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$1tn B2B e-commerce market up for grabs

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Business-to-business (B2B) companies will need to adapt their thinking and delivery approach if they want to benefit from a B2B e-commerce market that is fast approaching the $1-trillion mark in the US alone.
Forrester data estimates that US B2B e-commerce will total $855-billion by the end of 2016. The company is also forecasting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7,7% that will push this number over the $1-trillion mark by 2020.
In new research, Andy Hoar, Forrester principal analyst serving e-business and channel strategy professionals, explores why traditional B2B companies cannot ignore the growing shift in how customers behave.
“Business-to-business e-commerce today is no longer merely a ‘bolt-on’ to most B2B businesses. It is now deeply woven into the very fabric of many companies, and B2B e-commerce organisations are investing heavily in re-platforming and re-building B2B e-commerce sites, as well as hiring experienced leaders,” Hoar writes in the report.
The need to shift how B2B companies engage online has largely been driven by customers who expect a B2C-like experience, no matter who they are dealing with.
In a supporting report Hoar wrote, “Death of a (B2B) Salesman”, he explains that research conducted by Forrester has shown that expectations have now significantly shifted. “By a factor of three to one, B2B buyers want to self-educate versus talk to sales representatives to learn about products and services. In addition, the majority of B2B buyers now say that buying online is more convenient than buying from a salesperson.”
His research also points out that while B2B buying behaviour has shifted significantly over the years, B2B selling behaviour has not.
Hoar writes that to produce a B2C-like experience, B2B e-commerce sites must offer the same sophisticated merchandising techniques, breadth and depth of product selection, a simplified login experience, and compelling deals.
Moreover, Hoar has found that B2B e-commerce offerings should offer the same personalised cross-sell and upsell experience used by mainstream B2C sites. Having a broad selection of products allows for long-tail selections which will draw customers. Ensuring there are compelling price-based deal opportunities such as clearance sales will also deliver on a more B2C-like experience.
Despite the clear need to shift B2B e-commerce offerings towards more of a B2C-like experience, Hoar is quick to point out that this goal is not without challenges.
“Although B2B e-commerce drives cost savings and operational efficiencies, it can exacerbate channel conflict with the direct sales organisation. This is despite the fact that several B2B organisations tell Forrester that B2B customers who use multiple channels are more brand-loyal than those that use just one channel,” Hoar explains in the report.
In response to this, many B2B companies are immediately routing prospective clients to the appropriate channel and migrating existing clients from offline to online channels.
Using self-service online models for low-volume, entry clients drives down acquisition and retention costs, making them more profitable. Furthermore, by handling low-volume customers in this way, B2B companies can shift their sales reps further up the value chain, allowing them to focus on the high-margin, complex deals that require the personal touch.
As with all new business models, finding the right skills to manage this shift can be a real challenge for B2B companies.
“B2B digital business executives struggle to find both managerial and operational talent to build effective teams — so much so that the inability to find the right quality and quantity of talent is inhibiting their B2B e-commerce growth plans,” Hoar writes.
Forrester’s research shows that many B2B e-commerce companies are resorting to unconventional methods to overcome this, including hiring staff who have experience in the B2C space, and converting promising internal staff into digital experts.