Three ways to play e-commerce catch-up in 2021

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Many business leaders speak wistfully of “the good old days”, referring to the world we lived in 12 months ago when we operated in a business-as-usual mindset, facing tough but recognizable challenges. A lot has changed since COVID-19 took hold.

As a result, we witnessed in real time the chasm between e-commerce “haves” and “have-nots” grow wider. The former grappled with record surges in demand but, with the right infrastructure in place, quickly adapted and reached new levels of growth and opportunity.  The latter found themselves unprepared. They are still scrambling to catch up with this new and rapidly evolving environment.

As someone who specializes in helping B2B brands develop effective e-commerce strategies, I have had many conversations with companies looking to close that gap by kick starting or accelerating their online strategies.  Many are, correctly, looking to the B2C world for cues on how to move forward. However, it is vitally important that they view all this new information through the lens of what will most benefit a B2B customer and not be distracted by noise.

My most valuable piece of advice for those looking to refine their e-commerce game in 2021 is this: Root everything you do in providing a great customer experience and work backward from there.  Take a beat before making a massive investment in a new e-commerce platform. Though it’s tempting to want to move with speed, taking a more measured approach so that you understand exactly what the new platform can (or cannot) do to improve your customers’ experience will maximize the value of any future investment.  Here’s a quick checklist to get started:

Determine what your customers really want from you

This may sound obvious, but it’s something many B2B companies struggle with. Many assume that customers want a faster, more convenient way to make purchases. Of course they do.  hey don’t just want it; they expect it. Our research shows that the top driver for B2B buying decisions is the availability and quality of product information. Customers get frustrated wading through a clearinghouse of products, so you’ll increase conversion rates significantly by figuring out what information is most helpful to your customers and presenting it in the context of their unique needs.

Merely posting an online inventory with photos and adding a shopping cart may meet the basic definition of e-commerce, but it does little to enhance your brand or build loyalty. So, aim to start in a more focused, meaningful way before zooming out to include the entirety of your inventory. A manufacturer may want to start, for example, with a spare parts portal that they know their customers definitely need from them. Work to build an optimal experience based on context:

    • Show them only the items they need based on the customer’s role and preferences
    • Make it easy for them to modify products, if applicable
    • Show them closely related products they might also require

In short, don’t just list spare parts – provide a level of service that makes it easier for them to do their jobs and they will come back for more. Then, continue to follow that philosophy as you scale up your e-commerce capabilities.

Get your data in order  

In 2021, a data-forward culture is key.  Implementing a master data management (MDM) strategy drives critical results like deeper customer insights, increased e-commerce revenue and frictionless customer experiences that boost brand loyalty.

Some organizations managed to scrape by this year using manual processes on their websites or third-party platforms. But unless they embrace more robust data management technologies in 2021, they’ll fall even further behind their competitors, unable to automate or scale the process.

Make vendors part of your planning

We all saw the many high-profile product shortages over the past year. The companies that were best able to absorb those shocks and minimize the impact on their customers were those with clear supply chain visibility.

A successful B2B e-commerce strategy must include strong vendor collaboration. As part of your MDM approach, find ways to collect data directly from the source and automate as many workflows as possible. Not only will vendors appreciate the tight integration and ease of doing business with you, you’ll also gain better insights into costs, forecasting and long-term strategic planning.

The final takeaway is this: by truly understanding the needs of customers, making the most of the data and working closely with vendors, you will build a solid, scalable foundation for long-term e-commerce success no matter what the future brings.

James Urbati is the senior vice president and general manager of commerce at Pivotree, a global services provider specializing in frictionless e-commerce.

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