Customer experience: the purpose of B2B marketing

Often deprived of the marketing mix’s usual levers, B2B marketing should take advantage of the notion of customer experience to fully play its role of unifying reinforcement initiatives of customer orientation.  

Beyond mass markets, marketing generally has difficulties in finding its place within B2B organisations. For example, on business markets, the product strategy often emanates from customers requests (“custom-made” offers) when it is not managed by technical or production functions, drawing on their professional expertise.

The very significant commercial function, whether it is about “key accounts” or about a saturated market, manages itself the distribution function in connection with various organisations including sales management or logistics one. It ensures – generally skilfully – the customer relationship with buyers.  Similarly, it is often the sales force or the sales management who finally is in control of the pricing policy. Either in a direct way, by answering to the specifications within the framework of formal procedures or, more indirectly, through more or less posted discount policies.

This primacy of the sales relationship is even stronger when B2B offers are unique ones (ex. building a factory) or are offers of provision on the long term and of recurring purchases (ex. parts or subsections) even of “services” managed by professional buyers (ex. energy, fluids…). The “Key Account Management” type of organisations are actually probably the sign that a certain cross-functional vision is lacking, but remain marked by a very business-oriented culture. In these fields, marketing is seen as a luxury, at best and, at worst, as a bother.

Indeed, the marketing function in B2B is often “torn” between a strategic marketing management rather abstract and focused on questions of segments attractiveness, and an operational marketing close to the field, editing and distributing product information sheets, catalogues or samples when it is not busy dealing with public relations matters…

The enthusiasm for the notion of customer experience seems to simply suggest the ways towards a necessary return of the marketing function in the B2B world. Customer experience refers to the subjective perspectives of the customer before, during and after purchasing a product or service. It therefore covers the expectations (and fills the gap between these and reality), the search for solutions, the buying experience itself and all phases of service or product use (including, when appropriate, its destruction or replacement).

In B2B, the right awareness of the individual and subjective nature of customer experience is already a good thing and avoids misleading shortcuts. We hear too often “the X company thinks that…” or “the Y account is not satisfied”.

The B2B customer experience is specific from a double standpoint:

– The customer is not unique, it generally is about a set of people: prescribers, buyers, users, payers, maintenance managers, etc. Each of these people (customer relationship is individual) may have to deal with several other people within the sphere of the seller (sales representative, technical services, delivery, after-sales service…). It is therefore about a matrix of customer relationships.

– Furthermore, the B2B customer, even from a collective standpoint, is rarely the “final” user of the products / services that he buys. He himself has customers with specific expectations (“customers of our customers”) More generally, B2B purchases are a means to an end. A delivery truck bought by an industrialist will also be a vector of its image, a component of the service provided, etc.

Our recent experience at WHY Consulting leads us to think that, if its set ambition is to manage and improve customer experience, marketing is legitimate, appropriate and effective.

Marketing is legitimate

The marketing function is cross-functional by definition. However, taking into account the customer experience and promoting its improvement imply the need to act upon all aspects of the company. For example, the customer experience can be strongly deteriorated by a rather unresponsive maintenance service or by a billing process too rigid or complex. Sales representatives, supposing that they are aware of these “downstream” malfunctions, are not legitimate to interfere with an after-sales service or financial services. The marketing department – however – will serve its function if it intervenes with the departments concerned to suggest behaviours or processes adapted to the expectations of different types of customers.

Responsible for the competitive positioning, in the final analysis, of the brand or the company, the marketing department is entitled to act upon all dimensions having an impact on its customers. In the relationship with the “customer’s sphere”, sales representatives will naturally have a tendency to look for key prescribers, decision-makers or buyers. The marketing department will need to broaden this circle to generate new buying requests and more levers of loyalty with all its influencers of his B2B customer. This necessary evolution is underway with the most advanced stakeholders. And it is actually significant that questions about branding, a marketing territory if it exists, are arousing again the interest of major B2B organisations.

Marketing is competent

The fact of taking customer experience and its improvement into account reflects well the marketing tools and methods and suggests a marketing “mindset”.

In the first place, marketing knows to be analytical. Used to modelling buying behaviours or to juggling with concepts of attitudes or preference, marketing can escape subjective impressions and anecdotes reported by the sales force. The “scientific” nature of marketing approaches is found, for example, in the ability to deal with test markets, to think prospectively and to master the knowledge base of the target market. As a logical consequence of this dimension, marketing is used to control, manage and interpret studies. This ability to manage the results of studies and surveys efficiently is fundamental. For example, B2B customers satisfaction surveys are a precious lever of transformation if they are actually used for this purpose, and making the “voice of the customer” heard implies a marketing know-how.

Another marketing key competence will be necessary to move towards a rich customer experience: the ability to create and make segmentation evolve. A B2B approach of the customer experience that would not be founded on a real segmentation would be doomed to failure. For a same product (let’s say: liquid oxygen), the usage and customer experience are radically different between an industrial customer and a medical one… A truly segmented approach, in the sense of a marketing segmentation and not the structuring of sales portfolios, is a prerequisite to any serious ambition of customer experience improvement. One of our customers in the waste management sector illustrates this logic perfectly.

As a logical consequence of this double competence (analysis + segmentation), marketing can rely on the concept of offer, a familiar territory. Handled with care, the concept of offer allows to build the customer experiences of the members of the B2B organisations as components of the overall offer made to this customer. The company brings him/them a product or a service, but it also brings its environment: we facilitate the use, we seek to reduce the cost (monetary or otherwise) of ownership, etc.

Marketing is efficient

Obviously, the marketing function is effective because of its legitimacy and its skills. The aforementioned reasons mean that a serious improvement initiative of the B2B customer experience implies (1) a marketing management to be accepted by all, (2) a marketing approach to be conducted in an informed and segmented way.

Moreover, in B2B like in B2C, it becomes necessary to know how to think out the relationship in a multichannel and digital way. Without developing here all the consequences of this phenomenon, it is clear that it implies a marketing approach and that an exclusively sales-oriented process based on sales force is like cutting one’s arm off… If CRM was once a sales force tool, it does not allow anymore to truly manage the multichannel relationship with all users (we will come back to that soon).

At WHY Consulting, it basically seems that the prism of customer experience is extremely fertile and relevant in B2B. Because it is easy to understand and to explain, it can become an important lever of profitability improvement and of transformation for organisations. But its apparent simplicity implies a special know-how to reap all the benefits and these skills are usually held by the stakeholders of the marketing function.

Building B2B company’s offering is not about trying to compile proposals made to customers. Moreover, it is best to banish this term and to talk of “answer” or “solution” for the responses. This offering or rather these offerings of customer experience must show a real knowledge of the users needs, be consistent with the brand positioning and consistent in regards to the marketing mix. For example, it is obvious that the right choice for quantities and packaging is – also – an important question of customer experience: the same glue will not be provided the same way based on whether it is used by a construction craftsman or an assembly line…

Benefits of a customer experience marketing approach

Faced with the demanding nature of finding differentiation levers while the product offering is made banal, the customer experience approach in B2B allows, almost naturally, to be “solution”-oriented rather than product-oriented. Significant earnings can result from this new mental stance, if accepted by all, in terms of:

Loyalty: ties created at all levels among customers become major entry barriers for competitors, even though users satisfaction helps defending one’s position and move towards a true partnership.

Sales development: both among existing customers by bringing new services and by expanding its coverage of needs but also by developing internal or external prescription reasoning.

Margins improvement: by bringing solutions with more added value, but also by controlling costs that an approach of the right need and the development of offerings adapted to each segment.

Author: Vincent Thuillier, Director Why Consulting