Getting Started With B2B Commerce

By Carla Gonzales, former eCommerce Business Manager at Würth Louis & Company

Introduction

B2B businesses need an online presence now more than ever.

Amazon Business has become a major player in the B2B arena and, their business to business selling and purchasing marketplace is making it much harder for companies to operate as a singular supplier.

When it comes to B2B buyer expectations, they are becoming more demanding which means B2B organizations have to work that much harder for a competitive advantage. Buyers are consumers and they want self-service options that fit with their “24/7 anywhere on any device” habits. In short, the same omni-channel experience they are accustomed to in their B2C purchase experience is also expected in their B2B transactions.

Internally, the work-place is rapidly changing. Older workers are passing the baton to digital-first Millennials who increasingly want to conduct all business online. These tech-savvy buyers turn to the Internet first for products, pricing, and to help them make decisions before even contacting their salesperson.

Everyone in the B2B space is going to have to take a serious look at their e-commerce channel and online presence and evaluate if they are ready for the upcoming B2B digital revolution.

So when the day comes, if it hasn’t already, that your boss walks into your office and says, “We need a new website.”, this little eBook can be your guide to getting started with building a B2B e-commerce website, choosing the best platform and deciding on development partners that will help you achieve your online goals.

Disclaimer:

The opinion expressed in this e-book are my own and do not reflect the beliefs or opinions of any particular person or organizations that I am now or have been associated with in the past. The information, stories, examples, and use-cases presented here have been extrapolated from my years of experience building and developing B2B and B2C websites along with various events and situations that have occurred throughout my career. This e-book is not intended to represent the circumstances or conditions of any particular organization or company.

Insight from the Author:

When my boss first came into my office, I wasn’t surprised he was about to drop the “We need a new website” bomb. Things were gearing up in our organization towards establishing an e-commerce channel.

The company operated as a traditional B2B business, producing yearly printed catalogs with an outside sales team who called on customers. My boss could see an increase in the number of requests from customers for us to have more of an online presence and provide them with an alternate method to buy and conduct business with us. Most notably, they did not want to wait for printed information to learn about new products.

The first thing that ran through my mind when I heard the words “new website project” were “OMG this is going to be big”. I knew I was going to be responsible for not only reshaping the organization’s standards and business practices, but setting up a new business channel that would push this organization into a new era of business and technology.

Being fairly new to the company, this request would be a huge challenge. I had to be brutally honest with myself and ask, “how can I get this website up and running?”. The first thing I needed was to put together a plan. Before I could tackle my boss’s request, I needed to start by managing his and the organization’s expectations and get a few questions answered:

• What type of website does the organization want to build; an e-commerce channel or an online business unit?

• What’s the timeframe to start and launch the website; is there time to plan and develop or is this a project we needed done yesterday?

• Is there room in the budget for a whole new website or is this going to be a start-up project that just gets our foot into the digital playing field?

Once my boss left my office, I took a deep breath and I told myself, “Don’t panic Carla, you got this.”

Managing Expectations

I started this project with evaluating my options for a B2B website. I wanted to get clarification from my boss and key members in the organization on the type of website we wanted to have first. Did we want to build a traditional e-commerce website that could just handle transactions or were we developing an enterprise website that could support our internal business rules and processes?

Getting a clear idea of what the company had in mind and an understanding of which business rules they felt were important to incorporate gave me an idea of how complex this website might become. I knew once I got further into the project, more questions and ideas would spring up and the scope could change however, getting a feel for the direction the company wanted to go helped me in my early planning process.

Chapter 1: Start With a Plan

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There are significant differences in developing a traditional e-commerce website vs. an online business unit website (also known as an enterprise website). Both types of websites have different outcomes and produce different user-experiences.

A lot of B2B companies start with creating a conventional e-commerce website. This means your customers will be able to place orders online through a basic transactional B2B store. It is a simple, uncomplicated endeavor with a straight-forward buyer-to-seller experience with a focus on mainly order fulfillment with minimal online customer support services.

This type of website is based on the idea that B2B buyers have limited time to spend on a website, assuming buyers only want to access the website to purchase and leave. This old way of thinking has limited suppliers in the past from providing customers with an online presence that can help them do their job better.

