What Every Supplier Should Know about the B2B Customer Journey

The B2B ecommerce customer journey differs from that in the B2C arena. We explore the key differences and explain why they matter to suppliers.

As B2B buyers increasingly seek streamlined processes to reduce procurement and purchasing costs, suppliers are becoming acutely aware of the need to manage and influence the B2B e-commerce customer journey. In fact, a 2016 survey of more than 700 B2B marketers found that 78% expect it to feature strongly in their initiatives over the next three years (Regalix).

But in order to manage the customer journey, it’s essential first to understand it. As this article will explain, while the e-commerce customer journey follows a broadly similar path in both B2B and B2C, differences in commercial dynamics add much complexity to the B2B decision path. 

While the e-commerce customer journey follows a broadly similar path in both B2B and B2C, differences in commercial dynamics add much complexity to the B2B decision path.

Consumers vs. Buyers: Differences Affecting the Ecommerce Customer Journey

If your company wants to simplify the ecommerce journey for your B2B customers, it’s necessary to understand the differences separating them from consumers in terms of the decisions they make and the challenges they face.

That understanding will be critical to your online marketing/sales strategy, and to the processes of ecommerce development and design. Absent that understanding, there is always the risk of over-applying principles and methodologies borrowed from the more mature, but perhaps less complex world of B2C ecommerce.

To avoid falling into that trap, let’s explore the primary differences in the way B2B and B2C buyers navigate the customer journey. 

1.Motivation to Purchase

For consumers, the influences that drive purchases can include emotion, peer pressure, advertising, and other external factors, as well as need; all of which might play a part in the decision sequence.

Conversely, the B2B buyer’s journey will normally begin with the need to solve specific problems or challenges. One of the major differences from B2C is that although emotion certainly plays a part in the B2B journey, it’s typically tempered by a logical and structured decision-path, especially in the purchase of non-commoditized, mission-critical products or services. 

2.Involvement of Multiple Stakeholders

While buying decisions in B2C may sometimes be made collectively (such as a family’s purchase of a home-furnishing item), more often it will be a single individual that takes the actual customer journey.

In B2B, the process usually involves more than one person. In fact, according to Gartner, as many as seven customer stakeholders, on average, participate in the B2B purchase-decision-making. Furthermore, the people present at the start may not be the ones who complete the journey.

After a product or service has been purchased, subsequent events may play no part in the ecommerce customer experience for the buyer, but can instead shape the experience of end-users or other parties in the buyer’s business. 

3.Buyer/Seller Relationships

Another important difference is in the relationship between the buyer and the seller. Unlike consumers, B2B customers are seldom looking for one-time purchases, instead forging long-term relationships with suppliers capable of customizing products or services to meet their needs.

These relationships become more important as the value of purchases increases. The ecommerce customer journey for commodities might be similar to B2C, but when purchases comprise large, high-value, or high-volume orders that may be repeated on a regular basis, trust-based relationships are essential to reach agreements on pricing, along with other terms and conditions of B2B sales transactions. 

Why Buyer-Vendor Relationships Become Stronger

As companies have begun to recognize the performance benefits of tightly knit and responsive supply chains, the relationships between buying and supplying companies is shifting toward an even closer bond, involving system and process integration as part of the buyer/supplier partnership. 

For consumers, the influences that drive purchases can include emotion, peer pressure, and other external factors. The B2B buyer’s journey will begin with the need to solve specific problems.

So What’s Different about the B2B Customer Journey?

If you’re preparing to build or buy a B2B ecommerce platform or considering any kind of ecommerce development, the differences between B2B and B2C customers described above should not be new to you. What you might not be aware of though, is the way in which they influence the customer journey and hence, why you must consider them when developing a B2B ecommerce solution.

The ecommerce customer journey for a consumer might follow a path similar to that in the image below. 

Customer Journey for a Consumer

In the following image, you can see how much more complexity exists in the B2B buyer journey. Although the phases of the journey are largely the same, the B2B process passes through a greater number of stages. 

B2B Buyer Journey

For example, depending on the product to be purchased, the journey may include demo and/or trial stages during the comparison phase. For large or high-value purchases, price and contract negotiations will almost certainly increase journey complexity. Furthermore, some segments of the B2B journey may be repeated several times, while others may be omitted.

Overall, the involvement of multiple stakeholders, the need to address relationships, and the requirement for customization of products, services, and prices, combine to create a lengthy and complex process of decision-steps before the B2B customer reaches the purchasing stage. 

B2B Buyers Need More Help on the Journey

With knowledge of the dynamics that make the B2B ecommerce customer journey so different from B2C, it isn’t hard to see why businesses experience inertia as they go through the stages and therefore, need more help to progress along the decision path. As a supplier, you can turn this to your advantage by addressing the obstacles that buyers face, some of which are outlined in the following image. 

What Slows Customers Down

In developing a strategy to help customers overcome these difficulties, it is perfectly acceptable to draw on ideas and methodologies from your B2C counterparts, but of course, you will need to adapt them to cater for the differences outlined in this article.

Most importantly though, optimizing the journey for businesses requires a sharper focus on helping buyers to buy, and perhaps less emphasis on persuading them why they should choose your product or service range. To be successful, you will need to weave this ethos through your marketing and sales strategies, and into the solutions and systems enabling the journey. 

What Type of Help Can You Offer?

While a prescriptive “how-to” guide for eliminating issues that “slow customers down” would require a series of articles just to outline, you might want to consider the following suggestions as possible initiatives to pursue:

  • Tailoring your online content to engage different types of stakeholders, such as product/service-users, executive decision-makers, and procurement/purchasing professionals.
  • Developing content that supports supplier-agnostic, logical product evaluations.
  • Building collaborative and social tools into your ecommerce platform to help buyers and stakeholders maintain cohesion during the customer journey.
  • Facilitating progress on the B2B customer journey; for example, by providing online tools for customers to build quotes, view sample contracts, or track their own customer-journey.
  • Creating an adaptive storefront that presents customized homepages for different customers or even personalized storefronts for different stakeholders in the customer’s organization.

It will also help a lot if you make your ecommerce solutions easy to integrate, not only with your own corporate infrastructure but also with those of your customers and fulfillment partners. 

Business Critical Tools

These are merely a few pointers, and there may be many other ways for your company to simplify the buyer journey. In any case, given that businesses can have a hard time reaching the end of the customer journey, each step that makes it easier is going to count in your favor as a supplier.

Indeed, the rewards for getting this right are hardly insignificant. Gartner subsidiary CEB describes purchase-simplification as part of “the new sales imperative” and reports that suppliers making it easier to buy are 62% more likely to secure premium sales than those without such an agenda. 

Purchase-simplification is part of “the new sales imperative”. Indeed, suppliers making it easier to buy are 62% more likely to secure premium sales than those without such an agenda.

Make the Maps and Fix the Gaps

Understanding the general differences between B2C and B2B customer journeys is just the very first step of building a successful ecommerce strategy and solution. The next steps will be to actually map the journeys that your own customers follow and then to start investigating and fixing the gaps between their expectations and your capabilities.

Hopefully though, this article has helped you with that first step and provided some food for thought as you begin to consider strategies and solutions. If your company has already begun the customer journey mapping process or is even further along the path to customer-centric B2B ecommerce, we’d love to hear about your experiences. 

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