The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated a sharp divide between businesses that are digitally mature to weather unpredictable circumstances and those that are not. As long as lockdowns and uncertainty continue, only the companies that anticipate and adjust to new trends will survive in the new environment.
However, that is not enough. Forward-thinking B2B companies think ahead and look for flexibility within their workflows. Flexible workflows allow for experimentation and new ways of unlocking gains for long-term stability. It gives them peace of mind that they can weather unknown risks better and act on opportunities faster.
According to research by Digital Commerce 360, B2B buyers already expect various personalization features as part of the self-service experience, including:
- Personalized self-service portal content (45%)
- Augmented reality features (38%)
- Instant messaging with sales reps (22%).
In addition, Oro’s own research reveals that B2B sellers seek to improve productivity and get their employees to build relationships rather than eCommerce order management.
Thus, flexible workflows benefit both B2B sellers and buyers. Users can access personalized pricing, track the status of their orders without employee involvement, and brands can essentially run their stores on autopilot 24/7.
In this article, you’ll find out all about workflow automation and coordination in eCommerce, the benefits of workflow management in eCommerce, and some workflow automation ideas you can implement in your eCommerce business.
What Is an Automated Workflow in eCommerce?
A workflow is a series of steps in a business process. It involves managing data and information in order to reach some business goal – be it reducing costs, manual effort, or optimizing resources. Workflow automation simply means automating these processes for increased speed and accuracy while eliminating errors associated with manual data entry or missing data.
More often than not, automating workflows implies replacing a human activity with a digital one. One example of a simple workflow automation is automatic customer data synchronization between the CRM and the B2B eCommerce platform. With proper setup, it eliminates manual order entry and coordination tasks by sales representatives. Furthermore, a flexible workflow automation engine allows businesses to tweak and optimize their workflows for more efficiency as time goes on.
4 Benefits of Workflow Automation in B2B eCommerce
There are many reasons why you might want to automate your eCommerce processes. Consider the following main benefits of workflow automation in eCommerce:
Enable data accuracy
Most eCommerce businesses generate an immense amount of new customer, inventory, or transactional data. When maintained by hand, this data might not get relayed when and where needed, leading to lost sales.
As more and more data accumulates, it can get scattered in siloes or get misplaced, putting a further strain on operations. Even with the best processes in place, so long as humans are introduced to the equation, there will always be a possibility for human error. Workflow automation minimizes or outright eliminates these concerns.
Cut down on costs
Businesses that automate manual tasks can perform them faster and with more precision. For example, if a single eCommerce rep must spend 30 minutes a day manually managing orders, automating this process will save them 130 hours of work over a year. This figure increases considerably once you multiply that by 10 reps.
The time, money, and effort saved can have a knock-on effect on other areas of business. For example, employees can spend more time on customer service, perform market research, competitor analysis, a/b testing, experimentation, and explore other creative business growth tactics.
Scale your business
A typical eCommerce business depends on many important tasks, many of which tend to be repetitive. First of all, humans are physically limited by how much work they can perform. Manual data entry leads to typos and omissions. Spending time locating data or manually sending emails can take up too much time or lead to errors. As employee attention is diverted from time-sensitive to unproductive activities, there’s less time to focus on business growth initiatives.
For most brands, human assets are their biggest assets. Thus, tying employees up in unproductive activities that can be performed by software hampers your ability to increase revenues and act on growth opportunities.
Improve the customer experience
Customers are becoming accustomed to purchasing without the sales rep’s intervention, but they’re also looking for a friction-free and intuitive purchase experience. When the products, order data, and shipping information is tailored to their needs, customers feel like they’re getting the white glove treatment.
Workflow automation accomplishes both by helping eCommerce businesses introduce elements of self-service. When customers can purchase, manage their orders, and return without staff involvement, they save time and effort, making them come back to buy more.
What Workflows Should You automate in eCommerce?
Out of all business processes, it may be challenging to decide on what to automate. Here are some starting points for proper workflow coordination in eCommerce:
Focus on repetitive tasks
Create a list of tasks that would be excellent candidates for automation. The most unproductive, resource-draining tasks tend to be repetitive and involve handling data. Activities like reporting, emailing, coordinating, confirming, reminding, and miscellaneous data entry all fall into this category.
Examine and perfect your processes
Once you’ve identified the tasks to automate, analyze your processes. While many will be obvious (like emailing or reporting on data), some further investigation may be necessary. Talk to your employees and use activity tracking tools to help you pinpoint the bottlenecks that you could eliminate.
Start small and grow in complexity
Begin with workflows that will have the smallest impact on operations. By starting with a simpler process, you’ll gain the knowledge and experience needed for more complex ones. Look for an eCommerce solution with the right automation features, with the required integration connectors between systems, and monitor data for accuracy during the evaluation period.
