In electronic commerce, it’s common to talk about the customer journey—a process often illustrated by a big, neat funnel. Start out the buying process with a wide scope, checking numerous suppliers and products, then filter down to a narrower and narrower scope until ready to buy.

Nowadays—and particularly in electronic commerce—the funnel is more like the kind that twirls at incredible speed as part of a tornado funnel cloud. In the world of business-to-business e-commerce, buyers can face limitless amounts of data twirling around them at breakneck speed—from social media, text alerts, targeted email, search and display ads, among others—and a seller must know how to best engage its targeted customers with the right information, in the right format and channel, and when to have a sales rep jump in with more personalized contact and service.

It’s a tough challenge for online sellers, who also must figure how to build multi-faceted e-commerce strategies to build profitable, long-term relationships with their customers.

Many of these strategies were covered in depth by more than a dozen speakers before an audience of several hundred, including representatives of manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers, at the B2B Workshop at last month’s IRCE 2016 in Chicago. A special presentation featuring Amazon Business vice president Prentis Wilson and Forrester Research analyst Andy Hoar covered how Amazon is working with both sellers and buyers on its online marketplace as the B2B e-commerce market heads to more than $1 trillion in annual sales by 2020.

Adrienne Hartman, director of e-commerce and customer insights at J.J. Keller & Associates, which sells online training materials related to government regulations, addressed how to engage customers in multiple ways online at different points of the purchase journey. “The journey doesn’t end with a sale,” she warned. She noted that it’s important to learn how to best interact with prospects and customers—an learn what they need and want to know—before, during and after a purchase is made to keep them involved over the long term.

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Once customers are on an e-commerce site ready to buy, the seller needs to ensure they can easily use its site to find what they need and complete a purchase. Sonesh Shah, director of digital at manufacturer Robert Bosch Tool Corp., and Scott Kincaid from Usability Sciences discussed what makes B2B sites useful to buyers, with a review of several sites they studied. Audience members used an IRCE mobile app to vote for site features they found most effective.

A big challenge for B2B website design, of course, is the online display of highly complex products. Matt Clark, global head of e-commerce at electronics supplier Premier Farnell, whose U.S. e-commerce business is Newark element14 at Newark.com, and Gene Alvarez, a vice president and e-commerce analyst at technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc., provided examples of how to let customers configure and choose complicated products and systems.

In other sessions:

Julie Schmitt of Tops Products, a unit of RR Donnelley, covered the importance of deploying product information technology to ensure customers view accurate and updated information on the products they order;

Justin Racine of distributor Geriatric Medical and Dwayne Doshier of Insite Software showed how to use an online dashboard tool to monitor and analyze the sales performance of self-service e-commerce and sales reps;

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Brian Finkle of Evergreen Enterprises, a distributor of seasonal merchandise, and Hayden Kwast of coffee supplier Olam Coffee, explained how customers and sales reps can benefit from mobile commerce;

Michael Mayer of family-owned distributor Crescent Electric Supply told how century-old Crescent forged a new online strategy with help from its employees; and Jeff Michaels of Group Publishing and Ed Stevens of e-commerce software company Kibo explained how Group Publishing rebuilt an effective e-commerce site at Group.com.

To view several news items about B2B e-commerce from the B2B Workshop at IRCE 2016, click here:

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