Amazon purchasing Whole Foods, the unstoppable rise of Blockchain, advancements in voice search: there were a lot of major developments in consumer e-commerce over the past year. But there was only one real B2B e-commerce trend in 2017, and it was a familiar one.
2017: the Year of User Experience (Again)
Thinking about the biggest B2B e-commerce trend of 2017, only one thing comes to mind: user experience. It might not be as sexy as Bitcoin or Blockchain, but it’s still one of the most important topics for B2B companies trying to sell on the web.
The whole online buyer experience is still broken in many cases. Yes, it works, but it’s not as fluid as it should be. The customer experience is far from ideal for a lot of B2B web stores.
I feel that this was the key e-commerce trend of 2017: taking that next step to better serve your clients. Using machine learning and AI to identify improvements and offer a personalized online experience. Empowering your customers by giving them all the tools they need to succeed, and doing so in a user-friendly way.
Mobile: Part of the Bigger Picture
Of course, we’ve also seen the trend of more users shopping on their mobile devices. A lot of companies still have a long way to go to optimize the mobile experience, too.
But mobile is only one part of the user experience.
I would imagine that any serious company making plans for their e-commerce environment will look at how they can make the user experience more rich, more personalized.
Allowing clients to do more online, without the need for human interaction.
Facilitating Complex Orders
This goes beyond the customer searching for a product, adding it to their shopping cart and checking out. I mean more advanced scenarios.
- Customers being able to manage their return orders online, ideally in the most efficient way possible.
- Clients requesting quotes or getting answers to their questions, without having to rely on the availability of your support staff.
- Even ordering configurable products through the web store without help from a sales rep.
I believe that this should be B2B e-commerce’s focus: letting clients navigate these complex scenarios through your web store.
The straightforward e-commerce process — that is, letting your clients order your product — is easy. It works well, even if it could probably be improved.
The heart of the matter are the other scenarios.
What if I’ve ordered something, but half an hour later I change my mind and want to adjust my order? It’s a complex scenario to manage: I want to reopen my order, but what if it’s already being processed? At what stage can I still reopen my order to edit it and get it reprocessed?
Or maybe I want to make a buying decision based on future stock availability. I’d need insight into available-to-promise stock: something else that goes beyond simply find, click, buy.
These scenarios are part of the customer experience.
The more you put your customer in control, in a user-friendly way, the more they will get out of their online shopping experience with you. And the more value you are contributing as a business when you deploy your e-commerce website.
Improving UX With AI and Machine Learning
Another important aspect of empowering clients is enhancing the shopping experience with AI or machine learning.
I believe that this year and last year, forward-thinking companies that are serious about e-commerce should have started to make plans in this area. Everyone knows the tech is getting better, that there is more and more data. Technology that uses this data should be able to make it easier for customers to buy online.
One way machine learning and AI can do this is by making smart purchase suggestions. But you can also go further, and tailor the customer journey.
Chatbots are also part of the CX puzzle for B2B e-commerce.
What it means for companies is the more you can use AI and machine learning to automate in terms of client contact, the more valuable it can be when you have real human-to-human interaction. I still very much believe in the personal approach, but it should add a lot of value.
It should add emotion. This is where we still beat technology every time.
But automating the aspects of communication that you can, such as through chatbots, can enhance the shopping experience. The type of interaction might be like a triangle. The bottom is already covered by the web interface: placing an order. More complex scenarios can be progressively better handled by technology too.
But there’s always a point where you want to speak to someone. You want to make that point as small as possible, but you want to add real value. When you speak to a person, the interaction has to be really high-quality. The people handling these interactions should be knowledgeable, and the interactions should be focused on creating a positive emotion. It’s a different kind of support.
Everything below that point can be done by computers. 24/7, with consistent quality, and hopefully more cost-efficiently, too.
Another complex scenario that more companies are offering in their web store is letting clients order customizable products. This is becoming much easier.
Consumers have been able to order customized products online for years now. Nike lets users design their own sneakers, for example. But as technology becomes more advanced, I believe you can allow clients access to more complex configuration options, such as kitchens or bathrooms.
When offering customization on something as complex as that, there are more interdependencies. But even these processes can be made more user-friendly using smart algorithms. When you have more people interacting with such an advanced tool, it can learn to make smart suggestions that you would previously need a human consultant for. “If you put the dishwasher there, maybe you can put the drawer here for easy access.”
In 2017, we were able to improve the customer experience in the customization process. We brought mass customization to more product categories, and more business — and therefore more customers.
Formalizing Data Best Practices
Customer experience advancements using AI and machine learning hinge on data. We saw several headlines this year about data breaches, and companies are busy preparing for the GDPR, which comes into effect in May.
I’m not a GDPR expert, but I believe that if you treat data like it should be treated, GDPR compliance probably won’t be much of an issue simply because you’re already doing most of what the new legislation requires.
It may have a big impact on a procedural level, but the GDPR doesn’t prevent you from storing data, and I don’t think it will limit your options when it comes to using data… Unless you were already coloring outside the lines.
I don’t think companies should see the GDPR as a hindrance. Getting the required processes in place might take time, but it serves the greater good: clients will continue to trust us with their data, and continue to interact with our companies — and start interacting in new ways, too
Emerging B2B E-Commerce Trend: Voice Control
Voice controlled devices another important topic this year, with Amazon and Google’s smart speakers appearing in more homes, including my own. This is mostly a consumer trend, but I think it might even make more sense for B2B. I’ll tell you why.
Why does the Amazon Echo work so well for consumers? You have an account, a shopping cart. You order pretty often. This makes it perfect for voice-controlled ordering, as you don’t care about the price and you already know what you want. “Order toilet paper.” Okay, from your prior shopping experience, you want this brand. And you want this amount. “Yeah, get me a 24-pack, that’s fine.”
So it works well when you have a relationship with multiple buying cycles. That’s what you have in B2B e-commerce as well. You usually procure for a company on a frequent basis, and on the fly. You need something from your list, you need it now.
So I think voice control could make a lot of sense for B2B. I know one of our clients is already trying it out.
However, as with other trends, voice search taking off in B2B e-commerce does require a different mindset. And apparently this isn’t an easy one to make, from a customer or user perspective. Everyone has their phone with Siri or Cortana, but I’m not currently seeing wide use of these features in my direct environment.
But there’s a lot of potential here, and I’m interested to see if and when this trend will take off for B2B e-commerce.
Get the Digital Transformation and B2B E-Commerce Report
Want to learn more about other e-commerce trends? Get the latest data on M2M, omnichannel and more in the Digital Transformation and B2B E-Commerce Report 2017–18.