How to sell complex B2B products online?


Consumerization of B2B buying has made every single manufacturing company, service company and every other industry think again about how they serve their customers online.

Your standard traditional tactics don’t cut it anymore. Having a boring website with a brochure-like approach does not serve today’s buyers, who expect that everything can be bought online, even complex products

Many companies have tried the traditional ecommerce approach, only to realize that these tools don’t really work for them. 

Yes, these 1st generation ecommerce platforms are a perfect fit for a company selling sweatpants and sunglasses but rarely move the needle when it comes to selling complex B2B products online.

In this blog post I’m going to go through the concept of buying jobs, how companies can sell complex products online, give examples of the better buying experience and 

If you think you can’t sell complex products online, you’ve been told wrong

If I got a penny for every time I’ve heard a potential customer saying they’ve been told that you can’t sell complex B2B products online, I would be a billionaire.

Many manufacturers have told me over and over again that they feel immense pressure from their customers to provide them with self-service tools. 

Just a few days ago I heard from a big manufacturing company in Nordics that their bigger customers even require that you can offer an online ordering portal for them to use to configure their products and order them easily.

There’s still a bit of a truth in it. With 1st generation ecommerce platforms selling complex products online is impossible or at least very difficult (not to mention costly). But luckily this is not the case anymore.

Enter the new era of b2b ecommerce.

Self-service tools to help manufacturers sell complex products online

A great way to think about the core components of online sales is to break down the buying process into buying jobs

Buying jobs, much like the jobs to be done framework, are tasks buyers usually go through when buying products. 

  1. Find the right product
  2. Get the right build / right configuration for it
  3. Get the price
  4. Buy

As a company selling our products online, we need to find a way to offer self-service tools for these key buying jobs.

While some aspects might be relatively easy (e.g place your products on your website and clearly state what they do, which problem they solve etc), some aspects are worth considering more. For many manufacturing companies the hardest part is to nail how to provide customers the right configuration, so they can be confident about their purchase. 

1. Find the right product

Traditionally companies have listed their products on their website under the Products section. 

When you’re selling four different machines, finding the right product might not be that difficult. However, when you’re selling more complex products and you have a region-based rules for compatibility, everything becomes more complex.

While you could solve this with filters and different navigation options, it can become a burdensome task to find out exactly what you’re looking for. Product finders are handy tool to make this easier.

Product finders (or product selectors) are simply a set of questions that help your customer to find out the right product. While you can do this with some advanced product configurators, this is usually a better way to handle it when you have hundreds of different products.

On the consumer side, companies like Tesla offer tools to help customers find a suitable product. The challenge with these for many B2B manufacturing companies is that often this type of approach offers score-based result (“this fits your needs 95%”) where your buyer often has a fixed set of criteria that needs to be met.

tesla product selector help me choose

E.g You can’t recommend a wrong-sized fuel hose, no matter if it’s very close to the right size.

2. Get the right build / right configuration

When selling complex products, the key buying job your customer must complete is to get the right configuration for their needs. 

Traditionally this has been done by sales reps, who have controlled the information flow. However, with modern buyers expecting self-service tools and wanting to learn this on their own, you must provide your customers with tools that help them get the information they need.

This is where Product Configurator software comes into play. Product configurators can be a few different types:

Simple product configurator: offers a self-service tool for the buyer to learn about the product and build their desired product. Traditionally companies have offered static product brochures and PDFs on their website that buyers need to download and then try to determine which tools and equipment to get. By offering an interactive product configurator experience, you already offer a much-improved version of a static product brochure.

You can easily turn your website into a sales channel with visual configurators. With visual configurators, customers can configure the product they want, calculate the price (not always exact price, but also price estimate. Please read more here) and request a quote or even buy directly.

Visual product configurator: 

A Visual Product Configurator (often called Visual CPQ), is an interactive digital sales tool that enables customers to visually customize products according to their preferences and requirements before making a purchase.

Key benefits:

  • Real-time Customization and Visualization: Users can select different options, components, colors, materials, and features of a product and see a real-time visualization of their choices
  • Configuration Logic: Behind the scenes, Visual CPQ systems include sophisticated configuration logic that ensures only compatible and feasible options are presented. This prevents customers from selecting combinations that are impossible to manufacture or deliver. 
  • Pricing Information: As users configure their products, the system can dynamically update the price to reflect their choices. This transparency in pricing helps customers understand the cost implications of their selections and make choices that fit their budget. Advanced configurators offer multiple ways to present the pricing information.
  • Improved Customer Experience: By empowering customers to design their products, Visual CPQ tools significantly enhance the shopping experience. This interactive process increases engagement, satisfaction, and the likelihood of a purchase.

3. Get the price

We’ve all been there.

You want to get a price for some products, but the only way is to copy-paste the product names (and possible add-ons + other needed products like attachments) to the website’s contact sales form and pray for Sales Gods to be in your favor and hopefully somebody gets back to you with a price quote. Often not, since many of these inquiries through contact sales forms get lost in shared inboxes.

Product configurators offer the best way to let your customers build the exact configuration they need and learn about the product at the same time. This lets your customers learn on their own when it’s more convenient for them.

But how do you then present the pricing information? There are certainly many ways to go about it.

You could…

  • Give the exact price for the configured product: This is often the best and recommended way if your product has clear differentiators and IF customers don’t expect to get a discount based on their previous purchases.
  • Give price estimate: give the customer a price estimate and state that if they want a binding quote, they should request a quote
  • Give price range: show the price range for the customer for the configuration. With tools like HeadQ, you can easily add a buffer to each end of the price range to give you some room for negotiations. This is a great way when the final price might be dependent on outside factors, like how many purchases a customer might make in the next 12 months or so.
  • Give visual price estimate: when the customer configures the product, the visual price estimate bar indicates the estimated price for the specific product. When the customer does changes to the configuration, the estimation changes accordingly.

4. Buy

Once your customers have reached the buying decision and decides to buy your product, you should make the buying as frictionless as possible. This means offering the tool to complete the purchase at the spot.

With modern product configurators like HeadQ, you can enable your customers to complete the purchase right after the product configuration.

It’s up to you and your business model and business logic if you wish to include payment in the process. While simpler products are often possible to buy with a credit card (or invoice), the very expensive machinery often involves a human touch in the process of getting the financing for the deal. In this case, you can let your customer to place an order and inform them that your representative will be in touch with you to finalize the purchase.

If you wish to keep your sales reps in the mix, you can let your customer request a quote after the product has been configured to their needs. This is a great way to bridge the gap between digital sales channel and actual human sales force.