In the ever-evolving consumer economy, new technology is regularly transforming communication between buyers, sellers and manufacturers. In the consumer marketplace, buyers have unprecedented access to nearly any product imaginable. They can specify and search by features, read reviews from previous customers, choose how fast they receive products and place their order — all with a handful of mouse clicks, without leaving their living room. In short, the internet provides ample opportunity to compare many products, evaluate specifications and make trade-off decisions about the product selected. Having access to and control of so many points in the purchasing process is changing the way consumers reach a buying decision.

In response, many of the most successful retailers have invested heavily in e-commerce. Adding links to related products and buying history, and providing near real-time order status have drastically changed the expectations of many consumers. In addition, these expectations are bleeding over into the workspace. Those tasked with making buying decisions for their employers desire this same ease of use when doing their jobs.

Yet, business-to-business transactions still involve many of the same processes that existed in the workplace 20 to 30 years ago. Invoices, payment terms and three-way matching — just a few examples of the requirements still in place for business-to-business (B2B) purchases — add friction to the buying process. The difficulty in ordering even simple items like office supplies seems light years away from the ease of having dogfood delivered to your door with one click.

Even further from the streamlined business-to-consumer (B2C) buying process is the B2B buyer’s ability to influence the design of products the company needs from its suppliers. The process for requirements capture, new product design and approval has remained painfully slow, filled with rework loops and prone to error.

As global internet access spreads, and the use of e-commerce expands, the demand for an easier procurement process will create opportunity for early adopters in the arena of product design.

Manufacturing and the E-Commerce Age

The expectations regarding ease of use that have been built on the consumer experience are finding their way upstream for some B2B buyers. Some suppliers are developing tools to improve visibility and accelerate buying cycles for supply-chain workers.

Early adopters started by placing their product catalogs online. While this did not drastically change the buying process, it made the product information accessible to all buyers. Often, this step has been followed by simple online forms and fill-in-the-blanks tools that used feature codes to filter the catalog contents. In some cases, it was sometimes possible to land on a specific part number if that combination of features had been designed and published in the catalog. For many manufacturers this is still the current state.

What can B2B buyers look for as suppliers further develop online resources? Some manufacturers offer clues. For instance, early product-development stages are seeing improved digital tools emerge that allow team-based concurrent design. Gone are the days of paper drawings spread out on a table and reviewed by a team of engineers, only to be marked up and returned for additional review. The ability of teams to work together from widely distributed global locations is driving the pace of innovation.

Even with the advancements in the ability to collaborate during the design process, it is still uncertain that the design created will be successful in the market. The commercialization of these designs relies on traditional market analysis, voice of the customer interviews, and designer intuition. In effect, the B2B consumer still has few real opportunities to truly weigh in on the product features and functionality.

One way in this might change is in increased support for customization. Some companies are building online tools that allow B2B buyers to design products to fit their application exactly. Online design allows the end user or OEM to choose features and enter key dimensions. The product updates in real time, allowing them to see the resulting design drawings immediately.

B2B buyers

One way in this might change is in increased support for customization. Some companies are building online tools that allow B2B buyers to design products to fit their application exactly. Online design allows the end user or OEM to choose features and enter key dimensions.

Tools like this may help to bridge the gap between B2B buyers who know exactly what they need and the manufacturers’ established process capabilities to result in a perfect match. Add to this a short manufacturing and delivery window, and access to drawings and technical documents. The B2B buyer can create a perfect-fit product, work through the design and purchase it at their own pace — even as easily has he orders that dogfood.

Creating a digital environment of self-learning has many benefits. They include:

  • The buyer can clearly see what options are available and make trade-off decisions in real time.
  • The pros and cons of feature selection can be communicated at the time the choice is being made. This can help avoid costly rework loops or unforeseen cost increases later in the process.
  • The component or equipment manufacturer can ensure that the choices offered to the buyer align with internal capabilities. This helps reduce the chance of low quantity cost penalties and helps increase overall quality.
  • Using picture menus and drawings that update in real time provide universal feedback that can help close language barriers.

While moving from paper to digital to the internet, there has been a significant change in the way business is conducted. The flow of ideas and the iterations of the design process continue to accelerate through the benefits of collaboration software and the ability to tap on talent from a global perspective. While not every step is moving at the same pace, those few untouched linkages between the buyer and the manufacturer are starting to see some real advancement. The gap is closing.

The internet has changed many things in our culture and working life. For B2B buyers, being able to directly influence the design of the products that they need can dramatically reshape the buying experience and potentially the very nature of our work.