The B2B eCommerce landscape is nearing a $1.8 trillion valuation, as corporate buyers begin to demand the same online purchase experience in their professional lives that they have in their personal lives. Yet, as the B2B world has quickly figured out, fulfilling demands for a seamless, integrated and efficient online purchasing process can't happen the same way it does in a B2C setting.
In a way, B2B buyers want the best of both worlds: a streamlined, omnichannel buying experience that looks and feels like a consumer shopping setting, and all the customizations they need as corporate buyers, whether that's custom pricing, contract terms, payment options and more.
Positioned in both the B2B and B2C commerce technology markets, commercetools operates an application program interface (API)-first cloud solution, enabling companies to sell their products through digital channels. The firm's president, Art Lawida, recently spoke with PYMNTS about the biggest challenges in B2B eCommerce that APIs are particularly adept at addressing.
"What we see in the B2B space is incredible complexity of business models," he explained, adding that B2B sellers will wield unique sales strategies to address their customers' wants and needs. As such, a single eCommerce platform is often an insufficient option for these firms. "What we see is that there isn't really a cookie-cutter way to address the B2B market."
That's where the API comes in. Enabling tech developers to access a range of API integrations means a more flexible way to build an online commerce solution for B2B sellers. That's a necessity in the B2B space because these vendors must not only differentiate themselves from their competitors and sell products based on their particular industry, but, according to Lawida, sometimes different customers will want different experiences from the same vendor.
He offered the example of a long-standing corporate buyer who has memorized product codes by heart. For decades, that buyer has been calling up a vendor and submitting purchase orders by providing those codes. That client would want to have a digital commerce platform that could allow product searches by code. Another, perhaps newer, customer would more likely want an online portal that clearly displays a vendor's entire catalogue, and enables a search function based on product description. In a scenario like this, a single eCommerce platform design cannot address the needs of both kinds of customers.
Adding to this complexity is the rise of omnichannel commerce in the B2B market.
In a research report published last year by Forrester, analysts found that direct sales channels remain the dominant path through which B2B sales are conducted. Yet, the company's survey found that corporate sellers are using a range of channels to connect with buyers: 73 percent use an eCommerce or online portal, while more than half use call center agents. On average, 27 percent of vendor revenues come from some type of online portal.
Whether a business is making a purchase over the phone, in person with a sales representative or through an online portal, that customer wants to have the same experience. That means pricing, product descriptions and other aspects of the buying process must be consistent across platforms.
"It's a business issue with a technology solution," explained Lawida. "The business issue is, 'How do I make it really easy to do business with me?' The way to do that, for B2B customers, is to make it so the user experience is consistent across every single way they interact with you."
Again, this is where APIs can enable not only the custom features that customers want, but support a streamlined and consistent experience, whether clients are using their desktop computers or tablets to make purchases. A vendor that integrates its eCommerce operations into Salesforce on the back end, or implements payments functionality with a certain payments processor, can do so via API without having to replicate that integration manually across each sales channel, Lawida noted.
In prioritizing customization and consistency to promote a better B2B buyer experience, he added that commercetools will be looking toward machine learning and artificial intelligence as the B2B commerce industry continues to innovate. These tools also promote consistency across platforms, while taking away manual tasks from the sellers themselves in areas like product categorization, Lawida said, and providing them with competitive advantages like automatic pricing algorithms.
While the distinction between B2C and B2B commerce is waning, according to Lawida, demands in the B2B space for online sellers to address their particular needs continues to rise, presenting an opportunity for technology to step in.
"The world is only getting more complex for B2B companies. We're trying to build a platform that gives them the flexibility to address those [challenges] almost in real time — because they have to," he said. "The reason people are buying is changing. It's no longer just about price. It's service. It's trust. What used to be a phone call is now turning into an electronic interaction, and yet sellers need to provide the same amount of trust and loyalty to keep their business."