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      B2B Insights

      How to Meet B2B Customers’ Growing Online Expectations

      By Jason Hein

      Mar 02, 2022

      14 min read

      B2B Insights

      How to Meet B2B Customers’ Growing Online Expectations

      Have you ever visited a website where it was nearly impossible to find what you needed, the search results were not relevant, and the product recommendations were way off?

      Some websites do a great job of meeting customer needs and guiding you to exactly where you need to be to get the products you want quickly. Other websites are difficult to navigate and leave you feeling confused and frustrated. And chances are, you probably don’t stick around these websites for long, but rather head straight over to a competing company’s website that does cater to your needs.

      The same is true for your business. Distributors often struggle to translate the positive in-person transactional experiences they’ve built over decades to one that customers can find online. If potential customers have a disappointing experience on your website, they are more likely to take their business elsewhere.

      But it’s not your fault. For many distributors, the technology set they currently use fails to support the needs of today’s B2B buyer. In fact, even though e-commerce is the fastest growing sales channel for today’s B2B buyers, about two-thirds of B2B customers are dissatisfied with their online purchasing experience.

      To attract and retain loyal customers through your e-commerce experience, you need to make sure your website reflects the expertise and guidance your customers experience when they stop by a branch or talk to a sales rep.  

      But First: The Challenges Holding Distributors Back

      COVID-19 incited a major turning point in B2B e-commerce history. With brick-and-mortar shops closed for much of 2020 and buyers working remotely, B2B customers relied on digital channels. This shift certainly amplified online behaviors, but more importantly, it created new ones, as many buyers shopped online for products they’d never bought online before.

      The growth in e-commerce has brought with it a minefield of challenges for distributors:

      • 76% of buyers experienced challenges during their most recent shopping experience on supplier websites
      • Over half (53%) of customers will not buy from the same business again if they have had a bad experience
      • Nearly 50% of customers would pay more for a better, faster online buying experience 

      Distributors need an e-commerce site that drives more sales, increases profitability, and attracts new customers at a lower cost to serve. To do that, they must build a website that is easy for customers to browse, understands what they’re looking for, and offers relevant product recommendations based on customers’ applications and industry. That said, many distributors fall woefully short of these customer expectations and often feel shortchanged in their investments. They ask:

      • Why aren’t my digital investments working?
      • Why aren’t I getting more traffic to my website?
      • When my website does get traffic, why aren’t my sales increasing?
      • Why does e-commerce still make up such a low percentage of my revenue?
      • Why haven’t I seen a material increase in profitability?

      To answer these questions, we need to think about the experience B2B customers are accustomed to when they speak to you in person. When they visit your location, they can talk to their dedicated sales rep and browse aisles that were organized by product type, application, and industry. They see end-cap displays featuring seasonal promotions. They may have a catalog back at the office for easy reference, with their most-used product groups bookmarked. Once they head back to their job site, they can call with any questions or concerns they have about a product or application. Now, does your digital branch — your website — reflect these same experiences?

      Transferring this process to an unfamiliar channel like e-commerce is challenging because online merchandising is so different from offline. Customers today want to do more than just purchase products online. They want to perform their own research and browse content and products when it works best for them. They also want access to expert advice and personalized solutions.

      What’s making this difficult for distributors?

      Diverse audience: Customer needs vary by industry, project, application, and geography. It doesn’t work to personalize an experience to a single individual; distributors must account for all contexts to solve problems.

      SKU count: Even the smallest distributors stock or sell tens of thousands of SKUs. The largest sell millions. These products are more precise and technical in B2B than in consumer goods and often require specialized selection.

      For example, if a contractor were to look at “insulating electrical tape” on one major distributor’s website, they would find 293 products listed, representing seven sub-types based on the application or environment (high-voltage, moisture-resistant, etc.), 14 options for backing material (rubber, silicone, vinyl, etc.), and dozens of size options, not to mention multiple brands.

      Multiple touchpoints and siloed systems: Customers interact with distributors across multiple channels, including digital, in-person, phone, and print. That customer experience across these channels can’t remain siloed, but must be cohesive across all channels. A true omnichannel strategy requires the right technology, integrating your front- and back-end systems.

      Technically complicated product: The products offered by B2B distributors are often both highly technical in nature and potentially unfamiliar to buyers. It’s challenging to scale the knowledge and expertise of a technical product specialist required to select and install the right solution.

