As B2B distributors have moved further into the digital world, they’ve centered their commerce experience primarily around one critical element: product data.
This strategy makes sense, of course. If you’re trying to recreate the physical buying experience in a digital setting, you need a digital equivalent to the physical features buyers use to make choices — and those features must be explicit. In a store, buyers can pick up an item to feel how heavy it is. Online, you need a field called “weight,” and that field needs to be populated with a logical value.
So the past few years have seen B2B distributors (and manufacturers, to an extent) highly focused on creating successful customer experiences through clear, complete, consistent and correct product data. They assumed that if their product data were in good shape, then site search, SEO, and the links between products would remain consistent and minimal problems would arise. Over time, though, it became clear this wasn’t the case. Yet simple as it may seem, getting a handle on product data is much more complicated than many companies initially realized.
For one, the product catalog constantly changes. Distributors often bring in new products or push out others — maintaining an accurate view of the product catalog requires hyper-vigilance. It’s also challenging to keep product information consistent as the business grows or evolves. Consider, for example, a company acquisition or movement into a new vertical. Both instances can substantially change the product catalog, and it may take quite some time to understand the implications of those changes. It’s genuinely difficult to stay on top of a product catalog in a digital environment.
Yet many B2B distributors have remained laser-focused on the perfection of product data as their top digital priority. And while it’s true that product data is important, that single-minded focus comes at the expense of the most valuable data source to B2B companies: the behavioral data of customers.
Most online companies already have this ecommerce data source — they just tend to ignore or delete it. But ecommerce data tells a critical story: how the buyer ended up at their purchase — the entire journey, not just its end point. How customers engage with your product data can offer incredible insights into user intent and process. What terms are they using to search? What products do they look at after searching for a particular term?
A better way to recommend products
For example, complementary products historically have had to be linked to each other manually, either through hard coding in the site design or via a connection/relationship established in the PIM. But this approach requires significant manual labor to keep all product relationships current, and it sometimes makes inaccurate assumptions about buyer needs and use cases.
It’s much easier today to manage recommendations of compatible products by aggregating buyer behavioral data. (E.g., “Customers who bought also bought” or “Customers who viewed also viewed” recommendation widgets.) And distributors can increase the recommendations’ innovation by shifting them depending on the user’s role/persona/industry in addition to the product alone. It’s more of an “actions of the customer” than a “voice of the customer” approach, because what customers actually do is often more accurate than what they say they do.
This composite approach to ecommerce data is critical to building a differentiated customer experience. More importantly, incorporating behavioral data into the experience design is something the vast majority of distributors don’t do now. It represents a path to measurable and genuine innovation.
The positive impact of ecommerce on B2B is undeniable. But businesses cannot grow complacent with where they are today. Digital customers are telling you what they want. They’re showing you how they shop. Embrace and use that customer data to power better digital experiences — the kind that leap ahead of competitors.
About the author
Jason Hein is Principal Strategist for B2B at Bloomreach. Bloomreach provides “commerce experience” products and services designed to help online B2B and retail companies engage their customers. He has spent the past six years consulting for B2B manufacturers and distributors across a range of industry verticals. Prior to consulting, Jason spent five years at Amazon.com launching what is now Amazon Business. Before Amazon, he worked in merchandising for industrial distributor McMaster-Carr. He managed product presentation and differentiation across a wide range of B2B product categories.
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