Do Not Build a B2B Ecommerce Site Until You Answer These 8 Questions

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If you’re a manufacturer thinking about building a B2B ecommerce site, you’re one step closer to giving your customers what they really want—a better (faster, smoother, easier) digital buying experience. Below are eight critical questions you need to ask before you take the next step.

Ecommerce is becoming a high priority for manufacturers. Last year, an survey of more than 5,000 small and medium businesses showed an 8% increase in online B2B trade for manufacturers, double the overall rate of increase across all industries. 

In fact, manufacturing tied with retail for greatest digital growth. Keep stats like those in mind as you consider the following questions. They can help you better understand the immense potential of your ecommerce site, plan smarter for it, and even prevent costly mistakes along the way. 

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1. Do you understand what your B2B buyers want from ecommerce? 

An ecommerce site is any website that facilitates the transaction of goods. But B2B companies can get too focused on what they think defines ecommerce, in particular the payment gateway.

But you shouldn’t get hung up on that. There’s no rule that says an ecommerce site must include an online payment option. 

Focus on what your B2B buyers really want.

Focus instead on what your buyers really want. You can get some perspective on the evolving expectations of B2B buyers by considering what others have already said, like in this recent PROS-Hanover Research study, What B2B Buyers Want: A Survey of 1053 Purchasing Professionals

The quick take-aways from this survey are that B2B buyers want:

  • More ability to self-serve
  • More personalized experiences
  • A faster online quote process

2. What buying scenarios should your site support?

Don’t underestimate the complexity that your ecommerce site can handle. 

The best platforms today can incorporate multiple use cases. Your primary mission will be to clearly define them so your ecommerce site meets the needs of all your potential buyers.  

For example, it’s completely feasible that you could have an ecommerce site for any or all of the following buying scenarios:

  • Credit or debit card purchase of retail goods (i.e., like a conventional B2C sale) 
  • B2B purchase of wholesale-priced goods billed through an accounting system to a corporate account on a credit or purchase order basis 
  • Quote submission for a proposal that may be included in a customer’s project costs, also known as cart-to-quote
  • A “marketplace” type of transaction where the website is acting as a go-between for two vendors
  • A multi-tiered customer hierarchy that covers a scenario in which an organization has corporate accounts, subaccounts, and various locations which order under that corporate structure
  • Purchase approvals (one person orders, say a store clerk, and another one approves the order)

3. How complex are your product lines (and how often will they change)?

Make sure you consider how much your product lines are likely to change and/or expand, as well as how large and complex they are. This will help you make smarter decisions when it comes to the ecommerce platform you ultimately choose.

Simple product lines. Generally speaking, the simpler and more fixed your product lines are, the more likely a Shopify-type platform will work, along with a few basic software as a service (SaaS) tools. 

Complex product lines. On the other hand, many B2B manufacturers maintain vast product lines with numerous potential variations for each model. In those cases, Magento or a similar high-performance ecommerce platform will be necessary.

It is possible to use SaaS software for more complex B2B ecommerce sites, but things can get tricky. You may have to do so much fine-tuning for the SaaS to meet your needs that customized software could be a better option. Learn more about this in No. 5.

(On a related note, here’s a case study describing how a logistics company benefited by moving from off-the-shelf to customized software.) 

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4. How can your B2B ecommerce site allow a better search experience?  

To transform your manufacturing website into an ecommerce site, you’ll definitely want it to be easily searchable. But how do you accomplish that?

Get everything online. A minimalist online version of your product lines can seriously hold your site back. To really embrace the power of ecommerce, you must load all of your product lines and models onto the new site.

A minimalist online version of your product lines can seriously hold your site back.

Categorize your products online in a customer-centric way. How closely do the terms you use to describe your products match with your customer’s language? They are the ones who’ll be searching for products (see more on this in the next point).

Provide a site-wide search tool. Now that you’ve categorized your products accordingly (see the point above), you want to provide an easy-to-use search tool that also allows the customer to filter search options and easily find exact products—much like the B2C sites your customers are used to using. 

More specifically, for the search tool to really be effective, it needs to be configured to search for terms that customers use, whether that’s a model number, a part number, a product name (with spelling variations!), or potential categories the product could fall under.

Be sure to include product information. Don’t forget to make it super-easy to find valuable specs, diagrams, and manuals with the help of that site-wide search tool. 

Engineers and product specifiers trying to price out a project, for example, need to see these technical details. Make that super-easy for them, and you’re much more likely to turn their searching into a sale.