      These challenges are made even more complex with evolving buying behaviors. Some customers want to search the website with brand names or manufacturer part numbers. Some want to search by application (drywall hanging), while others want to search by describing the product (drywall driver). Sometimes a customer may only know what their problem is (circulation pump for coolant) and not the solution. They don’t even know what to call the product they’re searching for.

      To effectively stand out from the pack in digital, you must let customers use the language they want to use and not just the terms you prefer they use. With e-commerce, the power has moved from the supplier to the customer. After all, if a customer gets frustrated and can’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll just click over to a new supplier, which may offer a better experience. This is especially true as younger buyers move into the picture and are less patient with websites that offer a poor customer experience.

      And it doesn’t end there. After your customers enter their search query in their words, you must show that you understand what they want and deliver relevant products that solve those needs.

      Technology Is the Distributor’s Biggest Hurdle to E-Commerce

      The standard technology stack — or the list of software a distributor uses to build and operate their e-commerce sites — isn’t keeping up with the digital needs of customers today. It was never designed to do that.

      If it helps, you’re not alone. According to The State of Commerce Experience, nearly all (92%) decision-makers in B2B firms have experienced challenges with their tech stack and say that technology is the biggest hurdle in the e-commerce journey.

      Let’s tackle the reasons. To serve customers online, distributors typically operate point solutions like these:

      • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system
      • Content Management System (CMS)
      • E-commerce platform
      • Product Information Management (PIM) system

      Distributors attempt to manually integrate multiple pieces of software in hopes they will work together. The problem is that these solutions are often implemented one at a time and fail to coordinate, integrate, and communicate with each other. The result is overlapping systems that offer inconsistent customer experiences, slower revenue growth, less flexibility, and a one-size-fits-all experience that can’t adapt to customer needs and expectations.

      When you fail to upgrade your customers’ digital experience, you run the risk of losing sales and existing accounts. However, when you do invest in a proactive approach you can gain new customers, grow revenue, and lower costs — making e-commerce a much more profitable channel.

      How a DXP Can Improve the Customer Experience

      A digital experience platform, or DXP, lets distributors take the highly personalized and relevant experience they provide in person and bring it to customers online. Leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), a DXP helps distributors deliver a personalized experience that’s consistent and contextual across all of their digital touchpoints. A DXP drives dynamic customer experiences in a responsive, scalable, and automated way.

      In other words, a DXP effectively becomes your digital salesperson. Just like with sales reps, a DXP’s core purpose is to understand the customer, as well as what they need right now. But a DXP does this at scale, for every customer and interaction on your website.

      A DXP achieves this by taking data from multiple sources about the products and services a distributor offers and crunching it in real time, rolling it into an algorithm capable of making digital merchandising decisions for you. This data goes beyond product data alone, and includes information on customer interactions, transactions, demographics, marketing initiatives, and relevant content. Once aggregated, this data helps you decide:

      • If a customer searches for a certain term, what should be shown in the search results?

      • What product recommendations should you provide if they are purchasing X?

      • Who should I offer this promotion to?

      But a DXP Isn’t Enough: How to Go Even Further

      While implementing a DXP is a good (and crucial) start, it’s important to keep in mind just how complex it has become to create a seamless customer experience online. DXPs represent just one part of a broader ecosystem of solutions that can drive true e-commerce personalization and growth. 

      The Bloomreach Commerce Experience Cloud can help you gain an edge over industry disruptors and unlock the next phase in your digital commerce growth. It’s like your very own digital salesperson, helping you quickly adapt to changing user behaviors in a way that is responsive, scalable, and automated across all channels.

      Curious to see how Bloomreach can help you delight, win, and gain an edge over the online purchasing experience? Read our e-book to learn how to drive e-commerce wins for your business.

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      Jason Hein

      Principal Product Marketer in Marketing

      Jason Hein is an experienced digital strategist with a demonstrated history of working in the industrial distribution and digital commerce industries. With a robust background in merchandising and digital sales of products relevant to B2B, Jason specializes at Bloomreach in quick-ramping on product knowledge to build digital merchandising strategies for technical products. With experience in most product lines carried by MRO and Industrial companies, he uses strong digital content and information architecture to empower teams to succeed and thrive online.

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