9 Workflow Automation Ideas for B2B eCommerce
While many B2C operations are relatively simple, B2B eCommerce transactions are of higher value, take longer, and involve many decision-makers. Thus, the opportunities for workflow automation are also much greater. Here are some business processes that benefit from automation:
Data entry is a time-consuming process that introduces the possibility of many mistakes. As product options and catalogs grow, managing all your product configurations, descriptions, specification sheets, and so on becomes difficult. Having a singular, cloud-based, source of truth that manages product information across systems helps keep your product data organized. Explore our PIM (product information management) guide for more details:
When a B2B customer places an order on your site, many things must happen behind the scenes. From sending data to the ERP, updating inventory data, and notifying customers via email, all these things must be automated. These activities also involve many systems, so your workflows must make use of robust connections between your CRM, ERP, accounting, payment, and shipping providers.
Effective inventory management is a crucial eCommerce function. With product catalogs into the millions, B2Bs can’t afford to keep too little or too much stock – they must closely match the inventory with demand. Proper inventory tracking demands reliable data and analytics, which begins with accurate, real-time ERP synchronization. What’s more, inventory automation can improve warehousing, fulfillment, tracking, and customer experience.
Businesses selling to other businesses need to deal with a wide variety of customers. Vendor and supplier onboarding processes vary and involve input from decision-makers which must be coordinated. Without automation, crucial elements like paperwork, training procedures, regulations, and email sequences can get lost in the mix. By automating these steps, employees can focus on more time-sensitive tasks like resolving customer complaints.
While personalization is a must in B2B, it depends on automation to achieve at scale. Integration between the CRM and eCommerce platforms helps you accurately and reliably perform targeted marketing initiatives. For example, you can sort buyers performing bulk purchases of a specific product, or identify what business units within an organization tend to purchase and market more effectively to them.
Automated pricing workflows offer many benefits to customers, such as reducing friction during the purchasing process. It’s also beneficial to B2Bs dealing with large product catalogs, complex product configurations, and a varied customer base. Look for pricing workflows that dynamically calculate prices for each customer, allowing you to include customer-specific discounts, promotions, shipping, and other elements.
B2B purchases rely on quotes, invoices, and tend to negotiate them on an individual basis. Automating these processes allows business buyers to save time when requesting quotations or managing invoices and terms. For example, automated workflows can fire off email notifications or update approval statutes in the customer’s self-service portal.
Unlike in B2C eCommerce, business buyers purchase on behalf of companies. Companies tend to have different corporate structures, including purchasing approval processes. For example, automation allows a purchase order over a certain amount to send a notification to a decision-maker, which, after approval, automatically fulfills the order.
Businesses selling to other businesses often maintain unique return, refund, and exchange criteria according to each customer. Automating these processes reduces errors, speeds up the return process, and enhances the customer experience. Furthermore, you can maintain customer activity and inventory visibility by having data move freely between the CRM, ERP, and eCommerce systems.
Some Examples of B2B eCommerce Workflow Automation
Let’s consider an example of an order approval workflow during checkout. Your checkout typically starts with a quick order form or a shopping cart checkout page. As the customer moves through the steps, an order is submitted. However, before making payment or specifying shipping arrangements, the customer may need to get approval from a higher-up, such as a purchasing manager or the accounting department.
When the customer clicks “request approval”, the approving authority is notified, either accepting or rejecting the order. Once approved, the requester is automatically notified and the order is processed as usual. Here is how an automated workflow can look behind the scenes:
Requesting a quote
Customers looking to order large quantities or make repeat purchases will like to know whether certain products on your site are negotiable. You can include a “request a quote” button on your product pages, and let automated workflows perform the rest. What’s more, this option can be made available for specific products and to specific customers. Here’s how it could look on your website:
When the customer requests a quote, automated workflows turn on behind the scenes. They can either request more information from the customer, or you can supply them with a quote based on the information they’ve provided. Thus, human intervention is only required in rare cases.
Look for Built-in Workflow Automation in eCommerce Vendors
To realize maximum benefits from eCommerce automation, a holistic, whole-company approach is required. Start by analyzing your processes, forming your goals, getting stakeholders on board, and selecting the right tool for the job.
When evaluating your B2B eCommerce vendors, pay close attention to their ability to automate workflows out of the box. Without a strong workflow automation engine to start with, you risk investing in workarounds and coded modifications that only increase in complexity and hamper your ability to grow over time.
Thankfully, many B2B-specific solutions such as OroCommerce offer the robustness, flexibility, and security that help businesses better position themselves for the future. More often than not, the only thing stopping B2Bs from embracing the benefits of B2B eCommerce workflow automation is taking the first step.