B2B: Show the poor relation some love

Rob Borley

While most organisations recognise the need to invest in their websites few spend money on their internal web apps. In this post Rob Borley explains why this will have to change.

Let’s not beat around the bush. The web has proved to be a fantastic way of generating money. Whether you are a dot.com boomer, web 2.0 innovator, app developer, IPO frenzied super company or a small local business, the Internet has found you new customers and opened revenue streams. If you have done it right, then, the web has made you just that little bit (or a lot) better off.

Consequently you’ve invested. After all, it’s good business sense. As you invest your website attracts new customers; encouraging them to come back and spend more money. However, is that the limit of your ambition? If it is then you are missing a trick. There are two other types of website or application that can increase your profits still further. They can be quite different in nature, but for the purposes of this post I will bundle them together; the business to business website and the internal online application.

Naturally evolving beast

I’ve been involved in a long running project at Headscape which was recently completed. We developed a solution that encompasses both of the categories described above, as it is used as an internal tool but also has a clearly defined B2B role. This project has followed the standard pattern of life for these, often overlooked, opportunities.

Apetito is a large frozen meals company selling ready meals to care homes and hospitals, as well as direct to consumers via its franchise network Wiltshire Farm Foods. ‘eOrder’, is an ecommerce application that allows customers (such as care homes) and internal franchisees to place orders and replenish their stock. When Headscape first started working with Apetito on its B2C websites this ordering process was largely manual using a combination of spreadsheets and email.

There was a clear need for automation, but no funding. So something was bootstrapped together internally and Headscape helped out when asked to do so. ‘eOrder’ 1.0 was born.

The original eorder website

Unchecked feature bloat

It evolved over the months and years. As users requested more features, they were added on. An ever increasing menu of tools developed. There was no consideration for aesthetics, usability, functionality or code. No design of any shape or form. Yet, it was being used to deliver business critical services to valued customers as well as a productivity tool for internal staff.

Within organisations money earmarked for web projects tend to be treated as marketing. The spending focuses on addressing the question “Where can we get new customers?” However, investing in internal tools or applications for existing customers encourages repeat business, customer retention and up-selling, as well as improving the efficiency of the whole operation, facilitating cost savings.

Taking a giant step forward

Eventually the needed investment was made and eOrder 2.0 was recently launched. More customers are using it, which means less manual intervention from the internal team leading to better economies all round.

Screen from the new eorder system

In eOrder 2.0 we addressed the following areas;

  • user workflow,
  •  user tasks and permissions,
  • functionality bloat
  • and aesthetic design.

User workflow

It is important to understand what the primary goal or goals of the application are to then design the users’ path through the application accordingly. Optimising these workflows improves the users’ efficiency thus improving their productivity.

We spent some time watching users wrestle with ‘eOrder’ 1.0 to get an understanding of what they were trying to achieve and how they went about it. What people tell you they do and what they actually do are often quite different so this kind of review and interview are very useful.

User tasks and permissions

It was clear that there are a number of different types of user that were using eOrder 1.0. This had organically manifested itself into a complex array of user types and permissions. Some users even had to have multiple logins to perform all of their tasks.

We spent some time conducting stakeholder interviews as well as user testing and analyzing the users’ tasks in order to consolidate the permissions accordingly. What we ended up with was much simpler and enabled each user to perform all of their tasks under a single login. This obviously saved them time and frustration as well as making administration of users a lot simpler too.

Functionality bloat

A common issue that affects websites and apps alike is feature bloat.

A common issue that affects websites and apps alike is feature bloat. Organic internal projects are particularly susceptible. Every time an individual in the business would like a new feature a request will go to those who have adopted the project and a new item is added to an ever increasing navigation menu. The application becomes a web of loosely connected tools; each used by, and useful to, its niche group of users. However, each is dropped into the application without too much thought for its context or workflow.

It is important to understand your user and what they are trying to achieve. Consider their core tasks and do not be afraid to remove functionality that is out of context. The principle of simplicity which is so useful on B2C websites also holds true here. What can you hide and what can you remove altogether?

Following interviews with users we were able to group related tools together so that they could be found in context with the task being completed. We were also able to remove tools that were not relevant to the core goals of the application. Streamlining the workflow meant that users could move through the application more efficiently saving time and, often, relieving frustrations.

Aesthetic design

How an application looks and feels is important. Often this is overlooked in non-sales tools; after all, you already have the customer. However, if your tool is a pleasure to use then users will feel good about using it. The most mundane tasks can be made enjoyable and users will keep coming back.

Mailchimp screenshot

The transition of ‘eOrder’ 1.0 to 2.0 has highlighted this point. Customer take-up for this tool has dramatically improved. Customers who had stopped using 1.0, instead creating manual tasks for the internal Apetito team, are now switching to 2.0 thus reducing the load on the team and saving time and money.

If you have a tool which you would like your users to interact with on a regular basis make it efficient, streamlined, and a pleasure to use.

Reasons to look after the poor relation

B2B is the long neglected relation in the web presence family. There are a few things to consider when deciding where you allocate your web budget:

  • Customer retention is a more efficient sale than finding new customers.
  • Having effective and delighting tools for your customers to use will go a long way to retaining them and generating repeat business.
  • Well designed tools that are easy for your team to use will boost productivity and profitability.

Take the time to review the applications that you use within your organisation. Have they organically evolved, become bloated with features and lacked design input? Is it time to show them the love they deserve and milk the potential of the web for all that it’s worth?

A slight aside

Something to consider. The B2B market is to set to be shaken up. With the rise of the Tablet PC and mobile devices we are on the cusp of a radical change in the way that technology is used in the work place. Currently with Android and, soon, Windows 8, the workplace is to be flooded with alternative devices. Whether it’s sales teams in the field, warehouse operators, point sale staff, or delivery drivers, devices like the tablet are the perfect form factor for internal productivity and business to business solutions. With Windows 8 on the horizon manufacturers and hardware resellers will soon be pushing these devices to anybody with a Microsoft Windows based supply & support deal.

Are your B2B solutions optimised for this new breed of devices? Have you considered the impact that your customers working in a new way will have on your business? If this is something that you would like to discuss the feel free to get in touch.