Therein lies the need for an online business unit. An online business unit converts complex business practices and services into online feature services like:

• RFP (request for quote) services

• Vendor direct product and services

• EDI or bulk order ordering

• User-account management

• Customer service features (such as online returns)

• Inventory allocation management

• Custom, contract and matrix pricing

• Financial account services (bill pay)

Transferring multifaceted business practices from the physical world to the digital world is a business decision that requires forethought because development is usually elaborate and can be potentially problematic. The value of sites like these however give buyers the convenience they want and the flexibility to use the website as an extension of their internal systems.

Establishing an initial plan can help you set priorities and provide direction for your project. In these early stages, it is essential to set expectations and get a clear understanding of the scope of the project.

Other important considerations in the initial planning stage are:

• Hire additional human resources:

Depending on the direction the company chooses to take with the website, you may need to hire extra support or you may need to adjust your other obligations to make room for this new project.

• Attend training, conferences, or workshops:

You may want to familiarize yourself with potential platforms or new technology that you may want to incorporate within the website.

• Setup regular meeting updates:

You may want to meet with your boss, leadership team, or key stakeholders often about any concerns that may arise or potential roadblocks that may need their support to be avoided.

• Identify discussion points you can call on with your boss, leadership team, or key stakeholders of concerns that may arise to help you avoid potential roadblocks that could come up later.

Insight from the Author:
 
The company was unsure of how long the planning, building, and launching of the new website would. Part of my strategy for managing expectations was to build an initial timeline and share it with everyone. This ended up being key to having my boss to understand right away that with the business rules the company wanted to incorporate, this website would take time to deliver.
 

Chapter 2: Discovering Key Milestones

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During the website development lifecycle, you will need to mark milestones to indicate progress. Major milestones that should be identified on your production calendar are:

• Committee meetings

• Contracts due or approved or signed

• Front-end landing page art due or approved

• Wireframe review or approved

• Written requirement due or approved

• Coding start date

• Content completed or ready to populate

• Production server ready to deploy

• Platform testing

• Site launch date

Overall, set an “as firm as you can” launch date and work backward from there. Your boss or leadership team may want to see tangible progress so, make sure you add in major phases and key tasks to work towards in your timeline.

Keep in mind, milestones can overlap and that’s okay, it’s better than taking shortcuts at any point in the website project. Skipping tasks or pushing progress too fast can lead to code error, causing problems later on or a bad user-experience.

Insight from the Author:

On one of my prior website projects, my team and I were tasked with building a website. Three months in, the chairman announced. “I want to have the site ready for our company’s annual trade show convention.” The trade show was less than two months away, and we had barely started development.

Needless to say, my team and I laughed. This was so unexpected. When we started the project, there were no significant events outlined on the timetable. The website was a traditional commerce site and there was very little integration needed however, the front-end design and site features were robust.

After investigating further, I found out the Chairman actually intended for the website to be a demo for potential customers. My team and I felt confident we could pull off a website prototype for the event but, having all the data and features fully functional was going to be a stretch. I also had a hunch that additional requests would be coming after the show.

In the end, we pushed some non-essential features to later phases, which enabled us to deliver the site in a “Beta” test mode for the trade show. We then rolled out the launch of the website a few months later. Knowing up-front the site’s actual launch date, we could have been prepared and had more of the site functionality ready, giving new site users an even better experience.

A guide to key milestones:

• It is important to cross-reference your timeline with the company’s business calendar.

• Identify corporate events that could potentially impact your time frame right out of the gate.

• Check whether the organization wants to showcase the website at the next tradeshow or if your boss needs to present a working demo of the site at the next board meeting. Such unexpected events can cause your website project to be either held up or accelerated.

• Work with your boss (weekly) and your committee (every three weeks) on which KPIs are important.

• Try to plan out what you want to achieve or possibly present for an expected special event.

• Determine if a prototype is needed.

Insight from the Author:

Before I got too far down the rabbit hole with starting this project, I went back to my boss’s office and drop the budget bomb on him. I said, “Remember when you came into my office and dropped this new website bomb on me; Now it’s my turn, I need a budget.”

Luckily my boss was agreeable to the budget plan I proposed and could work with. Doing an initial budget as well as explaining how much money I might need saved me later when I began requesting the actual funds. There was very little objection to my spending when it was time to sign contracts because I had already justified costs and identified several unforeseen expenses.

Chapter 3: Establishing an Internal Committee

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Building a new website can impact several departments within the company. You will need support from members in your organization that aren’t familiar to you. Involve team members like the finance people—especially the controller— who can tell you about legalities, security, and compliance and the credit folks who can help with onboarding customers.

Often internal skirmishes between departments can cause a project to stall and pulling other departments in on a project that could potentially be time-consuming and require a significant investment of their time will be challenging.

