B2B Ecommerce: How the Best in B2B Sales Succeed Online

B2B Ecommerce: How the Best in B2B Sales Succeed Online

You’ve seen the headlines and you’ve heard the stats.

By the end of 2017, B2C ecommerce sales are expected to hit $2.4 trillion worldwide. That’s a big number. But the truth is … it’s less than a third of B2B’s $7.7 trillion.

B2B ecommerce gross merchandise volume (GMV) from 2013 to 2017 (in billion U.S. dollars)

Infographic transcript:

Global B2B ecommerce gross merchandise volume (GMV) from 2013 to 2017 (in billion U.S. dollars)

2013: $5,826

2014: $6,449

2015: $6,906

2016: $7,300

2017: $7,661

Image via Statista

Good news for B2B merchants?

Well, sort of. Despite all the attention big numbers generate …

$7.7 trillion is worthless for making real-world decisions.

Comforting? Sure. Click-worthy? Maybe. But helpful? Nope.

Navigating the advantages of B2B ecommerce means understanding nine trends reshaping how B2B sales succeed online. Here’s an overview of where we’re headed:

  1. Give B2B Ecommerce the B2C Treatment
  2. Head Off the Deal Breakers Before It’s Too Late
  3. Generate Leads through “Supplier Agnosticism”
  4. Teach Commercial Insight (Because the Era of Thought Leadership is Over)
  5. Provide Funnel Based Content for Every Stage of the B2B Journey
  6. Anticipate (Even More) Multiple Decision Makers
  7. Humanize Your B2B through Social Media
  8. Go Beyond “Just Business” Relationships
  9. Price Using Both Automation and Negotiation

Of course, it’s best to start with first things first …

1. Give B2B Ecommerce the B2C Treatment (More or Less)

The rise of ecommerce has lead to massive shifts in the overall B2B marketplace. Some of those changes have brought with them a host of best practices from the world of B2C:

  • High-quality product images
  • Robust search
  • Social proof in the form of reviews and recommendations
  • Flexible shipping options and order updates
  • Personalization based on past purchases
  • Meant-for-mobile storefronts
  • Online catalogs for easy browsing
  • Real-time product availability
  • Customer service via immediate chat and phone support
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One-on-one guidance for B2B ecommerce growth …

Shopify Plus hosts ecommerce’s largest ecosystem of Merchant Success Managers, ecommerce Gurus, and award-winning Agency Partners.

Those are just a few of the reasons — along with a dedicated Wholesale Channel for B2B sales — our merchants are growing 126% year over year.


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Fortune 500 industrial supply company W. W. Grainger exemplifies this overlap. After creating an account, buyers are directed to a homepage that mirrors any major B2C site. Likewise, their product pages bear all the B2C hallmarks listed above:

However, what sets Grainger apart as online B2B pioneers are three additional features. First, three purchasing programs that go beyond auto-reordering to fit the size and needs of individual businesses:

Second, a “Bulk Order Pad” that toggles between two entry options located immediately next to their search bar. And third, a robust, autocomplete search bar with “Add to Cart” options embedded:

Given that 98% of B2B buyers do at least some online research this last feature deserves special attention.

Home goods seller Maykke takes a similar approach thanks to custom work from their Shopify Plus Partner, SeedCMS:

Covering all the B2C bases can feel like an overwhelming feat. Here’s the caveat: Not all B2B websites need this level of B2C integration.

In many cases, B2B buyers are still used to old-school methods like spreadsheets, faxed order forms, or one-on-one phone calls with reps. Adding all the bells and whistles of B2C can become a distraction and even a detriment for such customers. Knowing what your audience wants and expects is paramount.

StandDesk, for example, builds their B2B approach around targeted calls to action on their homepage and a highly personalized contact form:

The Elephant Pants, on the other hand, strikes a balance between B2B and B2C through their password protected wholesale store. This includes a number of the B2C elements already mentioned; namely, an easy-to-find search bar, quick access to previous Orders, an online catalog for browsing, and transparent pricing:

As The Elephant Pants CFO and founder, James Brooks, explained to me:

“Initially, some of our retail partners expressed resistance to an online wholesale portal. For us, the move was about replacing our pieced-together method of phone calls and Quickbooks with something faster. For them, human guidance was still important. Really, we’re in it together with our sellers. We provide them with advice on purchasing and marketing, spec sheets, and POS displays.”

“Because supporting them was crucial, we brought on a great sales rep and merged the physical with the digital.”

“Today, we help 80-90% of our buyers create their orders through the wholesale channel. The terms are determined on a buyer-by-buyer basis. As a result, wholesale has doubled for us over the last two months on a per-week basis.

