Be more like Google. And while you’re at it, be more like Amazon.

B2B companies that don’t heed that kind of advice are destined to lag.  To thrive, they have to invest as much energy and resources in e-commerce as leading consumer companies have invested in B2C, a Forrester analyst and senior executive at a software provider told

Customers Ahead of B2Bs

Andy Hoar, a senior analyst at Forrester who specializes in B2B e-commerce, said customers are far ahead of companies in the B2B world.

“They're buying products and services they use for work on consumer sites. So now they expect the B2B site customer experience will rival what's offered by leading B2C sites like Amazon,” he said. “B2B sites are playing catch-up with customers, and B2C sites like Amazon and Google are entering the B2B space because they know the customer experiences they offer are more appealing and mature.”

Forrester produced a report earlier this year that highlighted the disconnect B2B companies have with e-commerce. The report, Online And Mobile Are Transforming B2B Commerce,  produced three key findings: 

  • Selling online and on mobile devices represents a significant new opportunity for B2B companies
  • Self-service tools are changing the way B2B customers interact with companies
  • B2B companies that wait too long to implement e-commerce are taking big risks

Forrester surveyed 717 B2B companies across North America, Asia Pacific and  Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Nearly 50 percent of all respondents or 353 companies are “currently selling direct to business partners online (B2B).”

Hoar said the most surprising facts were that 69 percent of B2B companies across the globe expect to stop publishing print catalogs within five years and that 41 percent of B2B companies now sell directly against their own wholesalers, distributors and suppliers.

“The former makes the point that digital is quickly overwhelming print,” Hoar said, “The latter makes the point that competition is now coming from everywhere, even from your partners and allies.”

Waiting on E-Commerce? Don’t

Rick Chavie is vice president of OmniCommerce at hybris, the provider that commissioned the report for Forrester. He said e-commerce provides B2B companies opportunities for up-selling, cross-selling and loyalty improvements.

“Waiting to implement e-commerce is a company-limiting decision,” Chavie said. “Not only will Amazon Supply skim the cream off your key product offerings, as they did in B2C already, but your key competitors are already moving into a continuous improvement stage for e-commerce. This will be a barrier for you to catch up if you delay too long.”

Businesses have to "iterate to innovate," Chavie said, rather than wait to develop complicated strategic plans to enter e-commerce.

“The pace of change in customer expectations, in technology advances and consolidation of B2B industry segments means companies need to jump in quickly, while doing their due diligence to pick a state of the art platform and advisors,” he said.

Don’t rely on old models like face-to-face relationship selling, big and infrequent catalogs and monitoring only traditional competitors.

“In the digitally enabled world, B2B organizations need to give customers the options for technology-enabled sales reps and self-service, continuous and real-time updates for online catalogs that complement physical catalogs, and quick response to new, digitally enabled competitors,” he added.

Customer-First Thinking

Too many B2B organizations are not operating in what Forrester’s Hoar calls an "outside-in" capacity -- where what customers want takes priority over what is most convenient for B2B companies to do, especially in the short run.

“The latter could be characterized as a less-than-optimal company ‘inside-out’ approach to satisfying customers,” Hoar said.

Too often, B2B organizations spend too much time proving the business case completely vs. testing and learning by actually offering an e-commerce experience, Hoar added.

Forrester: IBM Rules Here

Just last month, Forrester issued its first Wave report on B2B e-commerce, and it named IBM the top vendor in this space

Commerce Server, SAP’s hybris, Insite Software, Intershop, NetSuite and Oracle Commerce were included in the report. The report said B2B is "far less mature" and less robust than B2C in terms of the online experience.

The industry trends here? B2B companies partnering with solution providers and buying technologies.

No matter who partner with or what technology you use, Hoar said B2B companies should think about the impact, good and bad, of selling online.

“But forming study groups and building complex financial models to understand all of the implications in before doing anything is a mistake,” he added. “Better to pilot and trial B2B e-commerce in small geographies and/or within narrow product categories and measure the real impact than to build hypothetical models that can only guesstimate reality.”