First published Oct 22, 2019. Revised Sept 6, 2022.
Manufacturers struggle to define best practices in B2B eCommerce. There’s plenty of digital ink spilled on the topic, but most of it covers the needs of distributors, wholesalers and retailers who are trying to get into B2B. Those scenarios are vastly different from the challenges that manufacturers face.
So what best practices should manufacturers follow in B2B eCommerce? How can you cut through the noise and address the most important aspects of selling to your channel partners?
Here’s our take (click to jump):
1. Know your GTM strategy (and get picky with your chosen solution)
What’s the primary purpose of your B2B eCommerce initiative? At a high level, there are two options:
- Attract and retain new customers (who WON’T get personalized pricing, availability, etc. through unique contract terms)
- Create a better experience for existing contract customers (and increase their spend with you)
These two purposes aren’t mutually exclusive. However, it’s best practices to choose one as your primary purpose.
Because of the challenge of SAP ERP integration. In a nutshell, attracting and retaining new customers typically requires a unique branded user experience. If customers aren’t negotiating contract terms with you, but rather creating an online account through self-service, then you won’t offer the customer personalized pricing, payment terms, or availability. All transactions look the same from a logical perspective, which makes the SAP integration requirements less complex.
On the other hand, if you’re primarily creating a better experience for existing customers (and incentivizing them to spend more), and if each existing customer has unique pricing and availability rules, then your SAP integration requirements are far more complex. Likewise, a unique user experience isn’t as important since the customer is already contractually obligated to buy from you.
Generally speaking, approaches to B2B eCommerce divide along this line. In one category, you have the “B2C lookalike” solutions that are intended to attract and retain new customers. In the other category, you have the “industrial B2B” solutions that offer deep SAP integration for personalization. These solutions tend to be login-protected, with a templatized look and feel. (This is the approach we take with the Corevist Platform.)
2. Define your B2B eCommerce revenue target
As we’ve written elsewhere, there’s one question that will define your B2B eCommerce success: What percentage of your overall revenue do you want to come through B2B eCommerce?
That’s a powerful question.
It’s a best practice to ask this question in two contexts:
- What percentage of existing revenue do you want to transition to B2B eCommerce? In this case, a few corollary questions arise naturally. What percentage of existing customers do you want to adopt B2B eCommerce? How are you going to turn them into dedicated B2B eCommerce users?
- What percentage of future new revenue do you want to flow through B2B eCommerce? Other questions naturally follow this one: How will you use B2B eCommerce to differentiate yourself from the competition? Where are your future customers doing business now? What benefits are they getting from your B2B eCommerce competitors? What are their pain points in doing business with your competitors?
Obviously, you don’t have to choose between these two—in fact, a smart plan will ask (and answer) both questions. You should strive not only to transition existing business to ecommerce, but also to take new market share from competitors who are lagging behind you in online customer experience. An intelligent B2B eCommerce plan will empower you to do both (possibly in successive phases).
3. Choose your B2B eCommerce management model
This is a fundamental question, and it doesn’t get much play from B2B eCommerce solution providers: Who’s on the hook for your B2B eCommerce infrastructure as a whole?
This question has far-reaching implications for the life of your B2B eCommerce business, and it’s a best practice to answer it carefully. Because enterprise-class ecommerce is a system of systems, someone has to own that system—the larger infrastructure of which the B2B eCommerce platform is just one piece.
If you source your B2B eCommerce solution from one vendor and your SAP integration from another, you’ve got a system of systems without an owner. That leaves your in-house IT team or another third party with the responsibility for the overall B2B eCommerce infrastructure.
That works fine for some organizations. Others can’t justify it.
(Hint: We built Corevist Commerce to solve this problem. It’s a fully managed solution for manufacturers who don’t want to worry about their B2B ecommerce infrastructure in-house. We offer the platform, the implementation & integration, ongoing support—and we help you grow the business—and 1/3 of Corevist clients have no in-house IT resources dedicated to supporting our platform.)
4. Get smart about scaling up without adding headcount
How do you implement best practices in B2B eCommerce in this tough labor market?
The deeper you go into B2B eCommerce, the more you’ll be tempted to increase the complexity of your operation. While some increase in complexity is unavoidable, manufacturers should think carefully about B2B eCommerce architectures that will drive up costs alongside revenue.
There are two culprits here:
- Choosing an unmanaged B2B eCommerce solution. If you commit to supporting your solution in-house, you won’t be able to leverage the economies of scale that a managed provider achieves.
- Choosing a solution that doesn’t include SAP integration. Without that prebuilt integration, you’ll be forced to increase headcount as you roll out B2B eCommerce to additional geographies and brands. Learn more here: Growing A B2B Channel Without Adding Headcount.
5. Look for economies of scale that can serve all your global divisions and brands
Here’s another talking point that isn’t getting enough play. If you have multiple divisions or brands that need B2B eCommerce, it just doesn’t make sense to force each division to pursue their own solution.
Why? Because the first two B2B eCommerce best practices we mentioned depend on real-time SAP integration.
And if your SAP system is centralized or templatized across all your divisions or brands, then you’re not leveraging available economies of scale if you force each division to go their own way and build their own integration.
