B2B Commerce Challenges - Product Data Management

Product Data Unification and Standardization - A critical process for successful B2B Commerce initiatives.

Why data unification and standardization are foundational for superior digital customer experiences in B2B

Data unification and standardization is the process of ingesting data from various operational systems and sources and combining them into a single source of truth. How? By performing transformations, schema adaptations, deduplications, and general cleansing of records to standardize and achieve data completeness, accuracy, and richness. And by performing quite a bit of manual labor, that's still holding true.

While this is a general process applicable to likely various data types throughout the organization, B2B sellers seeking to offer their customers superior e-commerce experiences, need to embrace this process specifically when it comes to Product Data.

Business leaders understand the importance of leveraging quality data for their company’s success. Often several factors prevent organizations from successfully managing this process and the reasons are manifold. Important to note: it is not the lack of technology options, but rather it is the lack of focus on the necessary organizational changes that are required to establish an internal data aggregation and enrichment discipline.

As a digital services firm executing and delivering content & commerce solutions for leading manufacturers, distributors, and wholesalers, we see challenges with this process specifically in relation to Product data and product content assets (such as images, video, specifications sheets, manuals, etc.).

In this blog we explore data unification and standardization challenges when it comes to product data and offer practical guidance how to tackle this important aspect of successful digital execution. In our experience, good data unification and standardization of product data and content begets good financial outcomes because there is a direct correlation between the quality of your product data, attribute richness, meaningful descriptions, etc. and the performance of onsite and offsite search results.

Many organizations are uncertain about how to carry out this journey. Turning to technology is necessary but not sufficient to succeed with this process. Organizational aspects and readiness to build the necessary supporting infrastructure comprised of people, process, and platforms is required to cope with this vast scope. This article provides guidance on how organizations can begin mastering the critical aspect of building a rich, complete, structured, and well optimized body of product data and content optimized for digital commerce in B2B. We will also discuss how such optimized product information can then be leveraged with powerful merchandizing and “searchandizing” strategies as offered for instance by the search platforms or how it can be brought to live throughout visual purchasing experiences.

Sourcing and Standardizing of Product Data and Content

Depending on whether your organization is a manufacturer or distributor, product data is the ultimate currency to support any sales efforts offline or online. However, specifically for online sales, it is paramount that rich and “web-ready” product content is being created, curated, sourced, and aggregated. While manufacturing organizations often originate product information and syndicate it, distributors source it from a variety of suppliers. We do not differentiate further between the two models and the nuances between manufacturers and distributors in this post, but instead the key challenges around unifying and standardizing this product data and content are similar:

  1. Whether created or sourced, product information (data, content, and assets) needs to be systematically collected, aggregated, standardized, and managed. This effort can be supported by Product Information Management (PIM) platforms and systems, which not only can facilitate storing the company-wide golden records, but more so help operationalize, streamline, and automate critical workflows and collaborative processes leading to the wealth of product information, which truly becomes a competitive asset for your organization. But it is mandatory that the necessary skills and resources are being dedicated to this effort. Many of our clients who have successfully mastered the data discipline leverage outsourced services and data aggregators for product data cleansing and standardization, and/or bring dedicated personnel on board often prior to, or in the context of, the e-commerce initiative. Timing matters. 

If you are unsure of where to start when looking at PIM platform choices and operational needs, Xngage can assist in finding the right platform and can guide the operational transformation that is required to ensure appropriate resources are in place to handle the product information challenge from a people-and-process perspective.

  1. Obviously, product data should be descriptive, relevant, accurate, and complete. This is where traditional selling models, which are supported by sales reps and field experts with intimate product knowledge, differ from online-based selling. Bringing that intimate knowledge to the online space is critical. From awareness generation to selling (e.g., conversion), everything revolves around a well-structured, optimized, and “webified” product catalog. From descriptive product titles, relevant and precise product descriptions, to high quality images (e.g., multiple images preferably), to video, to unstructured product content such as spec sheets, manuals, and other collateral, it all needs to come together on the product detail page (PDP) and much sooner, during the exploration and education stages of the B2B buying journey. We will look at this in the next section of this blog.
  2. Most importantly though in B2B commerce, is the ability to support customers in finding the right product for the job and making “fit-decisions”. Specifically tying together a rich set of attributes and attribute values which have been standardized for appropriate measure of unit, language, and values. The day-to-day struggles often evolve around not only having to obtain the information (source vast attribute data sets) but also ensuring that attribute values from different sources are harmonized and standardized. Without this important process of standardization, unification and ultimately indexation, powering excellent search results is nearly impossible.
  3. Another typical B2B requirement is the ability to allow customers to manage products from the catalog using their own product IDs (otherwise called customer part numbers) or by creating customer-specific catalogs (buying templates). This is where e-commerce platform choices need to be made with a solid understanding of B2B-specific use cases and requirements to ensure the appropriate constructs are available in those platforms expected to power your online offerings.

