b-to-b customer experience“Is customer experience management important in a business-to-business (B2B) organization?” Yes! It’s interesting how often this question arises. I’ve been in the customer experience (CX) field in B2B organizations since 1989. What both business-to-consumer (B2C) and B2B companies are doing in CX management today (surveys, service/product improvement, customer loyalty/retention/value growth) is pretty much what we were doing in B2B since the ’80s and ’90s as well.

Customer Experience Biases
So why is “customer experience” often connoted with B2C?

  • Contact center technology companies were some of the first to adopt the phrase “customer experience” as they widely marketed conferences, so CX management is sometimes mistakenly defined accordingly.
  • Early books using the phrase “customer experience management” focused largely on experiential marketing, using B2C examples, e.g. the 2003 book by Bernd Schmitt, Customer Experience Management: A Revolutionary Approach to Connecting with Your Customers.
  • Authors and their readers, as well as organizers of conferences and benchmarking studies, are more familiar with B2C examples of customer experience, so B2B examples are sparse among the B2C examples.
  • Everyone and their dog has jumped on the customer experience bandwagon over the past year or so, confusing technology with CX management, and diluting the semantics.
  • Sometimes we get caught up in thinking that the following are exclusive to B2C, but there are many B2B companies making good use of these techniques also:
    • Social media and communities (essentially positive/negative word-of-mouth tracking/management).
    • Content marketing and personalization (similar to what B2B often accomplishes via dedicated sales forces).
    • Loyalty programs (roughly equivalent to volume purchase agreements, sole supplier agreements, etc. in B2B).

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Unique B2B Customer Experience Challenges
Unique to B2B are the following:

  • The multiple influencers (end-user, purchasing agent, plant manager, safety department, etc.) of B2B buying decisions infers a need for more complex/comprehensive VoC and internal follow-up on findings.
  • The interfaces between functional counterparts (e.g. seller engineers meeting ad-hoc with buyer engineers, not always as a specific step orchestrated by the sales team) at seller and buyer companies is another complexity in the buyer journey and in managing a consistent customer experience.
  • Many buyers are also sellers to their buyer, e.g. Applied Materials sells semiconductor equipment to HP for their chip-making, and Applied Materials buys HP printers and computers.
  • B2B buyers are sometimes more influenced by downstream demands and economic factors than by their own whims/preferences.
  • B2B companies often have locations around the world, buying from supplier locations locally, which requires effort to generate consistency of brand and customer experience, yet flexibility for local needs.
  • The competitive nature of B2B firms’ customers sometimes makes “likely to recommend” less relevant than in B2C.

These complexities in B2B organizations make it all the more essential to manage customer experience holistically. Most of the issues above are managed by *someone* in some B2B companies, but rarely by whoever is charged with customer experience management, which tends to have a narrower scope than it should, given the important implications of the above list.

Customer Experience Management in the 2010s
What’s new in CX management today:

  • Digital tools
  • Greater transparency
  • Stronger realization of the emotional and people aspects of CX
  • Heightened awareness of customers being in the driver’s seat (e.g. trying to understand/improve touch-points, journey maps, customer life cycles, etc.).

Return on Customer Experience Management Investment
An accurate appreciation of that last element — customers in the driver’s seat — is what’s still holding both B2B and B2C companies back from what they could be achieving financially.

This is because executives mistakenly believe that they themselves are in the driver’s seat, and that they “have” customers who are beholden to them and who can be molded to behaviors in the company’s best interests.

  • Executives aren’t in the driver’s seat: when customers leave, investors leave and jobs disappear.
  • Nobody “has” customers: customers choose to continue or discontinue purchases.
  • Customers can’t be molded: we can teach them bad habits such as brand switching based on low-price competition, but customers are ultimately just trying to run their businesses and satisfy their customers — so the suppliers that can help them do that best are the winners.
  • Everyone across the entire company must proactively manage their impact (i.e. snowball effect) on the customer experience in order to achieve CX excellence.

CX excellence ultimately means that profits and revenues grow due to a magnetic attraction of customers to your company: customers organically buy, rebuy, up-buy, cross-buy, recommend … without extensive continual investment in enticing customers to do so, because of an absence of hassles and a natural fit of the company to the customers’ preferences. As such CX must refer to the whole enchilada — not just post-sales service, or pre-sales, or moments in time. And accordingly, CX management must put customers at the center of business decisions, with financials and other concerns secondary in the decision criteria.

Regardless of industry, viewing customers at the center of all that the company does is the key to being a loved company that optimizes both profits and revenues. That’s because a customer-centered company minimizes costs of things that aren’t customer-centered (all activities, decisions, processes, and policies — internal and external — that aren’t conducive to the customers& well-being). A key reason why most companies are struggling with ROI on CX management is that they don’t have high enough expectations for internal change according to customer inputs. Voice of the customer methodologies are often not broad enough to be useful in guiding business strategies, policies, processes, decisions, and activities across the company. Accountability for developing and/or following-through on actions per customer inputs also tends to be weak and narrow in scope.

There are a lot of great examples of B2B companies making strides in customer experience management. We certainly need to see more examples more often! (I think B2B CX managers are a bit reserved, modest, unconfident, and/or preoccupied to share more often. And so many authors and readers are ill-acquainted with B2B.)

Read more:

What is Customer Experience Strategy?

State of Business-to-Business Customer Experience Management

If you currently manage CEM and work for a B2B company, please join the new Business-to-Business Customer Experience Management LinkedIn Group!