How to move sales online when your products are custom or really complex?

(Even if you don’t believe it’s possible?)

Leon Panjtar, SaleSqueze CEO
November 12, 2022

Leon is a robotics engineer with 15 years of experience in digital transformation and digital products, passionate about manufacturing, product configuration, sales, and business.

Our products are just too custom or too complex to sell online through self-service channels.
– most manufacturers, when asked if they plan to invest in B2B online self-service channel.

Many organizations fail to launch a self-service B2B online channel because they believe it is only a fit for simple, commoditized products and not complicated, configurable products. This simply isn’t true.

Online B2B self-service channels greatly improve efficiency and reduce costs in organizations, so it should be on your organization’s project to-do list for the near future.

Why you might buy your next car online

Did you ever imagine you’d see cars sold online?

Given their size, variability, shipping challenges, and cost, many considered automobiles immune to the advance of eCommerce. And yet we can see, Tesla managed to move their entire sales operations online and operate globally and extremely efficiently relying on eCommerce.

Many manufacturers designed and built custom systems. They proved selling complex and configurable products is possible online, regardless how custom those products are. All it takes is a little ingenuity.

Digital-first B2B experiences are critical

Digital eCommerce is a vital piece to the future success of B2B organizations. Not only do self-service channels offer significant benefits inside organizations – like huge time savings, modernization, digitization of processes, and drastically lower sales costs. Self-service channels also offer an improved, self-service customer experience to buyers that are part of the digital-first generation.

Digital-first generations play a vital role in B2B transactions and are beginning to demand digital self-service options from their sellers. Without an online offering, B2B sellers risk getting left behind as competitors move to digital and become easier and faster to buy from. Those competitors will attract digital-savvy buyers, inciting them to shift their allegiance and purchasing power. The result is a loss in market share for organizations that are reluctant to go digital-first.

We can imagine some of you are balking at that first suggestion.

“Our products are just too custom and too complicated.” you might say. “There are hundreds of possible configurations, combinations, and options!” You might also be concerned that an online self-service channel isn’t up to the task of showcasing the complexity of your entire product catalog.

You might be right. But you probably aren’t.

There are many strategies for selling complex products and custom configurations online. This article will guide you through the concept of how to start building an online self-service experience with the SaleSqueze Configuration Platform for complex products. SaleSqueze allows your customers to piece products together and submit them as quotes or orders, no matter how many features they have, options, and calculations involved.

B2B buyers are digitally savvy and demand self-service

Due to changing B2B buyer behavior, Gartner predicts that by 2024, 80% of ordering and replenishment will be touchless for most organizations. The preferred methods of order placement will be digital-first or eCommerce based.

This shows that the B2B buying process has changed dramatically in the last few years. Customer purchase decisions are being made independently of sales reps and traditional sales pipelines and expected journeys.

B2B buying journey in 2023
Source: Gartner – The B2B Buying Journey – The B2B buying process has changed, has your sales strategy?

In order to satisfy the B2B buyer’s needs, suppliers must understand how complex the buying journey has become. If a B2B supplier can ease the burden of the buyer’s journey, they are likely to see increased sales and customer satisfaction in the process. No industry is immune to this movement.

Competitors that are implementing online self-service eCommerce in B2B are moving ahead as they benefit from drastically lower sales costs, improved organizational efficiency, and the power of process automation through ERP and CRM integrations.

But direct self-service ordering through eCommerce accounts for around 17% of all B2B transactions. For most B2B product purchases, buyers first have to place an inquiry, then wait for sales reps to provide a calculation and price quote before they can confirm it and go through with the transaction.

Standardization makes selling configurable products easier

Your products probably have hundreds or even thousands of possible configurations, options, and features that buyers can choose from. It is very challenging to make a good buying experience online for such products. Large and successful companies that found ways to move online made a huge effort to standardize their product portfolio from the sales and also from production side. 

The best way to start with standardization efforts is to look at past order and quote data. Check all the line items and build a data set around how often each possible configuration was sold in the past in real-world scenarios. Most products have some obscure product arrangements that might never sell, or sell very infrequently. If you do the analysis, most of the time will find that there’s a smaller set of configurations that make up the majority of your sales.

Imagine that your hundred most desired configurations make up 90% of your sales volume. The logical next step would be to convert those hundred into standard sales catalog items and offer them on your eCommerce site. The vast majority of your customers will be perfectly happy to choose from this slimmer selection. Only the remaining 10% would need to contact your sales directly, allowing you to streamline your sales processes, increase efficiency, automate ordering and drastically reduce sales costs.

Online B2B self-service channel is not just for simple products

Many manufacturers serve a huge global network of direct buyers, distributors, dealers, and agents. Therefore, they can’t afford to offer just a handful of configurations in their product catalogs. 

And many B2B sellers often assume that digital commerce is only a good fit for pre-packaged, simple, standardized, or consumable products such as replacement parts or office supplies. This assumption simply isn’t true. 