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5. What exactly should you budget for?

Plenty of thought and number-crunching will likely go into the budget you designate for your site rebuild. But when that huge project seems like it’s over, you’re really just transitioning to the next phase: keeping the site running and, hopefully, thriving. 

To do that, post-build you’ll need to budget for things like:

Upgrades. Whether in the form of software updates or a different cloud architecture to handle traffic, system upgrades are a certainty. But more important, they can be downright critical in helping you maintain optimal business performance in everything from employee productivity to system security.

Ongoing maintenance. An effective ecommerce site should function relatively smoothly, with minimal to no downtime. But ongoing maintenance support from your developer will still likely be needed now and then when internal staff find themselves in over their head with an unexpected problem.

Subscriptions. Subscribing to SaaS tools could be the right move for you, especially when it means a lower cost of entry compared to custom development. On the other hand, over time renting a plethora of SaaS can get really expensive.

But on the other other hand, working with a developer for custom software will incur service costs. The point? Subscription decisions shouldn’t be driven by a short-sighted focus on price points. They should be made based on your business model and your long-term goals.

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6. How can you make the online quote process more effective?

If you already have a rudimentary “Get a quote” option on your site, think about what really occurs when a potential customer clicks that button? How easy are you making it for them to get  a quote quickly?

With your new B2B ecommerce site, you can create a faster, near-seamless quote process for customers by doing things like:

  • Helping them easily locate the exact products they want (see No. 4 above). 
  • Enabling them to request quotes from a rep in their region.
  • Giving them an easy-to-complete request form, including a field where they can provide additional info to customize their order.
  • Having a robust administrative interface that allows you to communicate with the customer, send proposals, adjust pricing, add custom products, and tailor shipping rates.

In turn, regional reps can be notified immediately, have login rights to your ecommerce site, and initiate a streamlined quote process that ultimately makes the purchasing process simpler and faster.

Open laptop sitting on an oval table with an ERP schematic drawing to the right of the table

7. Are you prepared to integrate your ERP system with your new ecommerce site?

The day-to-day operations of your manufacturing company likely rely on your ERP system. But when that system remains siloed from your website, you’re severely limited in how you can leverage the website to solve business problems and ultimately generate more sales.

In fact, many of the features of an effective B2B ecommerce site, like those described above, hinge on ERP integration. That’s why your ecommerce site and your ERP system need the ability to “talk” to each other. And that’s what ERP integration enables.

Just know that these projects are typically quite complex, which means you’ll likely need:

  • Some degree of custom programming from a developer. 
  • Buy-in from both C-suite and various department heads.
  • Internal staff who are prepared to dedicate a significant amount of time to the effort.
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8. Have you found a web developer for a successful long-term partnership?

Developing an ecommerce site isn’t like constructing a building, where the contractor essentially says goodbye when the project is over. The fact is that your partnership with your developer will play a big part in the long-term success of your B2B ecommerce site.

Note that you don’t have to dive into a full-blown ecommerce site project right off the bat. You may want to look for a developer that offers a strategy and evaluation project. This can be a prudent and cost-effective way to evaluate your needs.

Also known as a needs assessment, this kind of project benefits you by allowing the developer to do the following:

  • Identify significant knowledge gaps prior to a full project, thereby saving time and money up front. 
  • Identify the risk areas that may add expense.
  • Conduct research to not only make recommendations but also validate those recommendations.  
  • Clarify the process and explain the benefits of a B2B ecommerce site in non-technical terms to decision-makers.
  • Speak directly with staff to reach a deep understanding of your business processes and the specific problems that a B2B ecommerce site can actually solve. 
  • Reach a more accurate scope of work that reduces your risk and increases stakeholder confidence.

Your next step toward building a manufacturing ecommerce site

You’ve just gotten a glimpse of what you need to consider on your path to building a great-performing, customer-focused manufacturing ecommerce site. But for you to effectively answer many of the questions above, you’ll likely need outside support.

Start with your current developer. Do they have the necessary capabilities to meet your ecommerce needs? Even more important, can you see yourself sticking with them for the long haul?

Also, remember No. 8 above. Rather than rush into things, you can wade into the ecommerce waters—and learn a ton along the way—with a strategy and evaluation project.

Find out how Earthling Interactive can turn your website into a B2B ecommerce site that keeps customers returning again and again.
Set up an introductory call to discuss your challenges.