By Bridget McCrea

Your customers may be used to shopping on Amazon in their personal lives, but they aren't necessarily expecting the same experience from your e-commerce site.

When working with distributors, Justin King focuses on helping organizations understand and build e-commerce strategies that are visionary, tactical, and that have a meaningful business impact. The good news, says King, is that electrical distributors don't need the power and resources of Amazon to create a great online experience for their customers.

"[Assuming] your customers want an Amazon experience may not be accurate," says King, senior partner with B2X Partners in Ashburn, Va., and founder of ecommerceandB2B.com. King recently released a report evaluating seven different e-commerce platforms for manufacturers and distributors with revenues between $25 million and $750 million. Through his research, he picked up on several noteworthy differences between B2B and B2C (business-to-consumer) e-commerce.

The biggest of them is the fact that B2C customers come to your site because they want to, while B2B buyers are there because they have to be. In other words, B2B customers aren't online shopping for gifts or checking out the latest electronic gadgets, they're shopping online because it's part of their job. And to borrow a line from Mark Cuban's book How to Win at the Sport of Business, King says most employees prefer the "path of least resistance" when tackling their daily to-do lists. As a distributor, it's up to you to make their jobs as easy as possible, he says.

"They're not looking for the latest bag or informative reviews on athletic shoes. They're looking for very specific information," says King. "Did they bring those expectations over from Amazon? Yes, and they know that they can find information quickly on that site so they expect the same across the board."

To fulfill those demands, King says distributors should focus on delivering a consistent customer experience. Take the customer group that already knows what products it wants and the associated part numbers. That group wants to be able to log into an e-commerce platform, key in an order, hit "buy now," and then move along to the next task on its to-do list. What would happen if you presented the "Amazon Experience" to this group? Would it want to navigate all of the cool content, materials, videos, and other distractions on your site? Probably not, says King.

"These customers just want a screen that allows them to key in a part number and a quantity—or, upload a spreadsheet of all of the products they want to order," says King. In most cases, procurement professionals who spend most of their time approving orders and paying invoices—not watching YouTube videos on the latest and greatest electrical applications—populate this customer group. "When you're dealing with these customers, the best thing you can do is give them the screens they need to do their jobs," says King. "Don't make the mistake of creating an Amazon experience for this customer."

The All-Important Online Search Function
King sees on-site search as a good starting point for any distributor that wants to make its customers' jobs easier. "When a B2B user visits a B2B company's site, it is improbable to know what problem the user is trying to solve or what that person is looking for," he writes in Your on-site search sucks; this is why you should fix it.

"Even if the problem was known, it is unlikely to know how the user wants to solve that problem. What information do they have in front of them? Do they have a brand, product name, part number, competitor part number, or just generic attributes? You just don't know." Search allows the B2B user to find what they are looking for the way they want to find it. On-site search is now a standard among web sites, King adds, but not all on-site searches are equal.

"Maybe your customer is looking for a piece of equipment to use in a new application, a specific manufacturer, or a product within a general category," King explains. "Because you don't really know what he's looking for, the best way to tackle this unknown is with an onsite search box."

In fact, King says recent surveys show that 70% of customers want to be able to use a search box when they visit a website. This step is particularly important for electrical distributors that sell tens of thousands of different products and parts. "Solve this problem for your customer and you'll definitely be making his or her job easier."

Providing Intuitive Follow Up
Going past search capabilities, the next step is to provide intuitive follow-up or action. In other words, once a customer has located a product on your site, he or she needs to be able to take the action by purchasing it, quoting it, getting more information about it, download spec sheets on it, and/or get some CAD drawings for it. "Whatever the action or conversion is, you need to make that next step as simple and intuitive as possible," says King. 

From there, distributors can simplify their customers' jobs even further by providing the applicable contract terms and conditions, pricing, inventory availability, past invoices (i.e., for all purchases employees have made over the last six months), and other dashboard items that are of value to the customer. "You want your buyers to be able to quickly look at the top product categories and see what they've been buying from you," says King. "Customers that are shopping online want and expect that level of insight."

Know Your Customer
Drilling down down further into the various ways that electrical distributors can develop great online experiences for their customers, King sees real opportunity for innovation—despite the fact that B2B e-commerce has been around for years. A distributor that works closely with electrical contractors within a specific region, for example, already knows that those contractors need to be able to create fast and accurate quotes for their own customers. This opens the door for the distributor whose online platform allows contractors to pull up their online dashboards 24/7 and quickly create residential or commercial quotes for their own customers.

"That contractor may not ever buy anything from you—and that quote may never turn into an order—but by providing this capability online, you're making that contractor's job easier. That, in turn, creates stickiness (defined as anything about a website which increases the amount of time a visitor spends browsing) and loyalty online," says King. "It's about extending that offline relationship that you have with those regional contractors right into the online space."   

 

SIDEBAR

B2B On-Site Search Tips

In the B2B e-commerce world, on-site search is extremely important. That's because a B2B company's products are typically complex with lots of details, specifications, attributes, and variants. And, there are usually a great many products to choose from—in the case of the typical distributor, that number could be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. According to Justin King, most B2B users want their search to include:

  • Context – search should be personalized by who the user is (industry, company, role)
  • Contract – what products they can buy and agreed upon price
  • Warehouse inventory
  • Manufacturer part number
  • Competitor cross reference
  • Part number matching (strip out special characters)
  • Automated spell check
  • Past orders – search and filter based on what the user has purchased in the past

 
"Good search is based on good data, so make product data and content a priority within your organization," says King. Focus on progress over perfection; keep working at building better and better data."

---

Publisher's note:  Justin King's report evaluating seven different e-commerce platforms is available at www.ecommerceandb2b.com. If you want to save hours of research time looking for the best platform for your needs, you can download the complete report for $149.

King has agreed to work with tED magazine as our expert on e-commerce matters.  He is the founder of ecommerceandb2b.com and a Senior Partner of B2X Partners, a B2B eCommerce agency.  King has worked with distributors to develop an e-commerce strategy in a wide variety of fields, including NAED-member electrical distributors. Additionally, he is called upon as a speaker at a number of events, including Internet Retailer, B2B Online, HARDI annual meeting, American Supply Association, and Oracle Open World.  King can be contacted at justin.king@b2xpartners.com.

---

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.