In many respects eCommerce in the B2B sector lags behind the expectations of today’s users, but pressure to innovate is on the increase. In an increasingly digitized world it is of vital importance for companies to make their online business as simple as possible.

“Welcome to the last century” or something similar could be an an appropriate eCommerce greeting to users in the B2B sector. Many corporate employees embark on a virtual time journey when buying and selling online. They come across complicated procedures and gray lists. They search in vain for accurate information on product availability. They come to terms with totally abstruse limitations such as “Don’t put more than 100 products in your shopping cart,” knowing full well that the system will otherwise crash.

Generation change has already taken place at the personnel level, but system modernization is in many cases still a distant prospect for commercial online business operations.

For many years it was possible to live with shortcomings of this kind, but a new generation of digital natives has joined the ranks of procurement departments. They are a generation that in its private life shops with Amazon & Co., chooses its dates by swiping, streams series, tweets moving moments, and posts images on Instagram. Generation change has already taken place at the personnel level, but system modernization is in many cases still a distant prospect for commercial online business operations.

Shape User Experience to Match Today’s Standards

At first glance the backlog in B2B eCommerce compared with modern B2C shops is most clearly apparent in its antiquated user interfaces. Their graphic usability and look and feel are no longer up to date. Yet today’s expectations are clear enough. The user experience should be comparable to that of Amazon, Apple, and Otto, including informative and attractive product presentations and intuitive user guidance. A major overhaul of outdated eProcurement systems and supplier portals is overdue.

Modern shop interfaces especially make the running when buyers want to gain an overview of the supplier’s product range. They should definitely include comfortable search functions and a customer-friendly checkout of the kind to which users are accustomed in the B2C context. At the same time B2B shops must not disregard classical functionalities for procurement professionals. The shop must, for example, enable them to specify cost centers, upload order lists, and run through individually defined release and approval processes. Article number-based fast-track ordering must also be available as an option.

Problems Behind the Façades in the Backend

At present, many shop solutions suffer from functional limitations that impair the user experience or take their users back to the 1990s. In some cases users log in and can only view the list prices. Individually negotiated contract prices are not available until during the checkout process. Much the same can apply to the availability of the goods ordered. Restrictions to a certain number of products in the shopping cart are also far from infrequent.

Outdated ERP systems in the backend are not designed to process high-frequency real-time requests.

This is often due to outdated ERP systems in the backend. Their architecture is not designed to process high-frequency real-time requests. The following example will illustrate the problem. Let us assume that a user is looking for a special kind of screw. If the system shows up 40 different kinds of screw the specific product price must be retrieved from the ERP system 40 times, and in the case of bulk prices or other discounts that can mean several requests per product. That will bring to its knees an aging SAP R/3 system running on Oracle.

How comfortable a B2B shop can be will thus depend to a significant extent on the backend systems. That must definitely be taken into consideration in renovation projects. An integration system may need to be designed that can cope with process requirements, offsets the architectural shortcomings of the merchandise management system and provides the purchaser with personalized, accurate information. In the case of SAP R/3 a migration to the HANA database will help, improving real-time capability by several factors. It will later be followed by migration to S/4HANA, the current version, which is truly real-time capable.

Taking Technical and Professional Integration into Account

Along with companies that use outdated systems, for many businesses, especially SMBs, eCommerce is something totally new. They still make and take orders by telephone, fax or order card.[1] In this scenario setting up online shops benefits from there being no ballast from previous systems, but small and midrange businesses frequently underestimate the complexity of the launch.

B2B shop, ERP, CRM, PIM: The data flow between the systems must be well planned – both technically and from the professional viewpoint.

B2B shops are systems with a high level of integration requirement. An SMB’s IT landscape will typically include an ERP/merchandise management, a CRM and maybe a PIM system. When they are joined by a B2B platform with a shop component and service functionalities a number of questions arise, such as: If a price query is received via the online shop, is it processed by the ERP system? Or the CRM? What happens when a customer query becomes an order? How does the feedback to the online shop function? These are trivial questions but they make it clear that the data flow between the systems must be well planned – both technically and from the professional viewpoint.

