Developing Successful B2B eCommerce Strategies with Brian Beck
Digitizing B2B: The B2B eCommerce Podcast
With more digital natives coming into the workforce, the B2B buyer is now expecting similar site experiences delivered by B2C sellers.
The biggest roadblock to digital transformation is lack of leadership commitment and support.
Amazon is setting the expectation for your buyers, so having a strategic presence there is key.
Brian’s Advice: If you know your business needs a digital update, even if you’re not digitally savvy, don’t be afraid to act! Reach out to an experienced eCommerce advisor to help get you started.
Developing Successful B2B eCommerce Strategies with Brian Beck: Ecommerce Expert, Advisor, and Author
Brandon Kim: Hello everyone. Very excited for today’s podcast, as I’m here with Brian Beck. For those of that may not know Brian, Brian has had deep experience in eCommerce through his executive positions at companies like Harbor Freight Tools and Pacific Sunwear. He’s also working on his book titled, Road to a Billion Dollar B2B ECommerce Company. And I also know that he works as an advisor to both B2B and B2C industry leaders, and helps develop comprehensive eCommerce strategies.
Brandon Kim: Thanks for coming on today, Brian.
Brian Beck: Yeah, Brandon, I’m excited to be here, so thanks so much for having me.
Brandon Kim: Brian, I’d love to understand, I think eCommerce is relatively something new that’s grown in the past 5 to 10 years. I’d love to hear how you got started in the eCommerce space.
Brian Beck: Oh, sure! Yeah, I’ve been … well, I’ve been in eCommerce, oh gosh, two decades now, Brandon. I guess it just makes me old. But yeah, no, I started in eCommerce, gosh, back in 1999, I was working for AT&T, of all places, in their corporate strategy group, and we were just starting to try some things on the internet. AT&T at the time had the infrastructure that powered, at the time, the fastest internet there was, which wasn’t very fast.
Brian Beck: But we were looking at doing things like delivering music and products inside these walled gardens, right, these closed internet dial up services. But it was … so yeah, I got into it relatively early in my career and have been in it all these years. And now it’s so exciting to see how far it’s come. And then also what the implications it now has for traditional B2B selling, so manufacturers, distributors, brands looking to go direct to buyers, and also use eCommerce across their selling channels.
Brian Beck: And so I’m super excited to have been in this business for so long, and now apply some of those learnings to other categories of business.
Brandon Kim: Awesome, and I mentioned and I alluded to before that you do help work with both B2B and B2C companies that are looking to go online, so I think you offer a really interesting perspective to this topic. You’ve written several articles on similarities between B2B and B2C buyer expectations. And really at the end of the day, we know that B2B buyers are influenced by every day shopping experiences that they see on Amazon, Ebay, or any other traditional eCommerce website. I’d love to understand your perspective on how B2B buyers have evolved over time, and what are the expectations of B2B buyers when they’re looking to purchase online?
Brian Beck: Yeah, well it’s fascinating. I mean, I talk about this … so yeah, as you mentioned, I’ve spent a lot of time publishing on this topic. In fact, I have a whole book coming up about B2B eCommerce, called Billion Dollar B2B ECommerce, and if you put a dot com at the end of that you get the website, Billion Dollar B2B ECommerce. And anyway, yeah, so I have a whole chapter about that exact topic, which is B2B buyers now have the same expectations of their online experiences as they do with consumers shopping their personal lives.
Brian Beck: And so as you have more and more digital natives coming into the workforce, meaning younger people who’ve grown up using the web, using mobile phones in their daily lives, those expectations are now translated to their B2B buying behaviors. And that’s what’s really exciting about where B2B is today, is that these traditional buying patterns and workflows and things can now be accommodated through best practices we’ve learned on the B2C side, and bringing those to life really can be transformational for the business.
