Throughout the holiday season, there exists plenty of advice for ecommerce merchants on what they should do to provide the best customer experience possible. However the majority of this advice focuses on Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) experience, with little in the way of consideration for Business-to-Business (B2B) ecommerce.
On the surface, this makes sense. The market for DTC ecommerce during the holiday season is substantial, and the opportunity to gain new customers and sell more is huge for merchants. That being said, the B2B ecommerce market is growing - in 2021, B2B online sales in the US alone are projected to reach $1.2 trillion USD, up from $889 billion USD in 2017. For many merchants who sell in the B2B space, orders can be high value and make up a significant percentage of sales, therefore providing a great experience is vital to maintaining a positive B2B relationship.
Today, we’re going to look at how merchants can use communication to provide a better experience for their B2B customers over the holidays.
Taking a DTC-style approach to B2B communication
The best way to improve B2B communication is to take notes and learn lessons from your existing DTC experience. The distinction between B2B and DTC customers is clear, but at the same time both have similar expectations from their ecommerce experience.
Digital expectations around B2B ecommerce have grown significantly, especially in the last couple of years. Between how we interact with and use technology as part of our day-to-day and working lives, plus the rise in omnichannel and mobile commerce, the expectations of B2B buyers have changed. The majority of B2B buyers now prefer to use remote and digital technologies for purchasing. Especially as B2B buyers are increasingly getting younger - 73% of millennials say they’re involved in the B2B purchasing process at their organization, and 44% saying they’re the primary decision maker.
These buyers are used to the experience they receive as a DTC customer in their life outside of work - the ease of use, optimized purchase flows, personalization, and more involved communication. When they then go to research brands for their B2B purchasing, they’re inevitably going to favor those with a more DTC style experience - it’s what they’re accustomed to, and what they prefer. A large part of what makes the DTC experience better is that better level of communication.
Implementing a DTC approach to communication isn’t all that difficult either, as you'll essentially be replicating what has previously worked for your DTC customers. Many of the issues that concern your DTC customers are the same as those which concern your B2B customers. By addressing these concerns similarly, you can give B2B customers the information they need and improve their holiday experience.
What B2B customers need to know over the holidays
In order to know how best to communicate with B2B customers, we need to first understand what their concerns are over the holiday period. As mentioned, in many ways these will be similar to your DTC customers, so start by looking at what you do to address customer concerns in your DTC experience. What issues do you cover for DTC customers? How do you get this information to them? Over the holidays, many concerns will center around availability, order communication, and customer support.
Here are some of the questions your B2B customers will have, in similar categories of concern as your DTC customers:
Will you be replenishing inventory for items currently out of stock? When will items next be available?
When should B2B customers order by to secure delivery before the holidays? Does this differ by region, e.g. do you offer local delivery, and will the cut-off date be earlier/later than orders being shipped further afield?
When will you be closed over the holidays? Are those dates different for B2B, i.e. will you have office hours where someone will be responding to enquiries? When will you be back open for B2B orders, and when will these be dispatched?
Which is the best point-of-contact for B2B customers over the holidays? Do you have an automated support portal? Is there a specific email address they should use? When will your customer support team be online over the next few weeks, and what is the lead time on responses?
How will customers be updated about their order? What information will be included? Will there be up-to-date tracking information?
As mentioned, these are only slightly different to the kind of questions your DTC customers will ask over the holidays.
Best channels for communication
We now understand what information customers are looking for, now it’s time to deliver it to them. The best channels for communication have to be the ones which they’re going to engage with most over the holidays - on your site, email/SMS, and in-package materials. Look at how you communicate with your DTC customers - automated flows, product pages, FAQs, etc. Your B2B customers should receive the same level of information, detail, and support as your DTC customers so use your existing workflows for both to compare and see where you could do more for B2B.
As with anything in ecommerce, it’s important to include as much information on your site as possible. As customers engage with it, they’ll see all the information they need before they place an order.
Include details about delivery deadlines, close-down dates, and stock availability. If a product is out-of-stock and won’t be available until after the holidays, note this on the product page.
Create a hero image for your homepage that communicates order deadline dates, and links to more information about holiday operations.
If you haven’t already, include all the information relevant to your B2B customers over the holidays in its own FAQ section. This will help reduce customer service enquiries, and give them all the information needed in an easily accessible location.
As you get closer to order deadlines, change your site banner to reflect those dates. This will then follow users throughout your store. When the deadline has passed, update the banner to let customers know that any orders placed after that date will be processed after the holidays.
Email and SMS are two of your most valuable and direct channels for communicating with all of your customers, especially around the holidays. The average American checks their smartphone up to 96 times per day, and during the holidays customers pay more attention to their emails as they’re expecting notifications about orders. The same is true then for your B2B customers - they’ll expect more information over the holiday period, and they’ll be more engaged with it.
If you already have transactional email flows set up for B2B, add some additional automated emails into these to bolster how much communication they recieve. These should include extra tracking emails, and customer support contact information. If you have an abandoned cart flow for B2B, include details in these automated emails about order cut-off dates so they’re aware of what to expect if they return to their cart. Add in some extra SMS order updates, so that customers get real-time information about their orders.
As for campaigns, create a series of emails that detail deadline dates for deliveries, customer support, and current product availability. As you get closer to deadlines, send additional emails so customers are fully aware and you don’t let anyone down. Schedule other emails during close-down dates letting customers know when you’ll be back to business-as-usual, and who to contact in the meantime if they have any enquiries. SMS can be of huge benefit here, as they can quickly and succinctly communicate those deadlines and customers will be more likely to take notice.
You can also make use of segmentation to send more tailored information to different sets of customers. For example if you offer local delivery, you may be able to fulfill these orders later than online-only orders. Therefore you want to tailor the information these customers receive - sending cut-off dates for local delivery to those customers who typically opt for it. Or you could create a segment of customers who typically order around this time of year, but haven't yet done so to give them information about delivery dates and product availability.
For orders going out to B2B customers, it can be worthwhile including printed material that details some of the important information you need to communicate. It can be as simple as a print-out that is included in shipments, with the following info:
- Final order/delivery dates
- Close-down dates
- Customer support information
Including this in a physical order can be a more attention-grabbing way to ensure these key issues are addressed. Especially if your customers are receiving many different emails from other suppliers, it can help you stand out more.
B2B ecommerce can be a great way for merchants to build lasting relationships and secure a reliable source of revenue. Just as the holidays are a great sales opportunity for your store, the same is true for your B2B customers. The more you can do to communicate with them and be a reliable supplier, the more trust you’ll build and the better that relationship will be in the new year.