If you think of B2B e-commerce as something you have to use to meet customer demands—or just a good way to boost transaction efficiency and cut costs—you may want to broaden your view. Done right, e-commerce can also help you drive new revenue, strengthen customer retention, and grow sales in existing accounts. Better yet, it doesn’t matter whether you’re large or small; any seller can achieve these results. So what’s the secret to this kind of success?
While there’s no perfect formula, following best practices and lessons learned by other sellers can help you get started. Read on to hear one seller’s insights along with practical tips you can use.
The Transformative Power of B2B E-Commerce
In a recent webinar titled “E-Commerce: the B2B Marketer’s Secret Weapon”, Heather Westerman, eBusiness team lead of large accounts for Lexmark International, shared how her company is using B2B e-commerce as a transformative business tool to gain benefits such as:
- 98% retention of customers using e-commerce solutions
- Improved customer satisfaction (moving from ~5-6 up to ~9 on a 10-point scale)
- Higher sales
- 25% year-over-year growth in the number of accounts with e-commerce solutions
What’s more, Lexmark’s approach is not unusual. Research shows that a growing number of sellers are leveraging B2B e-commerce as a competitive differentiator. For example, in a 2013 BtoB magazine survey of selling organizations, 32 percent named their e-commerce website among their most important marketing channels—ranked just below their website for branding. Why? In addition to reducing costs, participants cited “emergence of B2B e-commerce as a strategic asset led by senior management” along with “improved image of organization as a forward-thinking digital enterprise” as top reasons for embracing e-commerce.
The Lexmark Evolution
Lexmark’s eBusiness solutions team was launched in 2008 as part of a decision to shift B2B e-commerce responsibility from IT into marketing—a move more companies are expected to make as the alliance between the CIO and CMO functions becomes stronger. The change was spurred by the need to 1) address customer satisfaction issues, 2) understand and translate technical features into sales functionality, and 3) deliver a best-in-class web experience and user interface.
The team was also asked to create tools and reporting that could be used for sales and IT as well as marketing—a tricky proposition requiring them to bridge widely divergent perspectives by collaborating across multiple departments. “Without this collaboration, the customer’s experience and satisfaction are impacted,” Heather says.
From Appeasing Customers to Pleasing Them
What began primarily as a customer demand and management challenge, however, soon evolved into something greater. Today the eBusiness solutions team serves as a valuable resource in the sales team’s toolkit and a stepping stone to deepen customer engagement. “We’re able to do more at a lower cost now because we took the time to develop a platform, and it has become a direct marketing and sales tool to our customers,” Heather says. The website serves as a one-stop shop that eliminates guesswork. “Customers no longer need to search all over the place for the information they need regarding products, price, or even whom to contact. A single URL is shared, and the customer communicates that out for all employees to use, ensuring that everyone receives the same information and shopping experience globally.”
Customers also enjoy an easy, Amazon.com-like experience when buying from Lexmark. “We really aspired to create that B2C experience in the B2B world,” Heather says. “The complexities didn’t go away; we just pushed them to the technology, so the customer didn’t have to deal with them.”
Lexmark’s Lessons Learned
- Your company’s blemishes will show on the web. “Anything you have in terms of pricing issues, disconnects in product information, or breaks in the supply chain or customer support will become very evident on the web,” Heather says. This makes it crucial to document processes and have contingency plans in place to ensure fast resolution when breakdowns occur. “The worst thing that can happen is an issue arises and the customer is the first one telling you there’s a problem.”
- Invest in building a team to support your e-solution. “Having the right skill sets in place is key to keeping everything running smoothly once you launch,” Heather says. Lexmark’s team covers both internal and customer-facing tasks, with clearly defined roles to cover every major need—a significant part of which is managing culture shift.
- Build technical solutions with scalability in mind. “Often we had salespeople come to us and ask for functionality for a specific customer,” Heather explains. “We said, well, what if other customers are going to need this? Let’s not just build it for one, let’s build it for all.”
- Support customers from site to ship on the web. “Understand that your customers who begin their shopping experience on the web want to stay on the web, so it’s very important to centralize customer service [online],” Heather says.
Measure Results to Escalate Impact
Research indicates that best-in-class companies track their e-commerce ROI, and Lexmark meets this mark while keeping customers top of mind. “The ROI for an e-business solution is not just measured in dollars or units sold, though we do track them,” Heather says. “Our primary focus is customer satisfaction and analytics. If a customer is dissatisfied, it can cost us the business. So we make it easy for customers to leave us feedback; we track how many customers we retain each year, how many new customers are added, the number of order issues, and how long it takes us to resolve the issue. Most recently, we have seen customers expand their business with us.” The simplicity and ease of use provided by the company’s e-commerce solution have been key drivers of this growth.
 “The Emerging Role of E-Commerce in the B2B Customer Journey,” BtoB magazine survey, June 2013.
 For example, in the BtoB magazine survey, participants’ agreement with the statement that “The technological, branding, and customer interaction synergies between IT and marketing are natural and inevitable outcomes of B2B e-commerce, leading to greater alliance between the CIO and CMO functions” was 7.3 on a 10-point scale (where 10 was “completely agree”), and 81 percent said this evolution will occur in the next three years or sooner.
 In the BtoB magazine survey, 57 percent of best-in-class selling organizations answered yes to the question “Does your company have an ROI metric to measure the total effect of your B2B e-commerce?” (vs. 34 percent overall).