Brian Beck: But what it means is the B2B buyer has no attention span. They’re just like consumers, right, I mean, we’re down to I think something like eight seconds, or it might be less than that now, to capture the attention and engage a buyer. And that’s true of the consumer, but then it’s also true of the business buyer coming to your website looking to transact, or receive customer support, that sort of thing. So it means the same site experiences need to be delivered by B2B sellers. Things like site search, when someone’s searching for a product on your site. Navigation, when someone’s navigating through the website, intuitive paths to find what you’re looking for, great product images, like photos, and videos, and things like that. Good description, multiple forms of payment in check out. All of these things are now expectations of the B2B buyer, and they need to be delivered.
Brian Beck: And it’s amazing to me how many companies still aren’t delivering that. I think it’s something like 50% or actually over 50% of manufacturers, for example, don’t yet have eCommerce capabilities. But their buyers are expecting them, and they’re expecting them in a way that is reflective of what they do every day on Amazon, for example.
Brian Beck: So it’s really … I mean, there’s so much to learn from B2C for B2B. The great part is, a lot of it has already been established through best practices, in 20 years of learning by retailers and brands selling to consumers. Makes sense?
Brandon Kim: Absolutely, and no, and I think anytime you take the way that business has been done traditionally, which has been kind of the handshake model. Once you introduced eCommerce, which is fundamentally a new way of doing, I think there’s always going to be a big learning curve, but with any technology you can use it for automation, start improving a lot of the daily operations that you do manually today.
Brandon Kim: I think kind of staying along this trend of B2B and B2C eCommerce, I’m sure you’re inundated and get asked this question all the time, there’s a lot of literature and coverage around how B2B eCommerce and B2C eCommerce are really fundamentally different. So I almost would like to flip the script a little bit, and start talking about where you see B2B and B2C eCommerce being similar.
Brian Beck: Yeah, well, the similarities come in in the way that the site experience needs to come to life, right? As I just mentioned, things like site search, things like great product information, all those things are expectations of today’s buyer. I think there’s also similarities in the way you can use digital marketing to drive traffic to your B2B website, and really create a new market, find new markets for your business, find new customers.
Brian Beck: I have, for example, a client, and it’s a case study in the book, that sells tools. One of the things they did when they launched their … it was a B2C and B2B website, they found all kinds of new customers buying from them, they were finding them through Google. And these customers were actually not their traditional B2B OEM type customer, like Boeing and people like that. Turns out that bicycle enthusiasts and people who needed a bicycle repair shop needed metrics tools that were hard to find, and this company, by making their sites available through the web, were all the sudden being found by these new buyers. And today it’s adding nice bits of revenue to their top line, and profitably. And so that’s just an example of some of the similarities on the marketing side too, where you can use some of the same channels, like Google, to drive traffic to your site.
Brian Beck: I also say that from an alignment standpoint, you mentioned sales, the sales team and kind of the traditional selling relationships, eCommerce can also be a reinforcement to those selling channels. There’s a fear that it’s going to sort of replace the salesforce, the death of the salesman, but really the truth is eCommerce really enhances that selling relationship by making it easier for the buyer to make purchases, and faster, and taking some load off the sales force, and making them more strategic.
Brian Beck: So it’s really a- it’s a win/win for all the selling channels, eCommerce is. And a lot of it is because of that consumer like expectation of the buyer. Make sense?
Brandon Kim: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think you kind of alluded and transitioned nicely to our next topic here of unforeseen challenges in digital transformation. So for B2B companies that have done business the traditional way, eCommerce can be considered foreign territory as we alluded to before. I think through your experience as an advisor, and working at companies like Harbor Freight Tools and Pacific Sunwear, I think you offer great insight. And I’m sure you’ve seen some common hiccups that companies across all industries have faced when starting their first digital transformation journey. I’d love to pry and pick your brain here. Can you share some war stories with us here?