Advances in guided selling, product configuration technologies, pricing optimization, and B2B Configuration Platforms for eCommerce have increased the ability for configurable products to be sold online.

This is exactly what SaleSqueze Configuration Platform makes possible. It allows manufacturers to build, design, and deploy online product configurators for all configurable products. Those products were once considered too complicated to purchase online or required you to build expensive and long-lasting custom configurator projects that only big players can afford. 

Such a platform can support all your customer-facing sales processes, while also taking care of the integration of quotes, orders, and customer data into all your internal systems.

As an example, consider the purchase and configuration of an excavator. A product generally purchased only with the help of a technical sales rep. The user chooses excavator specs and additional equipment from a set of options, including the model, engine power, operating weight, bucket capacity, additional buckets, and the type of power drive.

Along with the ability to get an immediate price quote from the nearest dealer or even purchase this product online on the spot, a robust online B2B Configuration Platform allows organizations to provide all of the research information that the modern B2B buyer is looking for. Research information are video demos and downloadable product datasheets with links to spare parts eCommerce section and all the compatible accessories and options. 

This easy-to-access information fulfills B2B buyers’ desire for a seller-free customer experience. As a bonus, a digital-first sales enablement process allows organizations to tighten up inefficiency, remove unneeded sales costs and improve profit margins.

Configuration Platform optimizes costs and efficiency

As quotes and orders shift online and away from manual processes or antiquated technologies like email, Excel, and PDF catalogs, B2B sellers and buyers experience many benefits. 

The ordering and quoting process is simply more efficient and accurate when executed on digital channels. Buyers and sellers can review and track order activities without the need to communicate via email or phone. All quote and order data is constantly synced between the online B2B self-service channel and ERP systems. Both the buyer and the seller are updated in real-time.

Cost reduction and efficiency benefits of an online B2B self-service channel for buyers and sellers

  • Quote and Order process automation

Traditional, old-fashioned methods of generating, receiving, and processing quotes and orders, such as via email, phone, Excel, Access, and fax, are slow, inefficient, and prone to errors. Buyers often mistype information, or the seller misinterprets the buyer’s request. The result is an error that usually gets detected when the product is already handed over to the shop floor. Errors create production delays and makes all sorts of problems in the production process.

Configuration platforms for B2B eCommerce minimize or eliminate these mistakes. They are precisely following a complex set of product rules, using product validation and error-handling technology, to provide suggestions and configuration thresholds and limits.

Here is a good example. If a buyer places an order for a product with out-of-normal dimensions, the platform would warn the buyer. This type of error checking and validation is almost impossible via manual quote and ordering processes.

  • Improved customer experience and expectations for delivery

B2B Configuration platforms for eCommerce are designed in a way that allows customers and sales teams a lot of control over the entire process. Customers usually order a product with exact terms in mind, and a good B2B eCommerce platform allows them to define the desired delivery date for their inquiry or order. The platform can offer estimated shipping and receipt times based on inventory, knowledge of current processing times, and insight into potential shipping delays.

In some cases (quite many in the last years), B2B eCommerce is connected directly to the factory’s digital twin.  Digital Twin is an AI beast that lives behind the scenes and plans the production schedule.  Its job is to accurately calculate delivery dates for every item on the quote or order. This information is not always available to a customer support taking a phone call while it is already too late to accurately set the buyer’s expectations for orders and inquiries received via email or fax.

The very best B2B eCommerce platforms for complex products allow sellers to easily build and deploy guided selling flows, that replace the consulting process. This is usually carried out by sales reps to guide the customer to the correct product family. Navigation to the correct product family is taken over by the product configurator.  Configurator guides the customer through the configuration process and visualizes the product to make the purchase decision a lot easier

All this together forms a unique buying experience that customers love and trust. Furthermore, it replaces the manual error-prone and labor-intensive sales process. And the best part is it that works 24/7 and is accessible anywhere in the world in any language, timezone, and on any device.

  • Reduced cost of sales and service

Manufacturing companies have changed vastly over the last twenty years and processes have not always been adapted at the same time. That’s why many businesses double enter data which is also known as ‘swivel-chair processing’. Traditional quoting and order processing methods in manufacturing and distribution are the best possible examples of swivel-chair processing. 

This is the habit of entering data into one system, swiveling your chair around, and then entering it into another system, possibly more than once. Reducing and then removing this from quoting and ordering in most cases streamlines the quoting and ordering process, impacts overheads, and reduces labor-intensive tasks while increasing product margins and profits.

There are many reasons why this happens and below is a list of just a few obvious ones that we hear about in our day-to-day conversations with manufacturers. Maybe you can relate to some of them.

