Self-Service Portals in B2B eCommerce

The shift towards self-serve operations in B2B eCommerce is being spearheaded by younger professionals entering the industry.

The Internet has not only influenced how regular B2C customers shop, but also how B2B shoppers and B2B businesses operate.
The Internet has not only influenced how regular B2C customers shop, but also how B2B shoppers and B2B businesses operate.

The Future of Retail–in the Present Day

Everyone’s either heard of or is familiar with the concept of the traveling salesperson; going door-to-door, peddling their wares to random individuals in the hopes of turning them into paying customers. Traditional B2B sales used to work in a similar manner. Manufacturers and parts suppliers would send out troops of trained salespeople to engage businesses and wholesalers within their own field with the end goal being those businesses becoming clients. That, of course, was the norm before the arrival of the Internet and eCommerce.

eCommerce shopper growth worldwide from 2014 to 2022.
SOURCE: Tidio

Today, 70% of Americans shop online. According to this study by Tidio, there were 2.3 billion online shoppers worldwide in 2022 with 268 million of them originating from the United States. During Q3 (July-September) 2023, retail eCommerce sales in the US had reached roughly $284 billion USD, the highest quarterly revenue in history. By 2025, the number of shoppers is slated to increase by another 17 million and by the end of 2027, eCommerce is expected to hit $4.1 trillion USD. Keep in mind that these predictions are also happening in a time where both consumers and retailers are still reeling from the COVID pandemic. The National Retail Federation reports that despite inflation, record credit debt, and ongoing political-economic uncertainty in the US, there was still improvement within the US economy at the end of 2023.

The Impact of Digital Natives

As a result of being introduced to computers and Internet technology at an early age, Millennials (born between 1977 and 1994) and Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2010) are referred to as Digital Natives. Computers and the Internet are a regular part of young people’s daily lives, so as these Digital Natives–who also happen to represent the largest demographic of the present-day workforce–are supplanting older B2B buyers who are exiting the field by way of retirement or obsolescence. In turn, the Digital Natives are also replacing the old traditional practices of cold calling, traveling, and in-person meetings with modern online shopping sensibilities. Millennials and Gen-Z also represent the biggest and most desirable consumer group with nearly $3 trillion USD in spending power.

How Today’s B2B Buyer Expectations Shape Self-Service Portals

B2B shopper behavior influenced by youth segment, namely millennials and gen-Z who are also the largest demographic in the workforce.
SOURCE: TrustRadius

In both B2C and B2B markets, consumers drive demand through their own personal preferences. However, the B2B buyer tends to have a deeper understanding of the products as well as corporate buying processes as opposed to the general everyday B2C consumer. Although the B2B buyer is still essentially a consumer, young people have begun to take charge of the B2C market, forcing an evolutionary abandonment of long-standing B2B business practices and traditions in favor of B2C-based convenience and self-serve environments. TrustRadius reports that nearly all B2B buyers expect a degree of, if not the entirety of their shopping experiences to be self-serve.

In our April 2023 entry, What Today’s B2B Buyers Want, we listed the 5 main features that were most requested by modern B2B buyers. This list included fast search, personalization, virtual commerce (visual commerce), social media integration, and more payment options. These still ring true but nearly a year later since that post, it appears that B2B buying trends have necessitated the inclusion of two more major requirements in omnichannel and convenience.

Omnichannel Experiences

Omnichannel retail in eCommerce allows shoppers to find their favorite products through a variety of sources online such as social media, Google, and through third-party marketplaces. It enables businesses to meet their customers wherever they are and is one of the most efficient ways to increase customer satisfaction. Customers will be able to experience the same shopping experience on outside channels just as they would on a dedicated retail website. When businesses go omnichannel, they’re able to better enrich the overall purchasing journey for their customers by delivering seemingly personalized experiences to each buyer.

5 Benefits of going Omnichannel:
  • Better Personalization
  • More Accurate Customer Data Collection
  • Increase Customer Reach
  • Streamline Marketing and Direct Customer Targeting
  • Speed Up Inventory Turnover

Convenience

Today’s shoppers prefer the convenience of eCommerce. In fact, convenience is one of the main reasons why eCommerce exists and why so many shoppers prefer this avenue over traditional in-store shopping; to be able to shop and purchase virtually anything, anytime, anywhere in efficient self-serve online environments. As such, B2B eCommerce appears to be following in the footsteps of B2C. A study by Smart Insights stated that as much as 83% of consumers list convenience as the main reason for shopping online. This same study also highlighted that convenience also influences consumers’ actual purchases; 52% of respondents said that half or more of their purchases were due to convenience. As it pertains to B2B, convenience can mean data retention such as a B2B buyer not needing to reenter information after login such as purchase order details and payment information. Businesses that can have their websites pre-populate this stored information for returning customers are more likely to see repeat sales, higher order totals, and even increased purchasing frequencies. An ideal self-serve B2B portal should streamline and expedite the purchase process for their customers.

6 Key Ingredients to Successful B2B Self-Service Portals

When it comes to dining on the cheap, buffets are popular with many Americans because of the self-serve nature that buffets promote. Patrons have wider varieties of foods from which to choose as opposed to a limited set menu. They can also mix, match, and refill at will without having to wait for table staff for assistance. The freedom to choose and the independence of self-managed, self-service B2B portals in eCommerce can be somewhat analogous to the budget dinner buffet (buffets can also promote gluttony and the propagation of rather nasty infectious diseases but that’s another story).

