Digital B2B commerce is on the rise. Our partner agency intoCommerce is a specialist in this area. In our 3-part blog series the team is going to provide valuable tips and insights to help you set up your digital B2B business. We kick off in part 1 with a post by founder and CEO Matthias Thürling. He writes about how to start your B2B ecommerce site in just four simple steps.
Many__ B2B companies__ are currently facing the fact that selling via digital channels is the future. While consumer goods have been the main driving force in ecommerce in recent years, the opportunities of digital selling are now being recognized by the sales departments of traditional B2B companies too.
The advantages are obvious: If customers are able to reorder replacement parts themselves or view invoices and datasheets, that reduces the workload for the back office. A virtually unlimited product range that is easy to search through shows potential customers the full extent of your portfolio, while good content and the use of SEO can bring new customers into contact with a traditional B2B brand.
But how do you plan a successful B2B store project? Is a standard Shopware configuration enough to meet your needs? How do you ensure that the customers get the same quality of service online as they do on the phone? And does ecommerce actually suit complex, technical B2B products? These are the questions we want to examine in this three-part blog series.
Let’s start with the question of whether a standard Shopware configuration can meet the needs of a B2B store. First you need to clarify and define the B2B store’s requirements. As an ecommerce agency, we specialize in B2B stores and have already successfully carried out over 200 ecommerce projects. As a result, we have a good idea of the typical essential components of a B2B store.
A typical B2B store includes:
- Automatic check of sales tax ID
- Check and approval of premium customers
- Different price lists and delivery conditions per customer, country or range
- Very good search function due to high numbers of similar items
- Configurable items
- Rights and roles for employees
- Consistent, high-performance data connection to the ERP, e.g. Sage, Navision/Business Dynamics or SAP
These requirements need to be examined in a workshop in detail and defined more precisely. This is the only way to ensure that your B2B store maps to the user experience your customers are looking for, reduces your sales team’s workload and wins you new customers.
If we take the requirements listed above as the basis for a project of this kind, you can check out the market of ecommerce platforms in your next step. It is important to bear in mind here, however, that most systems are built for B2C products. It’s relatively easy to display a few t-shirts in a store with a choice of colors and sizes. But in the B2B context, we often come across technical products with six dimensions that can quickly result in tens of thousands of variants. Your system needs to be able to cope with this.
When looking for the right ecommerce platform, Shopware 6 catches the eye.
Shopware 6 with B2B Suite is already tailored to B2B business
Shopware 6 comes with Rule Builder and Flow Builder, powerful tools that provide a futureproof solution to typical B2B challenges and require very little development outlay. The B2B Suite adds key functions to connect the customer more directly to the store operator, allowing them to negotiate and close deals online or enabling individual employees to order selected products while providing the customer’s Accounts department with centralized access to all invoices. Click here to find out more about the B2B Suite from Shopware.
B2B Suite at BBV-Domke
No B2B store without ERP integration
Very few B2B shops are able to keep customers happy in the long-term without integrating an ERP. Without ERP integration, the store will constantly display incorrect prices, stock levels, and delivery times, which ends up in angry customers. ERP integration is therefore a must. In the medium-sized B2B sector, we mostly encounter the big three systems – SAP, Sage, and Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central or, as it used to be called, Dynamics NAV or Navision. Each of these ERPs has its own particular features, which largely depend on the industry in question and the system provider. The latter usually include extensions or individual attributes in the ERP that can make the ERP more difficult to integrate.
The store operator therefore has to decide between three basic ways of integrating the ERP:
Direct manual integration
Most ERP providers have an interface – some well documented, others less so – that you can use to directly connect the ERP and the store. It would be natural to assume that this would be the ideal way to establish direct integration. However, this requires a high level of proficiency in both the__ ERP interface__ and the Shopware interface. When linking interfaces, data from the ERP usually has to be reformatted, assigned, or even supplemented to make it usable in the store. Where thousands of items are involved, this “translation” task can generate high workloads and is often slow and unreliable. Every time the ERP or Shopware is updated, this direct integration needs to be checked again because even the smallest of amendments to one or both systems can result in errors in the data.
Many IT system houses that maintain ERPs have therefore developed a product based on integration into Shopware and, for example, created an extension for the ERP that prepares the data from the ERP directly so that it can easily be imported and used by Shopware. Using this extension, the data arrive in Shopware cleanly and usually quickly. However, the quality and quantity of the data in the ERP are often insufficient to feed an item directly from the ERP with satisfactory content. Additional manual work is required or additional data sources need to be used to combine thin item data from the ERP with more useful text. This involves a great deal of manual work and can quickly go awry.
If you are looking for a futureproof method of exchanging item and order data, you usually have no choice but to involve further data sources and data targets in the data exchange. Many wholesalers or suppliers supply valuable product data that have no place in the ERP. These should be used at the point of the data exchange between ERP and Shopware to pad out the thin ERP data. The best way to do this is to use a cloud-based middleware that has already scalably and verifiably connected a range of systems with one another. This allows the computing power required to transform the data to be shifted to the cloud, lessening the load for the ERP and Shopware. The data quality is also better with multiple data sources – even external systems can be controlled via PunchOut, etc.
Sensible data exchange intervals lessen the load on the systems
Once you have decided on the form of ERP integration, the only question remaining is how often data need to be exchanged. If you ask the business’ ERP manager, you will, of course, be told that the data in the store need to be kept up-to-the-second at all times. The ideal would be to run a live query of price and stock before the customer places an order in the store. In our experience, this is unnecessary as prices do not tend to change on a minute-by-minute basis and stocks are not usually so limited that availability of an item needs to be checked to the second. In practice it has been shown that updating prices and stock levels every five minutes is perfectly adequate – provided the update itself does not take longer than five minutes. A suitably high-performance connection (see above) is therefore a must.
Product managers occasionally update item data in the ERP. They find it very frustrating if changes are not promptly reflected in the online store. It has been shown that updating the item data with description and images (where applicable) every 60 minutes is ideal. Many__ ERP systems__ also offer a time stamp for the last change or only modified data via the interface. This makes importing new product data much easier. To be on the safe side and ensure that all attributes online are indeed up to date, we recommend that you run a full import of the item data once a night when__ traffic in the store__ is at its lowest. Orders will, of course, be passed instantly to the ERP – with the aid of the Flow Builder, for example – or, at the latest, retrieved every 10 minutes. Here too the performance of the interface and the ERP will determine how quickly orders can be handled in the ERP and the downstream processes.
The Flow Builder allows good mapping of B2B processes, in particular when it comes to ERP integration and the further exchange of information.
Summing up and looking ahead
We have now covered all the core questions when it comes to planning a B2B shop. Follow the four steps outlined here to select an ecommerce platform for your B2B requirements, define your ERP integration, and set sensible intervals for the exchange of data. In the second part we will look at how you can use Shopware 6 with the B2B Suite to ensure that your B2B shop is truly successful and that your customers keep coming back.
About the author
Matthias Thürling is the founder and CEO of intoCommerce. intoCommerce, founded in 2014, is a Shopware Gold Partner, specializing in Shopware for B2B and industry.