The following article originally appeared at Digitrends.net.
I like keeping things simple. Very simple. This is because I am often put into the position of explaining to senior executives why Internet technology efforts cost so much. With all of the hype about e-commerce, the Internet still represents only 2.4 percent of online sales in 2000 according the U.S. Commerce Department. Over the long run, it is a cost-effective channel to handle simple customer orders, inquiries and customer service. But building a new channel for doing B2B transactions on the Internet involves understanding how a business customer thinks when looking for information and placing orders.
The bottom line is all the attention the Internet is getting is causing people, especially business professionals, to expect great things from a website. Customer, order, product and shipping information on a site are not enough. Customers want to know that the information presented is timely--updated immediately if possible. They also want access to information so they don't have to place a call for simple inquiries or changes on orders.
The reasons these professionals are using a website are very simple: better access to information and more timely information. By timely, I mean how quickly can I find out my order status, shipping method, delivery date and updated account status? Business customers are extremely demanding in terms
of timely customer information. These people are typically purchasing managers or buyers. Many times they're used to having answers provided by an account executive or customer service representative. The Web-based challenge here is in providing timely data when most backend (fulfillment/distribution) systems are batch-oriented or post transactions slowly.
Better access to information simply means being able to update simple things like preferred delivery dates, methods or account billing information. Today, this kind of information is typically maintained by the buyer's direct sales force or customer service. This is often difficult and frustrating for the business customer. Changes happen frequently. In the food distribution business, for example, changes to customer order or delivery information happen very frequently. Most Web-based systems cannot handle these today. Business customers are often shocked when we talk to their online customers and tell them how their site isn't working for them. So far, none of them were ever asked what they wanted out of the B2B site.
Most business directors today see the Internet as a vehicle to be used for reducing costs - and not just generating revenue. For example, handling a customer service call or order phone call can cost between $19 and $32 per call, depending on where in the country it is being handled. Online orders and queries typically cost less than a dollar to process. But there is a lot of support and infrastructure needed to make these online transactions as meaningful and cost efficient as they can be. A look at the B2C playbook
There are differences when tracking people on a consumer site as opposed to a business site. With 56 percent of adults shopping online, they represent what is expected to be $11.6 billion in online sales in 2000. This market needs more tracking and responsiveness. Today there are systems to send
personalized offers based on profile, do site personalization (as in MyYahoo!) and offer in-depth analysis of traffic. This information often comes in detailed reports that can be analyzed daily. Products like cPulse,
Keylime Software and LiveStat are examples. These systems came into being because of the staggering statistics showing that up to 80 percent of Web-site traffic never comes back and most shopping carts are left empty. This must make a B2C marketing manager cringe. These tools can also be applied to business Websites, but are often not fully used.
But it's still important to keep in mind that business customers are different than retail customers. There are numerous "private" Websites where transactions on exchanges and private nets are handling a lot of online orders today. Business customers are typically ready to buy and know where they are going to do so.
In summary, I emphasize businesses should design their sites with the customer in mind. Customer, order, product and shipping information on a site are not enough. Customers want to know that the information presented is timely - updated immediately if possible. They also want access to information so they don't have to place a call for simple inquiries or changes on orders.
Joseph Sisto is director of the Esolutions Group at the North Highland Company, a business and technology consulting firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org