Digital experiences in B2B commerce have been rapidly outpaced by B2C standards. While B2C companies are racing to provide more personalized and intuitive interactions, many B2B companies are still using paper and phone processes to place simple transactional orders. Most B2B commerce leaders know that this needs to change. The longer they wait, the more likely it is that their customers will start to leave for merchants that are easier to do business with.
Yet for companies that are taking their first steps into modern e-commerce (whether they have a green field opportunity or are replatforming a legacy system), the question of how to prioritize the available technology is a difficult one to tackle. This RFP guide, paired with a customizable RFP template, is designed to help your company identify the technology that will best serve your digital commerce strategy, both in the immediate future and as you evolve your site long-term. We recommend first reading this guide to gain an overview of the major considerations that will impact your RFP. Afterwards, review the features included in the RFP template and edit according to your own requirements.
To receive our RFP template, you can download the full RFP kit here.
Platform Approaches for B2B Companies
There are several different breeds of B2B e-commerce platform, each influenced by its history and background. Each vendor's approach will impact the design of its platform and its roadmap. Approaches are often skewed towards serving Marketing, Sales and Service, or IT needs. Identifying the approach that best suits your business needs early will help you create a shortlist of vendors that match your requirements from the start.
B2B e-commerce is arguably the defining element of B2B customer experience; some platform vendors have responded to this by bringing their expertise in Content Management Systems (CMS) or Digital Experience Platforms (DXP) into the digital commerce world. These vendors tend to offer all-in-one platforms that combine rich content, personalization, applied Artificial Intelligence and site building features with a robust commerce engine. Their strength is in allowing business users to handle the day-to-day work of managing a digital commerce site, from targeting content for audience segments to updating product catalogs to optimizing page engagement across the site. By bringing content and commerce together into one platform, this approach equips business users to deliver a cohesive customer experience.
A growing trend today is headless, which removes the presentation layer from the digital commerce platform and frees front-end development teams to use any framework they prefer to build the end user experience. As emerging technology creates new market channels, taking a headless approach makes it easier to create experiences for screenless or non-standard size screens such as voice search or smart watches. Some headless platforms also connect into traditional CMS frameworks to manage the front-end experience, leaving the vendor to focus on transactional capabilities. The latter approach is particularly popular with vendors that started in the commerce space (rather than CMS or DXP) and saves them from trying to catch up with the robust experience management capabilities offered by leading DXP vendors.
Many platforms also offer a decoupled approach, in which they offer an integrated presentation layer as well as headless API support so that companies can choose which strategy to apply to which channel. This allows companies to use a full platform for the main digital storefront, but take a headless approach when piloting projects on emerging technologies. Because headless puts control of the end user experience in the hands of the IT team, this approach requires strong internal development support and collaboration with the marketing team to ensure a cohesive experience.
Within the context of B2B digital commerce, omnichannel refers to the role of the traditional sales and customer service teams in the buying process. An e-commerce platform that takes an omnichannel approach will usually start with an app or site designed for your sales and service teams to take and troubleshoot orders for B2B customers. If your buyers still primarily purchase through personal interactions, rather than through a self-service site, then vendors in this category may be a good fit. However, B2B buyers increasingly prefer to make the majority of their purchases through a self-service commerce site, so it would be wise to evaluate the broader capabilities of these vendors and ensure they align with your company’s future direction.
Build Your Own Suite
Finally, B2B companies may opt to build their own B2B e-commerce platform out of the multitude of point solutions that exist in the space. This approach is best suited for companies with strong IT leadership that can maintain custom integrations and code as systems are upgraded and new solutions are brought into the stack. For companies that have very complex commerce requirements or niche business models, this can be a strong approach that allows for more flexibility to bring in best-of-breed products as needed.
Platforms for B2C vs. B2B Companies
Aside from approach, vendors can also be split into primarily B2B or B2C platforms. Many will claim that they support both, but their product development history will usually show that they started in one category, which has defined their customer base and the direction of their product development.
Vendors that began as B2B commerce servers tend to fall short in the content and experience management features that most companies need today. On the other hand, vendors that began as B2C commerce servers have often done minimal work to cover B2B functionality out of the box, requiring a significant amount of customization to make them truly serve B2B needs. Most B2B companies will find the most value in a platform that takes an experience-driven approach or is paired with a strong CMS solution to avoid developing and maintaining custom code for core e-commerce functionality.
Core Commerce Platform vs. Point Solutions
There are many point solutions available in digital commerce that focus exclusively on one piece of the commerce experience. For example, Configure-Price-Quote engines provide the interface and logic to allow customers to configure their own product bundles and generate pricing on the spot, but they don’t provide features for the rest of the commerce experience such as the full customer portal, customer communications and marketing capabilities. Those broader features should be covered by your core platform and supplemented with point solutions as needed.
Point solutions can be strategically brought into the areas of your business that require robust, specialized capabilities. If 80% of your business is earned through customized products, then a commerce platform that integrates easily with the CPQ engine of your choice will be a must-have. If you’re still growing your revenue through configurable products, then it's possible to start with a platform that covers basic CPQ functionality and bring in a more advanced solution later.
Major User Personas
Once you’ve chosen the type of platform and approach that best matches your project, one of the most effective ways to customize an RFP for your needs is to lay out the e-commerce experience you envision by persona, then map each persona’s requirements back to specific features. After that, you can break these requirements into phases that align with your resources and highest priorities. This ensures that you have a concrete vision for every feature you purchase and safeguards against overbuying from vendors that will try to upsell features you aren’t ready to use.
Below are the major user personas for a typical B2B e-commerce business. For the full list and descriptions, download the RFP kit.
- Customer Portal Users
- Public Website Users
- Marketing and Digital Store Users
- Sales Representatives
- Customer Service Representatives
- Analytics and Business Intelligence Users
Identify which of these apply to your project and interview stakeholders within your company to understand must-have and nice-to-have requirements to include in your RFP.
Other Areas to Consider
Successful technology projects require more than good software. Your RFP should also cover key information such as company history, customer references, available customer success programs, pricing model and the options for training and implementation services.
Get Started with an RFP Template
The linked Sample RFP Requirements focus on the core features that an experience-driven commerce platform should provide for most B2B scenarios, assuming that both content management and commerce features will be delivered in one platform and primarily used by non-technical users. However, requirements for Headless API support and Sales Rep support are included, as these are quickly proving to be strategically important to delivering a true B2B digital commerce experience.