B2B: 6 guidelines for great customer service and fruitful relationships


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What does it take to deliver good customer service in B2B?

A little while back I wrote the following post: Do you care about your customers? This led to one reader asking about the difference between B2C and B2B customer service. In this post I share with you the key lessons I have learned in the 20+ years I have spent in the B2B professional services domain.

The first point that I want to make is that customer service is distributed across the organisation: it is a fundamental and common mistake to see it as being housed in the Customer Services (or Support) function. The second, point is that customer service starts right at the front: the sales process. If you get that right then it is likely that you have set the climate for a fruitful relationship.

Now allow me to share with you my guidelines for good customer service and fruitful relationships in the B2B domain.

1a: Select your customers carefully to ensure fit

Not every customer is right for you and you are not right for every customer. Why? At the rational level it is simply a question of fit. If you look at it from the customer perspective:

  • do you have the expertise to help me get my job done (outcome)?
  • will you treat me the way that I want to be treated (approach, process, style)?
  • can you do the job for the kind of price that I am willing to pay?
  • can you mitigate my sense of risk and give me the assurances I need?

When you, the supplier, look at the customer and what he wants, you have to honestly assess if you can provide what the customer is looking for. And you have to do a full risk assessment. What exactly is the risk of taking on this organisation as a customer?

The trouble is that this fit assessment is either not done or is moulded so as to deliver the outcome that is desired by the sales folks (and their managers); seeing what you want to see, being over-optimistic, ignoring / downplaying what goes against your desires are three powerful human tendencies. And when the deal is big enough then just about everyone who matters colludes in this delusional thinking. The people who do not collude (often those who have to deliver on the promise) are excluded.

1b: Qualify the customer for chemistry

The second part of this assessment is one of chemistry. If you are the supplier then you have to ask yourself the question: will we get on? This is about the human stuff:

  • do our cultures mesh, rub against each other or clash?
  • will be get along with the key people that we have to interact with?
  • will they get on with us?

The chemistry question is a huge one and has big impacts on the success or failure of the work that you are doing for your client. Yet, it is one that is mostly ignored. In B2C you can get away with taking on the wrong people as customers. If you do the same in B2B someone will pay the price. I have seen a promising Partner’s career ended abruptly because he failed to get this right. Personally, my most difficult account was one that the sales folks had taken on as the business was desperate for new revenue and which for which we all knew that there was no fit and chemistry: the relationship ended badly after just two months or so.

2: Ensure that there is a clarity of expectations

The second guideline is to make sure that during the contracting process there is a two way educational process going on. You, the supplier, are actively unearthing the customer’s expectations on what will happen, how it will happen, where it will happen, who will do what etc. And you are making sure to educate the customer so that he is not faced with unpleasant surprises further down the road.

It is your responsibility to make sure that the customer has a clear, detailed, understanding of the journey ahead, what obstacles you might encounter, how you plan to get around these obstacles, what he is expected to do etc. A good way to do this is to look for and spell out in writing all the assumptions that you (and the customer) are making. And assess what is likely to happen if those assumptions turn out to be incorrect.

At this stage the temptation is to act like a teenager on a first date: to show only the good stuff and hide the bad stuff. If you want to deliver good service and cultivate a fruitful relationship then you must resist this temptation. It is critical that you are honest and educate the customer on the upside and the downside. And when it comes to the downside you can work with the customer to come up with a plan for how to manage it. For example, if I priced a job at £200k then I’d advise the client to budget for and inform his manager that the job was going to cost £250k. I was helping him to manage his risk, his reputation, in his organisation and that was valued.

If you have done Steps 1 and 2 rigorously then you have rendered good service. How? You have learned about the customer. And you have educated the customer on what he needs to know. Based on this both of you decide either not to do business or to do business. If you have chosen to do business then you have done so with your eyes wide open and a clear understanding of what is involved and what to expect of one another. And you have made sure that you can actually deliver what each of you has promised.

If you don’t do these steps (which is common) then you end up in a situation where a $1m engagement ends up $2m in the red; you threaten to sue the client and he threatens to sue you. Or in the case of EDS you are on the hook to pay BSkyB some £200m for a botched CRM implementation on the basis that EDS mislead BSkyB: claiming expertise that did not exist. In the case of a major telco you end up paying substantial amounts in fines because the sales guys consistently promise stuff that they know that the delivery organisation cannot deliver in the agreed timescales.

3: Ensure that the person who sold the deal is on the hook for the delivery of the promise

If you spill the milk and I clean it up then I educate and encourage you to continue spilling the milk. This is the situation in B2B where the folks making the sale (and the promises) walk away once the deal is closed.

