Is B2C Signaling The End Of B2B Commerce As We Know It?

Liz Duggan

B2B commerce may be in an entirely different league of its own with a distinct set of rules and customer dynamics. But if the latest B2C advancements are any indication, what happens in B2C will likely find its way to B2B.

Over the past few years, the B2C marketplace has sparked the rise of e-commerce, mobile, social, content, and analytics-driven marketing – all of which are now considered the fundamental building blocks of the digital B2B experience. By leveraging these one-time trends, the B2B e-commerce environment has redefined the sales landscape, generating $780 billion in 2015 and continuing to grow as it reaches an estimated $1.13 trillion by 2020.

With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that many forward-looking businesses are relying on digital commerce strategies to expand their revenue and customer reach. And yet, I still hear boardroom stories of executives wondering if going digital is worth the investment in the first place.

Here’s today’s B2B reality: Going digital is worth the investment. Why? Because your customers are already there.

During a recent Webcast titled “The Future of B2B E-Commerce,” Andy Hoar, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, had this compelling observation for businesses that have yet to integrate digital strategies into their commerce approach: “Our studies have indicated that 74% of B2B customers find that buying from a website is more convenient than buying from a sales representative. Not better. Not more complete. Just more convenient.”

While his advice may sound a lot like a B2C strategy, Hoar stresses that this tactic is especially important for B2Bs. The more convenient things become, the more people use them – and the more frictionless sales processes become. However, the future of B2B commerce is not just self-service or full-service. Both sides of the spectrum must work together to create a well-rounded, anytime, anywhere buying experience.

Three AI advancements that will further push B2B commerce towards greater convenience

Although 93% of customers prefer to buy online, they feel most comfortable with that channel as long as they have already decided what they want to buy. They still want the level of access needed to weigh their options and make a sound decision with a high degree of expertise and careful consideration. And the more complex and expensive the offering, the more a highly knowledgeable, consultative sales representative is in demand to bridge that gap.

Striking that balance is easier said than done – for now. With the latest advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) emerging in the B2C marketplace, the union between these two halves of the total B2B customer experience may get closer.

1. Chatbots

For millions of people, Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home devices have become widely popular consumer toys. But the real value for the B2B world is the cloud-based, artificial intelligence-powered voice platform that can make order taking and inventory replenishment easier and more productive than ever before. Just imagine a mechanic who is working on a machine and needs to order a part. Instead of wasting time away from his work to enter an order on a laptop or mobile device, the worker can simply speak to a device that is just feet away to order the exact part required to finish the job or receive guidance from a sales representative on how to install it.

2. Image recognition and analysis enabled by deep learning

Image recognition services – available through Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and others – allow buyers to detect and label thousands of objects and scenes in images. By integrating powerful visual search and discovery into their applications, B2B customers can match the exact make and model of a machine part, for example, through fast visual analysis of billions of images. This information can then be shared with a sales representative to locate a viable alternative purchase or trigger an order.

3. Text to speech

Text-to-speech services meet machine-learning intelligence to produce life-like speech for as many as 24 languages – all in the ease of a single device. Designed to address the many challenges of speech generation, this technology can discriminate the different meanings of homophones (like “buy” and “by”) and varying pronunciations of heteronyms (such as “live”) to trigger the correct response. Whether the buyer says to “buy the part” or “by the part,” the service knows whether the purchaser requires an immediate reorder or the expertise of a sales representative.

Digital commerce is maturing, and so must the convenience of B2B customer experiences

In commerce, the ultimate goal is to “wow” customers – and for B2Bs, this means providing a level of convenience that allows buyers to perform their jobs better and makes the process as efficient and effortless as possible.

If you think about it, there’s a reason why Hoar found that 82% of B2B buyers use Amazon to make businesses purchases. Product details and pricing are instantly available with a simple keyword. Product suggestions are personalized and based on purchase history. Shipping is lighting fast. And most of all, the overall user experience – from beginning to end – is straightforward and intuitive. You just can’t get more convenient than that in today’s market.

The sooner that B2B businesses compete on that Amazon-like experience, the better prepared they will be to take a chunk of that $1.13 trillion in potential revenue in three years. Through AI technology, B2Bs can significantly improve how they engage customers in a frictionless buying experience, build a foundation for loyalty growth, and drive a level of competitiveness on par with digital commerce giants.

For more on selling in the digital marketplace, see Primed: Prompting Customers to Buy.