Brian Beck: Yeah, sure. Well, the war stories … that’s a good term for it. The war stories from the consumer marketplace were fought 15 and 20 years ago, when companies were just getting into eCommerce. And it’s the same sort of roadblocks, or war stories, that B2B is experiencing right now. So I like to say B2B eCommerce is 10 to 15 years behind where consumer eCommerce is. And really the first and foremost in terms of those kind of roadblocks is lack of leadership commitment and buy-in to the concept. I see that as the number one reason companies don’t digitally transform. And that in turn leads to things like lack of budget, and the absence of really the organizational stomach or fortitude necessary to create change.
Brian Beck: When you introduce eCommerce for the first time in a B2B company, it creates discomfort, and it’s because some of the traditional processes need to change, not everyone understands it, or likes it, the concept, particularly the salesforce, maybe the traditional marketing in other channels. And what happens in a lot of B2B companies is the business is sort of just good enough. And what I mean by that is business is still … maybe it’s flat, maybe it’s growing slightly, maybe it’s shrinking slightly, but business is, meaning revenue, is just good enough so that the organizational leadership doesn’t feel like they need to really embrace this or take action. So there’s a lack of urgency.
Brian Beck: And that also coupled with … really with fear, and lack of understanding of what digital is at the very top can really create momentum, or should I say, more of inertia that doesn’t allow for change. I mean, think about it, a lot of the leadership of B2B companies have been in their business or position for 25, 30, or 40 years. And they’re looked at as an authority in their field. They say things like, “Hey, we know what our customers need even better than our customers do.” And if you think about who … out of the B2C world, I give this case study in the book too, guess who else used to say that? Folks like Sears, right?
Brian Beck: And so my view is that that’s the number one challenge, but those that are asking questions, those leaders that are saying, “You know, I want to know more about this,” and they’re actually listening to their customers, and recognizing that their customer, the person making the purchases, is changing because they’re, again, becoming more the digital native, those are the companies that are going to win, the ones that are listening and asking questions.
Brian Beck: So I think first and foremost is executive leadership and buy in. And if you don’t have that, even if you have a digital eCommerce director, or manager in the position, screaming, yelling at the top of their lungs, they’re not going to get what they need in order to make change in the organization. And those companies will suffer as a result of that. They’ll suffer from a slow really lack of relevance, because they’re making their buyer’s job harder to work with them. And that’s critical, that’s the number one reason to implement eCommerce, is your buyer expects it, and it makes their job faster and easier.
Brandon Kim: Yeah, and I think we can’t underplay the fact that change management is going to make or break the success of any project. Getting that sponsorship from the executive level, not only in terms of the budget, but in terms of the cultural change that we know will have to take into effect of automating your business, is I think going to be more crucial.
Brandon Kim: One point that I did want to add to that, Brian, is that I think you mentioned a funny story about essentially your salespeople saying, “We know what our customers want.”
Brandon Kim: ECommerce I think actually puts it on its head in that there’s just so much data surrounding an eCommerce channel, that I think instead of just doing best guesses of what we think customers want, really when it comes down to eCommerce, you have the data in front of your hands. What product pages are they visiting? Are they experiencing an okay checkout? Are they going through a smooth checkout and shipping workflow? These are all things that can all be tested, as opposed to having a gut reaction is what I think is very interesting from the eCommerce space as well.
Brian Beck: Absolutely, and platforms like Oro provide that kind of data, which is so critical and you coming that with web analytics, it can be insightful across all channels, too. So it’s about understanding how the customer’s interacting with you through your website, but then some of the most advanced companies I’ve worked with will do things like take that data, what they’re seeing in the website, and how the customer’s interacting with the website, what they put in the cart, what they view, where they go in terms of download of content, and then alert the sales force of that activity, and then let the sales force act on that information when they talk to the customer next.
Brian Beck: So the channels can work together. The data, and the transparency of data when you have a great eCommerce site really makes the whole selling proposition more personalized and more effective.
