B2B vs. B2C eCommerce: What Are the Key Differences?
The rise of paint-by-numbers, out-of-the-box eCommerce platforms like Shopify and Magento may have created the impression that all eCommerce stores are, at heart, much the same. While a cookie-cutter approach is feasible (though rarely particularly successful) within a strictly retail B2C offering, it all falls down when you start looking at businesses which fall outside of this limited sphere.
The 'Bakery in a Pet Shop' Principle
It all comes down to the fact that all businesses are different. This may be stating the blindingly obvious, but it's always surprising just how many aspiring online businesses believe they can shoehorn their business into a very basic eCommerce “shape”. You wouldn't, for instance, try to squeeze a bakery into a premises intended as a pet shop without making some serious adjustments.
With that in mind, let’s look a little closer at the adjustments needed to fit two very broad types of business into an eCommerce environment: B2Bs (Business to Business) and B2Cs (Business to Consumer).
Two Tribes: B2B & B2C Customers
The crucial differences between B2B and B2C eCommerce all come back to just one thing: The customer. Similar as they may seem, businesses and individual consumers purchase for radically different reasons and want to do business in completely different ways.
Understanding their mindsets and requirements is the key to accurately tailoring your eCommerce offering to fit the bill. Here's a very quick rundown of some of the key considerations for each customer type.
The selling process for B2C customers is typically less labour-intensive. Like B2B customers, they may require carefully pitched marketing in the run up to a buying decision, but once the conversion process begins, their needs remain relatively straightforward and predictable.
In these instances, pre-packaged shopping carts can work. Feeling safe, secure and informed throughout the process is essential. Clear direction throughout a buying journey is also important.
These customers tend to purchase with their heart, not their head. After all, studies show we tend to buy with emotion and justify with facts. Purchases are often one-off, standalone buys which do not require any form of aftercare or follow-up; though customer care can be a huge differentiator for your brand.
Each B2C customer is likely to be fairly similar in their ultimate goals (though the often emotional motivations behind each purchase will differ), which is why a one-size-fits all, globally familiar B2C eCommerce checkout process can be successful, even across different product groups.
Business customers approach online purchasing differently. While emotions are invariably a part of their purchase decision (they effect us all) Their decisions are cold, hard and logical, based on which provider ticks the most checkboxes on their list, who can accommodate them flexibly and who they can trust. Arguably, the emotion that rules their purchases is fear; because they have others above them to answer to, the purchaser must make a very wise and careful decision. Impulse buys are not par the course.
There are, inevitably, multiple people involved in the purchase decision, which also differentiates this customer.
Gate Keepers can keep the buyer from receiving your e-mail or sales pitch, while management has veto power and will need to be convinced on their own.
As such, a lot of communication and individual tailoring (customization) is generally necessary from an early stage, before a conversion process can begin, in order to make B2B customers feel secure, valued and informed.
While solid design will be important (and is a trust factor), a B2B eCommerce website must focus less on standing out from the crowd with ultra-flashy design and more on providing as much useful information and customer service as possible in as short a time frame. You must make the purchase decision easier – not necessarily faster or more spontaneous.
Once a B2B customer has completed their conversion process, however, they are generally repeat customers with big orders. This makes aftercare and features like customer log-ins extremely important to B2B eCommerce. Long-term relationships are key in B2B.
How Does This Affect eCommerce?
Design & Online Marketing
B2C eCommerce sites need to look the part. With so much competition in eCommerce marketplaces like food and fashion, there's no space for wallflowers. To get noticed and to keep bringing in fresh customers, B2C eCommerce websites must stand out from the eCommerce crowd, offer something no one else does – and shout about it with lots of interaction via social networks, PPC campaigns and alternative online marketing channels.
B2C means lots and lots of visitors, a fairly steep bounce rate and (typically) lower value conversions. To play the numbers properly, B2C eCommerce sites need to bring in as much good quality traffic as possible and do everything in their power to push visitors towards a conversion.
B2B sites, on the other hand, can stand to take a less “bells and whistles” based approach to making their eCommerce site convert. Instead the focus needs to be on quickly establishing a strong rapport and demonstrating that you can solve the business’ problems; your callouts will be centered on offering as much accessible information as you can.
You can see these key differences by looking at the homepages of two eCommerce sites, one B2C and one B2B.
