November 22, 2018
It is difficult to sell products without high-quality, comprehensive and up-to-date product information. This is self-evident in B2C web stores, but the same requirements apply to B2B sales channels as well. The difference with B2B channels is that providing high-quality, comprehensive and up-to-date product information is much more complicated than in consumer business.
At least the following challenges are related to providing the product information in B2B channels:
- Fragmentation. The product information can be distributed to different systems around the organization. Also, the ownership of the product information is often spread to different directions. The needed pieces of information must be gathered together.
- Format. The product information is typically compiled based on the needs of the operative tasks or logistics, but not at all for sales or marketing needs. It needs to be enriched one way or another.
- Dependencies between products. Technical details determine if different products are compatible with each other. The customer is often buying a solution which compounds from many different individual products. A replacement product may not necessarily exist.
- Customer-specificity. In the B2B world, the customer-specific contracts often affect to product information on prices and selections. Applying the customer-specific contracts to the digital channel adds up the complexity of the solution.
The less you recognize the challenges mentioned above, the smoother your B2B sales channel development project will likely be. And vice versa.
ERP connects the products and customers
The enterprise resource planning system (ERP) is the most important background system of the B2B sales channel. The idea here is not to depreciate the meaning of other background systems but especially the larger businesses have their ERP in the center of everything. The products can very well be originally initiated in some other systems but all essential information of them is forwarded to the ERP. From the B2B channel point of view ERP manages the basic product information and the dependencies between different products.
In B2B sales, the customer and the products go hand in hand. Typically, also the customers are initiated in a separate CRM system (Customer Relation Management), but they too forward the essential information to the ERP where the customers and the products are connected. The ERP manages also the business logic related to the customer-specific contracts, which affects among other things to pricing, selection and delivery terms. The customer-specificity is indeed the “beef” of the B2B sales channel and related business logic is often the part of the implementation project which causes gray hair when applied.
Thus, the ERP is in the key role, but it can also set certain limitations to the functionality of the service. If for example a dynamic pricing would like to be applied, the ERP system must allow this. The scenario may seem to be simple, but in practice it is not always so. The ERP is – after all – the master for the pricing information, so a different price from the web system may not necessarily go through all the way to the order.
Enrichment of the product information
The product information which is stored and maintained using the ERP system is rarely suitable to be shown in the B2B sales channel on as-is basis. Therefore, the product information must be enriched one way or another for this purpose. Typically, the product information represented in a web store are enriched at least with product images, but also with captions, and even the product names can be altered to be more suitable for the commercial purposes.
The most suitable stand-alone system for joining the product information together and to enrich it is a PIM system (Product Information Management). The role of the PIM is to combine the needed information and to be so called master storage for the sales and marketing-oriented product information. Information can be derived from many different systems to PIM. Respectively the combined sales and marketing data can be forwarded to other systems too – not just to the B2B sales channel on the Internet.
Another way to enrich the product information is to do the needed operations with the help of the web store solution which is the technical base of the B2B sales channel. The base information is received to the web store from the ERP and the product images from an external database (or they are saved into the database of the web store) and the marketing texts are written using the web store solution tools. This is technically lighter approach but requires probably more manual work from the marketing communication personnel in the long run. Another downside for this model is that the web store is the marketing data master and this solution does not serve the needs of other channels for the enriched product information.
Avoid repeated manual routine work
Like said before, technically advanced solutions decrease the amount of manual work and thus errors. The other side of the coin is that they require large implementation projects and are therefore expensive to set up. It is worth, however, to evaluate the life-cycle cost of the whole system considering also the efforts of the internal resources.
In a perfect world the rule of thumb would be: “Automate everything that is possible to be automated.” However, the manual operations are needed in any case, but the most essential question is where the manual operations are targeted to. It would be an ideal situation, if the manual operations would be targeted to service development and to producing added value rather than to mandatory routine tasks for maintaining the B2B sales channel.
See our survey results and articles on online B2B sales channels (in Finnish):