Home Virto Commerce blog Self-Service Portal Best Practices in B2B eCommerce

Self-Service Portal Best Practices in B2B eCommerce

Feb 17, 2021 • 5 min

The trend toward self-service in B2B ecommerce is not surprising. People who have been nurtured on Windows 95, the Information Superhighway, the dotcom bubble, the Facebook likes, and one-click payments of Amazon, have long established themselves as nuts and bolts in an enormous workforce machine. In fact, millennials are already involved in 73% of B2B purchasing decisions and are expected to account for 44% of US workers by 2025. They expect control over their experiences and prefer self-service. Millennials have been raised on seamless and efficient Amazon-like shopping experiences in their personal lives and want to carry it over to their B2B buying expectations.

However, there is still an older generation as well long accustomed to doing business “the old way” – talking to sales representatives, haggling over prices, and drafting contracts in person or over the phone. The old way is not necessarily bad, it’s more personal and can be super efficient, especially in the experienced hands of the older generation.

As you end up with two different forces, separated by the micro-chasm of human experiences and expectations, finding the right balance and building the bridge one step at a time between the two shores becomes imperative in B2B ecommerce.

Self-service can come in many ways, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be connected with putting things to a shopping cart, but can include as little as checking prices or tracking the status of an order. Rolling out features needs to be gradual and attuned to the customer experience. In this piece, we’ll look at many possible ways of deploying self-service functionality in a complex B2B environment to please all involved parties and increase customer satisfaction and efficiency of the whole shopping experience.

Millennials are already involved in 73% of B2B purchasing decisions and are expected to account for 44% of US workers by 2025.

The importance of organic user adoption and gradual implementation of self-service functionality

The problem with any technological endeavor is that you may invest thousands of dollars into something your customers won’t like or won’t know how to use. User adoption is a first step and an inevitable part of a larger process of acquisition. By gradually extending the number of digitally offered services and carefully nudging buyers to use them, you avoid the risk of losing customers to competitors who still prefer the old way of doing business, or upsetting your existing consumer base who might find it difficult to navigate in the new unfamiliar digital space.

Virto Commerce, through its wealth of experience, has realized that the success of implementing a self-service portal relies on the following pillars:

  • Delivering first working features within a few weeks after starting the project and then adding new services every other few weeks;
  • Focusing on customer adoption and loyalty rather than the roll-out speed;
  • Measuring intermediate results and getting customer feedback on each of the new features;
  • Supporting customers through the unwinding of new features and walking them through the use of services if necessary;
  • Collaboration between sales and implementation teams.

Since shifting to a self-service paradigm is a massive undertaking, a phased approach with no definitive ending allows you to deliver a self-service experience to your customers one step at a time.

When implementing a change, enablement starts from the inside and moves to the customer. It is therefore imperative to continuously train  your sales and customer service representatives, introduce them to changes, clarify  the self-service concepts and explain your vision. The confidence that is built from the inside will easily translate to your buyers.

While familiarizing customers with new services, salespeople will need to support them, collect feedback, and essentially act as customer advocates.

Continuous delivery and improvement also imply establishing key performance metrics and indicators to assess how the self-service portal is being used. By getting insights into customer behavior, you can continuously improve your self-service portal and customer experience.

It is important to think of an ecommerce self-service portal not as a monolithic end goal but rather as a set of services that brings value to the end user, which can be further developed, tested, delivered, and updated to suit the customer needs.

Below are 5 essential considerations that account for organic user adoption and gradual introduction of new functionality:

  1. Each newly added feature needs to be presented as an additional service that is deemed to make purchasing for consumers easier, and not as  something that will disrupt or replace existing processes.
  2. New features should only be introduced after previously rolled-out features are clearly understood and employed by the users.
  3. Start with very simple features first, such authorizing an order formed by a sales representative, checking the order status, invoice or payment history.
  4. Gradually move on to more sophisticated features, one feature at a time: managing users and permissions, checking of contract statuses, and reordering.
  5. Even later, introduce product recommendations, shipment, payment, and credit information.

