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Five is Better Than One: Five Key Systems for an Integrated B2B E-Commerce Solution

Chris WilsonChris Wilson/Senior Software Architect
January 08, 20194 min read

B2B manufacturers typically sell through networks of distributors and dealers. Moving from that model to e-commerce is a pretty big shift. A lot can go wrong.

The original sin in the process: The failure to grasp the all-encompassing nature of e-commerce.

Management often tags e-commerce as a website project and relegates implementation to the website team. The implementation plan amounts to buying all-in-one e-commerce software or bolting some B2B e-commerce software package onto the existing website.

This single-solution approach often leads to problems.

  • If the solution doesn’t fully integrate with existing systems, only a subset of products will show on the site.
  • The e-commerce solution may have its own set of new accounts, usernames and passwords, which confuses customers.
  • A lack of integration with marketing technology systems can result in minimal, incomplete, or inaccurate product data on the site.
  • The Enterprise Resource Planning integration the e-commerce vendor promised might not fully account for the unique needs of the company. Among other problems, integration failure can cause fulfillment difficulties or a disconnect between online and offline orders.
  • Most importantly, B2B companies often find themselves forced to change internal processes or business rules to match the functionality of their out-of-the-box e-commerce solutions.

A solid, forward-looking strategy treats e-commerce as an integrated set of systems and solutions, not as a single piece of software. As the business grows and changes, components within this integrated system can evolve with no need to reimplement the entire suite. And, crucially, the overall e-commerce solution meshes seamlessly with existing business processes.

An effective, enduring e-commerce strategy encompasses five key technologies, each with its distinct purpose, processes and business logic.

1. ERP

A solid ERP application is the backbone of a solid B2B e-commerce platform. It contains all critical data and internal business rules that apply to the company’s products. Among other things, it’s the master source of:

  • Product data
  • Specifications
  • Pricing
  • Customer order history

2. PIM

A Product Information Management application stores additional marketing-friendly data on each product. The ERP manages sales data; the PIM lets the marketing team tell their products’ stories. The PIM can include:

  • Rich content and product descriptions
  • Image and video assets
  • Product manuals, documentation, and spec sheets
  • Additional product metadata

3. Product Catalog 

Through the Content Management System (CMS), the catalog connects to the ERP and PIM. The catalog combines and integrates all the data into a user-friendly interface for customers and prospects. A successful catalog:

  • Provides robust filtering and searching to make it easy for users to find products.
  • Gives customers all the information they need to decide to purchase a product, including detailed specifications and documentation.
  • Provides peer comments, ratings and product support information, which reinforce customer decision-making.

Server Products Catalog

The Server Products product catalog makes it easy for users to scan information and filter by their desired attributes. 

4. Cart and Checkout 

The cart and checkout finish the transaction. This includes:

  • Creating an account or signing in to an existing account.
  • Gathering the customer’s billing, shipping, and credit card details.
  • Calculating discounts, shipping, sales tax, and the final total.
  • Processing the user’s payment.

Gehls Product Catalog

The Gehl's cart makes the check-out process easy.

5. ERP (I know, we're counting the ERP twice)

It’s not enough to merely pull data from the ERP. Customer data must make its way back to the ERP once an order is complete. This lets the company leverage existing fulfillment processes, order management and customer relations through the same system.

In addition to better conforming to existing processes, this integrated approach minimizes the impact of changes in any one of the connected systems and thus provides a smooth path to growth over time:

  • Many companies lack a PIM when they start e-commerce. They build a catalog with data straight from the ERP. This gives them a starting point; as they evolve and better determine their needs, they can add a PIM without affecting the checkout or fulfillment processes.
  • Many B2B companies initially don’t want payment processing. The checkout process simply generates a parts list or an invoice, and they handle payments through traditional offline methods. When the company is ready to process payments through a payment gateway (perhaps as they open their business directly to consumers), their PIM and catalog remain the same.
  • If a company migrates to a new ERP or fulfillment system, the entire public-facing web experience does not change; users see the same catalog and checkout.

Each of the above systems handles a specific aspect of e-commerce. Most one-size-fits-all e-commerce solutions don’t encompass all five – and if they do, they certainly don’t do them all well.

Chris WilsonChris Wilson/Senior Software Architect

Chris Wilson is a senior software architect and developer. He’s particularly interested in helping clients gain efficiency and improve security through cloud-based solutions. His client portfolio ranges from startups like Wallit.io to major enterprises like ManpowerGroup to non-profits and public agencies like Milwaukee Public Schools.

Connect with Chris on LinkedIn | Read Chris Wilson's Blogs

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