Why Customer Portals Are Crucial for Distributor eCommerce

eCommerce for distributors is about much more than just selling. Providing better, timely, and more efficient customer service is crucial to gaining momentum in loyalty and sales. 

Back in the day, B2B customers required a certain amount of handholding through the buying process. Now, they want to do their own research and make in-the-moment purchases on their own time. 

Creating this experience for customers is key for B2B eCommerce brands that want to scale. Building long-term relationships with customers requires making information accessible and personalized based on their needs and history - a.k.a. A robust customer portal. 

There’s no hiding the fact that B2B commerce for distributors has changed dramatically

Huge leaps in the tech world have changed the way customers engage and interact with brands - even the methods used just a couple of years ago are now outdated and irrelevant. 

With more options available than ever before, it’s no real surprise that customers expect personalized, self-service experiences they can drive themselves. 

In this article, we’ll discuss what a customer portal is, why it’s important, and the first steps in planning and getting started.

What Is A Customer Portal? 

Think of a customer portal as a personalized space where customers can manage their accounts, make new purchases, view their order history, and glean product inspiration. 

It’s gated through a login system and the portal looks different for every customer. As part of a wider eCommerce website, the customer portal is a small corner made accessible only to pre-registered customers and past buyers. 

Customer portals can be very flexible, too. 

Not every customer has the same needs, so building flexibility into their experience with your portal is key. Segregate buyers into groups based on their demographics, purchasing power, and past behavior, and offer them access to relevant content based on their group needs

In action, this might look like a branded portal for your biggest clients with recommended products specific for their industry or customer type. 

Other activities customers can carry out through a distributor portal include: 

  • Tracking in-transit orders
  • Viewing their order histories
  • Managing their shipping preferences
  • Checking and printing out invoices and receipts
  • Making payments against invoices or open orders
  • Saving their preferred payment methods
  • Updating company profile information

A recent study revealed that 67% of participants would far rather have access to a customer portal for self-service than speak to a sales rep. We can assume this number will only increase as consumers gain familiarity with technology and self-service options become widely available. A whole new generation of B2B buyers is expecting the self-service option when they’re buying online - whether purchasing for personal use or business.

Where Do Customer Portals Fit as Part of a B2B Storefront?

Your B2B website is the gateway to the customer portal. The portal is a section or a subset of the eCommerce storefront, but it’s often overlooked and underutilized. 

Customers arrive on your site and log in to their personalized account to get granular information. It’s solely for buyers and registered shoppers rather than the wider glut of browsers and non-buyers. 

Think of your overall website as the framework, and the customer portal as an element within that. 

Most importantly, the customer portal is just one digital touchpoint in the larger sales cycle. It creates a seamless experience for customers who have provided data through previous purchases or relevant browsing history. 

For example, one Slatwall Commerce client (see images below) encourages users to register for an account, where they can then access key information like order history, invoices, and personalized product recommendations. Having all of this information in one place allows their customers to easily reorder items, view account history, set up recurring payments, and much more.

The Benefits of Creating a Great Customer Portal

All too often, the customer portal or “My Account” area of a distributor's eCommerce storefront is an afterthought. Too much time is spent on the direct selling and product touchpoints and forgetting that the easiest sale is to convince an existing customer to purchase again. A well-built and designed portal provides distributor customers with a dedicated space to access personalized information, make purchases, and view their order history.

Here are the biggest benefits that well-built customer portals provide.

1. Build Long-term Customer Relationships and Increase Loyalty

All of this points to a growing insatiable need for personalized content. With competition fiercer than ever, it’s crucial for distributors to create individual experiences for each and every buyer. 

Loyalty drives repeat customers, plus returning customers are more likely to spend more than their new counterparts. The more often you’re able to get customers returning to your storefront and making purchases, the bigger the habit you’re building.

By their very nature, the “My Account” section of your customer portal means you can count on an experience that’s personalized to the customer. After all, it gives that customer a significant amount of control over their own order history, account details, address book, and so on.

Customer portals create a dedicated space to serve personalized experiences and nurture those all-important existing customers.

2. Eliminate Manual Efforts and Scale Results 

Whether it’s the result of a poor integration between the back-office and eCommerce storefront, or something else, any manual processing of data is damaging to the business. Manual processes can dramatically slow down growth rates for any distributor looking to grow online. Clunky methods of the past that require high levels of human interaction and attention make it near-on impossible to scale at any rate. 

For customers, access to their own information helps to eliminate manual processes and lowers the need for real-person involvement - whether it’s for updating or maintenance. Contrary to popular belief, this actually reduces the risk of error and oversight, making the experience far more enjoyable and smooth for buyers. 

