The concept of customer experience (CX) - investing in better customer experiences through greater empathy, understanding, and better management and treatment of these customers - can now be considered a widely established concept in marketing. The positive impact on sales, profits and long-term customer loyalty is generally acknowledged.
This is true at least for B2C; but also for the B2B sector? There too, of course, people act as sellers with people as buyers. We are talking here about people who leave their professional role after work and then - like most of us - slip into the role of the end customer. As such, they then not infrequently immerse themselves in elaborate "customer journeys," i.e., near-perfect shopping experiences such as those created today by the successful B2C titans Amazon & Co.
But the B2C customer becomes no less demanding when he moves back to his professional position the next day. This means that he also wants to be taken seriously in the professional environment and taken along on an equally optimized customer journey. And shouldn't he be entitled to expect this, because as a rule, much higher purchase sums are involved?
So much for theory. But the reality is different. According to two studies by McKinsey & Company and Adobe, much less is invested in improving customer experience in the B2B environment than in B2C. And this is even though CX can be shown to have a significantly positive impact on customer loyalty and even profits.
Begs the question: Why is this? Do companies assume their professional corporate customers are less demanding than their B2C counterparts? That a corporate buyer therefore ticks differently, fundamentally more rational, less emotional?
First, let's narrow down which of the infinite B2B constellations I would like to talk about in this article at all: By "sellers" I mean, for example, suppliers of preliminary products who sell their goods to companies that use them to produce a new preliminary or end-product. Likewise, about professional service providers who market their intangible goods (e.g., consulting services, market research, or event services) to companies.
In contrast to end-customer mass markets, to which customer experience measures have so far been primarily tailored, in the B2B segment the number of customers or purchasers alone is much smaller. In addition, there are usually certain mutual, economic dependencies. The biggest difference, however, is probably the person of the customer: In B2C, the private customer goes on a shopping spree of his own accord in his free time. In the business environment, however, we are talking about professional buyers or entire departments that perform the task for the company. If the companies are smaller, this is done by the owners or managing directors, for example.
Those who decide to invest in a better B2B customer experience can certainly benefit from the lessons learned from the end-customer markets - but in detail, the different prerequisites and purchasing phases must be taken into account.
We have identified six success factors for delivering a better customer experience to increasingly demanding B2B customers:
What buyer has too much time on their hands? So fast checkout and delivery are trumps. Examples of how to get more speed into the processes: e.g., an online platform that is available 24/7 and seamlessly combines all processing functions from order to payment. Likewise, having enough and qualified employees who proactively address problems as well as handle and answer customer questions or complaints in real time, if possible, is important.
The buying process must be straightforward, precise and intuitive. In all phases! In other words, processes without unnecessary friction, interruptions and, of course, user-friendly. Online as well as offline.
No matter which people, departments, messages, or media the buyers encounter at the offering company, the content, styles, appearance, and presentation should be the same for each of these contacts (I'll talk about those contacts, the so-called "touchpoints," in more detail later). Likewise, all sales and conversation channels should be connected without breaks, whether the customer visits the web store or corresponds with the salesperson by email, phone, or in person.
What is actually important to the buyer? For this, they must be analyzed, questioned and observed. Whereby every customer ticks individually differently: With their own expectations, wishes, needs and also experiences with other salespeople, positive and negative. Relevance is also important when addressing customers and providing information, as well as in the design of products and the depth and breadth of services. Not least in shipping and in after-sales. The same question applies everywhere: What does the customer demand and appreciate? And likewise: What can go?!
Openness prevents false expectations and disappointments and instead ensures necessary trust - the key currency in any interaction between customer and seller. Of course, you should always be able to count on what the salesperson says: Does the product deliver what it promises? Are there hidden costs? What happens if defects appear and rework becomes necessary? Is the shipping reliable? Does the quality remain stable even with long-term commitments?
Even a buyer is a person with emotions, no matter how professional the person or company behind it may seem. Accordingly, every customer is (more or less) receptive to personal messages, greetings, surprises or other actions that can positively strengthen the relationship level. The salesperson should therefore "take care" of the person in the best sense of the word, i.e., also take time and listen. In this way, a relationship of trust develops that remains sustainable even in times of crisis.
In my book "Customer Centricity Mindset," I describe, among other things, how companies can still successfully shape their customer relationships with clever measures in times of rapid change and market disruption - also by investing more in the customer experience.
I focus in particular on the individual customer - the persona. The same applies to the potential that arises from the customer journey and the analysis of touchpoints.
All sections of the book focus on the consumer segment. However, I will show in the further course of this article that not everything is different in the B2B segment. So do the differences between the two spheres, i.e., how professional buyers should be served differently than private customers.