B2B self-service portals provide businesses with a convenient and efficient way to access information, place orders, and receive support. With this solution, B2B customers can easily find what they need. The goal of a B2B self-service portal is to make business-to-business interactions more efficient, reduce administrative overhead, improve communication, and foster stronger partnerships. Generally, there are a number of features and tools that should be available nowadays for B2B-centric companies to be successful.

Custom Account Dashboards

A website’s dashboard homepage should greet users by name and display relevant alerts, favorite order views, payment options, subscription details, and easy reordering options to them. In order for users to be able to quickly access a summary of all pending orders and their tracking information, saved dashboards should be customizable based on their preferences.

Real-Time Order Tracking and History Lookup

B2B buyers can appreciate a lookup feature that allows procurement officers to view the status of orders from submitted to fulfilled or shipped as well as allowing them to reprint past invoices and bills of lading (BOLs) so they can stay current with documentation. It’s recommended that tracking links direct the user directly to the shipping provider’s website where they will be able to access more information about shipments, including expected arrival dates, carrier contacts, and even real-time tracking if possible.

Auto-Replenishment Subscription Management

A B2B customer should be able to easily repeat a sale and websites can facilitate this by allowing users to easily duplicate previous orders. Customers should be able to configure preferred products for saved carts, manage multi-year software contracts, or set up automatic reorder schedules in order to facilitate the renewal of SaaS subscriptions and similar products. With auto-replenishment, customers are able to set reorder thresholds in response to the level of stock available, or set preferred delivery schedules.

Expanded Payment Options

Businesses that offer their customers more payment options are more likely to develop long-term relationships. The most common B2B payment methods are checks, ACH payments, wire transfers, credit cards, and cash. Although electronic currency transfer over the Internet has advanced, paper checks remain the most popular payment method for B2B transactions. Cash is the second most popular payment method, with 70% of small businesses relying on it. Checks make up 80% of B2B transactions. Since vendors want to avoid additional processing fees, they sometimes reserve credit cards as a ‘last resort’. A company may occasionally offer special corporate credit accounts to its most loyal customers, but this is dependent upon the financial stability of the B2B vendor/supplier. It is important to keep new and long-term B2B customers happy by offering a wide range of payment options.

Customer Groups

Customer grouping systems organize a company’s entire customer base into separate individual groups based on their interests. Assigning special customer groups are quite useful should a seller wish to create exclusive discounts, reward loyal repeat shoppers, direct customers to specific products, or restrict access to certain areas of the website. Customer groups are mostly used for specialized pricing structures. The ability to target customers with specific pricing, products, and more is an important aspect of any self-service experience. If customers can access their personalized pricing, they are less likely to need sales representatives.

Full Access to Communications Options and Customer Service

A buyer’s satisfaction is the most effective way to build strong inter-business relations, so customer service plays an essential role in that. Shoppers want to feel important, and they’re much more likely to become repeat customers if they are fully satisfied. When self-service buyers have a quick question or in the event that something goes awry, they’ll feel more comfortable if they can receive immediate assistance via tickets, live chat, EMail, etc. Businesses that provide multiple avenues for immediate communication are often rewarded with increased conversions.

Benefits of B2B Self-Service Portals

The traditional B2B practices of old involved many hands in the pot. There were the product specialists and salespeople, the sales managers above them, the individual departments such as financing and logistics and then the department heads above them. This is before micromanagement even factors in, for those instances where upper management–even up to the CEO–gets involved in every single little aspect either out of the need to ensure complete transparency or paranoia. Whatever the case, these factors all muddied the B2B buying process in the most unnecessary of ways. B2B eCommerce has helped to eliminate some of that muddiness and the arrival of B2B self-service portals help clean it up even further.

Reduced Overhead

Removing unnecessary factors from the B2B equation not only speeds up the purchasing process as previously stated, it also reduces the costs associated by having said unnecessary factors eliminated or in significantly reduced capacities. Because modern shoppers prefer to research and explore on their own, having information readily available over the Internet and not requiring in-person meetings with specialists cuts down the costs as well as expedites the purchase by removing unnecessary steps. Any additional employees can be better utilized through redistribution throughout the company.

Increased Interaction with Customers

Businesses use self-service portals to empower their customers by providing them with easy access to information, efficient support, and online services. In addition to ensuring that customer inquiries are answered promptly, self-service also allows customers to get the information they need with a few clicks. This not only improves customer interactions, but these interactions also lead to more loyal buyer-seller relationships that are critical to long-term sustained business success.

Expedite the Sales Process

Shoppers can use the B2B portal to place orders, track their deliveries, and pay with minimal friction. This simplified approach eliminates time-consuming manual processes such as order entry and verification, which results in a more quick turnaround of orders. Furthermore, it is possible for your clients to find what they seek even more quickly by providing personalized recommendations. Sales automation can also assist in streamlining the purchase process. Automated lead generation, order processing, fulfillment scheduling, etc. frees up time and resources that can be better invested towards marketing strategies and business direction.

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