James Brooks, The Elephant Pants CFO and Founder

McKinsey & Company’s article, “Finding the right digital balance in B2B customer experience,” puts it like this:

“B2B customers are generally happy to use digital self-service for simple, routine interactions like reordering to save time or be more flexible. Yet, when the interaction is new and complex or the stakes are high, most still prefer a real person (who also might be digitally enabled).”

Sometimes B2B needs to offer more than B2C. Sometimes, less.

In the case of resellers, small-to-medium franchises, and B2C outlets, less equals more. The simpler the order process, the more traditional your site should be. If your orders get complex — e.g., with customizations, multiple variants, or fulfillment options — the B2C treatment shines.

Everything comes down to the customers you serve. However, before we turn to serving the people who can make deals, it’s crucial to examine the people who can break them.

2. Head Off the B2B Deal Breakers Before It’s Too Late

Even online, B2B sales is a contact sport that involves multiple decision makers at a variety of levels.

“Great salespeople,” writes Steve Benson in 9 Lessons in Enterprise Sales I Learned while at Google, IBM and HP, “have the ability to play quarterback on a deal for lots of moving parts of an organization. You need to work closely with people from Legal to Product Management, up and down your chain of command, with sales engineers, different stakeholders and customers.”

In this sense, knowing who to look out for is just as important — if not more — as knowing who to actively pursue.

The Challenger Customer, which presents the most sweeping, up-to-date picture of B2B sales, identifies “Talkers” as the first human obstacles. Like the name implies, Talkers “are very interested in talking, but much less so in acting.” As a result:

“Core [i.e., average] reps sell to Talkers and fail, while stars sell to Mobilizers and win. It’s the key to winning the consensus-based sale.”

Moving up the “antistakeholder” chain are “Blockers”:

“These individuals are wired to avoid change and defend the status quo. They strongly prefer stability and continuity, actively avoiding (and preventing) initiatives that would bring change and disruption.”

In other words, the biggest enemy to B2B sales isn’t alternative providers; it’s stakeholders clinging to business as usual. These aren’t just individuals, but entire departments who can derail even the most promising B2B deals.

So, who are they?

To find an answer, I put the question to marketing mastermind Neil Patel. Having co-founded three multi-million dollar B2B companies and consulted with enterprises like Google, GM, Intuit, and Salesforce, his answer was telling:

“I’ve seen more deals fall apart on account of two departments than all the sales-and-marketing blunders put together. Those two killers are legal and IT.

“The first seems obvious, but far too many B2B merchants trust handshakes and informal thumbs up only to have everything fall apart right before the finish line. Why? Because legal wasn’t brought in until the contract was being drawn up.”

“The second — IT — is even trickier. You can have the best product at the best price, but if you can’t sync up your tech for co-marketing, wholesaling, dropshipping, ordering, or fulfilling, then often IT won’t sign off. And if IT isn’t onboard, everybody else jumps ship.”

Neil Patel, Co-Founder of Crazy Egg,
Kissmetrics, and Hello Bar

Playing defense in B2B — especially in complex deals — means getting out in front of legal and IT from the jump. These deal-breakers shouldn’t be an afterthought but instead brought in and considered through the funnel, which is precisely what we’ll look at next.

3. Generate Leads through “Supplier Agnosticism”

Ten years ago, Seth Godin introduced the idea of permission marketing to describe the “privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”

Even though Godin coined the term, the ethos of permission was far from original. Successful sales and marketing have always had value at their core. Not value in the product per se — that should go without saying — but rather, value in advance of the product.

As far back as the early 1930s, BBDO VP and creative director John Caples wrote:

“The best advertisements are those that appeal to the reader’s self-interest, that is, advertisements based on reader benefits. They offer readers something they want — and can get from you.”

What was true then is still true today … only more so.

As applied to B2B, this means generating leads through “supplier agnostic” sales collateral. That might sound like a strange concept, but customers are inherently self-interested. The traditional method of leading with content that elevates your product, your solution, or even your value proposition makes it about you.

The Challenger Customer frames the issue powerfully:

“This is a big shift for marketers. For the majority of content types you produce, following this content strategy will shift the focus from supplier-centric to supplier-agnostic.”

In place of supplier-centric collateral, lead generation should focus on two types of problems central to your target customers’ own business:

(1) Problems they’re aware of

(2) Problems they don’t yet know exist

In the next two trends, we’ll examine exactly what this approach looks like. Here, the lesson to take onboard is that B2B lead generation can’t start with you; it has to start with your customer.