Employees are freed up to focus on strategic efforts and build long-lasting relationships with partners and distributors rather than getting bogged down in repetitive daily tasks, like manually sending order information and tracking details, or manually updating account information.

3. Efficiently Enrich the Customer Experience 

“The journey to better loyalty, advocacy and satisfaction begins with meeting customers’ basic needs,” says Chris Pemberton of Gartner. 

Customer experience now ranks as one of the most important and exciting elements of doing business. Without it, eCommerce brands lose out to competitors that are actively creating unique and personalized journeys for their buyers. 

In fact, a totally satisfied customer contributes up to 2.6 times as much revenue as a somewhat satisfied customer and up to 14 times as much as a dissatisfied customer. 

The account portal is a simple way to create an individual experience geared to each customer’s needs. Not only do they lay out independent journeys for customers, but they reduce the need for ticket requests and support interaction through relevant content and detailed account information. 

Self-service features like an internal knowledgebase, FAQs, and valuable content let customers do the work themselves instead of relying on an employee to help them. This can save a lot of time, especially if a support team is limited to answering one ticket at a time. 

For example, if the customer has purchased systems or complicated products, can you push related support content, etc. to the forefront of their experience on a “Support” page? Or deliver the technical guides, specifications, manuals, and more to the customer without them needing to search for it? Considering that much of that content already exists on the sales side (like the product detail pages), displaying it as part of the account experience should have a minimal technical lift.

4. Speed Up the Sales Cycle and Grow Revenue 

Customer portals often double up as robust reporting tools for both sides. Customers are able to access real-time dashboards and detailed account summaries, while distributors can unlock data points about their buyers.

This is the perfect place to ask customers for their preferences when they sign up or pull data from their interactions, like their most-bought products or how often they place an order.

Information like this can generate more value for customers and provide accurate recommendations and reports to improve systems for both buyers and distributors. 

Through data points and automated solutions, portals make it easy for customers to purchase products or access services. As a result, the sales cycle becomes much quicker and more convenient (something that’s hugely beneficial to the B2B world, where the sales cycle is notoriously long and drawn out).

5. Generate More Sales By Making the Process Easier

A customer portal on your eCommerce storefront can generate more sales and have a great effect on customer lifetime value. How is this possible? By anticipating the needs of your customers and making the purchasing and reordering processes easier. If you’re selling products, for instance, that need replenishment, additional supplies, or even new parts regularly, the storefront capability within the order history area of the portal is key to that experience.

With a simple reorder button added to the main dashboard of the customer account, you’re removing the typical process of them having to search your site to find what they’re looking for and instead focusing the customer on an easy replenishment process. Customers can quickly purchase and move on. There are many adjustments to make their journey even smoother. For example, if you’re already sending a reorder reminder, why not link the customer directly to the product order history? 

What kind of logic needs to be added to the dashboard to make that happen? To start, you would want to review your product catalog for individual items or types of items that are a great fit for easy reordering. For example, if the customer has purchased a set of products/SKUs more than 5 times in the previous 12 months, display a listing of those items with a “Buy” button on the account dashboard. Simple. Of course, being able to access and query that customer data is key to the process. By eliminating the majority of the shopping experience, you’re driving customers directly to the checkout flow.

6. Create a Digital Self-Service Experience For Modern-Day Buyers

Modern B2B buyers have new expectations about how they will be working with your team. Relying on phone calls and support tickets is no longer an effective way to communicate with your customers. This is where digital self-service comes into play, allowing them to manage their own accounts, but also find information, educational resources and get support easily when they need it.

To determine what customer service functions should be moved online, take stock of what issues your customers are emailing and calling about. Segment these into a list and start by digitizing the ones that come up most frequently and are the easiest to move. Not every customer is going to want to get support online, but by increasing methods of communication and availability, you’re providing a better service and being perceived as more responsive and customer-focused.

How To Get Started

Unlike the rest of a commerce platform experience, adding features and capabilities to your customer portal can be done in stages. While there is a baseline of functionality that any store needs in order to launch, priority portal features can be added as needed. 

For example, a reordering button, like we described above can be quickly inserted on the “Order Detail'' screens of the portal. This piece of major functionality isn’t a heavy lift and has the potential to drive many additional sales.  

With a focus on quick wins, you don’t have to be concerned about the investment needed to get a customer portal up and running, whether you’ll be able to get stakeholder buy-in or the time commitment that’s involved in such an activity. With the right tools and a knowledgeable partner on-side, the implementation process can be streamlined. 

Even if you find yourself limited by your site’s commerce features, it can still be easy to set up a portal and drive increased revenue through personalized interactions. 

At Slatwall, we can assess your platform, see what capabilities it has, and walk you through a step-by-step process for setting up a successful customer portal that leverages all the great benefits we’ve listed here.

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