Is business-to-business customer experience management (B2B CXM) a watered-down or a souped-up version of consumer experience management? Does the answer differ when the business you’re selling to is a manufacturer versus a professional services company? Or when your company provides specialized industrial goods, ingredients or components for customers’ products, enterprise software versus desktop software, or business services? All these questions are worth exploring. They’re important questions because customer scenarios differ in each case. Ideally, how you manage customer experience custom-fits your customers’ needs, preferences, and circumstances.
This series of monthly B2B CX articles explores the nuances of business customer experience. The questions above will be addressed in future installments.
Universal to most B2B CXM scenarios is the existence of a “village” of people who influence B2B buying decisions. This single fact means a lot. If the purpose of customer surveys is to accurately monitor customers’ likelihood of rebuying, then you must gain an understanding of each influencer’s expectations and sentiment.
A logical follow-up to this is the need to integrate the viewpoints of the “village” to paint a realistic picture. In consumer situations, there are usually only a couple of viewpoints to integrate for any purchase: husband and wife, parent and child. But for B2B situations, you may be grappling with integrating the views of the user, purchasing agent, plant manager, and gatekeepers for IT, safety, facilities, and quality, among others.
And another commonality among many B2B relationships is extensive post-purchase interaction. This may be related to a complicated deployment such as enterprise software, or peer-to-peer, such as engineers from the supplier and customer companies meeting to work out usage details, or a customer appointee who interfaces with multiple locations of the supplier company in a single morning.
Here are 3 keys to getting B2B customer experience management right: capture the whole buying decision equation, integrate influencers’ inputs to paint an accurate picture, and ensure post-purchase customer experience consistency.
1) Capture the Whole Buying Decision Equation: Why try to tie CX to financials without fully understanding who’s driving what?
DO THIS: Identify all parties within a customer account with the power to kill a buying decision. Characterize each party’s expectations and design your customer-listening portfolio to keep a radar on their sentiment. Quantify the consequences of meeting or missing each party’s expectations.
From the ClearAction Business-to-Business Customer Experience Management Benchmarking Study
NOT THAT: Assuming that whoever signs the contract or transacts with your service organization is a spokesperson for their company, or that a series of transactions represents the customer experience that can be reasonably tied to bookings.
2) Integrate Influencers’ Inputs to Paint an Accurate Picture: Simplification of the complex picture is essential for tackling the issues and formulating better strategies to capitalize on opportunities.
DO THIS: Weight and nest the parties’ inputs for more realistic linkages to bookings. Make your customer intelligence reporting compelling: consider show the parties’ interests through flow-charting, cause-and-effect diagramming, activity network diagramming, or interrelationship diagraphs. Make sure action plans reflect inputs from all influencers.
From the ClearAction Business-to-Business Customer Experience Management Benchmarking Study
NOT THAT: Assuming that averages and bar charts convey what’s needed to be actionable and effective. Don’t ignore the opportunity to get valuable insights from your dedicated sales team. And don’t let the account teams obscure insights that can help the rest of the company help them.
3) Ensure Post-purchase Customer Experience Consistency: Why work so hard to manage perceptions but ignore these vital touchpoints?
DO THIS: Make it easy to capture informal comments. Then stream informal feedback to relevant groups throughout your company. Establish cadence & methodology for originators to prevent issue recurrence. Motivate actions and follow-through on informal inputs. Set the stage for streamlined re-purchase decisions: share actions and progress to proactively influence rebuying.
From the ClearAction Business-to-Business Customer Experience Management Benchmarking Study
NOT THAT: Assuming that inconsistencies will naturally work themselves out, or aren’t important to building trust and relationship strength. Waiting to send a survey when you’re already getting a goldmine of insights that you can work on right away to be more proactive in influencing repurchase decisions.
B2B CXM has parallels with consumer experience management, but there are definite realities in B2B CXM that should be addressed in order to make the most of your efforts and investments. Experiment with these 3 B2B “musts”, or better yet, design them into your B2B customer experience management from the beginning. As the graphics above show, you’re likely to stand out from the crowd in your industry in doing so, and these methods may be an important customer experience differentiator for your company.
Note: The concept of "Do This, Not That" is borrowed from the popular book "Eat This, Not That", where the weaknesses of common practices and myths are brought to light and sensible replacements are recommended.
Other articles in this series:
- Business-to-Business Customer Experience: What’s It Like?