Some decisions about the website’s operations, features, and internal support may require discussions and approvals from various department heads. Consider creating an internal committee that includes department decision-makers as well as executives or stakeholders from operations, sales, customer service, marketing, IT, and finance. Often internal skirmishes between departments can cause a project to stall, so include your boss and a leadership person who can make any final decisions. That person should be the one who can understand and act on issues that could impact the entire company’s business rules and processes as well as work with you to set project priorities and team objectives.

Use the committee to:

• Make sense of business rules that may have been in place since the start of the company

• Establish new regulations that support business change

• Approve ideas and finalize changes

• Assign department tasks and to set priorities

• Proofread and test the website

Insight from the Author:

After my boss told me we needed a new website, I was resolved to take on the challenge and rally key team members from various departments to assist in the website initiative. I knew things could come up that might involve other departments.

There would be support needed from operations to better understand the business rules that would ultimately turn into requirements. I wanted IT’s help to uncover challenges with extracting data from internal systems. The credit and finance department’s assistance would also be essential in determining how to handle customer account information. I needed to establish an internal committee that included these teams and sales and customer service.

My boss, the President of the company, was gung-ho about the project but to succeed internally, this project had to become a company-driven focus. Since this was his initiative, I asked him how he would help push the website forward. Was he going to pave the way when I ran out of road? Meaning, will he be able to help affirm priorities among the other departments when there are conflicting objectives? Would he be the champion, aka George Washington, and lead us to victory, or would he be the person in the background saying, “You work it out and let me know if I am needed.”?

It was important for me to know whether he would make himself available to assist with getting past internal red tape and roadblocks or if he would be hands-off and just expect us to work cooperatively through the challenges. The conversation with my boss about how important the website will be to the company’s overall business initiatives helped me have confidence when I approached other departments for help.

Having an internal committee in place will go a long way in moving your project forward with minimal conflicts as well as help gain support and commitment from everyone in the organization.

Encourage a high level of teamwork by:

• Making good use of the time your committee is giving you by holding regular update meetings as well as open discussions to ensure that all members are motivated to participate.

• Planning your meetings wisely. Talking about a new website is a great topic, but could require lengthy discussions, most people may be too busy to spend long hours in a meeting.

• Providing lunch or snacks to encourage members to attend or stay longer.

Chapter 4: Choose Your Commerce Platform Wisely

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Choosing a B2B e-commerce platform will be the greatest digital decision your organization will make. It will determine the company’s online growth and direction for years to come and decide the long-term partnerships. Choosing a platform will require you to consider which business rules can or can’t be incorporated and if your chosen platform doesn’t have your business solution out-of-the-box know you’ll have to modify the code a lot in order to make it work.

You also must have an idea of your future needs. If the platform doesn’t fit what you think you will need 2-3 years down the road it may not be as straightforward as to rip and replace or change out the application at a later time.

Overall, there are two types of software platform solutions you can consider.

• Open source: is a free use platform and are heavily developer dependent. Development advancements are supported by the community of individual programmers who contribute to the change and growth of the software. The platform is only as strong as the community that supports it. If no one is adding new ideas or code fixes to the platform it becomes outdated. On the positive side, these platforms are raw and unrestricted so they can be changed or redeveloped to fit your customized needs. When it comes to out of the box features, they may be limited or only developed through community.

• License/SaaS (Software as a Service): is a paid platform. These software application providers can charge a one-time fee or a regularly paid subscription service. Support, updates, and fixes are done by the platform provider. Additional costs or tiered pricing is usually based on the different out-of-box features offered.

There are benefits to choosing either platform option. Open source platforms allow for flexibility and complete customizations and the platform is only limited by your level of development support. There are, in some cases, platforms that offer both an open source and a licensed version. This could be an option for you to try the platform or create a website prototype before investing in the paid version if you are limited by budget or the ability to maintain the platform long-term.

Insight from the Author:

I didn’t have much time to conduct an extensive platform research. I was limited in the types of platforms I could consider based on my budget and requirements constraints. I considered both an open-source and a licensed platform but, I had a mixed bag of “must-have” requirements that quickly steered me toward a licensed system.

I wasn’t keen on using a SaaS (Software as a Service) platform because I wanted the option of hosting the website in-house. I was definite in my desire to find a platform that could integrate well with our internal systems. It helped to know I wanted a system that could be customized and had user-features that could be tailored to fit our unique business rules.