Brandon Kim: Absolutely. And so we talked about digital transformation journey for potential first time buyers, and we mentioned that change management is a crucial topic that should be discussed when onboarding eCommerce projects. I’m curious, would you that companies looking to re-platform, meaning that may have already been in the eCommerce business, that currently have a website, but are looking at new technologies, do these types of companies experience the same type of roadblocks?
Brian Beck: Well, sure, I mean sometimes. One of the challenges that I see frequently is that a company might have a platform that may not be as state of the art, maybe an extension, for an example, of the ERP, or the Enterprise Resource Planning System. And oftentimes I see B2B companies, they’ll deploy something which doesn’t meet consumer like expectations for website usability, etc. And so the front end website in an eCommerce- though it’s eCommerce enabled- doesn’t get much use. That may make executive leadership say, “Boy, this doesn’t work.” And even if the … in a re-platforming effort, that roadblock can still exist because there’s not much of a business case that’s been done the first time around, just in terms of proving it out, because the effort wasn’t structured for success.
Brian Beck: So absolutely, again, it’s lack of leadership at the top that can hinder things, but if you have that leadership, then you’re doing things like … you’ve got the right kind of budget for it, your organizational priorities are there, and the organization is aligned. And there’s also a bit of fortitude that’s required as you re-platform. I’ve worked with some companies that re-platforming is a multi month effort. It can be up to a year, depending on what you’re doing. With Oro it’s probably less than that, but even through the process of re-platforming, there’s priorities that need to be maintained. So instead of sort of cutting budgets and things like that during the process, leadership needs to continue to stay committed.
Brian Beck: So I think I would say, yes, the answer is that roadblock can still be there, particularly if the company has a history of not implementing eCommerce in a way that is effective. Does that make sense?
Brandon Kim: Absolutely. And we see that time and time again, Brian, so preaching to the choir here.
Brian Beck: Right.
Brandon Kim: And I think since eCommerce, or specifically B2B eCommerce is new to a lot of organizations, I’d love to understand who is really owning these projects at the company level?
Brian Beck: Right. So, great question. And in B2C it’s an easy answer, right, it’s usually the VP of eCommerce, or someone, chief digital officer. In B2B, the answer varies. And so who owns it, it depends on the organization to some degree. Increasingly B2B companies are putting a senior level executive in charge of eCommerce, and that person would own that. However, in other cases, it might be the chief marketing officer, or chief sales officer, or someone within kind of a marketing or sales role. I’ve had a number of clients where the eCommerce function has been built on the back of their current digital marketing and digital sort of lead generation activity. Which would be the content websites that many companies traditionally have in B2B. You’ll see B2B sites and eCommerce operations in marketing, in sales, I’ve also seen them in IT, believe it or not. That’s kind of the exception, and it’s often where a digital effort will start, or germinate. I would say that’s more the exception side though, on the IT side. Again, because these days eCommerce is really a revenue driver rather than an IT and support function. So, does that make sense?
Brandon Kim: Absolutely. Yeah, and those are the same parties that we’re seeing here on our end. It’s the three headed beast of IT, marketing, and sales. And going back to a previous point that we alluded to, if they have the direct support of a C level executive, that brings the whole project together and really gives a project owner and a project … it gives a lot of value to the folks that are managing this project, because they know that gives top level visibility.
Brian Beck: Exactly right.
Brandon Kim: And Brian, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start asking you questions about Amazon, as I know you have a lot of experience in and you’ve consulted with a lot of businesses on how to get started, or build their Amazon strategy. Is Amazon our friend or a foe for businesses looking to go online?
Brian Beck: Right. Well, that’s a great question, and I think in part it depends on the type of business that you’re in. So I’m a partner in a company called Enceiba, E-N-C-E-I-B-A, E-N-C-E-I-B-A, put a dot com at the end you can find the website. We help manufacturers and brands determine the optimal approach for Amazon, and then we operate programs for these companies, really as an outsourced Amazon department.
Brian Beck: So I do a lot of the strategic work for Enceiba, and so yes, it’s a question that comes up all the time. How should I approach Amazon? And I think … I’ll segment my answer to kind of two parts. First, if you’re a product manufacturer or brand, or even a distributor or retailer, whatever you are that has a product, and that’s the core of your differentiation, meaning a physical product that is recognized by the buyer in the marketplace as being your product, and your product is what differentiates you, I believe Amazon is a selling channel that you ought to take advantage of. Because the reach, both B2B, and of course B2C is enormous. Amazon is responsible for half of US eCommerce, almost. And it is increasingly penetrating B2B sectors. So you’ve got something called Amazon Business, which has grown from nothing four years ago to 10 billion in revenue as reported late last year by Amazon. There’s real brand presence you can build there, there’s real transactional volume. I work with clients that are generating over 20 million dollars a year in Amazon revenue, and it’s growing at 40 or 50%.
Brian Beck: From a product standpoint, Amazon is a real viable selling channel. You have to look at things like what they’re doing with private label and how they’re launching their own products. But ultimately, if you’re a manufacturer, if you make a product and that’s what differentiates you, you ought to be on Amazon. That’s my opinion. In most cases.
Brian Beck: If you are a distributor, or a retailer the story’s a little different. Because I think first and foremost, you have to really understand why your customer buys from you, and what you bring to the market. Amazon really is something that’s setting the expectation for your buyer. Whether, again, B2B or B2C, for what it means to shop online. And so for your own website you can learn a lot from Amazon. And so I generally recommend for retailers, resellers, distributors- is that they go and they have a presence on Amazon to understand what Amazon’s doing, to perhaps generate some incremental revenue, to be present on the place where most product searches are now starting in the United States. And so it’s a place that I think everyone needs to be in some way, but I think the case for resellers, distributors, is less … maybe less all in, and so for example, I have clients that launch a portion of their product assortment on Amazon, and they might even either create a private label line for it, or create a separate line, a product line for the platform. Or if they have private label products already, they might launch those.
Brian Beck: So the question of whether you should sell or not on Amazon, I think is highly dependent on your business model, and how you differentiate in the market.
Brian Beck: I will tell you that if you’re differentiating only on price, and selection, that’s what Amazon does really well. They have 600 million products on the website. So Mr. Bezos’ vision of being the everything store has really come true. It’s incredible what they’ve built there.
Brandon Kim: Awesome. Awesome. And I know, Brian, you mentioned that you were just writing a book called The Road to a Billion Dollar B2B ECommerce Company. Which is set to come out later this year. In this book I believe you share personal insights on how to develop B2B eCommerce strategies and successfully grow an eCommerce operation. I’d love to ask what insights you’d be able to share and give businesses that are looking to grow their company via eCommerce.
Brian Beck: Yeah. Well, the first insight is read the book!
Brandon Kim: No substitute for that.
Brian Beck: A little shameless self-promotion there, Brandon. The book, it’s coming out this year, it’s not out yet, but it covers really every aspect of launching a successful B2B operation. I talk about everything from the leadership required, the organizational structures that are required, managing channel conflict, building out and using a great eCommerce platform, like Oro. How to select the right platform, what you do with … how you take advantage of marketing, how do you take advantage of Amazon, step by step. There’s a whole variety of very clear things in there, so it’s a 12 chapter, 250 page book.
Brian Beck: But so things you want to think about, some tactical things, and some of this … all of this I cover in the book. People, right? People is the number one thing to think about. And do you have the right skills to launch eCommerce in your organization? Giving the reigns of a new eCommerce operation to your 22 year old nephew because he or she knows how to write some computer code is not the answer. You want to bring people, right, that have real eCommerce experience. I mean, it’s amazing to me how many companies will really not underestimate the value of that. And eCommerce skill and experience is not cheap. If you’re going to hire someone with 10 plus years of eCommerce experience. If you’re a B2B company, they’re going to be over $100,000.00 easily, across the country, I’m not just talking about on the coast. It could be double that on the coast, but you’ve got to really be thinking about what your people are, are they capable, and number one is getting someone, a leader in place, and think about hiring out of B2C, not just B2B, right? So think about someone with some consumer experience, because they understand the best practices.