StandDesk’s extensively researched Benefits page, which unfolds like an infographic, is a perfect example of this:

By relentlessly zeroing in on the problems your market faces, you force yourself to not only turn away from self-centered sales and marketing, but to earn your future customer’s “permission” before the sales process begins.

How? The answer is profoundly counterintuitive …

4. Teach Commercial Insight (Because the Era of Thought Leadership is Over)

B2B is obsessed with thought leadership for what — at first — appears to be good reasons.

“By a factor of three to one,” Forester’s “Death Of A (B2B) Salesman” notes, “B2B buyers want to self-educate versus talk to sales representatives to learn about products and services.”

How far does DIY extend into the buying process? CEB now Gartner puts the number at 57%:

“On average, customers are 57 percent of the way through a typical purchase process prior to proactively reaching out to a supplier’s sales rep for their direct input on whatever it is that they’re doing.

Those findings are truly good news. Cultivating a content-driven online presence gives you a competitive advantage in a market that’s moving more and more toward self-service.

It’s also why B2B sales rely so heavily on thought leadership. The only problem is: they shouldn’t.

This is perhaps the most startling trend, so it’s best to let The Challenger Customer present its own data:

Among the statistically nonsignificant drivers of changing customer buying direction was content ‘representing a smart or expert perspective.’

Thought leadership feels like the right approach. After all, wouldn’t being smart and having an expert perspective predispose buyers to seek you out when the time to connect comes?

Not so much.

Thought leadership may get buyers’ attention. It may even get them to stop, comment, and share. But what it doesn’t do is drive sales.

Instead, driving sales revolves around two ingredients:

  1. Teaching the customer something new about their own business needs or challenges
  2. Providing the customer with compelling reasons why it was necessary to take action

The Challenger Sale calls these two ingredients “Commercial Insight” (or, “Commercial Teaching”):

“A bit unimaginative, perhaps, but we like the saying nonetheless because it perfectly captures what Challengers ultimately must do: teach customers something new and valuable about their business … in a way that reliably leads to commercial wins.”

Where thought leadership makes buyers say, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” commercial insight makes them say, “I’ve been running my business wrong.”

Most often this means unearthing hidden costs of the status quo or opportunity costs of business as usual.

When I asked Brent Adamson — one of the authors behind both The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer — about the difference between these two approaches, he explained:

Thought Leadership is interesting and newsworthy information that customers themselves likely couldn’t have discovered on their own. It teaches them something new, but it doesn’t necessarily drive action. That’s because Thought Leadership is largely focused on presenting a new idea – or showing the customer how smart you are – rather than undermining an existing idea or mindset.”

Commercial Insight, on the other hand, is specifically designed to disrupt the status quo. It doesn’t just convey an idea of what you could be doing (like Thought Leadership) but also conveys a story around what you’re currently doing and how that might be costing you time or money in ways you never realized. It elicits an emotional response as much as a logical one.”

“The key to Commercial Insight though is making sure that whatever we teach our customers actually leads back to some unique capability that only we can offer.”

Brent Adamson, Principal Executive
Advisor at CEB now Gartner

Grainger takes this approach in two ways. One, they provide a Safety Resource Center to help customers understand the hidden dangers and complex regulations governing their work.

Two, the Grainger Choice badge applies those safety standards, along with other criteria, to select products:

This one-two combination exposes customers to buying concerns specific to their business that many would have otherwise not considered. It’s an exercise in supplier-agnostic content.

In fact, making that connection is what the next trend is all about.

5. Provide Funnel Based Content for Every Stage of the B2B Journey

Does supplier agnosticism and the need to provide insight about your customer’s own business mean that leads no longer care about product specs and demos?

Absolutely not.

“Product information, data sheets and demos,” explains LinkedIn’s Rethinking the B2B Buyer’s Journey, “are table stakes — the baseline information necessary to be among the consideration set. But buyers also need broader information to help them on the way to making the final purchase decision.”

When buyers were asked to rank the “most important factors” that made them willing “to engage with a vendor,” their responses all surrounded the supplier-agnostic approach emphasized above:

Most important B2B ecommerce factors to engage with a vendor

On the other hand, when it came to buying decisions — i.e., sales content — those same respondents overwhelmingly preferred product info and demos as opposed to case studies and (once again) expert opinion:

Most effective B2B sales content

The question isn’t what type of content B2B buyers want. The real question is when.

Take global B2B enterprise Polycom — maker of the iconic three-point conference phone and video solutions. Early this year, Polycom published the results of a 24,000-person global survey that measured flexible working practices, perceptions, and expectations. The study not only garnered major media attention but was a powerful source of leads that merchant-centric advertising no longer attracts.

