Experiencing Omnichannel in B2B E-commerce

October 2016

Key take-away lessons:

- In general, omni-channel strategy is about an endless “stream of experience”, ranging from your physical point of sale to your online webstore and its mobile version.

- However, in B2B e-commerce there is a further aspect – omni-channel means also not to differentiate the prices between online and offline customers

- In other words, your customers should not perceive any price difference between buying online or offline.

- Responsive design is the right tool to offer a stunning omni-channel experience

- In B2B, omni-channel implies also to mix offline and online sales processes – for instance, placing an order online after a business meeting in person.

1. A Unique Feature for B2B Industry – Fair Price Treatment

Gone are the times when having a webstore was enough to retain your existing customers or attract new ones. Nowadays, customers – no matter if they are in B2C or B2B industry – expect to be able to communicate with your company everywhere. It is then imperative for you to create a seamless experience across all channels – both online and offline.

Taking this omni-channel approach ensures that your customers receive the same personalised experience regardless how they are interacting with you. As they are engaged across channels, this gives you the opportunity to sell more to your existing customers, collect more data, and keep improving their experience and building loyalty.

What does an omni-channel strategy exactly mean? Omni-channel is not just an improved cross-channel – i.e. adapting your website to its mobile version or to the new app in the Apple or Google store. Omni-channel is about true continuity of your customers’ experience. It is about the ability to offer a continuous experience online and offline, across format and across devices. It means providing your customers with an endless “stream of experience”, ranging from your physical point of sale to your online webstore and its mobile version.

Not only that. In B2B, omni-channel shows a unique feature, which is deeply related to B2B purchasers’ concerns. Your customers are afraid that online commerce could lead to discrimination among buyers, and in particular between online and offline buyers. They sure want to check the prices offered online in your webstore, in order to compare with those they usually get.

The concept we want to stress here is that for B2B distributors is key to grant to their online and offline customers the same, fair and equal treatment. They must apply the same type of discount to the same type of clients, according to their specific characteristics. For instance, if the customer is a panel builder redirecting to B2B players and to B2B players needs, he requires and deserves certain rebates, no matter if he prefers to place the order online or offline. Only in this case, your customers can trust you and count on your reliability and nondiscriminatory approach.

Here there is an example of omni-channel experience. You are a B2B purchaser in the electro-mechanical components industry. Imagine you are looking for products you require for a specific business project, using your classic paper catalogue. However, you have an unexpected business meeting in the other part of the town. Suppose then, during the trip, you are browsing the webstore of your electro-mechanical components retailer on your smartphone. You find the circuit breakers you needed. Hence, you put them in your online cart, but you have to participate to the meeting and cannot finish the purchasing process.

During your lunch break at Starbucks, you are checking Facebook on your iPad. In your news feeds an advertisement of your electro-mechanical retailer appears, featuring the same circuit breakers that are waiting for you in your online shopping cart. A couple clicks later, and you discover the circuit breakers you selected earlier in the morning are still there in your online cart. Just as you are ready to checkout, your iPad’s battery dies. After getting back to your office in the afternoon, you switch to your laptop, open the webstore of that electro-mechanical components retailer and you are able to finish the purchase.

This is how today’s B2B customers expect to buy – with the convenience of using several synchronized devices and channels.

In particular, they exploit the omni-channel experience as they know that there are no price differences among online and offline sales channels. The seamless experience in B2B means as well that you are able to provide your customers the possibility to switch from the offline to the online sales channel, without any price discrimination.

2. Responsive Design Is the Digital Wizard

Mobile browsing is expected to outpace desktop-based access within three to five years. Almost every business these days wants a mobile version of its online shop. It is practically essential after all: one design for the BlackBerry, another for the iPhone, the iPad, netbook, Kindle — and all screen resolutions must be compatible, too.

A part from granting the same fair approach between your online and offline sales channel, you should also be able to guarantee the same user experience on a laptop or a smartphone.

How can you do that?

The reply is: through responsive design.

Responsive web design approach suggests that design and development should respond to the user’s behavior and environment based on screen size, platform and orientation.

This idea comes from architecture design and was firstly coined by the web designer Ethan Marcotte in 2010. “Recently, an emergent discipline called “responsive architecture” has begun asking how physical spaces can respond to the presence of people passing through them”. Transposing this concept from architecture to web development, “we can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them. In short, we need to practice responsive web design” (Ethan Marcotte, Responsive Web Design, 25 May 2010, http://alistapart.com/article/responsive-web-design).

As the user switches from their laptop to iPads or iPhones, the website should automatically switch to accommodate for resolution, image size and scripting abilities. If you open this article on a desktop browser and slowly make the browser thinner and wider, you should see the layout adjust itself to be fitter for the new width of the browse.

In other words, the website has the technology to automatically respond to the user’s preferences. This would eliminate the need for a different design and development phase for each new gadget on the market.

3. The Final Pillar of Your B2B Omni-Channel Strategy – the “Sales Room” Approach

To deploy an effective B2B omni-channel experience, you still miss a final integration between online and offline experience. You should take into account as well that some of your customers might be not particularly willing to place their orders online in person and do prefer to interact with your sales persons, rather than with a laptop.

How can you better serve them?

In a recent report, Forrester Consulting has found out that rich omni-channel experiences, such as the ability to buy online and do next-day pickup or ship from a local facility, are difficult and expensive for pure-play Internet suppliers to match. On the contrary, B2B companies can differentiate themselves, by leveraging their strong in-market physical presence to engage with customers across different channels.

The point is exactly that you, as a B2B distributor, can rely on your strong in-market physical presence and you can exploit it to deliver a mix of online and offline channels to your customers.

How can you offer this kind of service?

You can keep meeting your customer’s buyer at your office – as usual. After negotiating with him, you can help him open his personal online account. You can show him how to use his account, check his online chart, manage his orders, control the orders status, and so on. You can teach him how to place an order through his account.

Alternatively, you can deal with your client’s buyer by phone – this is again a quite normal way to interact among B2B players. As a result of the call phone with your client, you can directly place the order on his behalf in the backend of your online shop. Remember that the pricing system is identical online and offline, thus no problem will arise as regards this aspect.

Both these solutions start with an offline and personal approach. However, afterwards, you exploit the easiness of placing an order online, thanks to your extensive products database and the clearer procedures for managing orders online.