The HVACR Industry's eCommerce Checklist

Aug. 1, 2012
Few industries feature products that are as complex as those offered by the HVACR industry. Each system ties to an array of product specifications, complicating

Few industries feature products that are as complex as those offered by the HVACR industry. Each system ties to an array of product specifications, complicating the identification and distribution of products to contractors and other buyers in the Business-to-Business (B2B) marketplace.

Across a wide range of industries, eCommerce is playing a larger role in the B2B experience. HVACR wholesalers are now embracing eCommerce as a way to deliver enhanced customer experiences and achieve targeted business outcomes.

But many HVACR wholesalers focus too much on transactions and not enough on product content, severely underestimating the type of solution they need to properly manage their digital content. The result is a lackluster eCommerce program with flat HTML product pages and other elements that fail to satisfy wholesale buyers - who as consumers have come to expect much more from organizations' online experiences.

Going forward, eCommerce will play an increasingly larger role in the HVACR industry. To compete, wholesalers need to take the quality of their eCommerce experience and online product content as seriously as firms that sell directly to consumers, or risk losing both revenue and market share in the B2B marketplace.

Checklist of Best Practices in HVACR eCommerce

Effective HVACR eCommerce programs don't grow organically. They require the implementation of strategies and best practices that you will find in nearly all successful B2B eCommerce programs.

In the HVACR space, there are several ways that wholesalers should be leveraging their eCommerce platforms to achieve targeted business outcomes:

  • Channel consistency and expansion - It's a mistake to view eCommerce as an isolated part of an organization's multichannel agenda. In most cases, eCommerce platforms and online product catalogs should amplify the effectiveness of other channels, including catalog, over-the-counter, phone, fax and third-party distributors.

    But growing and expanding eCommerce performance across a variety of channels requires a certain amount of agility. If product content and customer experience aren't consistent across all of an organization's channels, the eCommerce program can actually hurt a company's business outcomes.

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As a best practice, HVACR wholesalers need to build their eCommerce programs on an open platform that enables them to grow and expand with the pace of technology, while delivering consistent experiences across all platforms that customers use to interact with the organization.

  • Order personalization - eCommerce allows HVACR wholesalers to create highly personalized buying experiences for B2B customers. Robust eCommerce solutions leverage personalization to create enhanced ordering features and benefits that simply aren't achievable through one-dimensional solutions.

    From a best practices perspective, HVACR eCommerce solutions should enable customers to check pricing, view order status, track order history, receive customized promotions based on previous offers/orders and perform other personalized activities.

    For HVACR customers, personalization offers added value in the form of convenience, efficiency and cost savings, but personalization also benefits wholesalers. In addition to leveraging personalization to promote customer loyalty, customized offers and other tactics can be used to increase the size and frequency of orders.

  • Real-time pricing and product information - Real-time product updates are essential in a wholesale HVACR environment. The sheer volume and complexity of product specifications require a mechanism capable of managing product information across the organization.

    For many B2B customers, the accuracy of product data has a real dollar impact on bottom line financials. In a worst case scenario, inaccurate product orders can cause delays, operational inefficiencies and possibly the loss of business opportunities.

    As the variety of channels that customers use to connect with HVACR providers increases, it is becoming even more important for wholesalers to incorporate customer-facing features into their eCommerce programs - including the ability to update product information across all channels in real-time.

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Self-help resources - The delivery of self-help resources through eCommerce platforms is another way HVACR sellers can generate added value by offering customer-facing features and benefits.

For contractors and other HVACR buyers, the ability to access repair manuals, user guides and self-help resources online translates into improved operational efficiency, a benefit that is even more relevant now that many installers and repair specialists regularly use mobile technology in the field. Digital access to updated product guides is also helpful to consumers since they no longer have to wrestle with the thick packet of documents they would normally receive at the time of installation.

Because businesses now provide electronic user guides and self-help resources, customers rarely need to pick up the phone. This minimizes (or eliminates) call center costs while at the same time strengthening customer relationships by providing a better overall experience with the HVACR provider.

  • Order management - eCommerce best practices can dramatically improve wholesalers' ability to offer timely order management and fulfillment services to their customers.

    With the right eCommerce solution, wholesalers can create self-service opportunities for customers, allowing them to place an order without making a call, track order status online and perform various other activities that are taken for granted in the B2C marketplace.

    By reducing the amount of paperwork that is required to place an order and streamlining the ordering process, HVACR wholesalers also create opportunities to expand customer relationships and deliver unique experiences that are more in line with their customers' digital expectations.

  • eCommerce Opportunities for B2B Wholesalers

    In many ways, eCommerce is still a nascent strategy in the HVACR industry. As HVACR eCommerce programs mature, wholesalers will find new ways to forge connections with customers in the digital space. But in the near-term, there are several opportunities that B2B and HVACR wholesalers should be targeting in their eCommerce platforms and programs.

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Customer satisfaction - B2B wholesalers have the opportunity to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty by delivering multichannel convenience through a single platform. In the current marketplace, seamless and personalized customer experiences have real value to HVACR buyers.

  • Cost reductions - Comprehensive eCommerce solutions allow wholesalers to streamline business operations and reduce costs. In many cases, wholesalers can deliver a better customer experience while reducing their investments in call centers and customer service departments.

  • Increased revenue - eCommerce equips wholesalers with the ability to capture new market segments and fully leverage opportunities in the digital marketplace. As a result, HVACR providers should target revenue opportunities as a measurable outcome of their eCommerce program investments.

  • More conversions - Conversions are key drivers of success online. By strategically embracing the lessons and best practices of B2C eCommerce, B2B wholesalers can benefit from opportunities to increase online conversion rates through their eCommerce platforms.

  • Transaction management - One of the most important opportunities eCommerce presents to wholesalers is the chance to simplify the complexity of B2B transactions. Product content, distribution channels, order management, fulfillment and other transactional features can be made easier and more accessible to customers - substantially improving transactional efficiency and the customer experience.

  • Although it takes time for HVACR wholesalers to create optimized eCommerce programs, the most successful B2B sellers recognize that high quality digital product content is the fastest path to achieving meaningful results from their eCommerce investments. The ability to deploy consistent, easily searchable content across a full range of channels can often be the deciding factor between success and failure in HVACR eCommerce.

    Across the board, wholesalers need to constantly look for new ways to incorporate customer-facing features into their eCommerce agendas. In addition to leveraging an eCommerce platform that is capable of accommodating new technologies, this requires HVACR providers to consider the role social media plays in their eCommerce strategy.

    Finally, B2B wholesalers should model their eCommerce strategies on the successes that B2C eCommerce space is achieving. As more and more business customers demand functionality that matches their online consumer experiences, HVACR providers will need to leverage solutions that deliver B2C type experiences while fully supporting the complexity of B2B eCommerce transactions.

    Steven Kramer is president of North America at hybris, a multichannel commerce software vendor. In his role, Kramer is responsible for running business in the Americas. He's recognized globally for receiving the Sam Steinberg Award for Young Entrepreneur of the Year, which recognizes talented and creative business leaders driving success in innovative new businesses and in growing established leaders within the community.