To round out my criteria, platform services and support were essential prerequisites as this was a new website project. I would need help with implementation and setup. I was able to meet with the platform’s technical team to discuss the website details and potential technical challenges. They were extremely helpful in working with me to find workarounds for some features that were limited and capitalize on others that I hadn’t considered. In the end, I chose a platform that fit my major requirements and was built on an infrastructure could grow.

Choose a platform technology that you can grow with your organization now and in the future. Make sure you can easily establish a relationship with your chosen platform provider and their support community.

There are platforms that offer a lot of features, but there is no perfect platform or a platform that has or does it all. Each software application has its own pros and cons that should be evaluated and compared. It helps to create a score card and compare the following attributes which can be used to evaluate a platform:

• Platform solution (Open source, Licensed/SaaS)

• Headless or traditional store-front

• Level of development needed

• Out-of-the-box features

• Price

• Technical support services

• Installation

• Hosting options (on premise or cloud base)

• Content management

• Integration (SAP or other internal systems)

• Scalability

• Versioning and upgrades

Read the potential vendor’s documentation, attend training classes. Don’t worry if you have a hard time understanding or interpreting the technical aspects of the documentation. Make notes and use what you learned to ask questions about how the platform can be incorporated into your requirements and requests demos to see how their features work in action.

Ask for references, check their clients’ website, see how they are using the platform. That will really tell you what the platform is capable of.

Is “Going Composable” Right For Your Organization?

Change comes at a cost in time / effort & money. And the larger the change, each of those factors are increased. Combining these factors with clear business needs and drivers, go a significant way to helping answer the “going composable” question without extensive analysis.

So if we:

  • Have a rapidly changing/competitive market that needs innovative experiences which can be designed in a persona centric way, deployed quickly anyway and use a few common features to help sell (Product). Composable Commerce is a must.
  • Are a growing business who today have an ecosystem of open source and simple integrations as we like to control our ecosystem and in the future may change a piece, but must have a cart and payment to sell. Composable Commerce is a must.
  • Run our business on a complex set of applications that takes months to change, simply to provide product & inventory updated to our sales reps / buyers and dealers in different experiences quickly. Then it’s time to look at Composable Commerce.

A Composable Commerce application allows an organization to be more flexible and adapt to business change rapidly with less friction, and less risk introduced into the backend environment. Because “Lego bricks” can be swapped in and swapped out for best-of-breed, a composable enterprise can stay perpetually modern without having to endure a rip-and-replace re-platforming or full-stack upgrade ever again. To learn more from one of our internal experts book a meeting with us today.

Chapter 5: Finding the Secret to B2B Online Success

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Insight from the Author:

I recall my boss’ visit to my office and his explosive plan for me to build the company’s new website. In retrospect, he was asking for a successful website but all I can remember is seeing passion in his eyes as he envisioned an awesome site that all of our customers would want to use. The site would bring our e-commerce out from the shadows, boost sales and become the winning channel all other channels would want to beat.

His ideals were not lost on me. I too wanted a great website and an unbeatable channel, but creating a successful website means different things to different people. To my boss and leadership team it meant increased sales. To our sales reps it meant flexibility for their customers, and to our customers it meant convenience.

It was clear the website had a big job of accommodating everyone’s interpretation of success. In order to accomplish these tasks, I had to set my focus on the customer. Sales and Sales Rep support would come once they felt confident about ordering online. I began thinking “where can the website add value and provide customers with more than just a turnkey commerce solution?”

It would not be enough to just build offline features online. The website needed to be a step up with ways to incorporate personalization. This meant going back to each section of the website to find opportunities to personalize the user experience.

Knowing about my customers buying behavior I was able to redesign the homepage to include quick buys of past purchases. I developed a ‘create your own discount section’ which gave customers the ability to build products that fit their need and budget. I also leveraged the ‘My Account’ section to include business support features, such as contract price review and ‘create your own custom item number’. Lastly, I built the front-end pages that allowed buyers to change the site look and feel and add their customer logo, which gave users the ability to use the website in a way that works best for them.

B2B companies that are hesitant to commit to an e-commerce website that provides a full-service website is leaving potential revenue opportunities on the table. B2B customers are not like B2C customers, unexpected conversions can come when users have the freedom to spend time on your site performing functions such as bill pay, quoting, account management, price checking, and contract renewals. When businesses start diving deeper into their operations the website can become more than just a dressing-up a B2C site that accommodates B2B ordering, it becomes a channel customers can use.

