Why are B2B Companies Giving Buyers a B2C Experience and Think it's OK?

B2B marketing and sales has been turned upside down in the new Digital Economy. Buyers want to self-serve without getting on the phone as it

- saves time
- provides flexibility to work at their own hours
- avoids the pressure of talking to a sales rep
- empowers them to examine more choices than is possible over the phone

Yet B2B companies are providing their buyers two very poor customer experiences:

  • Simple Catalog Experience:   A Company's Digital Front Door is where it makes its first impression. According to Bain "A company's digital showroom determines whether it makes the short list of vendors, long before it even knows a potential customer is in the market. Yet, the digital footprints of traditional B2B companies often fall short of demonstrating how their products actually solve customers' problems and, therefore, do little to define a compelling value proposition in prospects' minds."
  • Phone Sales Experience:  Sales Reps are pressured to sell more without increasing expense while buyers expect reps to be fountains of knowledge and tech savvy. The B2B sales process has reached a crisis of scale. Sales Reps cannot understand a line card of thousands of vendors let alone build multi-vendor solutions. The customer experience is usually the rep saying "I will get back to you".

Here are the major differences between the B2C and the B2B sales process:

  B2C B2B
Evaluation Product is Standalone Black Box Interoperability, Performance and TCO Critical to solving Business Problem
Search Description or SKU Dozens of specifications, Capacity based rules (power, size)
Selection Simple SKU Building Solutions from Knowledge of how products interact.
Price Fixed Highly Variable by Customer, Contract, volume.
Purchase Simple Transaction Transact to Complex Proposal
Shipping Simple Integration and Installation Services
Installation None Onsite Installation and Integration Services
Management None Management Services over the life of the solution 

The B2B Sales process is dramatically different from B2C.  Too many B2B companies make the mistake of offering the same simple keyword search and simple catalogs as used on B2C sites.  Simple catalogs won't work for B2B buyers who must not simply select but engineer solutions based on capacity constraints such as power, size, weight and interoperability between products.  The outdated simple search and catalog display barely works for B2C but for B2B it hurts the customer relationship in two ways:

  • Increases Risk for the Buyer:  Simple Search with limited product information increases the risk for the buyer.  40 percent of consumers have returned a product due to poor product information on Amazon (Website magazine).  An IT engineer recently explained to us that they spent a few hours trying to find the best corporate laptop standard for their company using a typical B2B user interface like Amazon.  Ultimately they recommended a product to their boss that was not optimal and was missing several key options!  Imagine telling your boss you made a mistake because the site you purchased it from couldn't give you the information you were looking for quickly.
  • Increases the Time Invested by the Buyer:  Finding a single product can take hours on these outdated user interfaces.  Finding all of the interrelated products and building a solution is nearly impossible.  Forcing the buyer to contact someone by phone who must get back to them only damages the customer experience even more.

Making your site THE PLACE for potential buyers to research and BUILD solutions in a self-service format is the key to customer loyalty. Advisors, calculators and multi-vendor solutions building for different use cases is the minimum viable offering on these sites. But few B2B companies offer these capabilities.

Customer Experience is the new battleground for competitive advantage.  According to Gartner 89% of business leaders believe that customer experience will be the primary basis for competition in 2016 versus 36% four years ago.  Here is a checklist of features a modern B2B site should have:

Front Office Experience

  • Meet Customer Expectations with Self-Service:  70% of consumers expect self-service and look to email and phone as a last resort. Its critical to make a good first impression with potential buyers.
  • Advise on Solutions not Products:  Consumers are increasingly looking for bundled, or combined experiences tailored for them and are less interested in simple search.  Since 70% of the purchase decision is made before contacting a sales rep your site must be the first ADVISOR not the rep.
  • Personalize for each type of user: Don’t miss the opportunity for personalized self-service to strengthen your customer relationships as 48% of Buyers would like to receive personalized offers. In B2B personalization goes beyond Custom Branding but is solutions oriented - Custom Corporate Playbooks, Custom Pricebooks - anything that makes doing business easier.
  • Address Each Customer Use Case or Customer Journey - To engage your customers your site must help solve the problems faced by your customers. Examples include - Best Software Renewal Strategy, Best Laptop Solution for CAD software, Lowest TCO for Data Center Solutions.
  • Provide Calculators for relevant customer use cases (eg TCO, ROI or Power) - Again helping customers upfront in the research process is key to being relevant when they are interested in purchase.  B2B buyers are trying to solve a business problem and your site should help them get the answers they are looking for easily.
  • Provide Advisory Questions - Helping guide a B2B buyer toward not just a SKU but a complete solution of hardware, software, maintenance, leasing and services is the key to engagement.
  • Provide a Seamless Multi-Vendor Experience - Nothing is sold alone in B2B.  Showing the B2B Buyer all of the complementary products and services is critical.  In B2C this can be done simply - People who bought this also bought these products.  This WON'T WORK in B2B!   There are too many rules and interdependence.  The B2B buyer needs to know all the alternatives and how to optimize a choice.

Back Office Experience

  • Offer to Route to a Live Expert for Interactive Collaboration - B2B buyers dont want to have to call, or use chat.  Instead they want to route their preliminary requirements and/or configuration to a live expert.  This live expert should be able to access the entries made by the Buyer and collaborate on the design/cart in real time if necessary. 
  • Meet Expectations for Agility - B2B buyers need information from both your back office and an entire ecosystem of distributors, vendors and integrators.  Buyers demand agility and expect this information to be retrieved, aggregated and presented almost instantaneously without human delay.
  • Digitally Generate Quotes and Proposals - Automated Generation can cut hours from Document Turnaround and Errors.  This should be a native part of your B2B Site.

Analytics to Improve Customer Experience

  • Shape Demand - Great Analytics should get at the underlying utility of features and what drives demand.  Analytics should help you determine which features or combination of features allow you to capture the greatest market share?  What Bundles and/or promotions would increase share?
  • Gain Visibility of Metrics to define process improvements - Digital processes should be self monitoring and provide rich data on bottlenecks and measure SLA's.  This information should be used to drive continuous improvement in agility.
  • Gain Forecast Accuracy Months Earlier - Driving looking at the rear view mirror of historical data leaves you vulnerable to shifts. Capturing shifts in user preference at time of quote is more valuable than simple aggregate Point of Sale (POS) when forecasting.

Keep these requirements in mind when building a modern digital B2B storefront.  To get the full set of features above you will most likely need a Knowledge Work Automation platform that offers a powerful knowledge based rules engine, routing engine combined with advanced analytics.  These advanced features are not something even large companies can build themselves in adequate time.

Crafting a great B2B Customer Experience can be difficult, but you can cut the time, effort and risk using this comprehensive launch checklist.

Have I forgotten anything? Please let me know at lswanson@exaltsolutions.com.