B2B: World-class Customer Experience Requires World-class Product Data
B2B digital marketing and commerce are still in their infancy, but that’s starting to change. Distributors still lead the charge and represent the lion’s share of on-line B2B revenue, but manufacturers are getting into the game, too.
The complexity of the B2B selling process itself – with customer-specific pricing, long selling cycles, sales territories, complex channel structures, tax rules, etc. – has been one barrier to adoption of e-commerce, but the latest generation of e-commerce platforms have “built for B2B” capabilities to address these needs.
More importantly, B2B firms are actively assessing the role of the digital channel and understanding how to best exploit it. While full e-commerce may be in the distant future for many firms, manufacturers and distributors alike recognize that, today, buyers of technical products perform most of their research on-line. Oft-quoted statistics cite between 60% and 80% of pre-purchase product research happens in the digital channel, depending upon the product category – and our clients confirm this.
What is “world-class customer experience”?
In our view, your digital customer experience is “world-class” if it enables your customers to quickly and intuitively:
- find and compare technical products (i.e. shop by specifications)
- find out if products can be customized to order
- get answers to technical questions
- engage customer service and perform self-service for common activities (e.g. checking order status)
- start the buying process (whether transacted on- or off-line).
Product data is king when it comes to enabling a world-class customer experience. Digital product data, managed in a Product Information Management system (PIM), is essential to power product search, search refinement, and comparison. A robust product taxonomy can establish relationships between products, downloads, and brand stories. Together, rich product data and taxonomy can enable very sophisticated dynamic display of related products and content.
While full e-commerce may be in the distant future for many firms, OEMs and distributors alike recognize that, today, buyers of technical products perform most of their research on-line.
Product data & taxonomy are the foundation
In our experience, the state of product data and taxonomy are the biggest barriers to B2B e-business. Most B2B firms lack robust product data, and many have little or no data behind their user experience. Instead of product data, these sites are populated with unstructured content: product detail pages authored in HTML in the CMS, and PDF downloads of data sheets and product literature. This limits the ability to find and compare products by specification.
For firms that do have product data, many still manage it in legacy databases that are entangled with back-end systems built for inventory management or electronic procurement, which are not optimized for powering a modern digital experience. The product data often lacks the detailed attributes needed for product research, and the database lacks the performance to meet modern expectations for page display times for product detail pages and search results.
Step 1: Optimize the Product Taxonomy for the Digital Channel
Regardless of the state of your product data – whether it needs enrichment or normalization, or it’s missing altogether – the first step is to develop a product taxonomy that organizes the products for search and findability in the digital channel.
There is a cost to populating product data. Attribute design is a balancing act between rich enough for precise search, and lean enough for efficient, error-free data fill.
Search and navigation require identifying clear organizing principles that can help customers find products (through search or browse), and can help product data analysts on-board products (assign them to the right categories and populate the attribute data). A true test of a good product taxonomy reflects the ability of a customer to find a product and the ability of an analyst to assign a product to a category. The latter is our first validation of the quality of a taxonomy – can we assign the products easily to the new taxonomy’s product categories?
Getting the taxonomy depth right is key to getting the attributes right. Product taxonomies that are too shallow can “lump” dissimilar products together. Imagine a retail site putting men’s shirts and slacks together. The result is too many attributes that are specific to a subset of the products (waist size, neck size, inseam, sleeve length) and a high rate of “NA” values. Product taxonomies that are too deep (often from “attribute stuffing” the taxonomy) can separate similar products that really belong together with different attribute values. Either condition makes it harder to compare products, and undermines SEO – both of which make it harder for customers to research products on your site.
Equally important is understanding and modeling the relationships between products. Are there important relationships between base products and variants? Are there relationships between products, tools, consumables, and accessories? Do you want search results to group all products with the same base product? Are products grouped by application or industry? All of these relationships need to be reflected in the product data, and can in turn increase revenue through increased up-sell and cross-sell.
Step 2: The right attributes for search and compare drive SEO, too
Getting attributes to the right level of detail for product comparison and search refinement isn’t a “kitchen sink” exercise. There is a cost to populating product data. Attribute design is a balancing act between rich enough for merchandizing and precise search, yet lean enough for efficient, error-free data fill. Sometimes we find that the existing product attributes (and also the taxonomy) weren’t designed for web search and comparison, but rather for managing inventory, distribution, or finance. These are important attributes for product master data, and while essential to running the business they aren’t often supportive of the user experience and ways to shop.
Once high-value attributes are designed and their attribute values are filled, it’s imperative that they are exposed for web search engines – a feature of modern PIM platforms. Remember that your customers start their product research in Google. Exposing high-quality, high-fill-rate attributes to SEO drives inbound web traffic to product detail and product listing pages.
Step 3: Keeping it right
Migrating product data to the new taxonomy isn’t the end of the process – it’s the beginning. Too often we hear B2B clients exclaim, “We solve this problem every 18 months,” meaning product data clean-up and fixing “taxonomy drift” resulting from small (but ungoverned) changes over time. This underscores the need for taxonomy governance and style guidelines to “keep it right”.
Governance makes decisions to balance the need to expand the taxonomy with the costs to implement and overall impact on systems that consume the taxonomy
Labeling guidelines are written during taxonomy design, and attribute style guidelines are written during the attribute schema design. Guidelines assure that the taxonomy doesn’t drift, but instead can grow and evolve in a controlled fashion with the addition of new product categories, and continue to serve effectively for on-boarding, search, and navigation. When products are migrated to the new taxonomy, existing attribute values are normalized to the guidelines, and new values are filled to the guidelines to assure consistency.
Governance is essential to maintaining the quality of a newly developed product taxonomy. Stakeholders, including representatives from the digital team, search operations, web analytics, product management / merchandizing, and marketing should be active participants in taxonomy governance. Each of these functions can drive routine updates to the product category taxonomy and attribute design. Governance makes decisions to balance the need to expand the taxonomy with the costs to implement and overall impact on systems that consume the taxonomy – usually not just the digital experience, but also ERP, order management, inventory, finance, and other systems.
Putting it all together to drive results
The pace of digital evolution is accelerating for B2B firms. Even though full self-service e-commerce for all product lines may never make sense for some companies, most firms are seeing value today in improved product search by moving quickly from unstructured product information (in web pages and downloads) to structured product data in a PIM or e-commerce platform. For some firms, a subset of their overall products may eligible for self-service e-commerce, creating the potential to grow revenue quickly for some categories without creating channel conflict. For all firms – even those with “brochure” sites – a well-designed product taxonomy has benefits for search, navigation, and overall digital experience.
Improvements to product taxonomy, attributes, and data can have significant impact on demand generation and operational productivity of the product information team.
From our experience, improvements to product taxonomy, attributes, and data have significant impact on demand generation and operational productivity of the product information team:
- >20% increase in SEO traffic
- >20% increase in SEO product page entries
- >40% increase in product search click-through (CTR)
- >40% increase in product detail page conversions
- >20% increase in customer satisfaction with website usability
- Radically increase the pace of item on-boarding (up to a 2X speed improvement)
- Reduce or eliminate on-boarding backlog
Finally, companies that sell on-line (whether direct or through on-line distributors) report that on-line revenue increases between 5% and 15% when they add detailed product attributes to products that were already available on-line.
For all these reasons, we see product taxonomy redesign as the logical first step in digital transformation for B2B companies.