Delivering improvements and setting a strategic path forward for a B2B company’s customer experience is not that different than it is for B2C companies. All B2B companies need to ensure they have a solid understanding of their customer through a strong Voice of the Customer (or Client) program and other analytics based on usage, behaviors, etc. They should also understand the lifecycle and activities of their customers through journey mapping and other tools/activities. They should have a clear strategic roadmap, aligned with their brand strategy and designed to deliver mutually beneficial results.
But there are a few unique challenges and opportunities for B2B companies that can be critical to improving customer or client relationships and delivering business value. The items below are what we’ve found in working with, talking to, and helping B2B clients in various industries.
#1) Define the Customer – This is a simple concept for most B2C companies. It’s the person who selects, pays for, and consumes a latte at the coffee shop. Or it might be the shopper who learns about, selects, purchases, and then wears a pair of shoes bought online. For a B2B, though, sometimes it isn’t so clear. Is the customer the user who consumes the end product or service, the manager/director who selected it, the VP who approved it, the account payable person who pays for it, or the CEO who led the company in the direction that required it.
Without this definition, B2B companies find themselves with organizational silos that are difficult, if not impossible, to break down. That’s because everyone has their own idea of the customer. People who work in and manage call centers view the end user as the customer. Salespeople and account managers view decision-makers (directors, VPs, or C-levels, depending on the company) as the customer. Even accounts receivable probably views their counterpart in accounts payable as the customer.
With all these definitions of the customer, how can you expect to improve the customer experience? Which group gets priority when you need to attract and retain more customers with limited resources? It can be very challenging to get everyone on the same page with respect to the customer experience if you don’t have a common understanding of who the customer is.
#2) Measure Accounts Beyond the $$ – B2B companies all too often rely on measures of revenue or profitability to classify the overall success of a customer relationship. While that is important, it is not the best or the only measurement to consider. Focusing too much on size (revenue, hours billed, widgets sold, profit made) can leave you blind to problems in the relationship that might leave a door open for competitors. Additionally, it might mean you miss opportunities that can be even more rewarding to your business.
In working with our clients, we can point to more than one example where a customer or client company viewed a particular vendor or supplier as a necessary evil. They spent substantial amounts of money with that vendor/supplier, but never felt like it was a particularly good relationship based on problematic pricing strategies, poor customer service, invoicing problems, difficult contract negotiations, or other reasons. By failing to understand these facets of the relationship, those vendors/suppliers failed to build the account, and in many cases, lost the account to a competitor who was able to demonstrate and deliver a better experience.
Instead, B2B companies should strive to measure relationships more like a B2C company. Listen to your customers, analyze your Voice of the Customer and Customer Effort Scores (the ease of doing business with your company), measure loyalty and advocacy, and so on. Coupled with more standard financial measurements, these items will give you an overall picture of the health of the account and help you find opportunities for growth.
#3) Listen in Different Ways to Different Stakeholders – One approach does not fit all when it comes to collecting feedback from a B2B customer. As noted above, most B2B relationships involve many different stakeholders, and those stakeholders often require different approaches to allow them to easily and effectively provide feedback.
For a company who creates business software, that might mean a web survey or an embedded link for end users to provide feedback in the moment as they perform transactions. Managers, meanwhile, are best reached through an email invitation or a phone call. Executive levels usually require a more personal approach, meaning an in-person meeting is probably required.
Despite all these various collection mechanisms, it is important that all the feedback come together systematically to provide a complete picture of the B2B relationship. Ensure that a standardized score is generated to allow you to compare, classify, and evaluate customer relationships. We also recommend you build in an audit process to ensure the integrity of the feedback collected. While it is important for account managers to have a personal relationship with the customer, you will want feedback that is independent and free from bias. While having account managers collect feedback may be the easiest solution, it certainly isn’t the most objective.
#4) Understand Your Customers’ Customers – In any industry, the companies that best meet their customers’ needs are usually the winners (or in the best position to become the winners). In a B2B relationship, your customers’ needs are directly tied to their customers’ needs. Take the apparel industry for example. A textile manufacturer sells its product to clothing companies who create the styles and fashions that people wear when they go to work, exercise, and play. In the B2B relationship between the manufacturer and the clothing company, it pays for the manufacturer to be acutely aware of what people want to wear. They can then help formulate lightweight, moisture-wicking, and durable materials that can go into great workout wear – making business more profitable for everyone in the value chain.
How you do that depends on the nature of the industry and the relationship. In most cases, you can leverage the research and knowledge that your customer already has on their customers. Ask for it. You might run into confidentiality issues or even concerns about disclosure to competitors, which is why I said it depends on the industry and relationship. If that is the case, you can still gain insights in other ways, including gaining access to third party research or conducting your own research. However you go about it, do it, and then bring that knowledge to your B2B customer relationship.
#5) Take a Good Look at your Account Management Processes – Wait, did you just say “what account management processes?” Well, you aren’t alone. A good number of B2B companies rely on more art than science when it comes to how they manage account managers. A typical approach is to put smart, motivated people in place with incentives designed to reward the desired results, but with little guidance on how to achieve those results. What happens under this situation is a very inconsistent and accidental customer experience emerges. Even across customers who report a good customer experience, you might find their experiences differ greatly. If you agree that account managers are the face of your brand, then this can spell trouble for your brand identity. Given enough levity, your account managers can make you the low-cost leader under one account manager while you are the service-intensive, higher cost option under another. Without brand alignment among support staff, marketing, sales, and other departments, this becomes problematic.
The best companies at account management make the brand identity very clear among account managers and then back it up with the right tools, processes, policies, and support. They look at account management similarly to other business processes like manufacturing. This includes clear direction and tools to measure profitability to drive proposals and bids. It means there are measurements and metrics in place to track and manage each account over time. And of course, it means there are processes, and some degree of governance, in place to ensure consistent, solid performance from customer to customer.
These are just five keys to B2B customer experience success – I am sure there are others, but most other keys are probably equally applicable to B2C scenarios as well. These five were chosen to highlight a few of the unique challenges that B2B companies face as they strive to create their own version of an ideal customer experience.