Implementing B2B E-Commerce? 9 Factors to Consider

Are you preparing an RFP for a B2B e-commerce system implementation? Correctly estimating your budget as well as the time you need can be difficult. In this article, we’ll talk about what project aspects to consider in your planning.

Implementing an e-commerce platform is much more expensive than just totaling the license and hosting costs. This is particularly true in B2B, where we are usually dealing with unique, specific procurement and negotiation processes that take into account the individual sales terms for each partner. In B2B, a ready-made, out-of-the-box solution is only very rarely fully applicable. What, then, should you consider when trying to estimate the cost of such a project? When preparing your RFP, make sure to include the following items (or deliberately exclude them if they’re not relevant).

1. Pre-implementation analysis

Performing a pre-implementation analysis helps estimate the time and cost of the implementation. This way, you will be able to turn general expectations regarding the future system into descriptions of specific requirements and functions. These can be used to implement the project and verify its assumptions. Conclusions from a pre-implementation analysis have a direct impact on the final outcome – the implemented system.

e-point’s Experience

In one RFP, we received the following requirements for the project:

  • Advanced order management, very customer-interactive.
  • 100% user-friendly search engine.
  • A “try out” function that used augmented reality and worked smoothly and efficiently.

These requirements outlined the general direction of the project. However, they were not precise enough to implement it and verify that final system meets the assumptions. How can you determine if a function is 100% user-friendly? When is order management advanced enough? What makes the system sufficiently efficient?

The pre-implementation analysis may start with the following:

  • The business assumptions for the system to be developed.
  • A description of the supported business processes.
  • A specific list of functional and non-functional requirements.
e-point’s Experience

In Agile methodologies (e.g. Scrum), you shouldn’t start any project with a “blank page” – i.e. in the hope that the requirements will be specified in greater detail in subsequent sprints. Even a limited analysis will help you organize assumptions concerning your system and make the most of successive iterations.

The results of the analysis depend on the planned system implementation method (cascade or Agile, using a ready-made product as a starting point or developing one from scratch (“full custom”)). They usually include the following:

  • A list of requirements for integrated external systems.
  • A specific description of the interfaces used for integration with external systems.
  • A description of system functions, illustrated with diagrams of screens and specific priorities.
  • The extent of product adaptation to business requirements.
  • The logical and technical architecture of the system.
  • The technical infrastructure architecture.
  • Testing plans.
  • Report specifications.
  • Data migration plan.
  • Assumptions for the production launch.
  • Labor estimate.
  • Implementation schedule.

2. UX research

Before designing a system, investigate how users use the system. Find the operations or functions they use most often and how they interact with them. This will help you identify less obvious practices. For example, salespersons may frequently memorize popular products’ serial numbers and search the database using these numbers; to them, the visual layer is not particularly important.

e-point’s Experience

An initial investment in UX research usually results in lower system implementation costs. With research, you will know which functions to dedicate the most time to and which can be refined later if necessary. For more information, see this article on UX in an auto repair shop.

Sometimes the people involved in the project implementation and requirement specification are so high-ranking they do not know the details of users’ everyday operational activities. UX research will let you acquire and organize the needed understanding.

3. Support for unique processes

B2B frequently involves unique processes that are difficult to handle with an out-of-the-box solution. Examples include:

  • Procurement processes with several acceptance levels.
  • Price negotiations.
  • Individual sales terms.
  • Discounts and special offers.
  • Product availability.
  • Logistics.

Also, different companies have different needs regarding user groups, specific views and functionalities (e.g. assigning accounts/companies to sales representatives, clients with different employee roles in the procurement process due to different authorizations, etc.).

That is why your search for the right solution should be based on the processes that have to be managed. Otherwise, you will have to adapt them to the B2B e-commerce system you have purchased. Frequently the most effective way to support unique processes is to transfer a process that is managed using other channels into the online system (instead of having to develop it and implement it from scratch).

e-point’s Experience

Companies that offer ready-made, out-of-the-box B2B e-commerce platforms frequently try to pack in as many functions as possible. Unfortunately, just because a particular system has the option of “price negotiation” or “fraud detection” does not mean that the function will be adapted to your specific business. Functions offered by ready-made systems usually support a single scenario. Organizations are often surprised to find that – after they purchased a product with a specific function – they also have to pay high extra costs for the customization of that function.

4. Integrations

Integrations are the most underestimated aspect of e-commerce projects. Frequently, this is precisely the stage where new requirements are discovered: you are preparing the technical specification and listing interfaces, and the integration does not meet the business objectives. 

In most cases, the missing answers concern the following questions:

  • Have all dependent systems or systems involved in the process been identified?
  • Are the systems already implemented and running? Are they only being planned – in which case, further new requirements may appear?
  • Have the cross-system integration interfaces been correctly identified? Are they ready? What elements are ready for implementation/modification by each party involved in the process?
  • Where is product information stored? How is it maintained/modified? Is it a single system or something more complex?

