A new Digital Commerce 360 report, B2B Commerce Handbook: Going More Digital, covers how companies of various types and sizes build out their ecommerce strategies.

While large B2B companies like Fastenal Co. and W.W. Grainger Inc. use their  substantial digital technology resources to serve customers effectively and grow sales across multiple online and offline channels, much of their strategies apply to companies of all sizes. That’s largely  because today’s digital commerce technology offers a wide range of capabilities, as noted in the new report, B2B Commerce Handbook: Going More Digital.

“Technology is no longer the challenge,” says Steve Martinez, a former vice president of digital solutions at chemicals distributor Univar Solutions, who is now the founding managing partner  of    Chicago-based digital agency Aspirant Digital LLC. “The biggest challenge is, how do I adapt my existing processes to embrace new digital commerce-enabled processes?”

He adds: “The information I have in my enterprise resource planning system is great for internal purposes, but it was never intended to be customer-facing. So, a lot of product descriptions don’t have much useful content, or just have item numbers and SKU data that don’t mean much to the end user, the customer.

It’s all about the transition of making information fit for being  customer-facing.”

Watching inventory and profit margins

Martinez and other experts say it’s crucial to start with comprehensive and reliable data management related to customer activity, inventory and profit margins, using critical applications like product information management (PIM), customer data platforms (CDP), and inventory and financial management systems.

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“The most pressing challenges B2B organizations need to succeed in digital/omnichannel commerce are data integrations that enable accurate inventory updates and profit margin analysis,” says Lori McDonald, founder and CEO of Brilliance Business Solutions, a Milwaukee-based digital agency. “When selling on many channels, it is very easy to quickly lose money if you don’t have strong integrations and reporting on your margins that enables you to be confident that you are pricing products properly.”

Dale Edman, an independent ecommerce expert who is a former executive at such companies as boating products retailer West Marine and consumer products manufacturer Newell Brands, adds that it’s crucial for ecommerce practitioners to display on their own online venues and distribute to channel partners accurate and comprehensive product data, descriptions and images.

Winning with personalization

“There’s an old saying in the computer programming world: Garbage in equals garbage out,” he says. “This is true for B2B ecommerce sites. If you don’t have the product content including attributes, descriptions, images, diagrams, videos, then it’s hard for  a customer to make a decision. For that reason, I would start with assembling all of your data and getting it into some sort of product information management system. From there, you can tackle the ecommerce system as well as syndicate to any other systems and channel partners.”

Managing product and customer data effectively is a critical step to personalizing content — including product displays, search results and promotions — to the interests of individual buyers and groups of them.

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“Where it gets really exciting, is what you can wrap around your ecommerce engine,” says Justin Racine, principal, unified commerce, at digital agency Perficient. “Start with product and customer data, leverage a customer relationship management (CRM) and customer data platform, and manage the process of advanced personalization.”

Building a unified commerce strategy

Racine, a former ecommerce executive for a health products distributor, advises companies to extend personalization throughout a unified commerce that connects with customers and addresses their interests consistently across multiple commerce points, including a company’s ecommerce site, mobile app, social media venue and sales reps.

“First, understand what your customer wants, their customer journey and their pain points. Then, work backward to understand how to build a unified commerce system.”

Jerry Bernhart, principal of ecommerce recruiting firm Bernhart Associates Executive Search, says it’s crucial for companies to have senior managers and executives who can strategize with critical data across multiple operations.

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“You’ve got to put strategic thinking right at the top,” he says. “You’ve got to know the market. You’ve got to anticipate changes. You’ve got to develop a long-term plan. And you’ve got to make all these data-driven decisions — integrating digital marketing, customer insight and relationship management — and integrate all that into a coherent approach.”

This article was excerpted from the recent Digital Commerce 360 report, B2B Ecommerce Handbook: Going More Digital. The full report, available as a free download, covers the B2B ecommerce strategies of crane manufacturer Huisman, global ecommerce company Alibaba and beverage distributor Republic National Distribution Co.

Paul Demery is a Digital Commerce 360 contributing editor covering B2B digital commerce technology and strategy. [email protected].

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