Similarly ingenious is Polycom’s Polly Calm video series and downloadable “vidiquette” guide:

Both the study and Polly Calm shine as non-traditional B2B content. Neither type, however, closes deals.

As Polycom’s CMO Amy Barzdukas told me:

“Leads from those initiatives were nurtured with in-depth educational content to help them understand the value of collaboration as well as how to evaluate different solutions. This approach enabled us to build a trusted relationship for traditional, sales-focused follow up like demos and product details.”

“The benefits of creating content for each stage of the buyer’s journey are shorter sales cycles, higher conversion rates, and increases in our marketing-sourced pipeline and revenue.”

Amy Barzdukas, CMO at Polycom

Success means getting “permission” at the top of the funnel and only then progressing down the funnel with collateral that sells explicitly.

6. Anticipate (Even More) Multiple Decision Makers

Traditionally, B2B decision makers resided in the C-suite. Win the executives, win the company. That was the logic anyway. As a result, outreach overwhelmingly targeted the upper echelon.

Today, that’s all changed.

LinkedIn’s research puts the average number groups influencing B2B decisions between 3.1 to 4.6 and identifies the following “top departments”:

Top departments involved in B2B buyer decisions

The Challenger Customer raised the bar to 5.4 decision makers and their most recent findings — published on Harvard Business Review — now estimates 6.8. In addition, the authors have also charted a clear correlation between the size of buying teams and likelihood of a successful sale:

Purchase intent in B2B by team size

Perhaps the worst news of all is that trying to perform an end-run by simply redoubling efforts on the C-suite is doomed to failure:

“In a survey of senior decision makers across several hundred companies … we found that the number one thing they care about most in choosing one supplier over another is whether or not that supplier enjoys widespread support across the customer organization.”

In other words, the number one thing senior decision makers care about in a complex deal isn’t the supplier company’s solution, it’s their own company’s buy-in.

Regardless of the exact number, the trend is the same: B2B merchants must adopt a consensus-building approach to sales that clearly addresses the needs, concerns, and wants of diverse groups.

How can you reach these groups? The answer lies in an unexpected source of B2B breakthrough …

7. Humanize Your B2B through Social Media

Despite its undeniable rise in B2C ecommerce, social media has remained largely a mystery to B2B businesses. Networks like Facebook, Instagram, and even LinkedIn are primarily viewed as direct-to-consumer channels.

Nonetheless, Content Marketing Institute’s 2017 B2B Report found that social media was the third “most critical” tactic B2B marketers are using:

Most critical B2B tactics for marketers

To reinforce this, LinkedIn’s study notes that “social media and information sharing across the buyer’s organization” were the only content sources that figured prominently across the funnel:

“The fact that social media and information sharing across the buyer’s organization are top content sources shows that the B2B buying process is extremely collaborative: It is a team sport.”

Buyers are increasingly looking to social channels for information and guidance from their peers and broader networks.

While social media may not work for direct sales in B2B, it is a powerful source for both outreach as well as creating the kind of consensus that B2B decision making necessitates. Why? Because consensus is about people, and people connect with people.

“Social selling,” note Laurence Minsky and Keith A. Quesenberry Harvard Business Review’s How B2B Sales Can Benefit from Social Selling, “concentrates on producing focused content and providing one-to-one communication between the salesperson and the buyer. [T]he goal is for the rep to form a relationship with each prospect, providing suggestions and answering questions rather than building an affinity for the organization’s brand.”

In the next trend, we’ll look at a real-world example of how to form those relationships. For now, rest assured that effective social selling only requires sales people (or brands) to invest 5-10% of their time actively engaging one-on-one.

And that’s not to say “brand affinity” isn’t effective as well.

In 2015, GE created one of the most successful B2B campaigns in history through a Twitter character named the Invention Donkey:


In its aftermath, GE credited the campaign with over 3.5 million views, 200,000 social media interactions, and — above all — giving its B2B audience a human touch point to what could otherwise be a faceless 140-year-old multinational conglomerate.

Tim Roan — creative director behind the project — said, “The challenge for a lot of big companies is that it’s hard to simplify complex stories. GE is doing some very big, very important and very hard things to help make the world work, and we wanted to show that in a fun, smart way.”

The role of social media to bring together multiple decision makers is one that Troy Osinoff — who led digital marketing at the $5 billion B2B enterprise Watsco — drives home as well:

“B2B brands should be looking at social to build human relationships with the people who will ultimately decide whether to use their product or service. Your social media presence and campaigns are an opportunity to create connections with everyone, from the gatekeepers to key decision makers.”

“Social media is uniquely positioned to not only disseminate information like whitepapers and research, but to connect and rally people around your brand.”