A sales rep receives an email from a customer with an order. The order has a PDF attached that was automatically generated by the buyer’s ERP and sent as an email attachment. The sales rep has to open the PDF attachment, go through all the items, and reenter them into the company’s ERP to create an order. Once the order is created, he must look up the prices and discounts for this customer in Excel, update the prices on the order, equip the order with buyer-specific terms and delivery. Then call the production line to get the production dates and then finally generate the order confirmation, save it as a PDF, attach it to the email reply and send it back to the buyer.

This process is error-prone and very labor-intensive. With a B2B Product Configuration Platform, quotes and orders placed online flow directly into the ERP or order management systems for automatic processing.

  • Improved transparency with real-time status updates

B2B Product Configuration Platform offers transparency and traceability beyond just the standard order history. Buyers can view pricing, BOM list, promotions, approvals, delivery information, and also inquiries and quotes. B2B Product Configuration Platform sites can provide “order status” links that pull live production data directly from ERP or order management systems. This provides accurate and real-time status updates for buyers for orders and quotes that are in process and eliminates the need for constant buyer queries to the sales or customer service teams. 

Without an online overview of order history and active orders, customers have to place additional phone calls or send follow-up emails with status queries. This increases the buyer’s frustration and makes up for a poor experience while adding support costs for the seller.

  • Customer self-service reduces lead times

B2B Product Configuration Platform allows you to offer products and materials from your entire inventory, upfront to your customer. Meanwhile, guided selling and product configurators are built to eliminate configurations that don’t work because of technical or regulatory reasons. All that combined, the product configuration process reduces the typical time used for quote or order entry, corrections (usually detected on the shop floor), and processing.

  • Configurable product pricing, rules, and accuracy

B2B Product Configuration Platforms for configurable products like SaleSqueze frequently integrate with the company’s ERP system to sync the master data. This includes the product catalog, buyer or contract-specific pricing for each buying organization, categories, and parameters of products, images, and other important product or buyer-related data. 

What is often the biggest nut to crack are the product rules, calculations, and pricing that depends on several factors and configuration parameters. Accuracy is crucial to automate and digitize quoting and ordering. This is the biggest problem that prevents companies to sell complex products online. B2B Product Configuration Platforms like SaleSqueze make defining and maintaining configurable products, rules, calculations, and pricing logic quick and easy for manufacturers. 

Accurate product and pricing rules lead to fewer discrepancies between buyers and sales reps, which results in a much better customer experience (CX) and a faster quote-to-cash process. It makes manufacturers that sell complex products easier to buy from. This type of integration can also prevent scenarios in which sales reps or inside sales agents accidentally misquote a price and charge too little, resulting in lost revenue. B2B Product Configuration Platforms also allow sellers to integrate price optimization tools and solutions to maximize revenue and margin from product sales. 

Digital eCommerce platforms like SaleSqueze minimize or eliminate quoting and ordering mistakes by precisely following a set of product and pricing rules and marrying them with validation, error-handling, and BOM-checking technologies.

  • Simple reordering with 1 click

Many B2B quotes and orders are either replenishment orders or orders that do not need much product discovery and research. In these scenarios, guided selling and product configuration are not needed and buyers prefer to find the last order or quote and just repeat it while slightly adjusting the quantities. Some buyers even place the same order for the same products, with the same quantity, every month – like clockwork. 

B2B Product Configuration Platforms can simplify this process with functionality for viewing and duplicating previous orders with 1 click. The best ones even offer a subscription-like replenishment ordering. B2B buyers just set the desired timing of the orders and the platform takes care of the rest. It is a simple process for buyers. But greater simplicity also results in timely reorders, which results in more revenue for sellers.

  • Shorter sales cycles and up to 40% increase in sales

Automation and digitization powered by B2B Product Configuration Platforms creates more straightforward and efficient buying processes, which shortens the sales cycles. Because the offerings are completely self-service and available 24/7, online ordering eliminates the inefficiency of contacting a sales rep, waiting for the company’s business hours or filling out a PDF or online order form. 

Similarly, the B2B Product Configuration Platform can automate other sales processes that are slower when done in non-digital ways. Those processes would be creating quotes, selling spare parts, adding discounts, running promotions, and processing claims and warranties.

Manufacturers, it’s time to get digital-first with the SaleSqueze B2B Product Configuration Platform

There’s no time like the present to prepare for the future.

Many manufacturers assume that the products they’re selling are just too complex to be handled by the buyer directly through a self-service eCommerce platform. The introduction of guided selling and product configuration, allows these complex products to be pieced together by the buyers and submitted as quotes or orders.

If you’d like to learn more about the SaleSqueze Configuration Platform for B2B Product Configuration Platform, you can book a free strategy and demo call. Our consultants and subject-matter experts that are well-versed in what it takes to get you up and running on B2B Product Configuration Platform.

If you are looking to start a project in B2B Product Configuration Platform for Configurable products you are on a right place. We’ve prepared a simple way for you to start.  Apply for SaleSqueze Configuration Challenge and get a personalized product demo in 1 week.

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