- Understanding Business-to-Business Purchase Decisions
- B2B Voice of the Customer: Integrating Decision Influencers’ Views
- Customer Experience ROI Opportunities in B2B Touchpoints
- State of Business-to-Business Customer Experience Management
Images purchased under license from Shutterstock.
The course of action you recommend takes me back a long time – to my days in accountancy and audit. As auditors we would turn up do our work. One component of the deliverables was on management controls. The chap leading the engagement would present the findings and recommendations solemnly. The folks at our client (VP level executives) would agree with the recommendations and promise to take action.
The following year we would turn up and do another audit (of the financial statements). Guess what? Most of the findings on management controls were the same as the previous year. And so were the recommendations.
Some years later, I found myself running a significant business operation that had lots of issues to deal with. At the end of the audit process, I found myself listening to the auditors findings and recommendations. In the meeting I agreed politely with the auditor. What did I do after that meeting? Nothing! Why? I had a REAL business to oversee/run. At best the auditor’s recommendations showed up as nice to have. Mostly, they showed up as totally unrealistic. To this day I can remember one of the thoughts that popped into my head: “Only a total idiot, who has no experience of running this business, would recommend this. It is totally impractical!”
Back to you and your course of action. Here are my questions to you:
1. How do you (practically) capture the whole buying decision?
2. What if there is a unique buying decision for each customer?
3. What if the there is a different buying decision even for the same customer – depending on what is being bought, who is involved, what time of the year it is?
4. How do you (practically) work out who has had what level of influence this time around?
5. What if the next time around who exercises what level of influence is different to the last time around?
As regards your third recommendation you advise includes the following: “Establish cadence & methodology for originators to prevent issue recurrence. Motivate actions and follow-through on informal inputs.”
This shows up for me as “eat healthy and exercise. Overcome your fears and do what it takes / do what is right.” The challenge is not in coming up with such advice. The challenge is in cultivating that kind of behaviour. Look there are tons of advice on healthy eating yet few eat healthily. There is tons of advice on exercising yet few exercise. There are tons of books (and writing) on leadership of a humanistic kind yet there is the continued laments about the lack of leadership.
You are in the B2B business. So I ask you: What do you (personally) do? What does your organisation do? How often do you do it? How rigorously do you do it? How easy do you find it?
I have been in the professional services business pretty much my whole business life. I have worked with some of the biggest names, as well as middle names, as well as boutiques. I have yet to witness/experience anyone, in any organisation, do that which you recommend. Why? I suspect it shows up as impractical – like it does to me. Maybe I am just lazy.
All the best,
As you’ve identified in this post, as well as in previous postings, the b2b purchase decision dynamics differ from b2c product and service decisions in that there are often multiple influencers, with varying degrees of importance. Also, procurement groups are often actively involved.
Most b2b VOC research is product/service-centric, focusing on attitudes and experiences involving the tangible, rational, and functional. Some insights are generated on relationships. There is little attempt to gather insights on the emotions, and subconscious meanings which contribute to trust and involvement. Even the most tangible elements (such as timeliness, accuracy, completeness, durability, appearance, cost, etc.) have an emotional subtext, and this needs to be understood if the insights are to produce world-class results: http://www.slideshare.net/lowen42/b2b-customer-behavior-white-paper
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Michael and Maz. I plan to address the points you made in future articles of this B2B CX series.
Leaving a bit to the imagination is necessary as my livelihood depends on it. But yes, these recommendations are indeed practical. Market research is meant to capture the patterns that can be extrapolated to a homogeneous segment. When I led new product introduction during my career, we certainly figured out who the influencers were and considered their interests as we sought beta testing candidates. That’s one source that VoC managers could go to for gaining expectations insights. Our dedicated account teams were typically familiar the various roles in an account, so the VoC manager needs to reach out to account teams and find out how to best tap into those networks and tribal knowledge. Failure to look for these types of sources of practical implementation is lazy and short-sighted. I hear B2B VoC managers complain that they’re under the gun to show stronger ties to bookings. Seems this part of what they’re doing (not doing) would be worth their while to explore.
As for different circumstances driving different expectations, I’ve been writing for several years about the need to segment customers by expectation sets (i.e. jobs-to-be-done) so that business can be managed according to triggers that identify expectations in any given scenario. (See Customer-Centricity by Discerning Customer Satisfaction Outcomes Versus Enablers.) When the expectation set triggers are well known within a company, an account that has a different reason for buying this time can be properly attended to. My team recently helped a B2B company do this, and it was quite eye-opening to their whole management team.
