I believe the biggest B2B e-commerce trends in 2018 will share one theme: improving customer experience. Here’s my take on 2018’s biggest topics for online B2B merchants.
Conversion Rate Optimization for B2B
2018 will be the year that conversion rate optimization becomes an important topic for B2B e-commerce. Conversion rate optimization, or CRO, is the process of improving the percentage of web store visitors that actually make a purchase.
Conversion optimization has been an important topic in B2C e-commerce for a long time, but it was less relevant for B2B merchants. The typical conversion rate for consumer web stores is between 2% and 3%, but it’s as high as 10% for B2B web stores. The main reason for this was the stronger B2B customer loyalty.
This meant that conversion rate optimization was less of a priority for B2B web stores, and merchants were able to keep using old-school systems with outdated interfaces and usability for a longer time.
But this is changing. More and more companies are opening B2B web stores, or making sure their B2C store also works well for professional buyers. So B2B customer loyalty, and the accompanying high conversion rates, are no longer a given.
In 2018, you will need to work harder to keep that conversion rate, and for that you need features that let you try out new things and optimize your processes. This could be anything from adjusting your web store design and content to changing your checkout process to have fewer steps. And, of course, running A/B tests to see if your changes really makes a difference.
What’s important to note is that this is harder for B2B than it is for B2C. Professional buyers need access to more data on screen, and not just any data: information that can be displayed through real-time integration with other systems. Think of more complex product data, or pricing determined by customer-specific agreements.
This level of integration means that it isn’t always straightforward to implement conversion rate optimization measures. Sometimes you need a lot of content on the screen, for instance, making it harder to shorten the checkout process.
For successful B2B e-commerce conversion rate optimization, it’s essential that your online sales platform has the right features and flexibility to make this possible.
Personalization as part of the customer experience is nothing new. We know that gives better results than non-personalized content. (Sana already lets you supply personalized content, even based on ERP data, for instance.) But I believe that 2018 will see the rise of a more advanced approach to customizing the user experience.
You can expect web store personalization based on constantly updated, constantly changing data, to provide a more uniquely customized experience.
But you should also consider the maintenance this requires.
The attributes used for advanced personalization will depend on certain types of content. You have a dynamic data model on an ERP system level (such as SAP or Microsoft Dynamics) which is subject to change, as the ERP data model and its data can change dynamically. So your customer segments can shift. But you don’t want your staff to constantly change this data manually: you want a system that is smart enough to automate this. This brings more dynamic personalization options within reach for B2B merchants and their clients.
Here at Sana, we’re already working on features to automate this kind of data management, bringing dynamic personalization to our client base.
Automating Complex Fulfillment Processes
Another important B2B e-commerce trend driven by customer experience is using automation to simplify complex fulfillment processes.
When it comes to fulfillment, you have the basics: payments, shipping and customer support. That’s been established for years. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg — a conversation starter. What I want to talk about is more complex fulfillment processes: how to deal with canceled orders, splitting the shipment into multiple parts with multiple carriers, tracking, and so on.
Right now there’s still a lot of manual processes — something we see among our clients. They’re using a system where the payments and shipments are registered, which is completely separate from their B2B web store. Instead of automating the exchange of data, this is still done the old-fashioned way, with manual rekeying.
While this may get the job done, it does mean that there’s more opportunity for human error to sneak in. This is never desirable, but it’s particularly risky now that customer experience is such an important topic: professional buyers are expecting the same level of UX as consumers are, so fulfillment mistakes are more weighty than ever.
That’s why it makes sense that some organizations are looking to integration to reduce fulfillment errors by automating the exchange of information. We’re currently seeing companies work with their ERP partners to build custom ERP add-ons to connect and automate these processes. This reduces mistakes on orders and turnaround times, which is what B2B merchants need to stand out from their competitors.
I believe that in 2018 we’ll see also see more and more payment and shipping providers deliver this automation to the ERP world. My prediction is that these providers will also build integrations with ERP systems to help improve B2B fulfillment.
This trend will benefit both B2B companies, who will have easier access to solid integration, as well as professional buyers, who will enjoy less error-prone fulfillment processes. And on a more personal note, we here at Sana are happy to see that our integration-first approach to e-commerce is gaining more traction.
We all know that there’s an easier approach to fulfillment. And with the advent of more widespread integration, that approach will be within more merchants’ reach.
Progressive Web Apps
In last year’s e-commerce trends article, we didn’t mention mobile. But I am often asked: is B2B e-commerce really going to move to mobile? We need bigger screens because there’s more product information, more complex processes, more complex data to share…
My answer is that I think it’s inevitable. Here at Sana, we develop everything with a mobile mindset already.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean traditional smartphone apps. Developing and implementing these native apps required a lot in terms of investment. Since then we’ve seen the development of hybrid apps: a combination between the native apps and the shell of what is basically a website. But this wasn’t the most elegant solution.
That’s why we’re now seeing a new trend: progressive web apps. This is a site that uses new web technology to deliver an app-like experience to users. Google initiated progressive web apps, but Microsoft now also accepts this standard, and hopefully other companies will follow soon.
With PWAs, merchants don’t need a separate app. Instead, you can optimize your web store and web pages to unlock native application features or behaviors. In other words, your users get the functionality of an app, without having to install one: they just visit your website and there it is. No installation, but you still have the benefits like push notifications saying ‘this is in stock’ or ‘your item is being shipped.’ You also have offline capabilities, which is a topic our own clients are still taking about.
I expect more and more websites and web stores, both B2B and B2C, will support progressive web apps, or change their current web app into a PWA.
Headless E-Commerce Systems
My fifth and final B2B e-commerce trend for 2018 is also related to platforms. Next year, I expect to see more and more e-commerce systems become headless.
This means that you don’t always have to use the front end supplied by your e-commerce software. For example, if you already invested in a custom front-end design, you could use a tool like Sana Commerce as the engine, keeping it behind the scenes.
That’s what headless means: a better separation between the front end (the customer-facing web store) and the back end (the system powering the store).
We’ve seen this trend develop with content management systems over the past few years, with it becoming a given that a CMS is headless. I expect e-commerce systems will make that move too. The goal is to give merchants, especially enterprise merchants, more freedom to customize their online storefront and better support their users’ online buying journey. And it’s part of the more flexible digital landscape I predicted last year.
Here at Sana, we are currently investigating whether this trend is the right direction for us.
One Theme, Five Trends
While these trends are diverse, they share an underlying driver: customer experience. I believe that good CX will continue to be the major topic in B2B e-commerce over 2018.
Even trends that result in wins for B2B merchants will also have to benefit professional buyers. As B2B e-commerce becomes the norm, it is no longer enough to just let clients buy online. Whether it’s shorter turnaround times or a web store that works on every device: any way that you can offer more convenience for your online clients is a way that you can stand out from your growing pool of competitors.
Discover More B2B E-Commerce Trends
What other trends and developments are going to shape the B2B e-commerce landscape in the years to come? Find out in the Digital Transformation and B2B E-Commerce Report 2017–2018.