E-commerce growing as b-to-b sales channel

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While most b-to-b companies are not involved in e-commerce, the channel may offer a significant revenue opportunity for many, according to a new survey by BtoB and Rainmaker Systems. Only about 35% of b-to-b marketers are involved in some way with selling directly online, according to the survey, but 58% of those companies have an increasing commitment to the channel. It may be this trend is being driven by expectations from the consumer world. “Think back just 10 years, when you walked into a Best Buy or Circuit City, and what did you see? Four to eight aisles of boxed software,” said Tom Venable, senior VP-worldwide sales and marketing at Rainmaker, a provider of e-commerce platforms. “Today, you find no software at all. It's all gone online. “So if you think about consumer purchasing practices, the expectation is the app store model. When they want to buy something, they go online. The consumer expectation of buying online, and its relative ease, is fueling the same desire at work.” Digital products such as software and music aren't the only things that lend themselves to e-commerce, said Mike Schwartz, director-marketing at at Manncorp Inc., which sells robotic equipment for making circuit boards. The company's products range from $50,000 to $200,000 and are all sold online. “We have a website that is comprehensive, describing more than 150 different products,” Schwartz said. “To order, you just navigate through the website. You fill up your "truck' instead of a "cart,' arrange for payment and you're home free.” Schwartz said that while company technicians are readily available by phone to walk buyers through the process, the company doesn't do any outside sales calls. And Manncorp's product line tends to lend itself to a smaller lineup of decision-makers. “Usually an engineer knows there is a need and tells management about that need,” Schwartz said. “They may shop around, look at our products, then get a detailed description and formal quote right away for management. There's an iron-clad agreement waiting for management's signature.” Schwartz said “shopping cart abandonment” is virtually nonexistent at Manncorp's online store. While not all companies may be suited to adding the e-commerce channel to their current lineup, it appears to be one that is increasingly appealing for pure sales and marketing reasons. The pursuit of new sales opportunities is driving the push toward greater involvement in b-to-b e-commerce, with 34% of survey respondents citing this as their key motivation; 24% indicated the expectations of their customers that some form of online purchasing be available. While consumer expectations may be driving an increased b-to-b presence in e-commerce, Venable acknowledged that b-to-b companies have radically different relationships with buyers than do b-to-c companies, and he said the online interface must reflect that. Unlike the typical consumer e-commerce site (think, b-to-b online stores need to support banded pricing for volume discounts; have the ability to offer quotes; allow for the use of purchase orders and lines of credit in addition to credit cards; and have sales reps conveniently accessible via phone or online chat, Venable said. “When you go to to buy something, the price may be $40, the sales cycle is five minutes and there's one decision-maker—you,” Venable said. “The main mistake I've seen in the marketplace is taking a simple consumer-oriented e-commerce platform and jamming into it the more complicated b-to-b buying process.” The survey's results reflected the complexity of the b-to-b e-commerce process: 73% of respondents reported having to deal with an average of more than three individual decision-makers during an e-commerce transaction, with 28% saying five decision-makers are typically engaged in the process. Of the sales cycle, 82% of respondents said the e-commerce transaction period averages “weeks or months.” Adam Proehl, managing partner at NordicClick Interactive, a digital marketing agency in Minneapolis, said some b-to-b resistance to e-commerce may stem from concern over accommodating resellers. “It's a common challenge,” Proehl said. Companies can address this through a quasi e-commerce process, he said, perhaps handing off the final transaction to a reseller or compensating the reseller for online transactions that originate in the reseller's geographic area. “Resellers can be very possessive of leads but, if you're doing it right, you're rewarding the partners you want to reward—those who take care of your customers and aren't just box movers,” Proehl said. The 262 marketer respondents to the BtoB/Rainmaker survey, conducted online in August, came from a diversity of company types and sizes but skewed toward smaller players. Fifty-seven percent reported annual revenue of less than $25 million; 22% reported revenue of $25 million to $500 million; 6% reported revenue of $501 million to $1 billion; and 15% reported revenue greater than $1 billion.
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