After nearly 20 years in B2B e-commerce, Bulbs.com has a practiced ear for listening to what buyers want.
And Bulbs—which generates about 85% of all web sales selling light bulbs, fixtures and related lighting products to companies in the real estate management, hospitality, food service and related industries—takes to heart what customers have to say, CEO Mike Connors says. “They tell us what we need to do better.”
Learning from young buyers
Bulbs.com launched in 1999 as a web store selling lighting products, and listening to customers early on helped it find its B2B niche. “We learned that direct-to-consumer wasn’t ready for e-commerce, but as older purchasing managers began hiring younger staff, they were turning over more of the buying of maintenance, repair and operations, or MRO, products to their web-savvy younger procurement staff,” Connors says. “Because we listened to that younger buyer, we were able to catch a generation of online buyers on the way up and that established our customer base.”
Bulbs.com, which carries an online inventory of 5,000 products in categories that range from bulbs, fixtures and lighting control equipment to special lamps for horticulture, has built a company culture around hearing what the customer has to say—and wants, Connors says. “We have 20 agents on the phone everyday checking with customers,” he says.
Listening to customers has helped Bulbs.com build and sustain a B2B e-commerce site that over nearly 20 years in operation has served more than 200,000 companies, including Bulbs.com’s active base of about 35,000 active business buyers. Each year Bulbs.com sends an extensive survey of about 50 questions to its active customers. The survey asks buyers to rate their user experience and provide feedback on topics related to product inventory, customer service, website features and functions and other areas.
Customer feedback leads to updated website
The feedback in turn led Bulbs.com to update its e-commerce site over time with advanced features that include product ratings and reviews, and advanced site search. The site search has filters that let purchasing or MRO managers shop for such highly specialized products as light emitting diode (LED) bulbs by color, temperature and other specifications.
Bulbs.com, which is on track to grow web sales about 10% in 2018 to around $20 million, also used customer feedback gleaned from a variety of tools and programs to build its online “business center,” a section on its site dedicated to customer service. New and repeat customers can use the center to sign up for a business account, manage an existing account and contact a Bulbs.com lighting specialist who can help them research and find products by needs and specifications and complete an order.
Buying lighting products can be a complex and cumbersome process. Before the web and e-commerce, purchasing managers routinely paged through bound paper volumes of The Thompson Registry, a multi-volume directory of industrial product information covering 650,000 distributors, manufacturers and service companies within 67,000-plus industrial categories. “It wasn’t surprising to see a purchasing manager have 200 pounds of paper directories they thumbed through to find and order products,” Connors says.
Even today, buying specialized bulbs and related lighting products online from a huge number of suppliers can be time-consuming. “It’s a pretty fractured market,” Connors says.
But Bulbs.com is using customer feedback to keep making its B2B site easier for customers to use, especially for LED bulbs and related products. About 30 days after a purchase, Bulbs contacts a buyer with an e-mail message and a follow-up phone call asking the purchasing manager or manager for feedback on the product, the purchase experience and what other products the customer needs or wants Bulbs.com to carry. “That feedback helps to expand the inventory,” he says.
Monitoring social media
Bulbs.com also stays current with customers by listening to the particular words, phrases and product metrics buyers in specific vertical markets use use in social media and other outlets when talking about business and industrial light bulbs and fixtures. Bulbs.com marketing managers will then compile lists of specific words and phrases to update its natural and paid search keyword inventory, e-mail campaigns and social media programs.
A new business development program at Bulbs.com is using customer feedback to build up product content in such vertical markets as hospitality.
Customer feedback leading to more vertical market specialization is helping Bulbs.com expand its customer base and book bigger-ticket, new and repeat purchases, Connors says. The average ticket is about $350 to $400 per order, and up to 70% of all business buyers are repeat buyers, he says.
Going after more vertical markets and following up with existing customers is helping Bulbs.com add as many as 1,000 new accounts each month and place more orders valued at $100,000 and higher, he adds.
“Listening to our customers is making us into better subject matter experts in more vertical markets, and that’s translating into more business,” Connors says.
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