By Bridget McCrea

It's time to sharpen your proverbial e-commerce pencils and get your B2B site ready for 2017 with these useful tips and strategies.

In Part I of this article, you got the inside scoop on Amazon's blatant push into the industrial market and heard about how companies like MSC Industrial are putting money and resources into e-commerce sites that now comprise more than 50% of their overall sales (and, during a period when the company's sales were actually down overall).

With signs pointing to a possible economic slowdown in the near future, you may be now wondering if your distributorship invested enough time and effort into its own e-commerce strategy. And, if the answer is no, how can it catch up now? "Companies that are still focused on doing marketing and sales the 'traditional' way are in a tough spot right now," says Doug Dobie, CEO and founder of growth strategy consultancy Delvantage, Inc., in Long Beach, Calif.

By that, Dobie means that both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies that rely on "broadcasting messages loudly" in order to bring in new business are still paying out large sums for traditional methods. As a result, many have neglected their e-commerce strategies and/or chosen to ignore that sales channel altogether in favor of their tried-and-true approaches. 

An economic downturn could change that mindset, says Dobie, particularly for distributors that need more efficient ways to reach, court, and serve their existing and future customers. To B2B firms that may have navigated around e-commerce up until this point, Dobie says now is the time to think about how it can be used as a cost-effective way to reach a target audience, serve an existing customer base, and streamline everything from sales to communications to product returns.

Waking up to the Reality
At least one recent survey seems to indicate an "awakening" to the value of B2B e-commerce on the part of distributors and manufacturers. According to Handshake's 2016 Manufacturing & Distribution Sales and Technology Survey Report, creating an omni-channel, consumer-like customer experience is a key goal for manufacturers and distributors in the next year.

Exactly why these companies are jumping into the e-commerce fray is no big secret.
Frost & Sullivan expects total B2B e-commerce sales worldwide to reach $6.7 trillion by 2020 (accounting for 27% of all B2B sales) and Forrester says U.S. B2B e-commerce sales alone will hit $855 billion (9.9% of all B2B transactions) this year. By 2020, total B2B e-commerce sales in the U.S. will surpass $1.1 trillion, making up more than 12% of total B2B sales, according to Forrester.

When asked what commerce technologies were a priority for their businesses, 63% cited web B2B e-commerce software for online customer ordering, 58% highlighted mobile order writing software for sales reps in the field, and 30% said mobile B2B e-commerce that would allow customers to place orders from a mobile device.

"As the B2C world continues to raise the bar with conveniences like online ordering and mobile access, similar expectations are seeping into the world of B2B commerce," according to Handshake, which notes that 79% of companies said that their customers asked for the ability to order online.

According to Handshake's survey, suppliers that have already responded to their customers' requests for convenient online ordering are seeing a return on their investment. Among respondents that have already implemented B2B e-commerce, 50% noticed customers ordering additional products across more categories and 34% have seen an increase in average order value.  

Dobie says electrical distributors that want to cash in on these rewards should talk to their customers about what they want from an independent distributor's e-commerce offering—rather than taking the "build it and they will come" approach. Also, look at the point at which you engage your customers, what story you're conveying to them, and how you can keep them engaged at the lowest possible cost.

"Have open conversations with prospects and customers about these and other issues or you'll wind up dealing with your own downturn," says Dobie, "whether the economy as a whole heads into a downturn situation or not."

Parlaying Expertise and Knowledge Online
If there's one area where electrical distributors know they can take a stand against the Amazons of the world (at least for now) it's on the technical knowledge front. Where e-tailing giants may be able to offer lower prices and super-fast delivery times, they've yet to possess the expertise that customers need when it comes to installing, applying, and using electrical equipment and supplies. That means for now, distributors that weave knowledge, expertise, and educational offerings into their e-commerce offerings (e.g., via blogs, videos, tutorials, etc.) will continue to stand out from the pack.

"If your e-commerce site can actually help your customers' do their jobs better, provide money-saving insights, and help them make the right product selections," says Dobie, "they will not abandon you to go shop or buy somewhere else." In fact, Dobie says the legwork that goes into making the sale—sometimes consuming months' worth of time—is very often the thing that keeps B2B customers loyal. "Give them what they really need, talk to them about solutions, and give them the resources they need to make their buying decisions," says Dobie, "and they'll continue to shop with you."

Behind the Curve? Listen Up
For the electrical distributor that has found itself behind the e-commerce 8-ball, Justin King, senior partner with B2X Partners in Ashburn, Va., and founder of ecommerceandB2B.com, says there's still hope. A good starting point, he says, is to look at your e-commerce strategy like you would look at a new physical branch location:  Where should it be located? Who will it serve? Who will work there? How much inventory will we need (and what type)? How will it operate most effectively and efficiently? What steps have to be taken to get this location open and profitable?

"Some of the basic steps behind e-commerce don't even cost any money; they just require people and time," King says. Once you've gone through the basic elements that need to go into the site, begin talking to staff members, customers, and business partners about the role that they'll play in the effort. Contractors, for example, are a great source of information:  Where do they go for information online? What are they typically looking for? Who are they buying from online and why are they purchasing from those sources? What resources do they wish they could access online 24/7/365?

"Take any information they give you about ease of use, the time of day that they want to place orders, and other points and apply it back to your own business," says King. "This will give you a pretty good picture of what your customers expect from the B2B e-commerce experience and it will help you shape your own strategy."
 
 
SIDEBAR

Borrowing a Page from the Best

In 8 Innovative B2B Ecommerce Sites, Practice Ecommerce's Lori McDonald puts the spotlight on a handful of websites that stand out in the business-to-business space. Among them are MSC Industrial Supply and Grainger, both of which have put much time and effort into their web presences over the years. 

Grainger, for example, offers a site filled with features that make it easier for business buyers, including estimated product arrival times on the product page, even before login; the ability to limit search results to only show previously purchased products; and a mobile app that allows buyers to upload an image and chat with an agent, and allows them to scan a barcode to quickly re-order the same product.

According to McDonald, MSC Industrial Supply's MSCDirect.com, offers tools that make it easier for buyers to track and allocate expenses. For example, buyers can log in and create categories and values that company personnel must enter when placing an order, providing clarity around which budget the item falls into. In addition, MSCDirect.com provides for purchasing workflows so that orders can be submitted by one user and approved by another.

Read the complete overview of eight effective B2B e-commerce sites online here.

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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.