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Improving the B2B commerce experience

Kami Kris
Women working at table

Building the future of digital eCommerce

The business world continues to innovate and digitize, and the once-hesitant B2B sector has now entered the arena. Driven in large part by buyer expectations, companies are seeking ways to offer an experience that tracks with and is even richer than the B2C sector. Copying and pasting a successful B2C commerce strategy, however, falls far short of the unique needs in the B2B space.

The road to B2B commerce may vary according to industry, but the benefits are the same across the board. Commerce allows companies to expand customer reach, reduce cost-to-serve, drive innovation, and ultimately drive more revenue. In today’s digital-focused, customer-centric business world, commerce solutions must tackle a wide range of challenges and expectations to be successful.

I recently hosted a CIO Roundtable with women who lead technology in a range of industries to talk about B2B commerce, the challenges they are facing, and share solutions. We had an energetic and informative discussion, and participants came away with ideas and food for thought about progressing their B2B commerce initiatives.

Here are some of the questions we discussed.

How do commerce solutions differ between B2C and B2B? 

The digital B2C experience is straightforward. The consumer brings up the company website, browses, selects the product they want, and follows through to purchase. In many cases, the company will text or email shipping updates and delivery notices. Though the B2B experience consists of the same basic elements, it is far more complex because of the increased number of variables.

For instance, the B2B delivery process is much more intricate than simply placing an item in a box to ship. Especially with today’s supply chain constraints, customers want to understand where their purchase is in the manufacturing process. Think the Domino’s pizza tracker but for manufacturing.

Many organizations have tried to simply copy and paste the effective B2C digital experience but quickly found that it does not meet the needs of the B2B buyer. Commerce solutions must aid in data management, involve sales representatives, quickly and digitally produce quotes, create transparency and visibility into the manufacturing or delivery process, and the list goes on. To support this type of digital experience, with all of these variables, there must be the right tech in place.

What tech stack modifications are needed to achieve successful B2B commerce?

The needed modifications center on technology. From intelligent supply chain management to customer self-service, there is a hard push for business transformations that facilitate these modifications, and, in all cases, digital plays a major role in those transformations.

Where to begin greatly depends on where you are in your digital evolution. There are two traditional paths customers take when it comes to building out commerce capabilities. First is fully custom solutions which are time and resource intensive, and difficult to pull off. The second is suites and fully managed services that have numerous challenges and constraints.

Thankfully there's a new third leg, which is MACH. Moving businesses to be more API-focused and utilizing MACH technologies allows them to access different offerings based on their size, IT & engineering capability, and maturity.

Women working at table

What about legacy systems?

Of course, legacy systems are still in place as B2B companies transition to digital commerce. Businesses using legacy commerce platforms are finding it difficult to keep up with today’s rising customer expectations.

Many are struggling with the inability to release new commerce features to production quickly; differentiate their customer experience; implement modern tools like live order tracking; and access data on their end-customer across touch points.

In our experience working with B2B customers on digitizing commerce, the biggest challenge is not technology-based. A common strategy is trying to replicate legacy processes in a digital environment, which doesn’t use the technology the way it should.

The processes are often built on decades of “this is the way we do things” and the head knowledge of just a few people. Companies struggle with managing the change in the business, in people as well as processes, that is needed to pave the way for the new way of doing things. If left unresolved, this can be very expensive.

How can a commerce solution address the needs of all users, including customers, internal staff, and other stakeholders?

The keywords for including all the actors in the system are communication and participation. Rather than only thinking about the front-end customer experience, it’s important to expand to include internal staff like product managers, content editors, customer service professionals, warehouse/fulfillment teams, and sales reps, as well as third-party partners and vendors.

Each of these people has distinct needs and viewpoints about how customers are served. From the very start of a commerce initiative, open communication channels to all of those involved and continue to engage them to get input about how to make the customer experience better.

How does data figure into a commerce solution?

Data is the key to an effective digital commerce solution. The business must understand its data and have the right tools in place to create an actionable backlog. However, there are a lot of challenges around data. We hear "Our data's a mess. We don't know how to get started. What do we do with all of our data? Who owns it?"

The biggest challenges we see with our clients are cases where the data isn’t clean or in a state to make actionable decisions. Another issue is how the data is interpreted; different people can view the same data set differently. Data governance must come into play so that data is trustworthy, actionable, and consistent across the business.

There are a couple of approaches that we have seen success with, one is creating a data center of excellence. A group to own, maintain and govern data that will enable it to be a shared service for different customers within the organization and create alignment on some common standards.

The second is treating, or thinking, of Data-as-a-Product. Instead of believing that you need to create a six-month data strategy before you can move forward, this lean approach allows companies to continue to iterate on an MVP so that they do not get behind.

Turning to supply change management, what role do digital solutions play in mitigating challenges?

Supply chain challenges can start with getting the product off the dock to the driver, then getting it to the distribution center, having staff at the distribution center unload it, and on to the close of the sale. Along that path, there are a host of variables and costs. For example, how to include the cost of diesel into the system and continue to adjust as the price changes? What if there’s an issue unloading cargo and more port storage fees must be paid?

There are more examples throughout the chain, and the impact on the budget and bottom line can be substantial. The good news is that there are software systems that can manage whatever variables exist, both transparently and flexibly.

As far as the long tail solution, fortunately, or unfortunately all answers go back to data. You can start to use data to better forecast your demand needs, based on the information that you have today. You can also leverage AI to better predict when a customer will run out of stock and when they actually need to be fulfilled in their order versus the next customer to better manage stock.

What are some challenges in moving to a product-centric organization?

Moving from a project mindset to a product mindset is very hard. It's a big change in the organization, especially going from a culture of command and control to one of agility and empowerment. This is a major change management initiative, and it is essential to have buy-in from leadership to be successful. The higher up the change management advocate is the better so that they can remove impediments like process, alignment, and investment in up-skilling employees.

Another topic discussed, one that applies to digital transformation in general, is how to create an innovative organization. Ellie Morrison, Managing Director of Central Territory at Kin + Carta, noted that the first step is defining why innovation is important to the company. Gaining or retaining competitive advantage? Capture more market share?

Create a better culture to attract and retain employees. The reasons and desired outcomes will point to what in the company needs to change. Whether the change is big or small, the key is overcoming "we've always done it this way," and creating a safe environment where people feel like they can bring their ideas, is important. This is another change management situation that requires buy-in, support, and investment of both time and money.

These action items from our discussion are a great starting point for executives looking to become insight-driven businesses.

Interested in joining our next roundtable discussion? Join our CIO Community.

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