B2B Ebusiness Strategy – Defining a Full Spectrum of B2B Ebusiness Solutions (Part 2 of 3)

There is a broad range of solution options that a business might invest in and some may be more or less appropriate for your industry and specific business.  Understanding these options and how they might apply to your business is an important step in defining your B2B ebusiness strategy.

B2B Ebusiness Solution OptionsThe following list of ebusiness solutions will hopefully give you a good starting point in understanding what’s possible and appropriate for your business.  Generally, this list is arranged from low to high complexity, but this is more of a guideline as there are many variables that would contribute to the complexity of any of these for your business.

Informational Website – A website with relatively static content that provides information about your business, products and services.  This is typically used to introduce your company to new or prospective customers and provide useful content and contact information to existing customers.  As business buyers do more product research on-line before contacting a sales agent an information website can provide necessary content required to attract new customers.

Electronic Catalog – An online product listing often with the same design and layout as a traditional hard-copy catalog.  This format is easily accessed, searched, and downloaded by your customers at a fraction of the cost of printing and distributing hard-copy catalogs.  If you don’t have a full ecommerce website or if your customer base expects a traditional product catalog, then providing a printable online version will be a good option.

Email Marketing – Formatted content advertising products or services and sent via email to a list of prospective or current customers.  Emails can range from simple content such as new product introductions sent to all customers or can be very targeted content sent to a specific list of customers based on recent buying patterns.  Typically, additional software, such as MailChimp, is used to manage contacts and design the email content.  A well-designed email marketing campaign is not spam but rather a valuable communication tool that quickly informs your customers about product offerings that are relevant to them.

Marketing Portal – For businesses that sell to a reseller network of distributors and dealers, a marketing portal allows your company to deliver product images, product brochures, or product content designed to help your customers be more successful reselling your products.  The portal is often a secure website accessible only to select customers.

Customer Portal – Private, secured, website that provides your customers with information about their orders, invoices, purchase history, contracts, engineering designs and specifications, or other sensitive content.  More advanced functionality may include interactive applications that allow you and your customer to collaborate on projects or deals.

Supplier Portal – Private, secured, website that provides your suppliers with new purchase orders, PO status, or supplier performance scorecards.  More advanced functionality may include interactive features that allow your suppliers to acknowledge PO receipt, provide product availability, estimated delivery dates, and update delivery dates based on manufacturing or shipping status.

Collaboration Portal – This is very similar to a customer or supplier portal and often included as a subset of those.  Collaboration portals support the exchange of critical documents or information that allow companies to work more effectively together.  These are often used for projects with geographically distributed teams or document intensive projects such as new product development for engineering or manufacturing companies.

Ecommerce Website – An ecommerce website enables your customers to enter sales orders, make reservations, submit payments, make deposits or complete similar transactions.  A sales oriented ecommerce site allows you to expose your customers to your full product line and make your products visible to new prospects at a very low cost.  B2B ecommerce sites are quickly evolving to include similar features that have been found in B2C sites for years such as deep and rich product information, product ratings, personalized content, suggested products, and relevant cross-sell and up-sell offerings.  Integrations to backend ERP systems allow presentation of real-time inventory and pricing information to customers as well as fully automated order and payment transactions.  Trends in buyers expectations as well as a rapid increase in B2B ecommerce sales should compel every company to include an ecommerce website in their B2B ebusiness strategy.

Omni-Channel Ecommerce – Omni-channel ecommerce is very closely related to an ecommerce website but is such an important concept that it warrants its own topic.  The basic idea is that buyers expect to be able to work with your company in the manner of their choosing including through a sales rep, over a website, or on their mobile device, and they expect their experience to be portable through these channels.  This means that product offerings, pricing, open order information, purchase history, and so on should be shared across these channels and accessible to customer service and sales agents regardless of which device the customer used.

In a more advanced application buyers may be directed to the most appropriate channel for the stage they’re at in the buying process.  For example, a software purchase may start out with heavy on-line research but be closed by a sales agent.  B2B ecommerce and omni-channel ecommerce will have significant implications for your sales organization and selling processes.  For example, compensation models and the role that the sales rep plays in the selling process need to be aligned with the on-line capabilities and strategy.

EDI – Electronic Data Interchange allows companies to complete business transactions automatically.  EDI follows set standards for each type of transaction (orders, invoices, shipment notifications, …etc) and requires that companies on each side of the transaction commit to following the standard as well as purchase translation software.  EDI is best used when transactions are repetitive, high frequency, and large.  When implemented correctly EDI will save time for both companies but can create support issues if the standards aren’t followed or if you haven’t fully integrated the EDI transaction with your ERP system.  EDI also limits your ability to expose your customers to other products that you offer or to cross-sell or up-sell your customer.

System-to-System Integration – Very similar to EDI, a system-to-system integration is a way to automate transactions between companies by connecting their ERP systems over a secure network.  Unlike EDI these integrations don’t follow specific transaction standards and don’t require additional software.  This can be both a con (more time and development required due to lack of standards) and a pro (more flexible interactions can be created).  This type of ebusiness solution is most appropriate for strategic trading partners that warrant the investment.  This type of integration also creates a deeper partnership with your customers making it more difficult for them to switch to your competitor.

On-Line Exchange – An on-line exchange is typically a website that connects buyers and sellers together.  There are many examples of B2B exchanges available in nearly every industry.  Often these exchanges allow industry participants to buy, sell and trade products, services, supplies, and industry-specific equipment by posting ads in a classifieds style listing.  Most of these exchanges are hosted by independent 3rd parties but there are also examples of private exchanges hosted by companies for their dealer and distributor reseller networks.  As a private company, hosting this type of exchange can be a for-profit venture or a free service that builds brand loyalty and equity among your customers.

Advanced Services and Solutions – The above solutions cover a great deal of ground but almost every company can offer even more unique and advanced ebusiness solutions.  For example, as a supplier you may be able to offer Vendor Managed Inventory or Just-In-Time Replenishment by getting inventory levels from your customer’s system or even by using product sensors to determine re-order or shipping schedules.  Another type of advance solution is to aggregate information across your customer base and deliver insightful content back to your customers.  Again, the opportunities here vary by industry and company and it is important that you look beyond the more standard solutions to consider what’s possible.

Next Steps

The intent of this list of ebusiness solutions is to give you a better understanding of what’s possible and what might be appropriate for your business.  But this doesn’t really tell you whether or not you should be making an investment in any of these.  The next part in this article will explore the business drivers that you should consider when developing your ebusiness strategy and the barriers preventing successful implementation.

This is part 2 of a 3 part article.  In Part I (B2B Ebusiness Strategy – A Call to Action) a number of current trends and examples are provided to highlight the need for B2B ebusiness investment.  Part II (Defining a Full Spectrum of B2B Ebusiness Solutions) provides a list of ebusiness solutions along with some insight on how the solutions might apply to your business.  Part III (Drivers and Barriers) reviews the drivers for creating a B2B ebusiness strategy and how to recognize and overcome common barriers.

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