In fact, if that’s the case, each division will make large, duplicate investments in one-off integrations between SAP and B2B eCommerce. This will hurt your bottom line now, but also in the future, as each division’s B2B eCommerce solution will have its own technical quirks requiring the attention of a dedicated team.
Corevist Commerce is different. Our solution is built on a real-time, configurable SAP integration that’s ready for reuse in any and all B2B storefronts. Because our implementation is as templatized as your SAP system(s), Corevist allows you to scale your global ecommerce business fast.
Here’s what that looks like for a sample project with 10 global storefronts:
6. Define which B2B eCommerce features you need (and which you don’t)
Don’t overlook this B2B eCommerce best practice.
For manufacturers, B2B eCommerce features (like real-time inventory, personalized pricing, and full account history) usually require deep integration to SAP ERP.
Why? Because SAP ERP defines all business data and logic. If you’ve already invested in your ERP as the system of record for these things, the most efficient way to offer them in B2B eCommerce is to provide a real-time integration to SAP.
That’s why manufacturers who need comprehensive B2B eCommerce features should choose an SAP-integrated solution.
7. Get each customer’s pricing right in B2B eCommerce
Showing correct pricing to each dealer or distributor is an essential best practice in B2B eCommerce, particularly since manufacturers often have contract pricing negotiated with each customer. If B2B eCommerce shows inaccurate pricing (or—even worse—no pricing at all), your buyers will be forced to pick up the phone or send an email.
If that happens day-in and day-out, the B2B eCommerce portal has essentially become useless to them. If they can’t see an accurate price, they can’t very well place an order.
Since all pricing rules are defined in SAP, we believe it’s best to bring those rules to the B2B eCommerce store through real-time SAP integration. That way, every logged-in user sees their personalized price—including any quantity discounts that are defined in SAP.
What’s the alternative? You could maintain all your pricing rules separately, in the B2B eCommerce solution and in middleware that passes data back and forth. But that will require ongoing data maintenance in 3 places (SAP, middleware, and B2B eCommerce). At scale, that’s cost-prohibitive—plus it introduces data integrity risks.
This is why we built Corevist Commerce to function as a real-time window into your SAP system. Because your SAP business rules function in real time within the Corevist portal, your customers get the same pricing interaction in Corevist that they would get if they called customer service.
8. Offer real-time inventory/ATP personalized by customer account
If customers can call customer service to get real-time inventory availability, you need to provide that information in B2B eCommerce. If you don’t, you’ll introduce a friction point in the self-service buying process.
The only way you can show real-time inventory data is with real-time integration to SAP ERP. (By the way, Corevist includes this out of the box).
- Displaying the full inventory quantity to all logged-in customers.
- Showing a personalized ATP (available to promise) quantity which your SAP system calculates for each customer.
Either way, whether you show customers total raw inventory or an ATP quantity, you should look for a B2B eCommerce solution that displays that data in real time. If you use personalized inventory (ATP) calculations, it’s best to find a B2B eCommerce solution that can show that personalized data.
9. Make sure your B2B solution supports order approval workflows (if you need them)
If there are multiple decision-makers involved in your buyers’ purchasing process, then your B2B eCommerce solution needs to account for that (and support role-based privileges).
For example, say there are 3 types of users working for your customers. They’re differentiated by their privileges as it relates to orders:
- Level 1—Can build orders but can’t see pricing or place orders.
- Level 2—Can build orders AND place them, but can’t see pricing.
- Level 3—Can build orders, place orders, AND see full pricing.
We see use cases like this when the manufacturer needs to protect the personalized pricing which they offer each customer. In high-turnover fields, where workers change jobs frequently, it’s best to hide pricing from the first two levels of worker, since they may take that knowledge with them to the next job.
Manufacturers should look for B2B eCommerce solutions that support role-based privileges. (Hint: Corevist supports this out of the box.)
10. Get your sales team on board from the start
As we’ve reported, Forrester claims that the #1 way to kill B2B eCommerce is not to incentivize sales reps to use it.
That makes sense. Out of all your employees, your sales reps are (hopefully) the most in tune with customer needs. They’re the ideal people to sell B2B eCommerce to your customers.
To do that, though, you’ll need to incorporate the concerns of Sales into your B2B eCommerce plan from the very beginning. That way, you include them in your B2B eCommerce transition and ensure you don’t alienate them.
11. Give customers a voice in the B2B eCommerce project
This is a challenging best practice. If B2B eCommerce is going to work for your customers, then you need their feedback from the very beginning. You need to show them a working version of the B2B eCommerce solution, integrated to SAP, and ask them one simple question: Why can’t we put this software into production today?
This is the methodology we use here at Corevist. Across a series of focus groups, we show the live Corevist solution to your real users and get their feedback. In collaboration with you, we use that feedback to configure Corevist Commerce for launch. It’s our way of “failing early” alongside you—making your GoLive a success.
There’s one important note here. You can’t run your project with this methodology if you save SAP integration for the end. You need a real, working SAP integration on Day 1—or you can’t show customers a realistic software demo. That’s one of many reasons that Corevist includes prebuilt, configurable SAP integration.