What is the most important functionality of a B2B online store?
An excellent product search.
If a product search returns too many results, buyers waste valuable time scanning through the results. Even though many online stores also offer an advanced search option, a search will return zero results if the product code is entered in the wrong field or only partially right.
Remember: B2B buyers do not browse for fun. They come to your online store for a single purpose: to meet a need they have and can resolve by ordering goods for their company. However, product search still falls short in most online stores. According to a survey by Forrester, 60% of B2B buyers mentioned product search as the number one feature they would like to see enhanced in online stores they use for work-related purchases.
Some companies find improving search results especially challenging. For instance, companies focused on design or manufacturing, often carry an inventory containing anywhere between a few hundred thousand to over a million items and product codes. Also, they had never maintained complete product information about their items until they decided to sell online.
Various rules and agreements on product sales between companies impose restrictions on search, thus complicating things further. There are items the search should and should not find. For example, you cannot allow all customers to purchase products that require special licences or permits. Then there are manufacturers and brands that limit their product sales to certain distribution channels. I have also encountered a well-grounded requirement that two different customers are allowed to find the same product, but not by using the same search term.
Product search performs poorly for a number of reasons. The key goal of a B2B online store is to replace traditional ordering channels. To meet this goal, a large number of products must be entered into the online store as quickly as possible leaving no time to focus on optimising product information for customers’ search efforts. The focus is on quickly making products available so that customers can place orders online. The end result: an online store with an impressive number of products where no one finds what they are looking for.
How would a great product search perform in a B2B online store?
Product search should perform like a skilled salesperson on the phone – preferably even better. An experienced salesperson and a great search function both do the following:
- Identify each customer’s line of business to figure out what kind of a solution or product they could be looking for.
- Ask the customer to define the specific parameters that depend on the product category in order to select the best product for the customer’s current need.
- Suggest an alternative product.
- Know that one product can have several product codes defined by the seller, customer, manufacturer, competitor or standard.
- Understand that sometimes, special characters and whitespaces carry a meaning, other times, they do not.
- Make room for human error: customers might mistype search terms.
- Check customer’s order history for products ordered previously.
Customers’ methods of search differ. One buyer thinks the search functions well, while another thinks the entire e-commerce site is completely useless. The ‘older’ customer generation is used to looking up the exact product code and entering it in the search field. They even know some product codes by heart. The younger buyer generation expects intuitive search capabilities often found in B2C online stores.
The future of product search
If your online store already features a fully functional product search, IBM Watson will raise the game to the next level. Watson understands natural language, both spoken and written. When someone asks a question, Watson creates hypotheses based on the related information and gives the most likely answer. Watson is capable of reading and listening to an unlimited amount of information related to the topic at hand.
In an online store, Watson can ask customers what they are looking for if they search again and again but don’t select any products. It’s easy to train Watson to ask the same questions a salesperson would ask to find out what the customer is looking for. Watson’s best feature is its continuous learning enabling it to serve customers better each time.
By investing in the search functionality of your online store, you can speed up the rate your customers start placing their orders online. A great product search also improves your sales.
In addition to investing in technology, you also need to understand how your customers behave. Your salespeople know your customers’ needs and can provide valuable insight on how the product search should work. Ensure your salespeople help configure the search function and enrich product information. Only then will the product search gain the key qualities of a great salesperson.