Although there is a company behind the buyer, the acting person is therefore not a neutral, but just as much a subject with its own sociodemographics (e.g., gender, age, and schooling) as well as an individual with its own attitudes, behavior patterns, values, likes, and dislikes.
As with end-customer markets, I recommend that you think of customers not as a group and group them together, but as personas. That is, individual users into whom you can empathize. Provided that the buyers of a company do not change constantly, it is worthwhile to really get to know them. As customers with names, family situations, hobbies and everything that ultimately makes up an individual.
The advantage: You find out exactly who you are dealing with. You can better assess what this person expects and wants from you as a contact and supplier. With the knowledge about the persona, you can align your marketing and communication according to it. This also seems easier in B2B than in B2C, since a real relationship building is actually possible due to the smaller number of customers.
Also, what use does your product serve at the buying company? Is it a pre-product for something bigger? Or does it support internal processes? What does the buyer actually use my product for? Do you really know this sufficiently precisely for all cases?
These are all questions that focus on the so-called "user story" of the buyer and help to understand this person (even) better. So that the offering company can shape sales, marketing and the design of products and sales processes more precisely.
"Journey" sounds a bit romanticized, but what really matters to the customer is how that journey unfolds and whether it is expeditious, effective and satisfying enough to stick with it to the end - the product purchase.
Like any good journey, it consists of several exciting stops, which we call "touchpoints" in the customer journey. These can be: the supplier's website, all telephone conversations and e-mail contacts, written offers, a possible product test phase, the actual purchase, after-sales actions or even downstream services.
These and many more stages are points of contact or encounter between the buyer and the vendor. Which leads to important questions: Where and how can you make it even easier, more pleasant, more efficient and more satisfying for the customer? Where is there potential for improving the customer experience?
There are also indirect touchpoints. As an example, these can be the opinions of third parties, including rating portals or other customer companies that already know the product and from which the buyer receives recommendations. The influence on these contact and information sources is limited, but they still affect the customer experience.
The classic customer journey in B2C has five milestones that a customer usually passes through: Noticing a product in the first place (Know), considering it (Want), making the purchase decision (Try), acquiring it (Buy), and ultimately becoming a regular customer or even a voluntary ambassador for the brand (Love).
This buying process is similar in B2B, although the last stage, when the professional buyer makes a permanent decision in favor of a supplier, would probably not be called "Love".
Again, a true Customer Centricity Mindset calls for empathic work for all the above milestones: How does the buyer person experience the stages very personally? Is it always made as pleasant, fluid and comfortable for her as possible? Are potential problems and irritations avoided in advance, are wishes, needs and necessities identified at an early stage? Are communication, performance processes, product strategies and service aligned with this?
Basically, these questions require the professional use of market researchers. However, at least for initial valuable insights, simple methods from operational market research or techniques from "Do It Yourself" (DIY) are already sufficient. Here are a few examples:
Get your customers around the table to discuss their problems, wishes and needs. It may be enough to have several small, intimate rounds of buyers (from non-competing companies) whose conversations you can observe and evaluate.
There is basically nothing mysterious about this type of shopping, it is just about third parties or yourself (anonymously) purchasing your own products - ideally across all channels offered. If necessary, you can also deliberately create certain problem scenarios that you already know from your everyday sales work. This is also a good opportunity to train your employees for difficult customer contact.
There are many examples for experiments: For example, divide your target groups into comparable segments and send different newsletters with different addresses, content and styles. Or let different offer documents be used. Even directing customers to two or more different websites can yield exciting results about their functionality and appeal. Compare results for all measures at the end of the trial period: What was and works most effective?
Try everything to get your customers to talk or write, for example, via questionnaires. Tell them openly and honestly what you want to find out. Communicate straightforwardly that you want to use the answers to improve their shopping experience.
Halfway from DIY to full external market research is the "Do it Together" method. Here you work together with your market researcher. But not in the classic service relationship, but on an equal footing. For example, you use a Saas tool on your own to implement the survey, but design and interpret the study or the results together.
Basically, DIT works when competent employees of a company buy in research services from professionals for their operational research project on an ad hoc basis - as if from a modular service catalog.
I'll end this article with a little goodie for you: Free access to the Customer Centricity Score. Take ten minutes to find out how close you really are to your customers at the moment. Whether your company really has a Customer Centricity Mindset. And if not, what you can do about it.
If the score already meets your certainly high expectations, then you should still put this analysis tool on hold. Because the world out there keeps on turning - faster and faster. What seems right and sufficient today may be yesterday's news tomorrow.
Herbert Höckel is a managing partner here at moweb research GmbH. He has been a market researcher for more than 25 years. In 2004 he founded moweb GmbH, which he is still the owner today. moweb from Düsseldorf operates internationally and is one of the first German market research institutes specializing in digital processes.