If you want the sales folks to do their bit right (Steps 1 and 2) it is essential that they are held accountable for the promises that they make. This can take many forms including:

  • ensure that the sales person also does the client account management role and thus has to face the customer and the music;
  • withhold 50% or more of the sales person’s commission until the assignment is completed and make sure that he only gets it if certain measures are hit including customer satisfaction, account profitability; and
  • give the sales person a stake in any follow on work that happens say over the next three years after the first deal is delivered.

When you have sold the deal, have to face the music and have a financial stake in a long term relationship then you tend to do what it takes to deliver on the promises you have made. I remember, creating some hell, going all the way up to the COO and the CFO to help the support team get essential hardware to support my client’s e-commerce operation. I also remember battling with HR to get one of member of the delivery team (supporting one of my accounts) the daily subsistence amount she was due. Why? To make sure she was on the ball after all she was the project manager responsible for delivering a $1m+ assignment that I had sold.

4: Keep your customer in the loop and make sure that there are no surprises

The fourth pillar of good B2B customer service and relationship is keeping each other in the loop and making sure that you do not spring unpleasant surprises on your customer. As the supplier, it is your job to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and figure out what your customer wants to know about (because he has told you) and needs to know (because you would want to know if you were in his shoes).

This is more than communication: computers can communicate and that is not enough. What I am talking about is CARING: caring about your customer so that you strive to anticipate and provide the information, the advice, the proactive help that the customer needs or is likely to need. An important part of caring is involving your customer in making decisions that are going to affect him. And if this is not practical then letting your customer know what decisions have been made and how that will impact him and his organisation.

Despite our best efforts the world does not run to our individual plans. So surprises crop up and some of them are going to have a negative impact on your customer. So it is your duty to think through the impact and come up with an action plan to put things right. I remember getting some really unwelcome news (five days from go live) from the project manager on a high profile CRM implementation for a strategic account and one of the most important telco’s in the world.

We convened a team to explore this torpedo, came up with a plan, lined up the resources to deal with it. Then I flew out to Helsinki to talk it through with my customer as I was his account manager. While he did not like the news he was blown away by our caring as illustrated in our honesty, our well thought out action plan and willingness to fix the issue at our expense. To do it I needed him to push the go live date back by two weeks. He agreed, the experts flew and the system went live successfully two weeks after the planned due date.

Now the interesting thing is that we could have kept this critical problem secret, blamed it on his team (for not doing the testing properly) and let him have egg on his face shortly after the system went live. He would probably have lost his job. We didn’t let that happen because we cared about our clients and living up to our promises: the person who spotted the critical flaw was one of the more junior application developers.

5: Build a personal relationship by showing appreciation

Business is a team game between people. And in my view William James got it right when he said “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” So appreciate people. Pick up the phone and talk to them – use whatever excuse you need to say ‘Hello, how are you? What are you up to? What’s happening in your business?” Send a “thank you” email or ‘Here is something you may find useful” email. And when the opportunity presents itself ask what they like doing – their hobbies? If your customer is an avid football supporter and you are too then share that. If they have children and you have children then talk about children. But do not fake it: find common ground that is genuinely common.

If you have the budget then take your customer out of the office. What I have learned is that environments matter: in the office most customers behave as ‘customers’; outside the office most customers behave as social human beings. So take every opportunity to meet with your customers out of the office environment and in more relaxed environments. For example: put on an event for your customers that provides them with business value and social value where they can play golf, drive 4×4 vehicles, break bread and drink wine with you etc. My favourite is to combine selling, customer service and socialising at personal level with my customers over lunch.

I have found the metric that shows I have built up that personal relationship. Here it is: I invite my customer to come over to my house for a meal, he agrees and then actually does come over for a meal. And those moments have been some of the most memorable moments of my professional life.

6: Thank them and release them

Sometimes the best thing that we can do for our customers (and ourselves) is to stop doing business with each other. This comes about either because we made a mistake getting together in the first place or because the situation has changed and we are no longer suited to one another.

I have taken over accounts to find that both parties are in an unhappy relationship. The fit and the chemistry died long ago. Where possible I have made the effort to reinvigorate the relationship. And where this has not been possible I have had a straight conversation with these customers: I have thanked them for the business, explained why it was best to part company (for both of us) and then recommended a more suitable supplier for them.

If you bear your customers interest’s at the forefront of your mind in the separation process then you are likely to find that it works. Some of my strongest business friendships have come about through this process. I did not just cut my customer loose, I actively went out and found a better solution for my customer and helped him to migrate over to that solution. You can do the same.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


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