To avoid them: fix your product data, find out what your customers want, figure out the simplest way to reach your goals, and put together a team of internal and external experts who know your business.

The world of business-to-business e-commerce isn’t getting any easier. With growing customer expectations, inspired by the world of business-to-consumer, and competition from marketplace giants like Amazon Business, it’s never been more important to deliver the online experiences that really matter to your customers.

Nicholas Weber, e-commerce consultant,
Inviqa

But for the vast majority of B2B companies whose digital strategies are still in the very early stages of development, there’s a lot that can go wrong. We’ve all heard (or been featured in) B2B e-commerce horror stories. What can we learn from them?

Here I’ll take a look at some of the most common mistakes you can make in your digital journey—and how to avoid them—as recommended by speakers at the recent “B2B: Going Digital” event in London.

Mistake 1: Failing to get your product data in line

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It can take months to pull together product data, but this data is an essential first step in the process of building an effective e-commerce site, so you need to spend time cleansing your data at the beginning of your digital journey. Your data needs to be accurate, and relevant to the customer who is going to be using your website.

James Cam, former group I.T. director at Bunzl U.K. and Ireland, a provider of supply chain and distribution services, couldn’t stress this point enough at the “Going Digital” event:

“My advice would be to get your product data correct—and to start that process sooner. You need to centralize and manage all the technical and marketing data around your catalogues and products in order to understand what you’re going to deliver.”

Mistake 2: Losing sight of your customers

Your customers are at the heart of your business, so it follows that they need to be at the heart of your e-commerce journey. That’s why it’s so important that your e-commerce strategy focuses on “giving your customers what they actually need”, said Asad Ali, digital marketing manager, at Birchwood Price Tools. Birchwood, part of the Travis Perkins group, sells 45 million pounds ($55 million) worth of power tools a year.

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Failure to put the customer journey at the core of your digital proposition is a common mistake. I’ve spoken with countless B2B businesses who launched an e-commerce site they believed would work, only for it to fail to meet expectations when pushed out to the customer base.

Instead, said Cam, the customer should “be brought into the commerce development cycle from the outset.”

This sentiment was echoed by Christian Agger, e-commerce head at Saint-Gobain Distribution Denmark, a distributor of plumbing products known for its pioneering digital strategy. Involve your customers in your digital journey, Agger urged, because “what they want and what you think they want are very different things.”

As part of this mantra, SGDD’s digital strategy always starts with the customer journey. “We engage the customer in the process,” Agger said. “We strive to understand them, to build anticipation, to provide sneak previews of new digital products or launches.”

Mistake 3: Losing sight of your business goals

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It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking in terms of features, rather than value. Instead of focusing on a list of features you want to implement, it’s crucial to focus on creating the simplest digital solution that will help solve your business challenge.

Birchwood Price Tools, for example, focuses on getting to market fast with the minimum functionality required to meet its strategic goals. From the outset, the company worked with customers to define the base functionality required to create an effective solution.

Customers were asked for the three things they really wanted to see from a new website. The chosen features, which might seem quite simplistic—online ordering, the ability to download pictures, and the ability to pay invoices online—together laid the foundations for a customer-centric product.

By focusing on delivering the minimum viable product required to achieve defined goals, Birchwood Price Tools has been able to start learning about how its customers use its online service. “It’s about evolution, not revolution,” Ali said.

Mistake 4: Working with the wrong people

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Thanks to the consumerization of B2B e-commerce, B2C and B2B companies alike look to brands like John Lewis as the example of how to “do” e-commerce right. But the reality is that there’s so much more complexity when it comes to building a B2B e-commerce shop.

As an example, your website will need to support complex back-end software systems covering customer contracts, tailored discounting, and vast, specialist and bespoke product catalogues. And it’s likely that the back-end will need to integrate into a long-serving and complex enterprise resource planning, or ERP, system including software applications for managing inventory and financial records.

If you lack internal resource and technical expertise to progress in your digital journeys, you’ll want to consider working with a technology partner. This is something I chose to do in a former role as head of e-commerce at a food wholesale distribution company. But tread carefully: Many agencies profess to understand the unique requirements of B2B e-commerce, but don’t.

Cam spoke of the setbacks his team encountered in choosing an implementation partner that ultimately proved it “simply didn’t understand B2B.”

Look for a partner that has demonstrable experience in your field, and is capable of delivering a solution that will add strategic value to your business. Work with agencies that know how to complement your legacy systems while allowing you to extend your reach through enhanced customer experiences.

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Nicholas Weber is an e-commerce consultant at Inviqa, a web and software development company and technology consultancy. He has 12 years’ experience as a buyer in both the retail and foodservice industries.

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