With customer experience a focal point for businesses across all sectors, marketers shouldn’t just be looking at B2C brands for inspiration as B2B is increasingly seen to be leading the way.
Business-to-business (B2B) marketing has long been deemed the poor cousin of its consumer-focused counterpart.
But B2B brands can no longer afford to lag behind consumer brands when it comes to customer experience given people measure brands by the same standard no matter if it’s a business or personal purchase.
As a result, there is now far less of a void between best practice in B2B and B2C marketing, creating many more opportunities for consumer marketers to learn from their business peers.
Blake Cahill is senior vice-president and global head of digital marketing and media at Philips and oversees both its B2B and B2C marketing across 10 business groups.
“B2B customers are still customers, so they expect the same frictionless experiences they would receive as a B2C customer, so it’s in Philips’ best interests to maintain customer experience standards,” he explains.
“The biggest challenge is providing a consistent experience across the many business lines and audiences we engage with. Understanding the needs of a radiologist, or MRI technician, say, compared to a chief information officer, drives various customer journeys and outcomes,” Cahill says.
Tim Buchanan, group head of digital at insurance firm Hiscox agrees the gap between B2B and B2C is reducing.
“Fifteen years ago you looked at retailers and it felt like they were ahead of the game. If you look now at [brands in] insuretech and fintech, those applications go above and beyond the purchase offer and into the overall service behind the offering, so B2B is beginning to steal the march,” he says.
“These brands use data in a much more savvy way, delivering the right kind of service calls and the right level of human versus digital interaction.”
B2C companies could learn a lot about segmentation and personalisation of user journeys [from B2B brands].
Blake Cahill, Philips
Adrienne Gormley, vice-president of global customer experience at Dropbox, which like Philips offers services to both a B2C and B2B customers, believes thinking more about the end user would help consumer marketers improve relevance.
“B2C could learn from the attention to detail B2B marketers deal in, particularly in how their product is going to be used. B2C push products out and hope people will go for it, but B2B can teach brands to be more targeted.”
Irvin Gray, head of marketing at wireless charging startup Chargifi, adds: “B2B marketers are well-versed at going beyond general brand-building, this is because the systems we use collect all kinds of customer intelligence that help us profile and create personalisation strategies at scale.
“Richer profiling, hyper-segmentation and new, dynamic content all combine to build customer loyalty over a longer-term period than B2C marketers generally work on. Bring the customer in once and work to maintain their loyalty.”
Cahill admits that with smaller audiences, B2B finds it easier to understand customer needs more deeply and embed insights but doesn’t feel it’s beyond the reach of B2C marketers to do the same.
“B2C companies could learn a lot about segmentation and personalisation of user journeys [from B2B brands]. Data-driven marketing technology lets us deliver highly personalised experiences at scale. Customised marketing to small, defined audiences drives high interaction and engagement. Properly scaled for a B2C audience, this could improve retention and customer acquisition efforts.”
B2B leads the way
As part of its third annual Brand Experience Index, agency Rufus Leonard pre-selected 31 brands across categories including B2B, hotels, supermarkets and financial services, and the study reveals B2B brands are leading the way on customer experience.
The top-scoring brand overall is Parcelforce Worldwide, with 96 of a possible 100 points. Of the five B2B brands measured, four – Parcelforce, IBM, Microsoft and Visa – are ranked in the top 10 with the fifth, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, in 26th place.
While it is the brands’ abilities to solve problems and take action that has the biggest influence on their positions in the index, which is calculated from five key metrics, their ability to connect with their audience as well as the communities they operate in also figures highly.
Parcelforce secures the number one spot due to its clarity of purpose, the commitment of its staff and a pared-back yet still innovative use of digital. According to the report, the brand understands the emotional needs of its customers – primarily, reassurance that deliveries will arrive on time – and if they don’t, it empowers its staff to find solutions. The report suggests these elements of the brand contributed to parent company Royal Mail Group’s 4% growth in parcel revenue in the year to March 2018, in what is already a heavily disrupted and competitive market.
Differentiating on experience, not specification
Stepping beyond the physical properties of products and addressing how meaningful they are is vital for B2B brands. Often, the person looking for a solution is not the person tasked with its technical implementation. A list of specifications and how they compare in the market can prove meaningless. B2B brands are learning to hone in on their emotional resonance.
Chargifi is looking to provide wireless charging to hotel groups. It is not a critical part of hotel infrastructure yet, but the company has identified that its contribution to hotels’ successful customer experience could prove an essential differentiator.
Gray explains: “It isn’t currently business-critical to adopt a wireless infrastructure [for hotels], so our challenge is to encourage a mind-shift of a large portion of the population, across multiple geographies and at multiple levels of maturity and thinking.
“We need to break it down and devise a strategy for those communications that both businesses and consumers are going to understand. Power is a basic physiological need. If you can deliver this need in a simpler and more effective way, reducing friction, we can move toward [delivering on] customer experience.”
Richer profiling, hyper-segmentation and new, dynamic content all combine to build customer loyalty over a longer-term period than B2C marketers generally work on.
Irvin Gray, Chargifi
“We have to think about the job customers want to do,” adds Dropbox’s Gormley. “What are they trying to do with our product? How easy is it for them to do what they need to do?”
Gormley agrees that a product understanding is important – as Dropbox is both a B2C and B2B product communication of the differences is essential – but either way, marketers must focus on the end user experience.
“B2B products have a high level of complexity that can’t be allowed to impact how the end user experiences it. One of the reasons Dropbox has been successful is in its ability to hide that complexity from the end user.”
Making the channel meet the challenge
Removing friction has been at the heart of marketing’s huge swerve towards digital customer experience. The drive towards an online – and sometimes online-only – experience has made sense in the consumer environment where product complexity is generally low. Can the same be said for business customers?
“We have been through the multichannel issue and how far it can manage customers’ needs. It is possible to get carried away with the tsunami of digital transformation,” warns Hiscox’s Buchanan.
“From an operational point of view there’s a benefit to the organisation but in the arms race to digital transformation in B2B, that’s only valid up to a certain point. The last thing we want to do is cut the human out of the equation. Complex products such as cyber insurance mean customers want to speak to a human. We have a saying, digital when it counts, human when it matters.”
Buchanan goes on to explain that the business user of Hiscox’s insurance products tends to evolve as their business grows. Customers often start out at the small end of SME and often the person in charge of insurance is also doing the books, the HR and other business critical operations.
“We have to be able to both give them information but not get in their way. As those companies grow, we will be dealing with an office manager who is better versed in insurance,” he explains, so evolving with the audience is key.