Whether it’s business-to-business or business-to-consumer, you are still dealing with customers—people. See our post with some practical tips here. As human beings and consumers, even business-to-business customers spend a lot of time on e-commerce sites where they buy goods and services, and where their image of the brand and expectations for it are shaped based on their digital experience. Now, the problem is that still few B2B company websites manage to offer a truly efficient, in-depth, and personalized service that matches the quality and usability that consumers can find on B2C websites. Unfortunately, when it comes to B2B, there are fewer digital touchpoints that offer features that simplify processes, create meaningful customer relationships, and contribute substantially to increased sales.
How can you change this? According to MIT Sloan Management Review, you can transform this by focusing on the Customer Experience, and doing so strategically by using the most advanced tools and by adopting a business model that is focused on the “corporate consumer.”
The customer-centric vision at the heart of this solution integrates seamlessly into a broad-based marketing plan that incorporates inbound approaches, methodologies, and actions. While on a different scale, like B2C companies, B2Bs also have sales and loyalty objectives, and they need to grow their brand reputation. And, they need to establish themselves as an authoritative voice in the sector where they are doing business. Here, high-quality inbound marketing content can play a decisive role.
Inbound and new technologies: multi-channel and consumer services
As customers’ expectations evolve and technological advances impose new standards, B2B companies are faced with increasingly complex scenarios that are rich in possibilities: algorithms, artificial intelligence, analysis and other tools capable of capturing and interpreting needs and predicting purchasing behavior will be more and more accessible in the near future. The ability of technology and automation to improve the customer experience represents a huge opportunity for most B2B companies. Kearney’s data confirms this: when companies provide a personalized and fully multi-channel experience, average revenue growth is 8.1%, twice as much as less developed digital platforms. In some industries, if a “single channel” customer converts to multichannel, the average buyer spend increases by as much as 21%.
Digital platforms for B2B: wide scope for improvement
E-commerce revenues in B2B continue to grow significantly: Forrester reports that by 2021, almost 15% of US B2B sales will be through digital channels, with a 15% increase in just five years (download the 2020 Forrester Predictions report here). Digital sales platforms have now become firmly established alongside traditional forms of interaction (face-to-face and telephone), sometimes replacing them entirely because they are inherently better able to capitalize on results across different channels.
The widespread adoption of digital technology and the automation of many business relationships have influenced the way companies buy products and services. They increasingly think and act like consumers, accustomed to fast and fluid virtual transactions that are seamless with physical counterparts (in-store consulting and purchasing, for example), and who can count on personalized account services.
The problem, once again, is the gap between Customer Experience in B2C and Customer Experience in B2B. Salesforce illustrates this gap in a recent report:
- More than 80% of business buyers surveyed want a customer experience at the level of that offered to consumers;
- Two-thirds have even switched suppliers to get it;
- Although 61% of B2B transactions start online, less than 30% of B2B customers say their suppliers offer an excellent customer experience.
The situation is complicated, and there is no magic formula to quickly resolve it. However, as we will see, the inbound framework does offer a solution: to bring the consumer back to the forefront and elevate their unique characteristics by intercepting their needs and desires thanks to tailor-made content. First, however, there are two more premises that we must keep in mind.
B2B customers purchase differently than B2C customers
Although corporate customers expect a customer experience equal to that offered to consumers, their behavior is fundamentally different when it comes to purchasing behavior, transaction processes, and decision-making dynamics.
- Consumers can be emotional and spontaneous and often click impulsively on the “buy” button. Business buyers, on the other hand, take a more rational and dispassionate approach, guided by objective criteria and an in-depth analysis of options. Consumers usually base their decisions on vaguely defined factors: price, perceived quality, or distinctive features of a product. Instead, when evaluating a product or service, corporate buyers must necessarily take into account the company’s own more complex and specific requirements: price and payment conditions, service levels, legal and fiscal considerations, logistical requirements.
- B2B relations are also more complex than those with consumers. It is the individual consumer who usually makes his or her own purchasing decisions, while B2B purchases often require input and approval from many levels, from the C-levels of different departments to company stakeholders, each of whom has his or her own interests, right down to management.
- Finally, consumer transactions are generally episodic and may be organized around a one-off purchase. B2B, instead, takes place in a network of continuous relationships between buyer and seller and inevitably refers to “long cycle” business models.
