A Look at the Rich Omni-Channel Future of B2B E-Commerce

Driven by the demands of ever more sophisticated consumers and the rapidly increasing pace of technological innovation, today’s B2B businesses are racing to build and deliver an effective omni-channel experience for their buyers. In a multi-channel sales approach, a business uses multiple, yet separate, platforms to engage with its customers.

mobileAn omni-channel approach goes deeper, integrating all the devices and platforms that a customer uses to connect with the company to provide a seamless experience and consistent messaging. This is the case whether the customer is shopping on a desktop, on a mobile device, by telephone, or in a brick and mortar store.

Developing effective omni-channel capabilities can yield a significant competitive advantage for B2B companies that do it well. However, it’s not an easy task to accomplish. The delivery of a strong omni-channel experience requires the support of world-class technology and, in many cases, the full-scale transformation of an organization’s legacy structures and processes. The rewards are certainly great, but so is the challenge.

To get a better sense of how today’s B2B businesses are faring with the shift towards omni-channel driven by buyers’ expectations, Forrester Consulting was commissioned by Accenture and hybris software to explore the changing world of B2B and how businesses are negotiating some of its complex transitions. The resulting study dates from late 2014 and therefore does not take changes from the last two years into account.

However, many of its key findings are still highly relevant to the ever-evolving sphere of B2B e-commerce. Indeed, if anything, the omni-channel experience has grown to assume even more importance in buyer expectations and seller activities. Key findings from the study, which draws on responses from 526 B2B companies and 930 B2B buyers, include:

The standard is high for B2B merchants.

The expectations of today’s B2B buyers have been strongly shaped by their prior B2C digital commerce experiences. In fact, most B2B buyers expect more or less the same things from both B2B and B2C shopping experiences.

These include enhanced fulfillment capabilities like next-day delivery or accurate estimates of product arrival time; inventory visibility in store and across all channels; and a superior customer experience supported by useful services like self-service accounts and personalized product recommendations. Consequently, the bar is set much higher for B2B sellers than was previously the case.

Disjointed, piecemeal, and hit-or-miss digital experiences will no longer satisfy today’s B2B buyer. Rather, an omni-channel experience where research, orders, returns, and exchanges can be conducted across all channels is now the minimum standard from a B2B buyer’s perspective.

Omni-channel is an important driver of customer loyalty.

B2B customers may expect a lot from businesses when it comes to the omni-channel experience. However, they are typically prepared to reward those businesses that meet their expectations with long-term loyalty. In fact, 75 percent of B2B buyers surveyed by Forrester reported that they would make future purchases from the same merchant because of their omni-channel capabilities.

Indeed, successful fulfilment of some of the B2B buying expectations described above leads to loyal customers coming back for repeat orders. It also motivates those customers to spend more and to do so more frequently. There’s no question, therefore, that omni-channel development is a worthwhile investment on the part of B2B sellers.

B2B merchants are taking action.

The vast majority of B2B merchants are well aware of how important omni-channel is when it comes to delivering a successful customer experience. More than 80 percent of B2B companies surveyed agreed that an omni-channel strategy is a critical component of future success in terms of sales and profit. Additionally, 85 percent of companies named omni-channel strategy as a focal point for their decisions about technological investments.

Furthermore, B2B companies are not just in possession of this awareness, but are acting on it. In 2014, when the Forrester survey was conducted, more than 80 percent of B2B sellers were planning to implement, upgrade, or make investments in their current e-commerce platform within the next six months in order to better support omni-channel requirements.

Such investments included support for a variety of channels; the creation of tailored experiences for different users, including multilingual and multinational audiences; and better reporting and analytics tools. These, in turn, can help businesses increase the quality of the omni-channel experience they deliver.

Technological investment alone is not enough.

As has been seen in other digital contexts, without significant organizational and process changes, simply investing in technology or using new technological tools does not in and of itself lead to digital transformation. B2B e-commerce is no exception.

A major endeavor like the creation of an effective omni-channel commerce platform can require a great deal of structural change. To address this, smart B2B businesses are prioritizing investment in change management programs as much as investment in new technologies and platforms.

Such programs are helping businesses better align their organizational structures with customer behavior and overcome barriers such as conflict between different channel organizations. These programs also enhance business processes to better support omni-channel experiences, and ensure that staff members are properly equipped to handle the transition through training initiatives.