Troy Osinoff, Entrepreneur, Author and
Head of Customer Acquisition at Buzzfeed

Such connections may start with a bit of fun, but they also have to progress …

8. Go Beyond “Just Business” Relationships

On the whole, B2B buyers are a pretty satisfied group. According to LinkedIn, 84% of buyers rated their relationships with vendors as either “good” (56%) or “very good” (28%). Unfortunately, vague descriptors are notoriously misleading for gauging longevity.

Far more vital is examining what B2B buyers who said their relationships with vendors were “getting stronger” identified as the source of those improvements:

Ironically, while most B2B merchants elevate “value for the money” as a top concern, customers ranked it dead last. The lesson? B2B buyers don’t want a “just business” relationship.

Easily one of the best example of developing trustworthy, personal relationships for B2B is Michaela Alexis. In the span of two years, Alexis has become a full-fledged LinkedIn influencer with over 51,000 followers. Her posts don’t just attract huge audiences, but the right B2B audiences:

What’s Alexis’ B2B secret?

Posts, articles, and especially interactions that ooze personality:

“In September of 2016, I asked my audience to send me their company mug. The response was overwhelming: over 200 came pouring in, most of which I took pictures with and posted.”

“When Grade A Digital — the B2B agency where I’m now president — opened its doors in May, time and time again, the mugs came up. Even better, where most B2B deals start low on the food chain, ours start with leaders who feel like they have a pre-established relationship with me and by extension Grade A. Trust is built long before the sales process even kicks off.”

“Today, our biggest challenge isn’t generating leads but qualifying the companies on our waiting list. That’s a pretty great problem to have.”

Michaela Alexis, President of Grade A Digital

The same actions can be applied in ecommerce.

Putting an authentic face to your B2B platform alongside personal gestures that span the digital-to-physical divide are exactly how you go beyond “just business” and create the kind of relationships your customers want.

Of course, that doesn’t mean money is irrelevant.

9. Price Using Both Automation and Negotiation

According to Forrester’s latest research, 74% of B2B buyers now research “at least half of their work purchases online.” Additionally, 53% complete those purchases online as well. What’s the implication of this increased reliance on ecommerce?

“Today’s B2B buyers insist that B2B eBusiness and channel strategy professionals match B2C companies like Amazon by incorporating B2C tenets of price transparency, immediacy, and convenience into their core buyer experiences.”

As we've already seen, this doesn’t mean that B2C and B2B experiences are one for one. The keyword in Forrester’s appraisal is “price.”

For instance, Louis Columbus explains on Forbes:

“Selling decisions made at the beginning of a given quarter are going to be different than those made at the end, as sales managers often choose to accelerate deals into the closing quarter with special pricing options.”

“Enabling dynamic pricing and approvals — even when selling through multi-tiered channels — dramatically increases the deal velocity without losing control. Many manufacturers are also adding in CPQ [configure-price-quote] to provide customers with a personalized experience and the opportunity to get solutions configured for their unique needs.”

The balance here is about price personalization that’s automated (i.e., dynamic) for buyers in the research phase and negotiated for those closer to purchase.

For the first, Shopify Scripts offers a simple solution by removing the need for discount codes. Scripts can be used to automatically adjust prices in real-time based on factors like quantity, size, customer tags, and product combinations:

For the second — negotiated deals — Shopify Plus’ wholesale channel enables merchants to create password protected accounts that can be tailored on a buyer-by-buyer basis.

These type of features are why, as Columbus puts it, “The most successful [B2B merchants] so far are relying on born-in-the-cloud B2B e-commerce platforms that scale to support entirely new e-Commerce strategies.”

Chat with Shopify Plus

One-on-one guidance for B2B ecommerce growth …

Shopify Plus hosts ecommerce’s largest ecosystem of Merchant Success Managers, ecommerce Gurus, and award-winning Agency Partners.

Those are just a few of the reasons — along with a dedicated Wholesale Channel for B2B sales — our merchants are growing 126% year over year.


Get started today

The Future of B2B Ecommerce

For all its complexity, the opportunities are enormous. Succeeding online means taking advantage of an emerging world that mixes B2C best-practices with both traditional and non-traditional B2B tactics.

For all their deceptive comfort, big numbers are meaningless. What matters is connecting with, listening to, and serving the faces behind B2B’s $7.7 trillion ecommerce market.

At the heart of each and every trend listed above lies a single principle that borders on cliche: put your customer first.

Cliches, however, are cliche for a reason. They’re true.

 

About the Author

Aaron Orendorff is a content marketer at Shopify Plus as well as a regular contributor to sites like Mashable, Lifehacker, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and more. You can connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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