I like your framework. The three steps appear sensible. I’ve advocated similar myself when formulating sales discovery questions, when I called out the importance of uncovering “Attitude/Sentiment.” It’s separate and distinct from other customer artifacts, like how much, how many, and ‘what’s your pain?’.
Then, there’s the details. Most (or many) of us are business development execs, not social science researchers. So, I’m wondering, how, exactly, would (should) we go about collecting, assembling, and interpreting this information we wish to glean from these steps without the aegis of an academic study or third-party research? Say what you will about being a ‘partner’ to our customer, for all practical purposes, we are outsiders, with undeniable impediments looking in. I agree with you in the sense that this should not stop anyone from attempting to gain the insight that you advocate, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that we have anything that approaches complete knowledge.
The closest I’ve seen to this detail comes from a study from Rob Cross, a professor, and author of Driving Results from Social Networks, who mapped how information flows and influence occurs within many organizations. In his book, he categorized the value that flows within social network conduits into three groups: innovation, revenue generation, and best-practice knowledge transfer. I wrote about this in 2008 in a blog, “Is There White Space in Your Customer Relationships?” http://customerthink.com/white_space_your_customer_relationships/ . There’s an interesting discussion that follows, too.
Also, how do we deal with the ephemeral nature of influence in an organization, which Maz mentioned in his fifth question. How do you account for new hires, retirement, attrition, departmental re-organization, new strategic and tactical priorities, new technology and new “workflows” – all of which occur daily, and in one week, would undermine or change what we held certain in the previous week. It seems that even under the best data collection circumstances, the insights are ephemeral.
Thanks for the additional thought on this, Andrew. I hope that B2B CX practitioners who read my articles will reach out to me with similar questions so that I can help them customize a methodology that works best for them. Getting into the weeds of how everything is done is like giving the store away.Or assuming that a new idea is impractical is giving up too soon. That’s why consultants who’ve actually done this type of work in their own careers are a great asset to the CX field.
Any voice-of-the-customer research at all only provides estimates of where things are strong or weak, which types of customers are more inclined or less inclined to react in certain ways, and so forth. Further, VoC is meant to be extrapolated to the larger customer base, rather than tied to a serial number as its primary value. My question is: if we are worried about complete knowledge, why do we conduct any VoC at all? My point about the existence of multiple influencers of buying decisions is that it’s grossly insufficient to narrowly define the population for B2B VoC. And from what I’ve seen presented at conferences and by prospects and clients, the VoC portfolio typically falls short of keeping a pulse on the different types of players across the customer base.
More than 90% of B2B firms have dedicated sales teams, according to the study I conducted over 4 years. Account teams are handsomely compensated to keep track of the details at specific accounts. What we gain through VoC is big-picture guidance to the rest of the company to get things right the first time so that the account teams and customers are collectively more productive.
Lynn: thanks for your quick reply, and for bearing with my confusion on this topic. I had picked up on some of the words in your steps when I referenced ‘complete knowledge’ – e.g. ‘Capture the Whole Buying Decision Equation’, ‘Identify all parties within a customer account with the power to kill a buying decision,’ and ‘Integrate Influencers’ Inputs to Paint an Accurate Picture’ – the operative words being ‘whole’, ‘all’, and ‘kill, and ‘accurate.’
My first reaction was, ‘wow – this is phenomenal! If it can be done!’ For me, the best I’ve ever been able to achieve for any of these are approximations, and most of those are, at best, fuzzy. (For example, even after hundreds of B2B selling engagements, I’ve never had what I could honestly describe as an accurate understanding of my client’s buying process. ‘Approximate idea’ might better describe it. And frankly, in larger organizations, I doubt that even my customer could accurately describe how THEY buy). I’ve read Rob Cross’s book, and attended several of his lectures, and understand his research methodology on social network collaboration, but I’m unclear about two things: 1) absent a formal study, how can an outsider can gain the clarity and certainty you ascribe, and 2) assuming it IS possible, what’s the “shelf life?”
Your column appears to hold the key for solving a most vexing and difficult issue for salespeople and marketers: that of gaining insight on the internal collaborations of the buying network, and what portends a purchase.
