Customer expectations are changing at high speed in the business-to-business (B2B) world. Buyers are more informed than ever before and expect a more seamless experience from suppliers and service providers. To meet the needs of the modern business buyer, B2B companies can look to the B2C world for ideas about how to reinvent their customer experience (CX) for a digital age.

The single biggest engine of change in the world of B2B sales, marketing and CX is the rise of digital channels and platforms. The shift to digital has created what Forrester calls the ‘B2B Consumer’. “More and more B2B buyers are acting like consumers. A combination of digital consumers’ native and learned behaviours is driving this change,” says the research firm.

The B2B consumer has become accustomed to the sort of on-demand and personalised service they can get from Uber, Airbnb or Amazon. Much of the technology they use at work has the friendly interface of a mobile app. And they have a wealth of information at their fingertips from search and social media, enabling them to compare pricing, reputation and service levels among different providers more easily than before.

Here are a few implications of more consumer-like behaviour for experience design in the B2B world:

  1. It’s important to focus on people before product

While B2B companies throw the concept of customer-centricity around quite freely, the reality is that most focus on profitability as well as services and products on offer before they focus on people. By some estimates, less than a quarter of B2B companies have a customer-centric—versus a channel- or product-centric—organisational structure that responds to customer inquiries or questions and also engages in a timely manner in meaningful and relationship-building customer interactions.

What does it mean in practice to be customer-centric? Ryan Hadfield at ZoomInfo says it means putting the customer at the centre of every business decision, assessing customers’ needs and interests when shaping products and campaigns. One of his suggestions is to enable customers to give more input regarding product changes and offerings.

Another tip is to focus on connecting on a personal level with the buyer—who is, just like a consumer, a human being. Storytelling is one way to do this. Many marketers don’t see the value of emotion in the B2B world, says Hadfield. However, 50% of B2B buyers say they’re more likely to make a purchase if they connect emotionally to a brand.

  1. Learn about app and website experience design from the best consumer companies

The experiences the average B2B company offers at CX interaction and touchpoints like mobile apps, social media channels and websites is nowhere near as slick as the experience customers get from the likes of Amazon or eBay. “Every B2B customer you have is also a B2C customer. They’ve been conditioned to expect Amazon. Amazon is easy and you aren’t,” writes Mike Moran of Solo Segment.

The list of sins is long and ugly:

  • Compelling information buried behind cumbersome registration gates in the name of gathering email addresses for leads;
  • Confusing navigation;
  • An overly formal tone of voice and unappealing design;
  • Clunky site search; and
  • A lack of easy e-commerce functionality.

When designing or upgrading digital experiences and touchpoints, it makes sense to look not only at industry peers and competition, but also at what the GAFA (Alphabet-Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple) bunch and companies like Uber and Airbnb are doing. They are setting the benchmark more than companies that for example sell ERP software or industrial machinery.

  1. Embrace data-driven personalisation 

The personal touch in the old world of B2B came from the sales and account management team spending time meeting with the customer. Now, however, at least part of the customer journey in a B2B relationship will be experienced online. To address customer’s unique needs, B2B brands will therefore need to master data-driven personalisation in the same way as banks and retailers did.

As a blog post on Atomicdust notes: “In B2B, personalisation is becoming table stakes—it’s no longer the icing on the cake. In fact, 65% of business buyers would switch brands if a company didn’t make an effort to personalise communications, according to a study from Salesforce.” The author says delivering the right content when customers need it is key.

“Brands do this through drip campaigns and automated emails that nurture specific leads. B2B companies can set up retargeting ads to connect with website visitors and offer them a reason to come back—gated content or a free consultation. Even ad copy itself can be hyper-personalised, mentioning job titles or industries of the people being targeted,” she writes.

Instead of only collecting and reporting on CX behaviour and data, companies must use the insights to continuously find ways to improve the B2B customer experience, outsmart competitors and secure customer loyalty.

  1. Map omnichannel customer journeys 

B2B customer journeys remain complex and they now unfold across multiple channels and touchpoints. As is the case in B2C, it’s becoming critical to offer commercial customers a consistent experience from pre-sales and sales to transaction or implementation, support and retention across numerous touchpoints. This will be supported through the effective use of data by B2B companies across the organisation to create a customer service obsessed employee culture.

“[Customers] may start by looking at a company’s website but end up calling the contact centre and later communicating via chat or email. A true omnichannel experience starts by uniting data within the organisation to create a strong understanding of what each customer needs,” writes self-styled customer experience futurist, Blake Morgan.

  1. Remember that millennials are among today’s decision-makers 

Around a decade ago, B2C companies were wrestling with how their experiences would need to evolve to keep up with millennials’ technology expectations and values. Now that the oldest millennials are entering their 40s, they are starting to form a larger portion of the average company’s middle and senior management team and decision-making cohort.

“Millennials don’t just shape consumer behaviour, they are shaping trends in business too! Just take for example IT purchases (the increased use of more convertible and detachable PCs), and adoption of apps in the workplace for improved collaboration, dashboards and sharing (think of Slack, Flow and Notion),” says a post on the Creative Monster website.

As they segment their customer bases and map out their customer journeys, this is a good time for B2B companies to get to know this audience well.

Accelerating consumerisation

The consumerisation of the B2B CX is only going to accelerate in the COVID era—lines between work and personal have become more blurred and adoption of digital behaviours has soared. Leading B2B companies are looking more closely at what this means for how their customers experience their products, brands and services. Those that get it right will have an edge in a changing market.


[Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash]