Customer portals are the new trend in B2B commerce. Find out in this article what's driving this trend and how composable commerce technologies are contributing to it.
According to recent studies, almost every B2B buyer today wants some degree of self-service in the buying process. This is especially true for the so-called "digital natives" and shows a clear change compared to traditional B2B sales. According to Gartner, every second B2B buyer sees great advantages in digital "customer portals" that enable users to autonomously control and manage purchasing processes.
During a panel discussion at the B2B Marketing & e-commerce 2023 Strategy Summit, Stefan Schmidt, Chief Product Officer at Emporix, discussed with industry representatives the current state of customer portals in B2B retail and where the journey is headed. In the following, we will delve into the most important findings from the event and provide valuable advice for moving from a web shop to a B2B portal.
In contrast to a web shop, a customer portal is tailored to complex and individual purchasing processes in B2B commerce enabling interactive and individual collaboration with customers, partners and suppliers.
Customer portals are the answer to the expectations of a new generation of buyers, the "digital natives", who expect 24/7 accessibility, 100% self-service, full transparency, personalization and efficient communication in B2B commerce.
Customer Portals combine B2B and D2C business models on one platform, allowing manufacturers and wholesalers to serve both wholesale and retail customers while integrating suppliers and market partners.
Customer portals enable sales processes to become more efficient and reduce costs by, for example, automating workflows, streamlining communications, enabling real-time inventory management, accelerating order and returns processing, and promoting data-driven selling.
Composable commerce platforms such as Emporix provide the flexible technical basis for continuously optimizable customer portals that can be adapted to changing requirements and market conditions in an agile manner and enable seamless integration with existing systems.
Customer Portal vs. Web Shop: What's the Difference?
On the surface, customer portals and web shops may seem similar. Both allow buyers to search for products online, place orders, track deliveries and access account information. Differences essentially arise from different requirements for flexibility and individuality of purchasing processes, which play an important role in B2B commerce.
Put simply, a web shop is designed for fast self-service, allowing customers to make standardized purchases, e.g., specific quantities of consumables at fixed prices. Web shops often reach their technical limits when, for example, purchasing processes have to be adapted to individual, variable purchasing conditions or workflows. Particularly "off-the-shelf" web store systems do not usually support this.
“Off-the-shelf shop systems quickly reach their limits when it comes to individual and complex purchasing processes in B2B commerce. This is where customer portals come into play.” - Stefan Schmidt, Chief Product Officer at Emporix
Unlike web stores, customer portals are tailored to complex and individual buying processes in B2B commerce. These collaborative platforms enable companies to work together with their customers, partners and suppliers in a highly interactive and personalized way. The strategic goal is to maintain long-term business relationships and to create the technological foundation for this.
Meeting the Requirements of a New Generation of Buyers
You can't emphasize enough: Times are changing rapidly in B2B commerce. Where purchases are still negotiated by phone and fax today, "digital natives" will soon be shaping the business. This new generation of buyers is accustomed, in part from their private lives, to ordering products online, interacting digitally with suppliers, and having full transparency over the status of their purchases at all times.
“Our clients' customers belong to a young generation unwilling to use the telephone or a fax machine to order something.” - Stefan Schmidt
Customer portals are functionally and technologically designed to meet the current and future expectations of digital buyers without limitations. The following aspects exemplify what B2B retailers must offer their customers today if they want to remain competitive in the future. The technological foundation for this already exists. The challenge is to seize the opportunities and rethink B2B commerce.
What digital natives expect from B2B vendors:
24/7 accessibility: Buyers can access the customer portal at any time, allowing them to interact flexibly with suppliers.
100% self-service: Purchase processes do not require direct human contact by phone or fax.
Full transparency: real-time information on inventory, order status, and prices is always available in the customer portal.
Personalization: Order templates, product recommendations and individual prices simplify and accelerate purchases.
Efficient communication: messaging and document sharing enable efficient collaboration.
Combining B2B and D2C Business Models
“The challenge in many enterprises is to map B2B and D2C business including consumer-facing processes on one platform.” - Stefan Schmidt
One key advantage of customer portals is that they enable retailers to accommodate different business models on one platform. While retailers have often operated B2B and D2C business separately in terms of organization and technology, both areas are now merging operationally and technologically through customer portals.
Manufacturers and wholesalers can use a single customer portal to serve both bulk buyers and private customers at one digital POS. Both groups equally benefit from a high level of self-service and full transparency throughout the entire buying process. At the same time, suppliers and other market partners can also be integrated into the commerce ecosystem.
Increase Sales Process Efficiency and Reduce Costs
“Customer experience is one side of the coin - just as relevant for companies is the reduction of costs through more efficient processes, for example in returns management." - Stefan Schmidt
Manual operations in purchase processes are a major challenge for B2B merchants and their customers. That's why companies are looking for technical ways to increase the efficiency of their e-commerce processes, reduce costs, and at the same time provide their customers with superior service. In this regard, customer portals offer a number of valuable benefits and opportunities:
Automate processes: Automating routine tasks that previously had to be performed manually relieves employees, speeds up processes and reduces the risk of errors.
Optimize communication: Interactive messaging and collaboration features in the customer portal simplify communication and eliminate the need for lengthy email ping-pong and phone calls.
Real-time inventory management: 100% stock visibility for employees and customers helps avoid overstocks or shortages and streamline inventory management.
Accelerate order and returns processing: Fewer manual processes, a high level of self-service, and market partner engagement accelerate the entire buying process.
Data-driven sales: Customer portals generate valuable data about customers' buying behavior and at the same time enable sales processes to be optimized on the basis of data analyses.
Composable Commerce Platform Sets the Stage for Flexibly Adaptable Customer Portals
Similar to web shops, the requirements of customers and partners for customer portals are constantly changing. Thus, a portal is not a one-time project, but a continuous process in which technologies, structures, and processes are continuously analyzed and optimized. Accordingly, the technical basis of a customer portal must be designed to support flexible development.
This is where the principle of Composable Commerce comes into play, aiming at maximum flexibility, adaptability and scalability of the technologies involved. Instead of organizing functions and data in prefabricated monolithic systems, composable commerce platforms such as Emporix enable components and functionalities to be orchestrated flexibly and according to individual requirements.
This approach provides major advantages: Companies can flexibly add or remove commerce functions as requirements change or innovative solutions become available. In this way, the customer portal can grow with new expectations and opportunities. In addition, composable commerce platforms facilitate integration with existing systems, ERP, CRM, etc. and ensure seamless data flow.
Adaptations to changing market conditions or customer preferences can be implemented according to agile principles, step-by-step and value-oriented. In contrast to monolithic all-in-one systems, composable commerce platforms like Emporix allow infrastructure and architecture to be built and evolve in manageable steps, significantly reducing the risk and TCO.