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eCommerce Platform Selection: The Critical First Step

Learn how to select the right B2B eCommerce technology platform, taking into account business objectives and the needs of both sales teams and customers.

Billion_Dollar_B2B.jpgA B2B company might choose to build its store on any of more than a dozen sophisticated eCommerce platforms. Once platform operators observed the rapid growth of the B2B eCommerce market, they responded with innovative solutions that leverage modern web technologies to create eCommerce experiences equal to any in the consumer space.

Whereas just a few years ago, options were limited, today there are many B2B-focused eCommerce solutions, each with an approach to technology, support, and integration that embodies a particular vision of online selling. But which is right for your company?

An adequate answer to that question must take into account multiple factors, ranging from the technical capabilities of the company, to its short and long-term business objectives, to the needs and expectations of its customers. 

In this article, which is excerpted from my new book, “Billion Dollar B2B Ecommerce,” we will explore a strategy to help your company to identify the factors that should shape your choice of eCommerce platform.

Identify Your Business Objectives

Before you even think about what technology platform will be best suited to your company, you have to define business objectives. Objectives should tie to your expected Return on Investment (ROI) model and can also include intangible benefits that you expect from eCommerce. Objectives can include: 

  • Increased share of wallet from existing customers.
  • Incremental revenue from new customers. 
  • Shift of sales to more efficient channels (particularly repeat orders). 
  • Higher gross margins obtained through online selling. 
  • Increased customer loyalty obtained by making buyers’ jobs easier, as evidenced by increased lifetime value of each customer. 
  • Enhanced competitive advantage vs. non-eCommerce enabled competitors. 
  • Improved organizational effectiveness, particularly in the sales and support functions. 
  • Overall enhancement of enterprise value. 

Your business objectives need to be translated into technological requirements; that is, the technology platform you choose must be able to support the objectives. Too often, companies seek to deploy technology for technology’s sake, but this is backwards. Objectives are the foundation upon which technology should be constructed. 

Fundamental to this effort is acquiring sufficient customer feedback that will provide you with a thorough understanding of their needs and expectations. By putting the customer first in this process, your requirements and ultimate system selection will be based on a foundation of meeting the customer’s needs, making it more likely that you will gain adoption after you launch your new website. 

There are details and subtleties of a sophisticated eCommerce system that are learned only from the experience of working in eCommerce and past systems selections. I recommend hiring a seasoned consultant or firm to assist you with this process. A consultant can help ensure that you are not overlooking any major functionalities and selecting a system that fits your business needs and those of your customers. At minimum, have someone in your organization who has some experience in eCommerce lead this effort, and carefully research the important aspects of web site functionality prior to starting the process (note: I have a high-level framework you can use to get started included in Chapter 9 of my book). 

It is often best to structure this process by starting internally first and then working outwards, including any audiences your web site may touch. If you have been putting your customers’ needs first, then this part of the process should be straight forward for you. You may have a good amount of data already collected. It will be easy to become distracted by all the bells and whistles as you go through this process. That is why it is critical to always keep your customers’ needs in mind throughout the process. 

I strongly recommend taking the following steps to understand both your customer and your business needs: 

Interview your sales and customer support teams

Look for common areas where your customers are seeking to use a web site to both buy online and receive support via your site (such as re-ordering products, checking order status, looking up inventory availability, finding product and compatibility information, administering accounts, and other tasks). Seek out ways that the sales and support teams can be made more effective by using online tools. 

Interview your customers

Identify a group of customers that you can talk with in person or by phone (or both) to understand their expectations of your eCommerce web site. Explore areas such as: 

  • What are their expected purchase patterns online? 
  • What are their expectations from a digital usability standpoint? 
  • Which products will they purchase online (e.g. what products do they regularly buy from you on a repeat order basis)? Are there any categories which they don’t want to buy online, and if so, why not? 
  • Which other web sites do they use to research and buy similar products? 
  • What parts of their current offline workflows would they most likely want to move online? For example, obtaining order status, finding delivery information, researching product details prior to making a purchase, or paying invoices or open credit balances. Look for repetitive tasks that will be made easier by bringing them online. 
  • Do they need support for PunchOut Catalog (ERP and eProcurement-based) ordering? 
  • How do customers want to interact with you across device types (mobile, desktop, etc.)? 

Ultimately, you want to discover which customer interactions will become easier via online channels and focus on building these into your technology requirements. Making these actions easier will be critical for you to drive adoption of your new eCommerce site. Be sure to talk with at least 20 customers and survey different types of customers across industry segments, including customers of different sizes. 

Form a customer advisory board

This can emerge from the group you interviewed and will help you through the eCommerce development process. The most successful B2B eCommerce implementations I have seen have leveraged a group of customers that can be involved at every stage of the web site development process, providing feedback as you build. This team of customers can be called upon to review your web site creative designs, provide a test panel for usability of the site, and be used as a sounding board for features you are considering adding. 

One company I recently worked with, a multi-billion dollar healthcare, pharmaceutical, and medical device firm, effectively utilized customer and sales team feedback at the start of their eCommerce effort. When they began interviewing stakeholders, they unexpectedly found that they had large gaps in the data that they needed to be successful in eCommerce. This company had thousands of product data sheets and user manuals that they realized were presenting different information across their diverse product lines. Not only did these materials need to be digitized, including ensuring all content was up-to-date with accurate drawings and specifications, but the firm also needed to ensure that pricing was consistent. The company needed to show customers the prices they expected to see, not only in the online shopping cart, but when their customers were browsing the product list pages. Management built an intensive data cleansing and normalization effort into their deployment process. 

Now that they are live with eCommerce, their customers feel confident in ordering through the online system, as they are getting the product data they need and seeing the prices they expect. Within the first few days of launch, the firm had almost 700 customers registered to use the new eCommerce site and a tremendous uptick in orders. Thanks to their diligence around product data, eCommerce has since grown to comprise a considerable percentage of the company’s overall sales. Without upfront stakeholder interviews, they would not have realized and filled their data gaps. 

This example highlights the criticality of putting the customer first in the process.  This is the important initial step every company must take at the start of an eCommerce platform selection effort.  Don’t make the mistake of skipping it! 

In Conclusion

I have identified four steps that help companies to gather the information they need to select an eCommerce platform. However, it’s important to remember that B2B eCommerce is a rapidly evolving industry—a lesson that has been driven home time and again throughout 2021. Your business objectives will change, as will your customers’ needs and expectations. Continual reassessment and adaptation is essential to maximizing the return on your B2B eCommerce investment

To read more and purchase a copy of “Billion Dollar B2B Ecommerce”, go to: http://www.billiondollarb2becommerce.com. The book lays out a blueprint for how B2B companies need to address their technology and business operations to thrive in the digital age.  It is now available on Amazon.com, and you can find more information about the book at the “Billion Dollar B2B Ecommerce” website.

Brian Beck

Brian Beck

CEO, eCommerce Expert Advisor, and Author

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