Brian Beck: I think two to really think about is platform, and do you have the right technology, structure, and infrastructure to build out eCommerce? I also recommend that people really take the time to select the right platform, create requirements and objectives of your eCommerce business. And put customers at the center of all of that, that’s often overlooked as well.
Brian Beck: So I think those couple of things would be … those are two areas I would suggest people and platform, and then related to platform would be things like product data, right, making sure you’ve got the right product information together, the right descriptions and attributes, and photos and things like that. That’s often also underestimated in doing this.
Brian Beck: So I covered all of those things in the book, and a bunch of other things too. Things like channel conflict management, and building a good marketing plan. So there’s a lot of … a lot of aspects that cover different buckets of needs you have when you launch eCommerce, but I think people is the number one thing you’ve got to think about when you approach this.
Brandon Kim: Yeah, and I think, Brian, you also cover different types of B2B eCommerce companies, right? I think you’re covering it at all different angles from manufacturers, to distributors, to retailers, to maybe even B2C companies that are looking to go online for B2B eCommerce as well.
Brian Beck: Sure, yep, yep. Yeah, I do cover sort of all the different business models and … so you’ll find, as you read the book, that there’s applicability to all different types of businesses. The commonality is selling to businesses, right? So using eCommerce to sell to other businesses, that’s the core.
Brandon Kim: Well I know, Brian, with all the time that you’re spending on your book as well as your business, Enceiba, really appreciate the time that you can take to get on today’s podcast. Before we end our show, any final thoughts that you’d like to share for our listeners that are looking to embark on B2B eCommerce?
Brian Beck: Yeah. I mean, I think the number one thing to really think about is … and reflect on, is don’t be afraid to act, right? I have a bunch of case studies in the book where the leadership of the organization didn’t know exactly what they needed to do. Weren’t digital natives, these were folks who were older and further in their careers, and they … but they acted. They knew they needed to do something, and so they took a step forward. That’s really leadership. Number one I think don’t be afraid to act and take a step forward. Contact me or whoever, folks who have some experience in eCommerce to help you along the way. But you’ve got to act, and there’s too much inertia in the B2B world, but those who are moving are seeing just tremendous ROI from their efforts, and sustaining their businesses.
Brian Beck: And I think number two is don’t underestimate the talent you need to make eCommerce happen. So you really need to start with a single experienced leader, or advisor to get you started. So those are two kind of key things I think people should be thinking about as they’re looking at starting up eCommerce.
Brandon Kim: Brian, I think these are really great tips when you consider B2B eCommerce strategies, so thank you for joining. And Brian, for the listeners who want to maybe ask you questions, or may want to reach out to you, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you?
Brian Beck: Yeah, they can … so, couple things, they can email be, Brian, B-R-I-A-N at … you can use my Enceiba email, Brian@Enceiba, E-N-C-E-I-B-A dot com. Brian@Enceiba.com. They can also, if they’re interested in the book, you can go right to the book website, which again is www.BillionDollarB2BECommerce.com, it’s a mouthful. BillionDollarB2BECommerce.com and you can register for notification of the book release and learn more about it there.
Brian Beck: So there’s two good ways and then look me on LinkedIn, too. Just Brian Beck ECommerce and you’ll find me in the LinkedIn bar and just … it’d be great to … love to connect with you there, so …
Brandon Kim: Awesome. I know everyone’s trying to be the next billion dollar B2B eCommerce business, so I appreciate your time, Brian, and thank you for hopping on today.
Brian Beck: No problem, Brandon, thank you, I enjoyed it.
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