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By 2020, the average business buyer will manage 85 percent of his or her relationship with an enterprise without interacting with another human, according to Gartner. This is quite a shift when you consider almost all B2B purchases were conducted by phone, fax or in person just a few years ago.

The evolution toward self-service in B2B is natural, especially when you look at the way the B2C space has progressed over time. Business buyers are also consumers, and expect the ability to make purchases on their own time and via intuitive eCommerce sites just like they do in their personal lives.

However, B2B businesses still have room to grow when it comes to making self-service intuitive and customer-friendly. Too often, businesses rely on rigid commerce systems that are simply not equipped to enable comprehensive branded experiences customers expect today. B2B buyers are served a tasty buffet of experiences for finding and consuming marketing information. But when it comes to placing an order, checking the status of an order, or requesting a quote or configurable product, the experience is not nearly as appetizing.

With a B2B commerce platform that can easily connect with a CMS, businesses can merge the structured, transactional, back-end commerce experience and unstructured, front-end marketing experience into one fluid interface.

Why self-service is a win-win for B2B customers and sellers

Self-service is transforming B2B industries. Customers can now enjoy the flexibility of purchasing on their own terms, while businesses reduce overhead costs per transaction and increase revenue through more strategic resource allocation.

The beauty of self-service is that it enables customers to research and purchase intuitively, rather than browse physical catalogs and order over the phone with sales representatives. Many businesses offer mobile self-service features that allow for on-the-go ordering, enhancing buyers’ freedom to purchase wherever and whenever they want, and reducing order errors.

The combination of these benefits significantly improves customer satisfaction. A recent McKinsey study found that 86 percent of B2B decision makers prefer using self-service tools for reordering rather than talking to a sales representative. When buyers have the freedom to purchase on their own through a convenient platform, they are more likely to complete purchases and less likely to turn to competitors.

For businesses, one of the larger benefits of self-service sites is the reduction of overhead costs per transaction. With a self-service commerce offering, businesses can transform the sales team/customer relationship, allowing sales reps to act as strategic advisors rather than simple order takers. By automating administrative tasks through the commerce platform, salespeople can spend more time consulting customers and proactively finding opportunities to cross-sell and upsell.

Using the Cloud to facilitate self-service

While the benefits of a self-service platform are clear, not all B2B commerce platforms enable the degree of flexibility today’s customers demand. Features of a quality self-service platform include:

  • Simple steps to purchase
  • Ability to purchase without using phone or fax
  • Mobile options for researching/purchasing on-the-go
  • Personalized pricing, promotions and custom catalogs
  • Useful content to help customers research
  • Robust features to facilitate complex orders (e.g. multiple orders per cart, multiple shipping destinations per order)

Some of the most successful B2B sellers enable self-service with commerce systems built on cloud platforms. These systems are flexible and can be built to include robust features that mirror a B2C buying experience. And the end product allows buyers to self-serve while giving the brand flexibility to adapt the solution based on buyer behavior and needs.

The benefit of commerce and CMS integration

While self-service functionality is important, B2B buyer demand for sophisticated commerce experiences has grown with the improvement of B2C sites. Traditional B2B commerce tends to be rigid, clunky and require multiple steps to complete purchases. That’s because these systems were built on ERP systems – back-end platforms never designed to be customer facing. Structured content, such as detailed SKU data, pricing, support contract information and catalog management were historically meant to support manufacturing and other internal purposes rather than to help educate customers. While most eCommerce systems can help customers serve up accurate products, prices, and account servicing information, they are not intended to provide highly branded marketing experiences or to support unstructured content, such as educational or promotional materials.

The opposite is true for front-end content marketing systems. Businesses have always prioritized a user-friendly, elegant experience for customers to consume unstructured content that drives them to buy. A CMS ensures the customer experience is beautifully branded until the moment a customer decides to purchase.

But when structured commerce data is fed into the CMS through a robust API, the end-to-end customer journey can combine the beauty and elegance of the front-end content marketing experience with the functionality of the back-end experience. B2B businesses looking to improve self-service for their customers should look to cloud platforms with a powerful set of APIs to connect commerce and CMS. With the support of a partner that understands the branded experience, businesses can ensure a consistent, user-friendly experience at every touchpoint.

Self-service is the future for B2B industries. But for businesses truly dedicated to increasing revenue and improving the customer experience, a flexible, API-first digital commerce platform is necessary to meet business buyers expectations. Smart businesses will make the necessary technology investments now to meet and exceed expectations down the road

By Andy Peebler, CloudCraze

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Mike Johnston
Mike is the founder and editor of CMS Critic. He consults with vendors and the public to help them find the right products for their websites and businesses. When he's not working here, he's off mixing cocktails for his wife's website, The Kitchen Magpie. You can check out some of his great cocktail shots over on Instagram.

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