Being able to test processes flexibly by means of prototypes without full integration makes sense and should be borne in mind when evaluating the B2B solution or architecture.

B2B solutions create an opportunity to take many – especially cost-generating – interactions with business partners online. The aim of automating and integrating each and every process is not expedient. It is soon apparent that costs and in some cases benefits relate unfavorably to each other. So being able to test processes flexibly by means of prototypes without full integration makes sense and should be borne in mind when evaluating the B2B solution or architecture. For example, the full automation of online warranty claims is only worthwhile once, after the prototype has gone live, the service has been taken up by a sufficient number of users. If 80 percent have accepted the service after two months, integrating it with ERP & Co. should then go ahead. If the acceptance rate is only five percent, the service can be axed or amended.

In the initial phase it is sufficient to offer users the opportunity to register a claim in the online portal and to input claims manually into the target system, which is what already happens with claims received by fax or phone. In the second phase the process can be automated, achieving process optimizations by means of modern technologies. Using artificial intelligence or machine learning, warranty claims can for example be divided into straightforward cases and cases to be reviewed by a competent desk officer.

Enable Closer Networking with Customers

The innovative strength of modern B2B shops lies in closer networking with customers that is underscored by digital processes.

What motivates a company to set up or modernize a B2B shop is sure not to be just the sales-boosting effect. Its offering can be conveyed to the customer more proactively. Cross-sales and up-sales are to be expected in many areas in spite of the tension field between rational buyers and end users who are susceptible to an emotional approach. An online catalog also improves the company’s Google ranking, making it more visible and customer acquisition easier. But the innovative strength of modern B2B shops lies more in closer networking with customers that is underscored by digital processes.

The prevalence of mobile terminal devices is a driver of this development. Field sales used to visit the customer with pens and notebooks. They now use tablets. Customers expect all orders to be entered directly and digitally, with the data landing in their account, the order history plain to see and the shipment trackable online. They expect much the same for repeat orders of consumables and replacements for defective parts. It is no longer pie in the sky to imagine a maintenance engineer using his cellphone camera to identify a defective component and thereby trigger an order transaction.

The Best Service Will Make the Running

This revolution in interaction with business partners, be they customers or suppliers, is driven even further by the up-and-coming Internet of Things and its far-reaching opportunities for networking and process automation. Today nearly every object can be equipped at reasonable expense with sensors and embedded computer chips, so orders or maintenance callouts can be triggered automatically when sensor readings exceed or fall below certain levels.

The provider with the best mix of product quality, price, and service will make the running.

This development can lead to more than just new subscription models for resources of all kinds. It is a key starting point for the transition from product-centered sales to a service-oriented economy (think Amazon’s “Customer First”). The provider with the best mix of product quality, price, and service will make the running and be in a position to establish and maintain long-term relationships with customers. The service will be a distinguishing feature. In the long term the provider of a machine that delivers real-time status, error and requirements reports that can be integrated seamlessly into the operator’s IT landscape and ensures, for example, that the manufacturer’s service engineer is notified when certain wear values are reached will be more successful than the manufacturer whose machine breaks down without notice and is out of action for several days because the service engineers are all fully booked. The operator will clearly opt for the first machine with its value-added services.

Automated procurement and sales processes via connected devices are still a major testing ground, but it is already clear that in the course of digital transformation there will be a market consolidation. The provider that offers the best services fast and well online will prevail. For the majority of companies it is now a matter of carrying out development work, modernizing old systems and sounding out new B2B eCommerce opportunities. Modern B2B shops with comprehensive service functionalities are indispensable for companies that aim to remain compatible in a digitized world.

[1] In the Online-Kaufverhalten im B2B-E-Commerce 2017 study 45% of respondents said they regularly place orders for their company in writing while 47% are already using their business partners’ online channels and 30% regularly rely on ordering by telephone.

Image source: Fotolia / Ana Blazic Pavlovic, Rawpixel.com, REDPIXEL, ake1150, Akemaster

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