Algorithms make B2B marketing grow
Big data analysis, combined with algorithmic decision making, reshapes both sides of B2B interactions. More and more corporate buyers use these tools to optimize purchases, while sellers use them to predict buying trends and customize products and services. Analytics can collect, synthesize, and model customer data, revealing patterns in their purchasing behavior that would otherwise remain indistinguishable, and identifying new sales and service opportunities.
The algorithms transform insights into actions, triggering automatic responses to customers’ often unexpressed questions that emerge thanks to analysis platforms. An effective combination of analysis and algorithms helps vendors develop and submit timely and highly customized offers within automated, friction-free flows.
Three tips from the inbound world to improve the B2B digital experience
Inbound marketing, especially in recent years, has made the idea of “client nurturing” a pillar of its own, starting from brand awareness actions designed to intercept the attention of a potentially interested user, to more informative and technical content to guide the consumer during the consideration and decision making phases (with the increasing importance assumed by referrals in terms of brand advocacy), to “care” activities reserved for after the purchase.
How can this approach be applied in a B2B context?
1. Building complete and personalized customer experiences
Personalized and automated interaction with customers extends well beyond the funnel to all activities that are based on meeting consumer needs before, during, and after the purchase. These functions, which range from closing the sale, to customer service, and billing, should all be designed to provide the best possible experience. Each feature of the different digital touchpoints should therefore be rethought to offer truly serviceable, comprehensive, informative, useful content.
2. Segmenting customer needs
Segmenting customers according to their needs and purchasing behavior allows companies to create customized experiences for each group. Customer needs vary based on the type of business, from small businesses with unpredictable purchasing patterns to multinational corporations with analytical and technological purchasing processes. Requirements also vary by product type. Despite these differences, B2B customers generally fall into one of three groups of people, each with key characteristics for building personalized experiences.
- One-click customers: These include smaller accounts that tend to do business in consumer mode. They are expensive to serve on a large scale and often lack technological sophistication.
- Analytical customers: Refers to large accounts that gather market information to process purchasing decisions. These customers require highly personalized service from suppliers.
- Unique customers: Typically large accounts that require even higher levels of customization than analytical buyers because they face a number of non-commercial challenges, such as extensive regulation or strict security standards.
3. Make customer interactions smoother and frictionless
There are at least four lines of action that B2B marketing must adopt to improve the relationship with customers.
- In-depth reports: Companies need to know who their buyers are, the reasons for each purchase, and the key factors that guide decision making. In-depth customer information guides interactions at every stage, including product design, engineering, and marketing.
- Frictionless Interaction: Companies need to simplify the buying process for customers, and they need to do so by facilitating seamless transactions between buyer and seller. Digital applications must automate or even eliminate the most cumbersome, slow or redundant moments of interaction from ordering and payment to delivery, fulfilment, customer service, and back-office functions.
- Omni-channel integration: Sellers need to enrich customer choice on their preferred channel: phone, online, mobile, while ensuring a consistent customer experience and vision across all channels.
- Platform business models: companies need to explore business models and platforms that facilitate integration and collaboration along the value chain, through new data-based products and services (e.g., predictive and proactive service models that take into account the distinctive features of different devices).
Humanize the Customer Experience in B2B
Beyond shortfalls such as the lack of online order monitoring, poor quality content, or generic and non-personalized promotions based on purchasing trends, the issue that needs attention is the general attitude. Most B2B companies rarely take an all-encompassing, cross-functional approach to customer service nor do they fully employ digital technologies to develop a broader understanding of consumers’ business imperatives and objectives.
And yet, humanizing the customer experience pays off: Forrester reported 7% annual growth in B2B e-commerce, for a total of $1 trillion in 2019 and $9 trillion in other digital commerce channels. Companies that offer B2B customers a personalized online experience can capitalize on this growth to increase sales, improve efficiency, and strengthen customer relationships. Investing in customer relationships is an absolutely strategic choice: in the long term, a better customer experience transforms the basic dynamics of B2B markets, allowing companies to serve even low volumes and infrequent buyers.
Inbound marketing for B2B: the need to be remembered
With digitization, inbound has transformed the vendor-driven “push” business model into a “pull” model initiated by the customer, minimizing uncertainty not only in target profiling but also in operational functions, from product design to production and planning. Inbound marketing historically was born and evolves to simplify and enhance communication between those who feel the desire for a product or service and those who make the relevant product or service available. Communicating a need, an urgency also means that the consumer—whether B2B or B2C—wants to be recognized and remembered.