March 29, 2013
It disappoints me when customer experience (CX) professionals at business-to-business (B2B) companies won’t even consider CX practices from business-to-consumer (B2C) companies.
Sure, B2B firms can learn a lot from other B2B firms: Cisco has an amazing voice of the customer program, Boeing does great work conducting field studies of its customers, and Adobe has a notable CX governance practice. But unless B2B customer experience practitioners want to run the CX race with one foot in a bucket, they should also learn strategy from Holiday Inn and Burberry, customer understanding from Vanguard and Virgin Mobile Australia, and design practices from Fidelity and the Spanish bank BBVA — the list of relevant B2C case studies goes on and on.
There are two reasons why B2B companies should take this advice to heart. First, no industry has anything close to a monopoly on best practices. So unless companies cast a wide net, they’re cutting themselves off from lessons that could give them an edge over their navel-gazing competitors. Secondly, every customer that B2B companies serve is not only a businessperson but also a consumer, one who has his or her expectations set by daily interactions with Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, and Zappos. And those B2B customers no longer lower their expectations when they go to work — especially because work now gets interspersed with their personal lives.
Although some B2B companies do cast a broad net when looking for best practices, many scoff at the idea that they can learn from B2C firms. Why? Here are some of the objections I hear often:
- “We sell to businesses, not people.” This one floors me. Until I see an office building sign a purchase order, I’m going to go on believing that B2B is really person-to-person (P2P). Case in point: A few years ago, I did some research with companies that manufacture semiconductors. I was surprised to find that their sales typically depend on one key type of person: a design engineer. He (and it’s almost always “he”) designs and then prototypes the guts of what goes into electronic products ranging from mobile phones to microwave ovens. When he wants a semiconductor with certain technical characteristics, he goes to a manufacturer’s site and looks for something that will meet his specifications.
If he finds a matching product quickly, he orders a sample, which might then end up in his final design and result in an order for thousands of units that will go into the final product. But if he can’t find the right sample easily, he gives up and goes to a different site, and the manufacturer loses a potentially gigantic sale. Why would the engineer give up so quickly when the decision is so critical? Because design engineers are people who are typically both really smart and really impatient. They won’t waste their valuable time struggling with an unusable site for very long before they conclude that the type of product they want isn’t there — much like a hurried, impatient consumer shopper.
- “We can’t deliver as good an experience as consumer brands — why try?” Not true (thank god!). Salesforce.com helped change the nature of the enterprise software industry with its business model that makes it far easier to buy and own software. Last year when I spoke with John Taschek, the firm’s senior vice president (SVP) of strategy, he told me that CEO Marc Benioff asked a simple question of the other founders when starting the company: “Why can’t software be as usable as Amazon?” That question has guided the direction of the company ever since and helped salesforce.com hammer competitors that cling to the old on-premises license model.
- “We’re regulated!” As Phil Bienert, SVP digital experience at AT&T put it when speaking at our customer experience forum last year — what industry isn’t regulated? And he should know, having worked in senior CX positions in the automotive, consumer credit, and telecom industries. Of course, regulations can make it challenging to deliver a great customer experience by prohibiting companies from saying or doing certain things. And regulations are tougher for some industries, including some B2B industries, than for others. But if you compare companies in the same regulated industries, you’ll see that some of the companies find innovative ways to create a superior customer experience that helps differentiate them from competitors. Meanwhile, other firms with the same regulations don’t even try. Clearly the innovators figured out how to get the job done despite regulations, while their competitors wrung their hands and gave up.
Here’s the good news.
Increasingly, people who work in customer experience at B2B companies understand that they not only can learn from B2C companies — but also must. They understand that customer experience is still very young as a business discipline, so no one can afford to wait for direct competitors to figure out definitive best practices and then share them.
That’s why when I talk about customer experience with people who work at B2B companies, ranging from freight shippers to pharmaceutical manufacturers, I always include relevant examples from B2C companies. I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t. That’s also why my co-author and I included B2C, B2B, and B2B2C examples in our book, Outside In.
If you work at a B2B (or B2B2C) company, my advice to you is to cast a broad net when it comes to learning customer experience practices. Ultimately you’ll decide which ones to accept or reject — so why not give yourself an advantage by starting with a more diversified list of possibilities than your narrow-minded competitors will even consider?