyer logs into their website and can only see the parts for the products s/he can purchase and the pricing s/he has negotiated. On the other hand, a salesperson can review their digital dashboard including order history, product recommendations, the status of open orders, and requests for quote (RFQ). Knowing who the user is, what the relationship with them looks like, and what outcomes they are trying to achieve is more nuance and more important in B2B. Personalization takes on a different feel than B2C, but the outcomes of customer loyalty and customer lifetime value are the same.

Transform B2B commerce using proven B2C principles

It is essential to address B2B commerce complexities like approvals, collaboration and ordering options like quick and bulk orders, but checking those boxes does not go far enough. As many B2B firms are building their digital foundations they see emerging technologies like augmented or virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and connected devices as futuristic. Buyers on the other hand are already engaging with these technologies.

For example, both IKEA and Sephora have provided AR support as a part of their shopping experiences. This means the clock is ticking for B2B firms. Before long B2B buyers will ask for connected devices to automatically reorder parts and for an AR experience to see how a piece of machinery will fit in their physical space. B2B firms cannot afford to treat these initiatives as “one offs;” they need to be baked into their firm’s overall digital strategy and roadmap, but this is an area where lessons learned from B2C can be easily applied to B2B to automate, augment, and transform their B2B commerce experience.

In the end, one thing is abundantly clear. Digital for B2B is no longer an afterthought. It is increasingly becoming part of the DNA of leading B2B firms. For those not already on their journey, the time is now to act. For those maturing their strategies, it’s not time to rest on the laurels of early success. B2B businesses shouldn’t try to live purely in the future; they should aggregate years’ worth of learnings to invest in the present and ready to adapt as B2B buyer preferences continue to evolve.

Originally published at https://www.getelastic.com on May 13, 2019.