Voice-activated tools combined with online configure-price-quote technology offer the potential to bring a new level of customer experience to the ordering of complex products. It’s the next frontier in B2B commerce.

 

To win many online buyers, B2B can’t just mirror B2C

Mark Bartlett

One in six U.S. adults owns a voice-controlled device, and experts predict that voice shopping will generate $40 billion in sales across the United States and the United Kingdom by 2022. But as people become more comfortable with voice in their consumer lives, will the technology also bleed into their B2B behaviors? The idea isn’t as crazy as you may think.

The biggest strength of voice commerce is its ability to reduce friction in the buying process.

Voice ordering offers an opportunity for B2B businesses to improve sales processes as the industry grows and evolves. To predict the future growth of voice in the B2B space, consider the history of desktop and mobile ordering—both channels achieved popularity in the consumer world before influencing B2B buying habits. For these channels, people once had to follow a series of prompts and menus to configure a simple product, but they can now easily configure a product in 3D or even augmented reality in some cases. Voice has the potential to be that next channel.

But right now Alexa, Google Home and other devices can only handle transactions for simple business products like pens and paper. For voice to successfully transform business buying processes, the technology must be able to handle complex transactions, like ordering a custom-built semi-truck.

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Voice in B2B will require a much more powerful product configuration engine on a company’s back-end business software quickly customize and price complex products. Enter configure, price, quote (CPQ) software— a technology that has the potential to make voice technology a major player in the B2B space.

Voice in B2B: The next big frontier

Forrester Research Inc. predicts that the B2B ecommerce market will double the B2C market by 2020. Many B2B businesses have moved online in the past decade, embracing new e-commerce technology designed specifically to enable and streamline the B2B buying process. However, most of the products bought and sold within the B2B market are incredibly complex.

Consider a business in need of new office cubicles. Even while browsing the most advanced e-commerce site operated by a supplier, the buyer for this business might struggle to research and make her purchase online due to the enormous number of factors that need to be configured, such as unique dimensions, weight considerations, spatial requirements, materials or installation services.

That’s where voice commerce has the potential to revolutionize the space. The biggest strength of voice commerce is its ability to reduce friction in the buying process. This already plays out well in the B2C world: Users can easily make purchases using their voice if their hands are tied, or if they find the act of navigating e-commerce sites too tedious. The ability to reduce friction in this manner could significantly ease B2B buyer frustrations, and completely transform the space.

In the cubicle example, voice commerce could serve as a great middle step for the buyer who is not yet ready to talk to a sales representative, but finds it difficult to determine price quotes for products with multiple configurations through standard e-commerce experiences. Using her voice, she could explain the specifications needed for her cubicles and the technology could send her potential pricing options.

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However, voice-controlled devices as we know them today only understand very basic commands, such as playing a song or conducting a Google search. To understand the typical B2B order, and facilitate that experience, the technology will need to get a lot smarter.

A standard B2B order involves multiple configurations, which would require the technology to calculate tailored price quotes in real time and understand business rule distinctions for each customer. That’s more than even the most advanced B2B e-commerce sites can now handle, and far too advanced for the standard voice-controlled devices that exist today.

CPQ: The missing piece of the puzzle

Voice technology holds enormous potential to improve and evolve the B2B buying experience.  Think about how crazy e-commerce once was, and how it’s proliferated into every facet of our lives as consumers and professionals, to understand how big of an impact this technology can make. But to get there, voice-controlled devices will require a more sophisticated backend solution to process the massive amount of data necessary to support the average B2B transaction.

CPQ technology is the missing piece of the B2B voice puzzle. CPQ technology brings data housed across siloed channels into a single system to support transactions across all owned or partner e-commerce sites, enabling the system to generate accurate price quotes for configured products in real time.

With CPQ technology, many B2B companies have significantly improved quote-to-order capabilities and boosted the revenue they drive through e-commerce. The most advanced systems are designed to work with all digital channels, and voice technology is certainly an option. It will only be a matter of time before leading B2B companies embrace CPQ to improve voice offerings and gain a leg up on the competition.

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While voice-activated technology has a long way to go before it can understand and facilitate typical B2B transactions, the idea is certainly not out of the question—nor is it as far out of the picture as many may think. CPQ technology has the potential to enhance the functionality of voice technology as we know it, and introduce it to the complex world of B2B commerce.

Mark Bartlett is chief experience officer of FPX, a provider of online configure-price-quote technology and related products and services. Prior to FPX, he guided customer experience and commerce practices for such digital agencies as IconNicholson (Digitas LBi), Sapient and Razorfish. (Sapient and Razorfish have since merged into SapientRazorfish.)

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