Online ordering is becoming crucial for manufacturers as their customers look to make more business purchases on the web, Forrester Research analyst Andy Hoar says.

GE Water and Process Technologies is a growing global manufacturer. But the effort to manage that growth without racking up big costs led to one conclusion: It was time to incorporate a sophisticated e-commerce plan.

GE Water, is a unit of General Electric Co., No. 6 in the B2B E-Commerce 300. It serves customers in a range of industries, including oil refining, chemical processing, wastewater filtration, municipal water, power, and food and beverage. That translates into more than 50,000 customers with more than 500,000 lines of orders each year. Many of those orders are processed by 1,600 sales reps, 700 service technicians and 200 customer care agents, chief information officer George Scott said in a February webinar hosted by B2BecNews.

Sales and customer service reps can spend up to 20 minutes on the phone for each order, a huge drain on resources, Scott said.

The users of our original site said ‘Whatever you build is OK—we will never use the current one again.'
George Scott, CIO
GE Water & Process Technologies

As GE Water grows, the costs associated with managing such a vast volume of orders also expands and it became apparent the company needed a new sales strategy. “We think it will be B2B commerce,” Scott said. The plan: Enable customers to serve themselves. That meant developing an e-commerce site where clients can order products and services, make payments, and track orders—ideally without requiring hands-on attention.

At the same time GE Water wanted to meet customer expectations of the kind of ease of use they find on consumer websites, which meant the company taking its website many steps beyond its existing capabilities, Scott said. That included enabling a new visitor to place an order for basic supplies without setting up an account.

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As the company began exploring technology options it sought customer input on what they wanted from a new website. Customers were blunt. “The users of our original site said ‘Whatever you build is OK—we will never use the current one again,’” Scott said. “We asked what was important to them, then we tried make the site as simple as possible.”

GE Water chose CloudCraze, an e-commerce technology vendor that sponsored the webinar. The CloudCraze cloud-based technology is built on the Salesforce.com CRM platform, which was a good fit because GE Water already had Salesforce in place, Scott said. Plus, CloudCraze said it could perform the rollout in 90 days and, because it’s cloud-based—that is, CloudCraze hosts the software on web-based servers—GE didn’t have to support any additional hardware, Scott said.

GE Water has deployed the site to a base of about 200 hand-picked customers in North America and Asia-Pacific, and set up guest checkout for prospective customers for about 50,000 SKUs, mostly basic products like water filters and parts, Scott said.

Rolled out two years ago, the e-commerce site now handles about 4,000 transactions a year and sales have grown 10 times compared with the previous site’s sales, Scott said, although he did not reveal specifics. Clients also use a CloudCraze mobile app called Lightning Bolt, which enables one-click re-orders that bypass sales staff, he added.

Enabling customer self-service, as GE Water has done, is part of a trend of businesses giving their customers a range of ways to buy, Andy Hoar, vice president and principal analyst covering B2B e-commerce at Forrester Research Inc., said in the webinar. “That’s what B2B buying is all about,” Hoar said. “It’s not all online or offline.”

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Today’s B2B buyer wants to conduct research online at his own pace and then make the purchase online, if possible, Hoar said. That means it’s time for manufacturers to enable both distributors and product users to buy on their websites.

Manufacturers increasingly get requests to sell directly to buyers, and a recent Forrester study showed that 43% of 100 survey respondents prefer to buy directly from a manufacturer and 20% would pay slightly higher prices to do so, Hoar said. Once buyers decide what to buy “they want the most convenient way to complete the transaction,” he said. Manufacturers that can address those customers’ wishes can potentially increase sales and cut costs, Hoar added.

A forthcoming Forrester report, titled “A Brand New Day in B2B Commerce” will offer details on the survey.

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