The Internet has completely reshaped customer relationships. The transformation began with the dot-com boom, which spawned a new type of company whose entire business model was predicated on Web acceptance and usage. These companies — Yahoo, Amazon, eBay and Google — took advantage of the Web in all aspects of their business. Soon, traditional “brick-and-mortar” enterprises realized that to survive, they too had to satisfy customer expectations to procure goods and services over the Internet.
Out of this, the traditional differentiation between B2C and B2B emerged. B2B sales models were complex. They needed to incorporate negotiated contracts, special pricing and distribution or channel partners and typically involved multiple buyers from the same company. B2C companies, on the other hand, were more consumer or end-user focused. They had to offer features such as ratings, reviews, communities of interest and promotions.
For some time, the differentiation existed. Today, however, in this new Internet world, the line between B2C and B2B e-Business is blurring. Influenced by the emergence of Web 2.0, where people collaborate and share information online in ways previously unavailable, B2B buyers increasingly expect B2C-like personalized experiences, creating a whole new challenge for B2B providers.
Faced with the demand for greater personalization, B2B e-Business initiatives must now offer features in their customer and partner transactions that were once the domain of B2C offerings.
At the same time B2B buyers want a new, more personal experience, B2C companies are looking to extend their sales models to new as well as existing markets. Like their B2B counterparts, they need to involve multiple suppliers. The net effect is that B2C initiatives require the complex guided selling, configuration and order management capabilities traditionally found in B2B business.
The convergence of B2C and B2B has created a new “Business-to-Everyone” or B2E paradigm where providing consumers with a unique and personalized experience with quick and easy access to the right products and services is the rule, not the exception. B2E recognizes that in an increasingly commoditized product world, more and more customers make buying choices based on a company’s ability to satisfy their particular needs; provide complete solutions, which sometimes include multiple parties; and offer the right pricing.
The Buying Experience
Consider a leading wireless service provider. They recently launched an e-Business solution with enhanced guided selling and configuration based on business rules that drive product and service options. In an environment characteristic of the B2B world, both business and consumer customers can select equipment from a huge catalog of options and compare as many as five different packages that include phones, service agreements, pricing and the cost to add more lines. The “experience” also includes guidance on which plans best suit customers’ needs and suggestions about accessories to buy immediately, at a later visit to the site or by contacting the call center. Integration between call center reps and the Web site visit provides a unified experience throughout the customer relationship.
In the B2E world of Web sales, self-service needs to enable potential buyers to quickly and easily find, configure and purchase the right products and services at the right price and be easily searchable and intuitive. It must be transactional, capturing, distributing and fulfilling orders promptly and accurately and providing status and details on demand as needed during the fulfillment process.
B2E initiatives also must integrate with traditional selling processes in order to fully satisfy customers’ needs. Customers need to be confident that a Web self-service interaction will allow them to call the sales representative for help if necessary to complete the transaction and then check the status of an order any way they choose — over the phone, via a call center or in person.
Equally important, if channel partners, distributors and resellers are part of the sales model, the automated sales experience must synchronize with them. In order to accomplish this, some companies establish personalized storefronts and catalogs with specific pricing for their partners to ensure their participation as the sales process becomes automated.
Furthermore, when a company has multiple products and services, they need a flexible platform that enables them to offer multi-divisional products/solutions. As such, the platform also must be able to integrate into multiple back-end systems.
A leading systems integrator that provides innovative technology and supply chain solutions to the commercial, government and telecom sectors needed an e-Business solution to provide major accounts with their own storefronts, where they purchase pre-approved, standardized products.
Customers find the products they need from the integrator’s 600,000-item catalog and also generate quotes, place and change orders, and view their business transaction with the company. Also, because of its e-Business solution, the integrator has been able to expand its offering beyond IT products into selling office supplies and business equipment. Characteristic of the B2C world, the new e-Business solution enables customers to get rich product information, including reviews and comparisons, through an online interface.
While the merger of B2C and B2B will have a powerful impact on business, it will not erase the differences that exist among different markets. Consumer product companies, by their very nature, must be able to market to large audiences and have simplicity in their B2C offerings.
Manufacturers typically need to support customer-specific purchasing processes and negotiated pricing agreements, and manufacturers and high technology companies have complex sales processes. They not only offer configure-to-order products and services as well as replacement parts, they often sell to both business and consumer users.
Still, the key is that sameness exists in the need for companies to provide their customers with product and service catalogs and offerings, pricing, promotions, order management, fulfillment and service. A B2E e-Business solution must support all these capabilities.
The Internet has raised the bar on consumer expectations. Companies who understand this will succeed, and in turn, provide a Web experience that meets the unique preferences of each of their customers whether they are B2C or B2B.
Jean Kovacs is the president and CEO of Comergent Technologies, a leading provider of e-Business solutions for the extended enterprise.