Try to have the answers to these questions as you’re preparing your implementation estimate.

e-point’s Experience

Some common system integration problems increase the time and costs of implementation. Among others, these include:

  • Integration interfaces that are unsuitable for the e-commerce system. Most out-of-the-box systems have integration interfaces, but they frequently do not offer the functions required for B2B systems.
  • Imprecise specification of integration requirements. This results in problems with the implementation of functions of the B2B e-commerce system using the integration.
  • Synchronization of multiple projects. There may be a need to create or redesign integration interfaces in the integrated systems. Thus, a B2B e-commerce system rollout can require the implementation of many different projects that also must be managed.
  • Delayed delivery of integration interfaces. If you have to handle multiple related projects at the same time, it can take longer to complete the project. For example, suppose you’re handling 5 related projects. If the likelihood of the on-schedule completion of a single project is 80%, the overall probability will decrease to 33% when you add in the others. 

5. Product information management

A B2B e-commerce project forces the organization to organize its product information – which is frequently a much greater challenge than anticipated. Such knowledge is often distributed, stored in various documents and in the minds of the employees. Structuring the product database in a way that can be “consumed” by the e-commerce system is frequently a separate project that has to be completed before you can begin the e-commerce implementation.

6. Performance optimization

During the implementation of out-of-the-box systems, no one expects they’ll need to optimize performance. However, when we feed the full database (portfolio, discount rules, etc.) into the system and consider the user volume, it frequently turns out that performance optimization is required.

e-point’s Experience

Performance optimization should start at approximately 66% completion of the project implementation cycle. This is provided that the most complex functions (or the functions that operate on the largest volume of data) are built by that time.

Before optimizing performance, you have to feed the test system with data in an amount similar to what would be expected in the production system. Only under such conditions can performance issues manifest, giving you a chance to correct them. The system can be fed with production data (after appropriate anonymization to remove sensitive data) or test data.

When building a system based on a specific product (instead of building it from scratch), you might want to investigate performance limits before actually choosing the product. One of our clients implemented their own project; the selected product functioned well after they imported part of the production data (approx. 100,000 products). After uploading the full database (millions of products), the system became completely unusable. Even expanding hardware resources to a gargantuan size (almost 1 TB of RAM) did not improve the situation. Their project was discontinued due to difficulties achieving acceptable performance.

7. Onboarding

Creating a system that meets the business objectives is only a partial success: you also want the users to actually use the system. It may be a challenge to implement a new, unknown solution across the entire organization. It involves both personnel training and the verification of initial assumptions on an actual, running system. Real users are best at pointing out any areas with room for improvement. You might also want to ask the supplier about their experiences in this regard and plan your onboarding activities accordingly.

e-point’s Experience

Building a great system that offers plenty of useful, easy-to-use functions offers no guarantee that the end users who are accustomed to previous working methods will immediately start to use it. Think ahead and develop a system implementation plan. It includes elements like:

  • Information and marketing campaigns.
  • Bonuses for using the new system (or simply using the online system instead of previous contact channels like the phone) – e.g. discounts available only in the new B2B system.

The costs of such activities are frequently lower than the costs of having to maintain the old system or old customer communication channels for a longer period.

8. Support for multiple countries

When planning the implementation of a new B2B e-commerce system, make sure to consider possible international expansion.

If you’re thinking about entering a new foreign market, do not forget about these e-commerce requirements:

  • Different languages.
  • Tax regulations.
  • Legal requirements (e.g. German law requires specifying three prices for every product – gross, net, and VAT).
  • Payment methods.
  • Customs observed in the individual countries.
  • Product availability and logistics.
e-point’s experience

Support for multiple languages is frequently underrated. Attempts at implementing versions of the system in another language may cause unexpected issues, such as:

  • Word length. Many German words are comparatively long; they  may not be able to fit in the intended space. This should be considered already when designing the user interface.
  • Layout changes. Right-to-left languages like Arabic might require you to reorganize the menu after switching to that language. (Most European languages are read left to right).

Translating the system into other languages can also present a challenge. Frequently, problems arise due to out-of-context translations, i.e. exporting all text in the system, sending it to the translator in an Excel file (or similar), and then importing it back into the system. This will lead to various blunders in translation, such as the situation where the button text “Save” is translated as “Rescue”.

9. Internal organizational tasks

Implementing a B2B e-commerce system requires plenty of work inside the organization:

  • Rearranging product information.
  • Preparing databases and their contents.
  • Participating in workshops and design work to provide the knowledge required for analyses.
  • Creating integration interfaces – i.e.  through the client’s own means or through monitoring an external supplier.
  • Preparing the environment and assigning authorizations.
  • Testing.
  • Creating a plan for the production launch.

That is why you should consider not only the costs of the license, the work of the supplier, etc. but also your own work. At the planning stage, try to determine what internal resources you will need for the implementation.

The most important thing: Thoroughly identify and describe your requirements

Buying a license alone will not solve all of your problems. E-commerce implementation starts a torrent of questions and requires the careful scrutiny of existing processes to find a system that best answers your business needs. Plan on dedicating plenty of energy to the first, analytical stages of the project and map your requirements in detail. Frequently, the implementation of a B2B e-commerce system is simply one part of a greater whole that involves many different suppliers.