/ INTEGRATION

The Problem With Portals

Convictional exists to try and automate as much about B2B as we can. There has been lots of hype, and even some growth, of portals in B2B. Basically, giving your trading partners a way to login, order your products, check on status and pay their bills. This seems to be driven as much by what vendors want people to use as it is by what people actually want to use (not portals).

The difference between consumer ordering and B2B ordering are many. One significant area in which they differ is the number of places the customer regularly buys from. The typical consumer might have one or two places they regularly shop online, with a handful of others that they buy from periodically or only once. B2B tends to implicate continuous buying from a much larger group of vendors, which is completely different when you think about tooling.

Because a B2B buyer tends to be buying regularly (minimize inventory) you generally need an account open with whatever supplier you decide to buy from. To make this ongoing information sharing easier, there are standard documents (purchase orders, sales orders, invoices), usually shared via email/PDF. Why email and PDF instead of a portal? Because logging in to over a hundred portals is much less standard than email and PDF are, so the buyer is actually better off having one interface with the world even if it’s manual.

It’s not that your trading partners have a strong preference for making you do things manually. It really comes down to the fact that most of the time, your trading partner have to interact with many other buyers and sellers and thereby need a lowest common denominator (spoiler alert: emailing PDFs and talking on the phone) way to communicate. There is no world in which people think that in isolation that is better than a website with current inventory, strong search and easy payment. Considering, however, how many other suppliers must be purchased from, it can be a lot easier to deal with emails and PDFs.

So portals are likely to be an elusive dream, probably for a long time, when it comes to selling B2B online. They are a good way to give people access to their PDFs (an email notification, where you can sign-in and download a PDF? People want that.) or get them setup with automation. But trying to swim upstream and move all of your customers to portals may just result in adding another avenue for orders to come in without any replacement (now we have: fax, phone, email, marketplaces and a portal).

Unless you have significant market power over your customers and can make them order through it (such as you are a big fancy brand and your customers are small boutiques) there really is no good way to avoid the fax, phone and email trifecta. You can decide to only do business with people willing to order through the portal but without automation for the customer they won’t see the benefit. If they have to manually order from you, they are almost always going to choose a universal tool for it.

There are benefits to offering a web service for your customers (sharing media, providing a way to download invoices and share payment information, catalogs) but it is unlikely as a B2B business that the entirety of your orders will come that way any time soon. Big companies want to use EDI and small ones want to use email. As your company grows, the number of your customers that fall into each of those buckets will too, and each process will need to scale.

The goal, instead of blinding adopting portals or buying into the hype about no more fax machine, should instead be: receive orders in as many ways as possible (to keep customers happy) while putting in the least manual effort you can. And if you are going to have to integrate with something, do it once instead of across a bunch of systems. That’s the area of B2B where we focus and where we see the most significant growth coming from. It’s why we built Quick Order, drop-ship automation and EDI connectors. More choice for your customers, less effort for you is better than a one-portal-fits-all approach.