In the dawning Customer Experience era, we talk a lot about why it is important, how to get started, what you need to do to be successful and so on. But too often in those discussions, we use business-to-consumer (B2C) companies as our examples and case studies. We tend to use Starbucks, Apple, Costco, USAA, and some of the other award-winning or mass-appealing B2C companies as our examples because they are so broadly familiar. It doesn’t take much ink to introduce something like the iTunes experience, but it would take a while to first familiarize a reader with the trucking industry and the various players who either need to send goods, carry the goods, or broker the rates, routes, and terms between senders and carriers. That leaves the business-to-business (B2B) folks often scratching their heads while trying to find the parallels and application of what they learned in an article about Zappos to their own industry which can be anything from manufacturing to any of the professional service industries.
The truth is, there are some differences, but not so great that B2B’ers should give up entirely. In fact, those differences tend to be very slight and it only takes some minor adjustments in mindset and tactics to develop a winning strategy and put in place profitable programs to the delight of your customers. Unfortunately, those differences sometimes get overblown and misunderstood, resulting in some of the myths that this article aims to debunk.
Myth #1: All B2B Products/Services are Commodities – Removing the Need or Ability to Differentiate
It’s easy to fall into this trap. As you think about the manufacturers of things like nuts and bolts, construction materials, and trucking companies, it is hard to find differentiation in terms of what they provide. As long as the quality is on par and terms of service are acceptable, what else is there? I mean, it’s not like the B2C world where we can compare a Starbucks latte to a coffee shop’s cup of joe. But what is lost with this myth, is that for a lot of industries it flat isn’t true and for all industries it doesn’t even matter that much. The whole point of customer experience is a company’s ability to go beyond the product itself and ensure the overall experience – from researching, ordering, using, and even replacing or renewing the product/service – is managed in a way that delights customers and provides exceptional profits.
So – your product may be a commodity, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop innovating. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply customer experience management techniques to better everything else? What if your print and online catalogs were intuitive and simple to use; while ordering were easy, quick, and efficient through a variety of channels; payment terms were tailored to the customer; any and all issues were handled rapidly; and customer loyalty was rewarded with perks and awards? Wouldn’t that make your “industry standard” product far more appealing if it were wrapped up in all those “industry exceeding” processes and services? By the way, with this paragraph, we could just as easily be describing the Amazon B2C experience or the distributor that supplies thousands of mom-and-pop hardware stores across the country.
Myth #2: B2B Buying Decisions are Made By Committee – Making Strong Customer Relationships Impossible
Large project decisions are made by steering committees, big decisions go to the executive committee, and the really big decisions go to the board. How do you manage relationships among those groups and levels? It is very difficult to know who is on what committee and even impossible to get your message in front of all of them. Something like this could make a B2B’er give up. Why work hard at building relationships and improving the end-to-end experience when some dispassionate group, who will never understand the ease of your ordering process or how you bend over backwards to manage returns, is making the final decision?
Again, believing this myth and accepting your fate at the fickle hands of the committee isn’t the answer. What you can do is work hard on building the right relationships with the right influencer or set of influencers. You can even help your advocates by coaching them through the objections and pushback they may face with examples and tactics from other clients who were successful in convincing the ultimate decision makers (whether peers or superiors). And isn’t that what top B2C companies do? They find their advocates, reward their loyalty, and even arm them with the information to influence their families, friends, or anyone else who will listen? They employ strategies and implement programs to move satisfied customers to loyal, repeat customers and, ultimately, to advocates. While specific tactics might be different, this goal applies just as well in B2B as it does in the B2C world.
Myth #3: RFPs Remove the Importance of the Customer Relationship in B2B
A business needs to find a supplier or service provider and what is the first thing they do? Issue an RFP. While some folks might think this removes the need for any customer experience management, they would again be falling victim to a myth. In fact, a good RFP doesn’t just ask about product qualities or service capabilities to find the best fit into their pre-conceived box defining what they need. It goes further with open-ended questions to find out what else the respondents can do for them and how much effort they’ll put into their responses as an indicator of how important the deal is to them. A good RFP also asks questions and provides scoring on non-product/service aspects like prior performance, cultural fit, adaptability, and more. A good selection process also doesn’t rely solely on RFP responses to make the decision. It should just be part of a broader process that includes things like demos and interviews, not to mention the ability of those who will be directly involved in the relationship to understand what they can expect of their experience and assign that a score or ranking as well.
Of course, that is where the customer experience comes in. Having in place the processes and tools to provide an exceptional customer experience, and to prove it over time or to be able to confidently claim it in an RFP, can and will sway future buying decisions by current and prospective customers.
Myth #4: The Same Customer Experience Tools and Tactics Just Don’t Apply in B2B
The myth here goes something like this, “We have fewer customers than most B2C companies, but get far more revenue from them – therefore, we rely on solid account management to understand needs, adapt our practices, and meet or exceed expectations for each of our customers. We don’t need to map their journey or put in tools to capture survey responses.” While it may be true that they can respond more directly and personally with great account managers, it is definitely not true that the tools, tactics, and activities typically associated with Customer Experience initiatives should be ignored.
Let’s take the Voice of the Customer. In a typical B2C world, this involves surveys through various channels, listening to social media, and even mining and analyzing various forms of online or system data. The intent is to hear what customers are saying, quantify it in some way, and use it to determine where to go next or to justify proposed programs and solutions. While it is true that how you do that across a million consumers would be much different than across clients that are far fewer – even single digits – it would be false to think you don’t need a centralized way of pulling customer feedback together to identify commonalities and trends.
Voice of the Customer processes and tools (regardless of the technical complexity) give all of your customers a voice and prompt even those who are silently unhappy to voice their feedback. Better to ask for it and hear it, then find out when it is too late that something they never told you about was indeed a deal breaker. Additionally, your account managers can benefit from a common source of information about how all accounts are doing, what is being heard, and what is being done. How delighted will a customer be when something they never had time to complain about is proactively fixed for them because you heard it across other accounts?
Myth #5: Social Media is a Broad Concept That Doesn’t Apply to My Small B2B World
At the time of this writing, Starbucks has about 2.6 million followers on Twitter and Disney has over 37 million “Likes” on Facebook. But what if you are a mid-sized manufacturing firm with a few dozen main customers who picks up a few more each year? Why would you do what they do when it comes to Facebook and Twitter? Well, you wouldn’t. But giving up entirely would again be falling victim to a myth. There are certainly other tactics you can take that would not only draw your existing customers closer, but perhaps keep them longer.
LinkedIn Groups and other similar forums, whether hosted by you or not, allow you to build a community among your customers where ideas can be shared, and feedback can be requested and gathered, among other things. You can further your relationship by posting content, informing of upcoming industry trends, and make sure your group is up to date on product information, policies, etc. Don’t think you have to be social on a scale of Ms. Kardashian (over 15 million followers) to need some of the same tools, but rather tailor your approach and messages to fit your need.
I am sure there are other thoughts that abound about B2B and why it is different and not in line with what we typically hear about with Customer Experience, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from striving to meet or exceed the needs and expectations of their customers – you just need to recognize the true differences and adjust your approach accordingly.