Launching Your B2B Customer Portal: On Convenience, Buying Center Engagement, ERP Integration and more

By Sergei Golubenko posted 05-25-2016 05:12


Forrester forecasts B2B e-commerce sales to skyrocket by 2020 as a result of the digital turn. As B2B customers tend to buy more and more online, manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors can benefit from this emerging opportunity to cut their operating costs by providing self-service customer portals. An intuitive customer portal with a coherent structure, rich functionality and relevant information becomes a hard-to-copy competitive advantage that appears much stronger than price discounts.

It’s obvious that a good customer portal requires an efficient customer portal software, but for now let’s turn to the pre-development stage and consider the features enabling a customer portal meet short- and long-term business requirements.

A convenient portal enhances online experience  

A customer portal is a company’s virtual employee that represents this company and its products for its target audience. To succeed in it and contribute to customer retention, the portal should create online experience with convenient navigation and usage, which, in its turn, rests on the following:

Strong search functionality based on multiple filters and transparent structure of the portal with the logical organization of internal processes allow the customer to easily browse the portal and find the needed products.

Content personalization based on customer accounts helps to anticipate their needs and offer relevant products and information. Applying the rifle approach (rather than a shotgun), you target messaging at specific customer segments and make sure your message influences them.

Tools for quick and easy (re)ordering facilitate purchasing. To simplify the choice you can use customized product descriptions and enable product comparisons. Such techniques are proved to be effective in boosting sales as they enable feature-by-feature comparison and let the customer chose the best option faster.

Automated price calculation allows to handle the pricing challenge. Targeting different market segments, many companies use account-specific pricing, where prices depend on product/service volumes, promotions, delivery deadline or customer types. If a customer portal dynamically updates prices, calculates discounts depending on a purchase volume (for bulk purchases) and promotions, customers benefit from quick ordering and checking whether they stay within their budgets.

Availability and convenience across diverse screens and devices make the portal comply with the market trends. According to the Forrester Research report, the percentage of the US B2B buyers completing at least half of their work-related purchases online is expected to double and amount to 56% by 2017. Such significant upturn is to a large extent explained by the growing use of mobile devices for product research and ordering.

A well-selling portal still needs promotion to win the customer

A buying center on a business customer’s side includes several key employees responsible for specific functions, e.g. procurement and financial managers, technical specialists, etc. The constant need to interact with the portal through a responsible manager can result in mere e-mail forwarding and time lags, or even misrepresentation of information. This will eventually decrease the overall customer portal efficiency. With this in mind, let the portal drag all the members of a buying center just by:

  • making the portal perform the needed tasks for each member of the buying center
  • promoting the portal among the buying center members
  • allowing multiple logins for customer employees

As reported by Forrester, about 75% of B2B buyers find buying from a website more convenient than buying offline via sales reps. While the overall trend reveals an increase in online purchasing, the customer portal will streamline your online sales, but only if it provides comprehensive customer self-service. So, make sure you enable a sufficient functionality at every stage of the purchasing process, including choosing a product, placing and tracking orders, calculating prices and discounts, etc. To bring it all together, consider a range of useful tools in regard to every stage.

For example, let’s take order placement and outline possible tool options at this step:

  • Learning about products and terms: catalogs and searchable lists of products, tools for viewing real-time pricing and inventory
  • Specification of products and quantity (amount): a customized and easy to use online ordering tool
  • Reordering based on previous orders
  • Order completion: tools for viewing pending and complete orders, getting notifications about order confirmation or shipment

Once you come up with a diverse functionality that will assist your customers along the purchasing process, remember that the portal itself needs promotion and selling. It’s your task to motivate a customer’s purchasing manager to delegate specific aspects of communication to other buying center members. For this, skill your sales team to explain the tools and sections of your portal. And make sure you portray the portal as an area or direct communication where:

  • customers’ technical specialists can quickly access your service team to report problems and get help
  • customers’ financial managers can interact with your respective department to settle financial issues such as viewing financial transactions via the list of invoices or the list of payments or refunds
  • customers’ purchasing managers can place and track orders, often in the replenishment mode, manage services and report satisfaction 

Such a direct dialog between professionals will not only save your and your customer’s time and effort, but will also make sure the message you communicate to respective departments of a customer is clear and coherent.

An ERP-integrated portal saves customers’ efforts

One more way for a portal to bring value for your B2B customers is to minimize their efforts to adopt it. This is possible only if it fits a customer’s business processes and other pieces of this jigsaw puzzle connect well with each other.  

So, consider providing your portal with a customizable API to guarantee tight integration with customers’ ERP systems. On the one hand, the two-way flow of information about orders, inventory, prices, status updates, credits and returns creates a wide range of touchpoints and thus makes it difficult to carry out integration of every customer’s ERP with a portal. On the other hand, if implemented successfully, such integration allows for higher level of customer convenience by letting customer employees automatically synchronize information and continue using their ERP system without direct interaction with your customer portal. Ideally, the portal should provide a one-for-all API for the integration purposes. However, customers’ diversity is likely to result in the need to slightly customize the API for some of them. 

Making it work

Once you set out to create a web portal for your customers, remember that customers’ employees are not daily users of the portal. So only by investing in an intuitive portal interface you will guarantee their every interaction is fast and seamless. A transparent structure and logical organization of internal processes, strong functionality, the ability to engage the whole buying center and tight integration with a customer’s business processes - these are the features of a competitive customer portal.

In this article we focused on the functionality of a customer portal only. Still, as soon as you come up with the portal concept, make sure you choose a powerful and robust portal software to sustain high performance and allow managing multiple transactions for numerous concurrent users without the portal going down.

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