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B2B e-commerce trends shifting toward digital

Architect on building site using laptop and phone

Today's B2B customers expect the same levels of responsiveness and transparency from their commercial experiences that they receive at the consumer level. Catalog order forms and faxes just don't cut it any more.

Increasingly, B2B buyers are escalating their use of digital channels to research and complete purchases while still interacting with companies through traditional channels at some point in their customer journey, according to the Mastering Omnichannel B2B Customer Engagement report from Accenture.

In 2015, B2B e-commerce was expected to reach $780 billion and grow 40 percent to reach $1.2 trillion by 2020, a level four times that of current B2C spending. Driven by their experiences on consumer sites known for their customer service, such as Amazon and Zappos, B2B buyers have increasing expectations for ease of use, product information, pricing and shipping transparency and multi-channel access. But established industrial goods manufacturers and distributors may find it challenging to create a fully engaging, easy-to-use e-commerce experience on their own.

The challenge stems from the necessity to integrate e-commerce technology across multiple platforms, including financial, inventory management, sales and communications.

Business buyers are going digital

In the June 2015 UPS Industrial Buying Dynamics study, “distributor websites” were the top channel used by 66 percent of industrial products buyers for making industrial products purchases, up from 57 percent 2 years earlier. Thirty-two percent chose "third-party websites" as their most-used channel.

Often B2B purchasing decisions are a hybrid of online and offline experiences. The research from Accenture indicates that commercial buyers are increasingly using online channels for both research and purchasing. Online channels are beginning to overtake more traditional buying channels (sales reps and mail order).

If a site is slow to load or respond, or difficult to navigate, buyers will simply move on to a competitor. They want an easy and convenient online buying experience or they'll go somewhere else, led by a quick search to a site that provides a better experience. The Leveraging E-Commerce for Growth report from UPS indicates that 72 percent of industrial products buyers say they would shift spending to a distributor with a more user-friendly website.

Customers are demanding integrated digital experiences, which means suppliers who do it better will need to understand what their customers want-and it's more than just price and convenience.

4 Demands of B2B e-commerce buyers

Full product descriptions: As more B2B commerce moves online, customers expect a superior experience equal to the largest consumer companies. B2B buyers are looking for full product descriptions and specification sheets, and instruction manuals. They also like product question and review capabilities, and helpful media such as how-to videos.

Mobile-friendly websites: With the growing adoption of mobile e-commerce, consumers are being trained to expect the same experience in any interaction. That means a full mobile responsive site that provides most if not all the same functionality as the website, which should also connect with the in-store experience in the case of companies with brick-and-mortar locations. Shoppers want a simple and intuitive experience that's native to their platform. If it's difficult to navigate, they will abandon and try else where. Plus, they expect to be able to research and order on their own timetable-nights, weekends, holidays, any time they have a free moment.

In-stock inventory: B2C users expect product availability to be up to date across all platforms, and to know whether an item is available for pick-up at the nearest location. Or they want to be able to engage in online chat or email to quickly determine availability. B2B buyers are no different. The customer-facing website is only part of the system. They want an overall inventory control system that provides product visibility across all channels.

Negotiable terms: While there are many similarities between consumer and business buyer behaviors, commercial clients typically have unique needs. B2B buyers may expect negotiated prices, volume discounts, credit terms and the need to interface with corporate procurement systems that incorporate invoicing and receivables management. These buyers may also have requirements for control of the supply chain via business rules controlling shipping mode and delivery speed.

The decision to step into the e-commerce arena is only the beginning. Actually, the decision that companies originally thought was an e-commerce investment is much more complicated.

B2B e-commerce requires a trusted partner

Industrial products manufacturers and distributors should partner with a proven technology provider for e-commerce, order and shipping solutions. Creating an ecosystem of experienced partners can fill in skills gaps, bringing in knowledge from solving similar problems for other clients.

"Investing in technology can understandably be overwhelming,"says Simon Bhadra, Senior Manager, UPS Industrial Distribution customer segment, said in the Leveraging E-Commerce for Growth report. "For midsize and smaller companies especially, their resources go into managing the core business. They literally cannot afford to choose the wrong solutions."

UPS developed its customizable plug-and-play UPS Ready® Program to address its e-commerce customers' need for e-commerce, customer relationship management (CRM), and other technologies with UPS technologies. It creates a seamless experience from online order entry to delivery and returns.

With the reality of e-commerce, industrial products distributors not only have to sell online; they must continually raise the bar to meet or exceed increasing customer expectations.

Mastering omnichannel B2B customer engagement

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