First, Paperchase, a B2C website:
Paperchase presents the user with multiple options, deals and incentives; they highlight multiple products and cast a wider net on what the consumer might be interested in. Tabs focus in on different product categories, with little to no attention being paid to who Paperchase is or why they’re a superior product company. The consumer has come for the products, so they’re front and centre.
And now, Freshbooks, a B2B software-as-a-service:
FreshBooks wastes no space in demonstrating a huge array of products, but hones in directly on the business’ problem. The conversion funnel is streamlined; options to try a demo are front and centre, while tabs focus on offering the different information a potential buyer will need (A tour of features, a page on pricing, some highlights on mobile and a summary of the company).
And lest we be accused of cherry-picking with FreshBooks, here’s Acklands-Grangier:
This style of B2B website is more similar to what we’d see for a B2C, but with very important distinctions. Design is solid, but the home page presents less in the way of bells and whistles while still presenting a suite of core products. The tabs break out logically for a different type of consumer, showing products, services, and a “Why Choose Us” (critical for recurring customers who care as much about service/customer care as they do the product itself).
It used to be the case that B2Bs had customer log-ins while B2Cs used faster, less intrusive guest checkouts. This made sense, to an extent.
B2B customers are often long-term, repeat customers who may have specific deals, schedules and set-ups in place with an eCommerce business. Customer log-ins customize the eCommerce experience, helping B2Bs feel in control and well-organised but most importantly making it quick and easy to reorder.
B2Cs meanwhile, were looking to streamline the buying journey as much as possible by avoiding the need for registration and log-ins; the average consumer would prefer not to have to sign up or register (and the data shows that they often abandon the purchase when they’re forced to!). The downside, of course, is losing the ability to re-market to customers – not the case with B2B who tend to choose one vendor and roll with them for a long time.
As such, B2C eCommerce strategies usually try to include some form of incentivizing registration or doing a killer remarketing campaign to eventually capture that customer’s information.
As mentioned earlier, a key part of the B2B sales process (and thus your eCommerce design and strategy) is putting together informational assets to help guide the lead. This can take a number of forms:
- Explainer videos describe the concept in simple terms
- Spec sheets and data sheets show the raw numbers clients will want to know
- White papers and eBooks describe the problems and solutions your product can solve
- How-Tos, Tutorials, Webinars and Demos all help demonstrate the efficacy of your product as a viable solution
Where as B2C purchases may not involve a heavy degree of factual rationale, this is essential for B2B.
The Checkout Process
It's checkout time. This is where eCommerce websites from all walks of life can be made or broken.
For B2Cs the goals are familiar: Make the ride from “Buy now” to “Thank you for your order” as smooth as possible to avoid losing customers along the way. Clear calls to action are essential, up-front pricing (including shipping costs) is crucial, so too is providing clear, detailed information about when the item will be shipped and arrive on the customer's doorstep.
Throughout the process, customers-to-be need to feel comfortable, confident, safe and secure. And, scariest of all, this needs to be done in just a few clicks to avoid visitors becoming bored, confused or distracted. Whew!
For B2Bs, a slightly less hectic, more careful approach needs to be taken. There is often some cross-over with a human sales team (demos, phone-calls, etc.) that help to bring the purchase to fruition.
In addition, the purchases are often more complex and more unique, which is why clear alternative contact details need to be front and centre of every page in the checkout process. A chat box which puts customers in touch with a member of your team immediately can prove beneficial; as can calls-to-action that invite a human connection.
You'll also need to develop a more specialised checkout to handle diverse orders. Listen to your customers and test, test, test again until your checkout suits all comers. Storing information from previous orders and implementing a 1-click reordering system is a smart move worth considering.
Wrapping it Up
B2B and B2C eCommerce are two very different spheres which, at the current time, seem to be learning a lot from each other. B2C is learning about forging ongoing customer relationships through tools like customer log ins. Meanwhile B2B is taking some pointers about promoting trust through accessibility via social channels .
Overall however, it's the customers who make these realms so different. The motivations behind B2B and B2C purchases could not be more at odds, the functional and practical vs the irrational and emotional. Understand this and you are well on your way to getting a handle on why B2B and B2C eCommerce are such incompatible areas – and why a cookie cutter approach just doesn't work.