Many other aspects regarding sourcing, cleansing, and aggregating high-quality product content need to be considered. The B2B experts at Xngage can consult and guide you on this immensely important pre-requisite for a successful e-commerce initiative in B2B.

Exploded Parts Diagram

Benefiting from and Using High-Quality Product Information

Let us turn to how organizations can benefit from investing in the process of aggregating high quality product information described thus far. Again, going through the effort of creating high-quality product information is a pre-requisite for building superior experiences. When it comes to powering their e-commerce presence, sellers can achieve great levels of differentiation in the customer experience. A lot of this experience is directly tied to having done the leg work outlined thus far. The other aspect of superior experiences hinges on the tools and technologies employed in the delivery of content & commerce solutions. Presenting a digital product catalog online has long become table stakes: organizations must push beyond manual product exploration (such as category drill-down or brand-based product browsing) giving customers informed, relevant visibility not only into the catalog but beyond.

What powers relevant digital customer experiences in B2B

There is much talk about the importance of the customer experience. Even software vendors lead with the idea of user-centric design and 'digital experience platforms'. Yet when it comes to B2B commerce, truly understanding what such experiences look like will yield a differentiated digital presence for manufacturers and distributors alike.

In working with many diverse clients, Xngage has found that in B2B commerce, the most relevant digital customer experiences are intelligent, personalized, and predictive. Platforms such as Coveo and Optimizely (formerly EpiServer) can help make every digital experience a relevant one. Let us unpack what that means in the context of B2B commerce.

  1. Intelligent experiences:
    Allowing customers to find the information they care about faster is possible by using technology which can aggregate and index content from various sources to correlate and blend data on the fly.

This can be achieved with search technology that goes beyond basic retrieval of information using scoring models. True differentiation is achieved by search that can yield relevant results, based on context. This may include boosting of products a customer has frequently purchased, search results that are ranked based on real-time user behaviors, and search results which understand intent.

Another very important area of intelligent search is search which can yield product results, content results, and deep-indexed assets (e.g., documents) results. B2B buyers are looking for specific information and at times such information is contained in product spec sheets or product manuals, warranty certificates, or other unstructured content.

Finally, intelligent search is about a learning system which can, over time, understand purchaser intent and product association and relationship. B2B customers often are looking for technical details or specific fit of a product or part into a larger device or piece of equipment, they may be looking for a certain technical product specification to meet construction job requirements, etc. Hence, detailed search, also with phrase matching, allows customers to be specific is mandatory and goes beyond short, exact-match queries.

  1. Personalized experiences:
    Personalization in B2B is less about the actual user and his or her preferences but it is all about contextualizing the purchasing and procurement journey based on the contractual obligations and terms & conditions established for the trading partner (customer) currently on operating the website. In the context of the product catalog, this means that not all products may be applicable for the given customer and hence only subsets of the product assortment are made available on the website. This includes search experiences.

Search results which take into consideration restriction rules and product assortment constraints are personalized search results in B2B. Search results which can correlate product availability (inventory) to influence ranking are relevant B2B search results. This is equally true for a single global inventory or even multiple local (branch-level) inventories. Customers in B2B need to understand which product they can procure from where and when.

If search is context aware and understands who is querying, relevancy can be increased.

  1. Predictive experiences:
    A significant opportunity in B2B commerce exists in broadening share of wallet by educating existing customers of the full breath of product assortment, adjacent product lines, and up-sell/cross-sell opportunities. Similarly, driving geographic reach and awareness with net-new customers by deploying SEO-optimized product catalogs online can help increase overall sales in that channel. Increasingly, technology comes to assist with what has traditionally been manual merchandizing and curation of product assortments.

AI-powered product recommendations can promote (and surface) products which are contextually relevant based on the current product detail page, or based on cart contents, or based on the purchase history, or the click-path through the site, or some combination of all of it. Some platforms, such as Coveo, even go so far to allow the seller to chose the appropriate recommendation model by leveraging algorithms based on interest, frequently viewed, purchased together, popular items, and more. Important in this context again, is the ability to create a unified index allowing the technology to derive its “smarts” based on information contained across different sources and systems to serve the right recommendation at the right moment.

Finally, predictive experiences are those that are informed by experiments and by what works best. For instance, it is now possible to use A/B testing within product recommendation engines to understand what types of up-sell or cross-sell strategies yield the biggest commercial impacts or which product mix yields the best margin impacts based on cost structures and availability. With our partner Optimizely, we can deploy experimentation and thus allow sellers to measure and optimize the buying experience.

Unified and standardized product data is the core of great B2B experiences. B2B businesses often have a complex value chain, and this unified and standardized data index across products, customers, orders, and assets can create competitive advantages for organizations. The ones that understand this and leverage it will set the pace for what all superior B2B experiences look like, and gain sales and loyalty as a result.

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