Companies need ecommerce to serve their customers 24/7, but many have their work cut out for them to make digital commerce contribute to their overall success, Gartner analyst Penny Gillespie said at IRCE @ RetailX last week.

More manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers are embracing ecommerce. But if B2B sellers want to keep up with trends and plug into the needs of business buyers, they need to think of their digital operation in a whole new light, Penny Gillespie, research vice president and ecommerce analyst at Gartner Inc., said during the B2B workshop at IRCE @ RetailX last week in Chicago.

PennyGillespie-Gartner

Penny Gillespie, vice president and ecommerce analyst, Gartner Inc.

In the past, business-to-business and business-to-consumer ecommerce focused on driving transactions and growing web sales, Gillespie said in her kick-off presentation for the conference track, “Breakout Tactics for B2B Selling.”

But these days companies that want to stay competitive and gain customers and market share need to focus on making the digital buyer’s experience as easy, personal and relevant as possible, she said. “It’s all about serving the 24/7 customers,” she told attendees. “Customer experience is first and foremost.”

Understand how customers want to buy

Today, 57% of organizations cite “delivering the desired customer experience” as a critical challenge faced in ecommerce endeavors, according to Gartner research. “You need to understand how your customer wants to interact with you,” Gillespie said. She noted that Deere & Co., a manufacturer of heavy equipment used in the agricultural and construction industries, has excelled in deploying configure-price-quote, or CPQ, technology to help its customers purchase complex products.

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But B2B buyers and sellers have their work cut out in building or rebuilding ecommerce sites and other digital sales channels that are “truly digital transformational,” Gillespie said. For example, only 55% of discrete manufacturers and 50% of wholesalers and distributors say they have a digital transformation underway within their organization. Those two groups compare with 56% of process manufacturers and 71% of business service providers, Gartner says. “Businesses say ‘we are working on it,’” Gillespie said.

Discrete manufacturers produce products such as vehicles and planes while process manufacturers make pharmaceuticals, foods and beverages and plastic materials.

80% of buyers rely on digital information

There are a number of changing buyer behaviors that are altering the nature of B2B ecommerce, Gartner says. Gartner research shows that 80% of buyers now use digital information at each stage of the purchasing process, and 61% and 33% of buyers, respectively, consult a supplier website or want to complete their B2B purchase online without a sales representative.

But many B2B sellers don’t see their ecommerce sites, log-in portals and other digital channels as always successful, Garter says. For example, only 31% of organizations rate their digital commerce program as meeting expectations for site performance, security, quality and uptime. Only 15% of organizations also rate their ecommerce initiative as “contributing to the organization’s success,” Gartner says.

“Many companies are struggling with the basics,” Gillespie told attendees. “The number one mission is getting products properly priced and building responsiveness and relationships—that’s what’s make or break.”

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‘Commerce that comes to you’

Gillespie said the digital world is on the cusp of a big shift toward “commerce that comes to you,” rather than the traditional mode of commerce initiated by customers.  As B2B sellers use digital operations to better understand and anticipate their customers’ needs, they will learn to initiate online orders and reorders on behalf of customers to save them time and effort.

Gillespie also said that several advanced technologies will serve as accelerators to help companies push ahead into more proactive ways of digitally connecting with and selling to customers, including new online subscription services, artificial intelligence and machine learning, augmented reality, commerce driven by internet-of-things systems, and API-based or “headless” commerce architecture designed to provide commerce capability within any digital context.

Companies Gartner surveyed late last year were in various stages regarding deployment of such technologies. Gillespie noted, for example, that 35% or more were either currently using or piloting subscription services, API-based or headless commerce, and AI/machine learning systems, while 21% or more had no plans for such technologies.

Gillespie provided the following overall recommendations for engaging customers with better commerce:

● Design the digital experience with buyers in mind:

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  • Build digital commerce to support customers’ buying group tasks;
  • Prioritize content for buyers over the selling company’s information;
  • Guide buyers to the right products;
  • Offer content to help buyers compare products;

● Invest in innovative technologies and processes to differentiate the digital experience;

● Use website search, speed and performance to drive traffic;

● Make it easy for customers to do business by tailoring digital technology and strategy to meet their buying needs.

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