Shifting B2B Buyers From Offline to Online (They're Consumers Too)

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, May 18, 2015

Shopping is no longer a one-dimensional activity. We browse for flat-screen TVs on our smartphones from the floor of a big-box retailer showroom; compare and purchase clothes from our tablets while still in the fitting room; order pizza, book vacations, and buy insurance, jewelry, shoes, stocks and bonds, all online. Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices (facilitated recently by the entrance of wearables), "omnichannel" isn't just an empty analyst buzzword. It's how consumers increasingly shop, buy and seek post-sales support.

Lest you forget, B2B buyers are consumers too.

They, too, do a lot of their shopping online, jumping from laptop to smartphone to tablet before checking out. The digital convenience and often-tailored experience they receive when shopping for shirts, pants and shoes is the same thing they expect when purchasing a pallet of laptops for their organization.

Acquity Group's 2014 State of B2B Procurement study sheds some light on this reality. Of the 500 procurement officers surveyed in the U.S., almost half (44%) report researching items for their company on a mobile device; 37% have done so on a tablet. One in four buyers has completed corporate purchases using their tablets, a figure that’s likely to swell as the mobile purchasing experience continues to improve.



B2B companies aren’t blind to these trends. Research conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Accenture Interactive, part of Accenture Digital, and hybris, a part of SAP, found that most B2B sellers (83% ) in North America and large European markets agree that their businesses’ long-term success hinges on having an omnichannel strategy to drive revenue. Needing a strategy and creating one, however, are very different positions to be in. Sellers need actionable guidance to develop omnichannel experiences that strike the right balance between B2B and B2C demands.  

Elevating B2B eCommerce to B2C standards
Making a few IT upgrades isn’t enough to drive corporate customers online. B2B companies should consider these three tips for creating a meaningful omnichannel business model.

Take on internal change management: Businesses need to evolve internally before they can evolve externally. Accommodating customers’ desire for an intuitive, platform-agnostic buying experience requires companies to rethink their internal team structures. Some organizations may establish in-house digital innovation teams, others might develop new leadership positions to focus solely on e-commerce, and many are already expanding their marketing functions to include digital-specific roles.

Companies must also tear down the walls that have historically siloed different departments. Fragmented teams can never build a fluid customer experience. Digital marketing and e-commerce stakeholders need to collaborate with sales and marketing teams, merchandising and IT to establish a united omnichannel plan. 

Develop a better, smarter web presence: In their B2B research, Accenture Interactive and hybris found that half (49%) of B2B buyers prefer making work purchases on B2C websites. B2B suppliers, consequently, have to compete against the likes of Amazon and other consumer behemoths for procurement teams' budgets. Imitation may be flattering, but B2B companies that mimic popular consumer websites’ design and functionality won’t get far. Instead, they should begin with extensive research into what customers and prospects want from a B2B website or mobile experience, and build from there. 

According to this research, buyers tend to expect features like advanced search, product or service reviews, and personalized recommendations when shopping online. Beyond enhancing product identification functions, B2B suppliers should aim to improve transparency and interactivity at each step in the transaction process. This means offering details such as secure, efficient payment options and more accurate order tracking information.

Close the channel gap: To become a truly omnichannel business, B2B companies have to make sure that there’s no friction as customers jump between channels. Buyers that begin an order on their tablet during their morning commute (on the train, of course) should be able to resume the process easily when they get to their office desktop, and vice versa.

Again, narrowing these gaps demands more than a purely technological fix.

Field sales teams and call-center representatives should be well versed in what their brand’s digital platforms can do so they can cross-promote those experiences to customers. By educating all staff members about each channel, companies avoid siloing any of them. B2B companies may also need to pursue closer integration with external supply chain partners (e.g., parts manufacturers and distributors) to successfully maintain a smooth customer-facing experience.

Forty-six percent of procurement officers expected to increase their online purchasing as of 2014, across product categories. B2B companies that want to benefit from this powerful shift can’t be passive. If business suppliers don’t proactively adapt to the new omnichannel normal, customers will quickly flock to competitors that have.


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