Every channel has its own challenges. The challenge on the web has traditionally been about adding more products and discounts rather than improving customer service. Businesses today though are hearing a lot of complaints from their customers who want to know why their particular need isn’t solved online. Successful B2B websites seek to incorporate customers conveniences, not just through the ordering process. There is one truth I’ve come to know in website development “the success of a website is based on the customers’ ability to use the site unencumbered.” There are several essential traits a successful B2B website must have:

• Accuracy in accessing and purchasing items through your shopping cart checkout process.

• Agility in navigating, searching, and finding the products they are looking for.

• Convenience by having support services that help customers manage their account directly online.

• Knowledge of website performance, visits, and conversions using analytic methods.

How to add value:

Leverage every area of your website: The home page is often where B2B businesses shine. Give your customers the ability to easily purchase the same 100 items they purchased last time while simultaneously promoting discounts on additional, similar items so your customers will keep coming back, and they’ll keep buying more.

Map out your customers’ digital journey: Study your customers’ buying preferences. A lot of customers in the B2B world order the same things over and over again. Some customers buy different things on a per-project basis, but its more infrequent. Above all, they need efficiency and don’t always want to go through the site. Examples of giving customers what they need is making sure they have fast order paths with buy again buttons or for complex orders, or letting them upload an excel sheet.

Seek to add offline and online value: Trying to translate this type of customer interaction online is difficult. A customer who doesn’t like the price they saw online can’t negotiate with their computer. Determining how to bring customizable and personalization tools to the website will be how you add value to the website and differentiate it from the competition.

Closing Thoughts

Building a new website may be the most difficult project you will complete. There will be a lot of new decisions that need to be made such as determining the best platform and development partners to work with that will set the tone for your digital initiative.

As you begin to build your new website, keep in mind the following key takeaways to help you succeed and avoid roadblocks in your project:

• Know what your company wants to achieve, whether it’s to build a conventional e-commerce website or an enterprise business-unit website.

• Hire resources early and make sure team members who are part of the development process are trained and able to manage and maintain the site once it launches.

• Secure executive sponsorship and ensure the project is a company-wide directive. • Allocate an initial budget including unexpected expenses, such as travel and training.

• Schedule frequent discussions with the IT team about potential data issues and make a plan to work through them.

• Create an initial timeline, plan for all phases of development, and set milestones.

• Choose a platform wisely, it will be hard to rip and replace your site’s foundation if it does not fit your future needs.

• Consider headless, which gives you the ability to change your front-end layer quickly as you grow.

• Choose a development partner that can do the job and that you can work with, problems will occur if their programmers are not capable of coding in your preferred platform.

• Conduct keyword research and check out your competitors’ websites, learn what the industry is doing or not doing.

• Look for inspiration in the B2C world, B2B customers want a similar experience to what they’re accustomed to in B2C.

To have a successful website, build it with the same experience online as offline when it comes to engagement and convenience. If you do, customers will be more likely to visit your website again and again. Lastly, prepare your organization for the kind of digital growth you want today, tomorrow and beyond.

About the Author

Carla Gonzales is an Ecommerce Business Manager at Würth Louis and Company who holds two master’s degrees from Regis University, an MS in Data Science and an MBA in Marketing. With over 20+ years of experience in e-commerce, Carla is a veteran who has been there and seen it all. She has a long track record of building successful B2C and B2B websites. She is a truly diverse individual with extensive experience in web design, development, marketing, and data science. Carla lives in Chino Hills California with her family.

Elastic Path Commerce

Elastic Path offers the leading purpose-built headless commerce platform to unify experiences across the entire enterprise. As the pioneer of headless commerce, Elastic Path empowers you to sell products and services in the connected world through the web and a touch of a finger or a spoken command. Its products, including Elastic Path Commerce Cloud, deliver commerce freedom and accelerate the creation of any customer experience on a single platform. Through collaborative innovation between Elastic Path’s team, customers and partners, Elastic Path leads the way in revolutionizing commerce. About the Author Carla Gonzales is an Ecommerce Business Manager at Würth Louis and Company who holds two master’s degrees from Regis University, an MS in Data Science and an MBA in Marketing. With over 20+ years of experience in e-commerce, Carla is a veteran who has been there and seen it all. She has a long track record of building successful B2C and B2B websites. She is a truly diverse individual with extensive experience in web design, development, marketing, and data science. Carla lives in Chino Hills California with her family.

Are you looking to deliver unified commerce experiences across all customer touchpoints? Contact Elastic Path.