Through a self-service ecommerce portal, manufacturers can attract more millennial buyers, simplify their sales process, increase sales and profit margins, forge lasting customer relationships, and boost brand awareness, writes Randy Higgins, chief strategy officer of Shift7 Digital.


Randy Higgins

Manufacturers are not typically known to be digitally savvy, but changes in B2B buyer  expectations and other factors have led to steady growth and capital investment in manufacturing ecommerce sites. In 1999, manufacturing ecommerce comprised 18.1% of the total value of manufacturing shipments. By 2018, this number had risen to 67.5%,    according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For manufacturers, the improved efficiency of a self-service portal means saving money while earning more.

The onset of the global health crisis saw manufacturers embracing ecommerce because they could no longer sell by using traditional face-to-face methods. At the same time, supply-chain woes and belt-tightening by customers slowed growth.

Manufacturers that want to grow can—and should—depend on their ecommerce site. The shift to online buying is permanent, and manufacturers that want to stay competitive must provide the digital commerce tools their customers have come to expect.

Those customers are both distributors/dealers and direct buyers, and they expect the same level of service from your B2B ecommerce site as they get from a consumer ecommerce site. Self-service options are a must. Through self-service, manufacturers can simplify their sales process, increase sales and profit margins, forge lasting customer relationships, and boost brand awareness.


Self-service will dominate online sales

Manufacturing executives should take note because resistance to self-service ecommerce is futile. A study by management consultancy McKinsey & Co. found that about 75% of buyers say they prefer digital self-service and remote human contact to in-person communication; only 20% of all B2B buyers surveyed said they hope to return to face-to-face sales.

Additionally, 86% say they like using self-service for reordering. Buyers find it easier to get information and place their order quickly and conveniently when manufacturers provide a self-service experience, and 99% say they would purchase via self-service.

Also impacting the shift to self-service are millennials; 60% of all B2B buyers were in that age category in 2021, according to a survey by TrustRadius. These buyers grew up with computers and other technology and feel comfortable using it. Among the most important things to them are purchasing processes that save time. If you do not offer the experience they demand, they will go to your competitors who have what they want.

User adoption:
Building a self-service ecommerce platform
that your buyers want to use

Not any self-service solution will do. Buyers expect an ecommerce portal to deliver reliable information, appeal directly to them, offer what they want to buy, and look as though it was created just for them. However, when these platforms fail, it is usually due to inaccurate, out-of-date, and missing data.


Building a site that your buyers will choose to use for self-service—instead of getting your rep back on the phone again—requires:

  • Product catalogs based on the buyer’s specific requirements;
  • Account-specific pricing that includes their negotiated deals and other pricing rules you put in place, such as purchase frequency or the value of their total order;
  • Reliable availability and pricing information based on real-time SAP data;
  • Customized promotions and offers.

They are also looking for real-time status of orders, pricing, and inventory, account self-management, and such relevant training and support content as how-to-videos, a knowledge base, user manuals, FAQs, and documentation.

Customers also expect a checkout process tailored to the payment options they want to use—whether that’s a purchase order, credit card or even PayPal and other consumer-focused payment options. They want all of this available 24/7 and on any device.

What buyers and distributors want benefits manufacturers as well

For manufacturers, the improved efficiency of a self-service portal means saving money while earning more. A robust and well-constructed self-service portal brings the following advantages:

  • Increased revenue: Happy customers spend more money, and self-service offers plenty of cross-sell and upsell opportunities. Because you offer a personalized experience, you have the opportunity to grow that business from a data-rich perspective that can often out-sell a human sales rep.
  • An increase in customer loyalty: Giving your customers what they want keeps them with you, so you will improve retention and decrease churn while pleasing new customers by giving them what they want. When compared with companies that don’t offer it, those with self-service see an 85% year-over-year boost to retention.
  • Improved efficiency: Efficiency improves because the ordering process is automatic, with little or no assistance from humans.
  • Reduced costs: Customers get what they want without having to interact with a sales rep, and you save the cost of a live agent call, which can cost between $6 and $12 per call compared to an automated, self-help solution cost of 25 cents.
  • Customer Data: A treasure trove of first-party data that a manufacturer has often never had before leads to many new customer insights and breaks down silos for synchronization across all customer-facing functions.
  • Market expansion: Selling online means the opportunity to expand globally and sell into new geographies. It is important that your self-service portal has language and currency options and can handle international orders.
  • New market creation and innovation: Expanding your market can lead to easy expansion of your product lines through small tweaks that make them more appealing to other geographic areas as well as generate ideas for new products.

Constructing an ecommerce self-service portal means uniting your ERP with your front-end data for the real-time information users expect and installing the right ecommerce platform to speed time-to-value.

You need real-time data for self-service adoption

Your front-end user experience can and should be clean, simple, and thoughtfully designed to bring all user experiences together under one digital “roof” for each buyer persona. But the content and data have to come from somewhere. ERP often has all the customer, supplier, and inventory data that you need to power the ecommerce site attached to your front end. Without that data, you cannot provide an experience your customers will want.

For distributors to adopt and use the ecommerce portal, they need accurate pricing, inventory, and delivery against their contracts, and they need to have that information at their fingertips. If anything is wrong or missing, you could lose the sale and perhaps even the customer.

Randy Higgins is chief strategy officer of Shift7 Digital, an agency that specializes in developing digital experiences for manufacturers and their customers. Randy will speak on best practices in serving digital B2B buyers at the EnvisionB2B conference in June.