One of the many possible scenarios of introducing new self-service features gradually

Think of ecommerce, in the B2B reality, not only as a market stall with the products ostentatiously on display but rather as a means of integration between two B2B parties, such as a seller and a buyer, to effectively exchange information within the ecosystem. Virto Commerce had clients who saw an ecommerce solution as an additional service for their buyers to check on and receive information about their orders. Even though you might have a vision of your ecommerce platform as a complete solution with all self-services deployed and operating at once, it makes sense to consider each individual operation as an extension of the services you already provide, especially if you’re only starting out in the ecommerce domain. The services you prefer to deploy first will substantially depend on the type of business you run. So, consider the below proposed schema as the starting point, and change the services or their order according to your customers’ expectations and wants.

Before you decide what features you’d like to roll out first, catalog the customer personas and processes and review the current touchpoints via all the channels. It might help to interview customers, sales and customer service departments to get better insights into what drives your buyers, and what inquiries are the most common. Delineation of your customer profiles can serve as a basis for designing your self-service portal.

10 steps of organic digital transformation

The schema above shows the gradual deployment of self-service features. The first thing that you might offer your customers as a self-service functionality is the authorization of orders. In case your sales representatives still take orders from customers over the phone, they can then send a confirmation link with the contents of an order to a customer to verify the order completeness and correctness. The customer then checks the order and authorizes it if it is correct or informs the sales rep to adjust the content if something is amiss. 

In another scenario, your customers might want to know the status of their order or its assembly, browse through their order, payment, or invoice histories, and you will offer them an opportunity to do just that. 

Instead of forcing the customer to adopt your ecommerce solution right off the bat, position the new features as additional services that customers can use if they want to. 

The next step would be to allow your customers to manage users and their roles. You can suggest your customers add roles and permissions for their accounting staff, so they don’t have to ask your sales department for invoices or order history and can download those papers themselves. 

If some customers refuse the digitalization of their shopping experiences, you may ask your sales rep to create accounts and manage permissions and so forth on their behalf. In such a way, your sales reps or account managers become customer advocates – they will go through the same buying journey as if they were the real customers. 

In a B2B environment, many customers order the same items every week or month, so adding a simple reorder feature will help both your customers and your sales team to speed up the order process. Your customers can browse through their order history and, having found the correct order assembly they like to reorder, they can simply reorder the same items with one click. 

The next logical step would be adding your digital catalog with products and services online and educating your customers on how to work with search and filters. Improve the existing functionality by gathering feedback from both sales reps and customers until they feel pretty comfortable navigating the catalog and using the available tooling. 

By adding product recommendations or limiting products that are not compatible, you’ll help your customers supplement or substitute products whenever necessary without external help. In the pool of thousands upon thousands of different products and services your company offers, not a single sales representative might be able to suggest the complementary products with the precision of an AI-driven algorithm.

The last step before rolling out complete order automation, you might allow your customers to “draft” their orders, and then ask a sales rep to call back the customers and check if everything has been added correctly. 

During the order automation stage, you shift your buyers to a fully online experience, giving them real time access to inventory data, personal pricing (including promotions), and the ability to submit orders online (by themselves), i.e. lock inventory and prices. The specifics of B2B business imply that shipping and payment information is often complex and should be added either later or with the help of a sales representative first. However, it should not be long before you are able to automate those processes as well. 

After you’ve rolled out your ecommerce solution gradually, you may improve upon it just as incrementally. Below are the suggestions to make your self-service portal even more top-notch.

Comprehensible UX

An intuitive user experience is the holy grail that serves as the foundation of the entire customer journey – it determines how users navigate the website, how they move through the sales funnel, and whether they end up making a purchase. Optimizing UX design often involves incorporating best UX practices, such as 
  • Making CTAs stand out, 
  • Ensuring all buttons and links are clickable, 
  • Checking if the website can be searched and navigated easily, 
  • Ensuring all products and other elements on the site are prominent and easily identifiable.

Making the navigation experience as flawless as possible, whether on a mobile device or on a website, is the first step you want to achieve towards turning your ecommerce store into a self-service portal.

Another critical component of a good UX design is the ability of the customer to manage all order fulfillment scenarios in a single view. Sourcing, consignment, customization, and delivery information should be easily accessible from one place like a customer dashboard to complete the shopping experience.

Complete information

The self-service paradigm means complete access to information and making it easy for customers to find answers to their questions without having to talk to the company’s representatives.

