Companies that have built successful e-commerce sites have usually adopted the mantra: “The customer is always right.” That’s because, if business-to-consumer enterprises have learned one lesson in the past year, it’s that Web sites must offer superior customer service to capture and keep their buyers’ attention.
Today, the same philosophy is true in the business-to-business arena, where executives and analysts say truly innovative e-businesses are learning that each partner’s business goals are unique. As a result-now more than ever-customer service options must be personalized to meet those goals. Because what’s at stake, experts say, is not just a company’s ability to retain its hard-won customers but also to attract new business partners in the increasingly competitive B2B marketplace.
“We’re now seeing the adoption within B2B of practices that were spawned in the consumer world,” said Jim Monastero, an analyst with KPMG International, in McLean, Va. These include loyalty-building programs, one-to-one marketing plans and customer retention initiatives, as well as allowing business partners to access and manage account information on personalized portal sites, Monastero said.
“The customer expects the vendor to know all about them, and the bar gets raised higher,” he said.
Although business customers are usually the ones demanding more personalized attention on B2B sites, the result can be beneficial to both buyers and sellers. In today’s Internet economy, where companies must compete in real time, dot-coms and established brick-and-mortar businesses alike are finding that a personalized B2B portal can standardize buying patterns to eliminate redundancy, save money and enable both partners to react quickly to ever-changing business conditions.
That business partners now expect more individual pampering is clear to San Francisco-based Unexplored Travel Network, a 9-month-old adventure travel e-business. The company helps users plan high-end vacations to exotic spots across the globe through its Unexplored.com Web site. The site uses a software suite from Luna Information Systems, of Oakland, Calif., to help it link its B2B partners-which range from hotels and restaurants to fly fishing gear makers-with each other as well as with consumers.
The site’s value proposition to consumers is that it functions as a one-stop travel planner for exotic vacations, UTN officials said. To retain this edge, it’s critical for the site’s operators to effectively manage relationships among their B2B partners.
The Unexplored.com site “builds a bridge between ‘one-off’ destination service provider companies,” such as those running exclusive cruise vacations, and consumers researching such vacations, explained J.P. Thieriot, UTN’s CEO.
The bridge that Thieriot refers to is Luna’s eRelationship suite, one of a new breed of customizable CRM (customer relationship management) solutions for managing B2B relationships. UTN deployed the Luna product to help track its wide variety of unique relationships.
“Our business partners are heterogeneous,” said Sebastian Atucha, UTN’s chief operating officer. “A guy running a bed and breakfast in Vermont is not looking for the same kind of services from us that a safari company is looking for.”
However, one thing those business partners have in common is the need for “affinity group marketing” services, such as providing an online forum to swap ideas with others in the travel industry, Atucha said.
So when providers of value-added travel services-such as companies that run white-water rafting trips or rent mopeds-need to link with travelers booking vacations on UTN’s site, Luna’s software presents cross-selling opportunities, Atucha explained. For example, when a consumer books a week at a bed and breakfast a mile down the road from a company that runs canoe trips, the eRelationship system will present the canoe trip as an add-on option.
Deploying B2B portals such as eRelationship means investing more time and money into CRM. But companies are finding the return worth every penny. For instance, another Luna customer, FedEx Corp., saved $7 million in yearly expenses by using eRelationship to let B2B customers view, download and print customized rate books featuring real-time pricing, according to a March 29 report on Luna’s technology by Forrester Research Inc.
In the report, Varda Lief, an analyst with Forrester, of Cambridge, Mass., said the eRelationship software captures contract terms and conditions as business rules, letting B2B companies apply those rules to data from applications such as inventory and general ledger to bring about greater efficiencies. The application also maintains tailored user profiles that streamline order processing and promote “self- service CRM” by enabling customers to find a variety of information without going through account representatives, as in the case of FedEx.
In another example, Datastream Systems Inc., a Greenville, S.C., maker of tools for procurement of main tenance parts by companies in industries such as manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, health care and telecommunications, is preparing to launch in September personalized customer portals on its iProcure online industrial parts supply marketplace.
In this initiative, iProcure is attempting to reach out to its disparate customers on a more extensive basis, said John Sterling, president of Data stream’s iProcure division.
“There are going to be transaction-based parts of the portal along with custom content, including help-wanted ads and community features,” Sterling said. But most important, the portal will allow customers such as Toyota Motor Corp. and AMR Corp., parent company of American Airlines Inc., to get a better handle on their spending on MRO (maintenance, repair and operations) parts, eliminating redundancies and saving money, he said.
“For our customers, the advantage will be that salespeople can see what’s going on in the field” in terms of MRO purchases, Sterling said. “Ordering parts is a huge, time-consuming hassle, and they’re looking for a way to make their lives easier.”
Online retailers, while they may not face the kind of MRO expenses found in the manufacturing space, are still in need of a way to streamline the procurement process.
Take Bluefly Inc., producer of the Bluefly.com clothing and housewares site. Bluefly is teaming with partners that are helping keep a real- time view of inventory and order processing. The retailer uses the Total Order Transport System, produced by Marketing Out of the Box Inc., in Niles, Ill., to get continually updated order and inventory information as it moves through Bluefly’s Oracle Corp. enterprise resource planning system. The Java and Extensible Markup Language-based tool can be configured in a unique way by each user, explained Marketing Out of the Box CEO David Newberger.
“Each customer selects which information is most important” to track, and the software adjusts those parameters accordingly, Newberger said.
This, according to Forrester’s Lief and other observers, is where personalized CRM is headed because the vendor needs to understand who B2B customers are-and recognize their needs-while involving the individual partner in a community of common interests.
Such services will also help boost sales for both B2B and B2C customers. For instance, last month, Sun Micro systems Inc. contracted with e-business personalization software maker Blaze Software Inc., of Mountain View, Calif., in a deal aimed at helping Sun’s financial services customers, including Wells Fargo & Co., offer more customized services to its clients.
Sun, of Palo Alto, Calif., is using the Blaze Advisor Solutions Suite to apply the same business rules across its B2B financial service customers’ call centers, voice-response systems and electronic kiosks. As in UTN’s Luna implementation, where the company is using the back- end B2B bridge to help partners target customers, San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is using the Blaze tool to market new financial services to customers based on unique personal histories and real-time business conditions, said Sun officials.
The application makes much sense in the financial space. Regardless of the industry, however, every company will have to “get personal” with its partners to survive in e-business.
Benefits of personalized B2B
Promoting customer self-service When a B2B customer needs rapidly changing inventory, shipping and purchasing data in real time, it’s quicker, easier and more efficient for them to have access to it automatically on a personalized portal site than to have to ask a call center rep for the information.
Getting a three-dimensional view of B2B customer needs
Business partners typically play several roles, each of which generates different information needs. First, for example, your customers are part of a company that has contracts with other parties. Second, they are part of a functional group, such as finance or purchasing, within their enterprise. Third, they are individuals with different information preferences and permissions. By tracking these aspects simultaneously, leading B2B vendors can help tailor information and business processes.
Providing a basis for data analytics Companies in e-business networks will be able to customize trading systems for business partners based on the analyses of historical performance. A parts manufacturer, for example, could develop distributor-specific pricing strategies that consider payment record, order volume and customer service costs.