I have been listening to and reflecting on your response to the arguments-concerns-questions that we have posed to you. Let’s start with what shows up as Andrew’s insight grasp of reality (as lived/experienced):
“Say what you will about being a ‘partner’ to our customer, for all practical purposes, we are outsiders, with undeniable impediments looking in.”
Your response, as it occurs to me, is as follows:
“I hope that B2B CX practitioners who read my articles will reach out to me with similar questions so that I can help them customize a methodology that works best for them.”
“Any voice-of-the-customer research at all only provides estimates of where things are strong or weak, which types of customers are more inclined or less inclined to react in certain ways, and so forth.”
Let’s take a deeper look at your response – starting with methodology. No methodology allows one human being to go back into the past and reconstruct it. Even if that were possible, what would be reconstructed? At best what we refer to as the objective. No access to the subjective (the inner lives of the participant/s) is possible. Therefore, one can never know what was going on in the ‘minds/hearts’ of the folks during the purchasing process. Did things turn out the way they did because fate intervened: one of the influencers was simply tired, emotionally exhausted, and so kept his concerns quiet in a selection meeting as opposed to dig his heels in – his usual way of being. Or was it that some other influential ‘sabotaged’ the chances of the favourite supplier because this influential had a personal vendetta against the person championing that favourite supplier. Which brings to back to my point: with all the tweaking of methodology one is left with the remnants of memory and what people say. Can you/i count on what folks remember and say? No – study after study confirms this.
Your next point shows up to me as the argument of the ‘average’: “estimates of where things are strong or weak…..”. Here is the thing, as a sales person, how often do I encounter the average/typical buyer / organisation / buying scenario? Never. The average is a fiction! It is conceptual fiction that we place on reality to simplify it. Why simplify it? So that our conceptual tools work on it. In the real world, as a salesperson, I have to deal with a variety of folks, variety of buying organisation, variety of buying/selling situations. It is my ability to detect, be in tune with, and respond well to each person/scenario that will ultimately affect how successful I am in selling.
I am not saying that there is zero value in what you propose/offer. Clearly there is value. The question is: is the value that comes out of such an exercise worth the time-effort-cost? I suspect that depends on the situation the buyers finds himself in. If he has little or no understanding of his customers then some research of this kind will be valuable. Others, perhaps those who are smarter at selling, are likely to find that which you propose as promising more than can be humanly delivered – in the kind of world we actually live in.
Thanks for your observations, Maz and Andrew. I think we’re talking about different things to an extent. First, plenty of writers make broad statements that use phrasing such as “whole, all, accurate”, etc. These words are not necessarily meant to be taken absolutely literally, Rather, one could see them as the writer intended: more whole, complete, or accurate than in current practice. Please pardon my strong phrasing, without taking it too literally. Second, as I re-read the article, I see that it doesn’t specifically call out Voice-of-the-Customer as the primary element of CX management under discussion, but that’s what is intended, rather than sales management of CX. VoC practices are what’s represented in the graphics.
Taking a look at current B2B VoC practices, great investments are already being made in collecting customer feedback. Yet, is sufficient value being derived from VoC? Many people I talk to say they’re under a lot of pressure to show connections between VoC and buying patterns / revenue uptick, and yet they’re struggling. Upon further questioning I hear that their sampling methodology is not existent: they’re surveying every single transaction participant; or otherwise, it is skewed to select a narrow subset of customer types. So my advice is to think differently about the survey population and sampling . . . think in alignment with B2B realities. Don’t just copy what you’ve heard others say is a traditional methodology, don’t just make up a method because it’s convenient. If you’re making the investment already, strive to make your sampling more representative of the way B2B purchase decisions are made.
Taking a look at current VoC analysis practices, there is very little data integration being done. Discovering patterns is the reason for integration and analysis, especially when creating intelligence from a sample of customer responses. When one can see patterns, one can infer (i.e. estimate, predict, anticipate) trends that can help the company be more strategic. Yes, VoC samples provide estimates of the degree of weaknesses and strengths of a company from customers’ perspective. I can’t name many business decisions that are based on absolute certainty. There’s almost always a degree of risk and a lack of 100% accurate information. These estimates can help management design macro approaches for the company’s success.
I think the commentators on this article have misunderstood its intent, and tried to fit it to the micro level of direct selling. That was not intended.
Thanks for your interest in B2B customer experience management. We need more attention to it than it’s historically received.