On the other hand, information on how to contact your company must also be easily accessible in case customers might prefer to discuss their particular buying needs with an actual person.

Beyond generic contact forms and contact information pages, B2B companies should leverage the power of available technology to allow for greater flexibility and efficiency of user interaction with the ecommerce store:

  1. Chatbots and powerful search engines with advanced search functions are a great way to help customers access the correct information quickly and get answers to their initial inquiries. 
  2. A Frequently Asked Questions section is perhaps the least you can do to address your consumers’ common issues with detailed responses, articles, and links to other sections of your website.
  3. <Community Forums do not necessarily have to be associated with the B2C market. You can set up a community forum page to help educate users and allow for an organic buyer to buyer interaction. Forums are also a great way to address consumer questions and concerns not covered  in the FAQs, receive customer feedback, facilitate meaningful discussions, and inform about the rollout of new features. Social networking websites can also be leveraged in a similar fashion. 
  4. Knowledge-bases are centralized hubs of information that include how-to and troubleshooting instructions that help consumers independently address and solve product-related issues. By accustoming your employees to knowledge-bases inside the company, you encourage them to refer the customers to the knowledge-base section of your website for self-service and educate your buyers to make efficient use of the available information. Make the self-service knowledge base easily searchable, user-friendly, and intuitive to use. Regularly audit its contents and root out all jargon and complicated technical terms that your users might not be familiar with. Make sure you allow your customers to weigh in on the helpfulness of the articles with a question at the end to get customer feedback and work on articles that customers don’t find helpful.
  5. By making it easier for your customers to download important technical documentation, user manuals, research papers, case studies, and so forth you allow your customers access to information that might be otherwise difficult or impossible to find online. Offer additional resources that encourage proactive research, and help them make decisions about your services and products faster. 
Encourage your customers to use self-service tools since it is faster to place orders and receive a response to quotes via self-service software rather than through a sales representative.

Streamlined ordering and reordering

Quick ordering capabilities can come in different forms. Allow your customers to quickly add SKUs of products they know and their required quantities or paste in value pairs from CVS. Allowing customers to import .odf, .csv, and Excel files is even better. In case it’s a new customer, who is unfamiliar with your catalog, present a list of your bestseller items on the quick order form to quickly familiarize a newbie with your offerings.

Suppose you have an incredibly common product line that many customers purchase, you may want to highlight those products in a specific category of bestseller items or pre-adding those SKUs in Quick Order templates allowing your customers to either add quantities or remove them.

Being able to reorder quickly is always helpful. Taking a recent order and rebuilding a shopping cart on items  previously purchased further streamlines the reordering process. One of the subtle ways to offer the reordering opportunity is to have the Ordered items section on a customer’s dashboard in their accounts. Since not all items will be reordered every time, it makes sense to offer either a complete list of ordered items or a select random number prioritized by the frequency of their purchase and allow a buyer to view a full list of items by clicking a button to view more. There are dozens of other ways to make reordering more efficient and user-friendly:

Providing responsive web design, optimizing portal performance on all customer devices, and offering more payment options allow customers to complete their orders in an efficient and timely manner.

Complex checkout

Customer-supplier relationships are complex and require a great degree of customization, from product specifications to delivery. Therefore, the checkout experience should be as feature-rich and transparent as possible. Providing your customers with the ability to choose the right freight courier, change handling fees, and deliver to multiple locations requires adapting the checkout process accordingly. By splitting the checkout or spreading the checkout process over several pages will help your buyers focus on one step at a time.

Importance of the choice of a B2B ecommerce platform

By having a reliable ecommerce B2B platform that is capable of integrating with your core service like ERP, marketing tools, CRM, and so forth, you ensure your customers have access to consistent and real-time information that will incentivize them to efficiently proceed with their purchasing needs.

When choosing a B2B ecommerce platform for your self-service portal, choose the one that offers a flexible catalog, pricing, merchandising, marketing, account management tooling to account for all the above-mentioned self-service scenarios.

Virto Commerce offers a comprehensive B2B experience capable of turning any self-portal into a gem. Whatever ideas you have for adopting a self-service paradigm for your ecommerce store, Virto Commerce has got you covered.

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