Just as businesses used to fool themselves into believing they controlled the customer conversation, many businesses today think they define the customer experience. They think that by assembling the right combination of processes, environment and people, they can develop an experience that will delight the customer.
In most cases, however, and especially in B2B scenarios, the customer has a well-defined experience in mind long before the business has a chance to start building it. The customer usually wants that concept fulfilled, in a timely fashion, at terms that make business sense, and in as frictionless a way as possible.
The B2B customer is not buying to be delighted. The B2B customer wants improved business operations. That’s the experience the customer expects.
Don’t Dash Expectations
Expectations are important. They’re the bar that establishes where and how far businesses need to go to make a purchasing experience pleasant and likely to be repeated. There’s a big difference in the experience expected by someone buying a large volume of copy paper and someone buying a luxury car, for instance.
The car buyer expects to be wooed, treated well by the sales staff, given plenty of neat collateral to firm up a decision, and feted as an honored guest in the showroom. The B2B buyer expects to get on the phone with Larry, his sales rep, and talk about discounts. There’s a big difference in the expectations.
That opens the door for B2B sellers. The bar is low — no one is expecting a buying experience that’s as immersive — or as time-consuming — as a ride at Disneyland, nor do they want that. They expect that they can get what they want in a reasonable time span and with a minimum of hassle. Adding to that experience is easy, once you’ve met initial expectations.
How do you improve the B2B buying experience? First up are the basics: Understand the customer — usually, thanks to the use of CRM software — and be able to relate to the customer’s business challenges.
That requires an empathetic salesperson — someone who’s able to sense a customer need and view it both as a sales lever and as something to commiserate about with the customer.
Next, reward loyalty — but not through a loyalty program. Loyalty programs get people to do things, but they don’t encourage actual loyalty, because loyalty is a trait that is strongest when it’s developed on its own and is held by both parties in a relationship.
To make the experience better, offer rewards when they’re least expected — at anniversaries, when things happen within the customers’ businesses, when they place especially large or notably different orders. The goal is to show your loyalty to the customer, not to test the customers’ loyalty to you. Showing loyalty earns customer loyalty better than any “loyalty program” ever could.
Court the Middle Tier
Another obvious way to boost the B2B buying experience is simply to ask how your customers are doing. You can do this with surveys. An increasing number of sales organizations use surveys and include metrics from and about surveys in their compensation plans.
The challenge is to keep sales reps from contaminating the data. If reps offering a survey inform customers that their bonus depends on all “excellents” on the survey, they render the data unusable. It may be more useful for understanding the customer experience if you base reps’ bonuses on the number of surveys their customers complete.
However, your sales reps should ask the questions verbally, too. They’ll catch things that the wording of your surveys may have allowed to escape, and they can deliver feedback up the chain of command so your customers’ experience can be improved.
In many cases, it’s likely you can improve the customer experience by spreading the love around. Many B2B sellers deal with the Pareto Principle — 80 percent of their business comes from 20 percent of their customer base. The natural trend is to shift assets and attention to that 20 percent.
That can be wasted effort, though. The top 20 are already profitable with the experience they’re getting now. It’s the next tier of customers who might become more lucrative buyers if you offer a better experience. If your reps are spending too much time with your top accounts, remind them that growth is likely to come from the middle, not the top.
You should work to make sure the buying process is as frictionless as possible. Is there a spot in your process that can cause orders to be delayed, or an approval process that drags, or a disconnect between sales and operations that leaves customers in the lurch?
Those inefficiencies exist because fixing them would be a hassle for people inside your company — but instead of your employees dealing with a one-time hassle to fix them, they’re causing hassles for your customers as they try to buy from you. Fix them, and you improve the customer experience.
Ultimately, building a B2B customer experience depends first on your willingness to understand what the customer wants and expects that experience to be. Then, be relentless in meeting those experience expectations. Once they’re met, you can be creative — as long as that creativity doesn’t conflict with your customers’ expectations from the relationship.