Is trying to offer an “Amazon” style experience in e-procurement a good idea?


Is trying to offer an “Amazon” style experience in e-procurement a good idea?

From the top, I’m going to state my view – aiming to offer an “Amazon” type experience in your e-procurement system is a pointless aspiration. I’d go further – it is positively counter-productive and is symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of what enterprise procurement applications should be.

I absolutely understand why many would disagree strongly with this opening paragraph. People use their computers, tablets and phones to buy things all of the time and they expect the user experience at work to be as slick and easy as in their personal lives. Businesses – especially those wishing to recruit millennials – are increasingly aware that they need to incorporate some of the same user experience to B2B purchasing that users enjoy in their personal lives.

But what specifically are those features that users expect? A typical list of user requirements today might include:

Speed. With a job to do, purchasing for many users is a distraction from core work. Amazon lets the user buy with a single click – even from a smart phone. They don’t even have to remember credit card details.

Look and feel. Unlike many corporate tools, e-commerce sites are contemporary and stylish – even chic or hip. The aesthetics of work tools is important.

Requestor Support. User reviews and product comparisons on e-commerce sites help to make sure users buy the right product.

These features define, in part, a contemporary e-commerce experience. Online retailers make buying a breeze and for busy people in the workplace, buying shouldn’t be hard work. Besides, if the corporate buying process is too complicated, users will revert whenever possible to the slicker and more efficient ways of buying. It makes sense. The more time they spend buying the less time they are doing their job so why not incorporate these e-commerce features into an e-procurement system in order to make the buying process quick and easy?

It all sounds very compelling.

But e-commerce and e-procurement are fundamentally not the same. e-commerce is designed to sell to consumers, e-procurement is designed to help businesses to buy. The business requirements that drive the designs of each are completely different.



Many e-procurement users want an “Amazon” style user experience

Why is the e-commerce experience the way it is?

In many respects the e-commerce experience is no different from traditional consumer experience. Take the product comparison feature that users like so much and think about an occasion when you looked at the wine list in an average restaurant. Ever seen just 3 choices? The cheap wine priced at 7, the expensive wine priced at 25 and the moderate one at 13. Most of the time, customers go for the middle option.

We are all familiar with this psychological trick but even when you know it, it’s very difficult to resist. No-one wants to appear cheap and the expensive wine is a little pricey. We are being manipulated to buy the wine that the restaurant wants us to have – the middle wine which probably has the highest margin. This trick is incorporated into many e-commerce user experiences and while it feels like you’re being given choice, the product comparison is often there to push what the retailer wants to sell rather than provide informed choice.

(By the way, you may have noticed I quoted the example wine prices without currency. This isn’t to be neutral. It is increasingly common to see prices in restaurants quoted without a $, € or £ sign. This isn’t because the restaurant is chic and fashionable it because research shows that people spend 8% more when the money isn’t mentioned too overtly.)

What about user reviews on retailers’ sites? We all know that many are fake and I think most of us can spot gushing praise and ignore those reviews but did you know that many of the genuine consumer reviews (and they are genuine) are by customers who were given the products for free? Reputable sites are now pointing these reviews out and while they are honest and genuine, they’re far from objective. The reviews are not there to give you a fully informed choice. They are there to reinforce your feeling that you are making the right decision to part with your cash.

The one-click purchase is a favourite feature of the Amazon experience but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s there for the user’s benefit. One of the biggest issues that e-commerce businesses have to deal with is checkout abandonment. This doesn’t happen in traditional retail. How many times have you seen someone change their mind at the point of paying in a traditional store? But the e-commerce check-out is full of reasons to change your mind. Unexpected extra charges; a pause in the process is an opportunity to consider whether you really can afford what you’ve selected; the mention of a discount voucher that you were unaware of or simple buyer remorse at the last second. On-line retailers work hard to manage these issues but the most effective way to manage them is to steer the customer away from the checkout completely.

Oh, and one more thing – stock availability. This seems like a great feature to have in an e-procurement tool but be assured, if you introduce a field for suppliers to tell you how many products are in stock, don’t be surprised if it is always just 2. As a consumer, I fall for this every time.

What’s wrong with an “Amazon” style user experience?

Retailers’ psychological tricks are not new. We know that grocery stores are laid out to get us lost so we walk around the whole shop. We know that free samples of food are given out to slow us down and keep us in the store longer. We know that retailers use colours and smells to trick us into buying from them and spending more when we do. And, by and large, we enjoy it. We wouldn’t go to these shops if we didn’t. So it’s no wonder people enjoy amazon more than they enjoy their ERP system – that’s the way Amazon is designed to be.

Just because the retail experience employs psychology designed to make us spend more, does it mean that e-procurement systems cannot take advantage of some of the same features to make it quick, efficient and even enjoyable? No. Some of the great features of e-commerce sites can of course be copied but we need to implement from the perspective of understanding what our corporate e-procurement system is there for. Unlike e-commerce, it is there to ensure that the right products are bought at the right price from the right suppliers, to ensure that that spend is measured and allocated properly and to facilitate an automated, end-to-end Purchase to Pay process.

Yes, we can incorporate one-click purchases into our e-procurement tools but only when it is appropriate – perhaps for low value products. Yes, we can include product comparisons but only to support and inform the purchasing decision and not to upsell. Yes, we can have a contemporary look and feel, intelligent search, genuine user reviews and so on but no, we cannot ignore some of the necessary processes and controls that make corporate purchasing different from consumer shopping. We need to have approvals, we need to allocate spend and we need to account properly. These are not nice to haves, they are legal requirements.

The comparison of e-procurement to Amazon is shorthand for saying that we can automate the corporate purchasing process but care should be taken not to take the comparison any further. Comparing e-procurement with e-commerce is not comparing apples with apples. They have different purposes and a different set of business requirements driven from different sides of the buy/sell divide.

In short, don’t aim for an “Amazon” style user experience. It’s not designed for buyers, it’s designed for sellers.

Pete Loughlin can be found on twitter @peteloughlin

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