Selling to business customers used to mean a lot of in-person handshaking, socializing, and relationship-building. But COVID-19 changed the way we do business—perhaps for the better.
Even before COVID-19 fundamentally altered domestic and international business, customers were not entirely satisfied with the old B2B sales model. Accenture’s report, Service Is the New Sales, revealed that, as of November 2019, a staggering 44% of corporate buyers reported switching vendors in the prior year, and another 36% planned to do the same in the coming year.
The seeds of expectation for a better B2B customer experience had already been planted and were growing. But add in COVID-19 with its social distancing and remote work requirements, and the wave of expectation is turning into a tsunami of demand for a more customer-centric and service-oriented sales approach.
Realizing this shift, firms across the country are starting to rethink their sales strategies. From organizational design to go-to-market strategies, businesses are considering ways in which they can turn pandemic disruption into sustainable change that supports growth in both the near and long term.
An element critical to any B2B organization’s success is an almost-obsessive focus on customer experience. To compete successfully in today’s environment, organizations must keep the buyer and the buying experience at the center by focusing on three critical components:
• Customer perspective
• Buying environment
• Salesperson delivery
Get to Know—Really Get to Know—the Buyer
While customer experience has long been the centerpiece of B2C sales, B2B organizations are more recently recognizing its importance. This consumerization of B2B sales is a recognition that B2B buyers are people first and have come to expect in their corporate roles the same level of experience that they receive in their personal lives.
A New Buyer Persona
In the past, business buyers viewed their professional purchasing differently than their personal shopping. However, in The Business Imperative for Transforming B2B Customer Experience, the Harvard Business Review notes that these customers now expect the speed and convenience they experience as B2C customers to be available to them when purchasing on behalf of their companies.
There are other environmental factors—combined with the frictionless, modern B2C experience—changing business buying behavior in 2020, according to a Forrester podcast.
• Unlimited access to information about vendors, products, and services
• Overburdened attention spans from 24/7 connectivity
• More business decision-makers from the millennial generation with a digitized worldview
• Increasing online migration of business functions due to COVID-19
Despite their desire for consumer-level customer experiences, B2B purchasers still need to be treated differently than their B2C counterparts.
The MIT Sloan Management Review explains the distinction. The consumer often makes a personal, spontaneous decision based on emotion whereas the commercial buyer must take an approach driven by objective criteria. While consumers generally make purchase decisions themselves, B2B buyers are usually part of a buying group, with numerous stakeholders whose input, review and/or approval must be considered. And while consumers typically make one-time purchases, business buyers do so “in the context of ongoing relationships between buyer and seller.”
Consumerization of the B2B Customer Experience
How can B2B companies satisfy the increasing number of clients who prefer a more consumerized type of corporate buying process? Digitization and personalization are the keys.
Traditional B2B websites look and function differently than their B2C counterparts, which are specifically designed to drive e-commerce. Up to now, organizations primarily used their B2B sites as adjuncts to their sales teams—the place where additional reference material, such as brochures or white papers, was available to clients. That is changing as e-commerce moves into the B2B sphere.
In 2018, B2B e-commerce sales amounted to approximately $1.1 trillion, representing 12% of all B2B sales at that time. Forrester predicts in The B2B eCommerce Playbook for 2020 that this volume will increase to $1.8 trillion and account for 17% of the B2B market by 2023.
The Harvard Business Review confirms that B2B customers are migrating toward vendors that provide self-service websites or apps. In a highlighted example, one company successfully responded to this trend by creating an online ordering portal, which customers could access via desktop or mobile device. It specifically took into account the multi-layer nature of organizational approval processes.
Firms that enhance their e-commerce capabilities are helping to create the customer-centric experience that today’s business buyer has come to expect. The result is a more satisfied client.
It is important to note, however, that the customer is not alone in benefiting from their increased control over a streamlined and personalized purchasing process. Early B2B adopters and those that follow them enjoy benefits of their own, such as the following:
• More detailed customer data for analysis
• Algorithm and AI-based behavior monitoring for proactive purchase or reorder suggestions
• Omnichannel access points that help increase sales volume
• More time for salespeople to focus on relationships rather than individual transactions
• Deeper customer relationships
Maintain the Human Element
Digitization may be transforming B2B sales, but human interaction is still crucial. Customers want to continue to engage with salespeople, valuing them for their product expertise as well as their knowledge and understanding of each customer’s individual needs. A good salesperson serves as a trusted partner and consultant to the customer throughout the buyer’s journey.
B2B companies don’t want that collaboration to end after the purchase is complete. They want engagement and coordination between sales, fulfillment, and service throughout the entire relationship. Tech companies, for example, want the customer experience to continue well into user adoption and implementation.
Meeting the Future
As their expectations and behaviors evolve, business buyers are increasingly gravitating toward vendors that understand and respond to the rapidly changing business environment. At the front end, companies expect less salesmanship and more partnership. And after the sale, B2B customers demand continued support and engagement. Successful B2B companies will be agile, adaptable, and client-focused to meet the challenges of B2B sales in 2020 and beyond.