With the right mix of tools and strategies involving both self-service e-commerce and engaged sales teams, B2B sellers can go a long way toward providing a good customer experience and winning customer loyalty and sales.

CorbinMurakami_Liferay

Corbin Murakami

Let’s face it, despite paying lip service to the notion of customer experience, we as B2B marketers and salespeople have often failed to take practical steps to improve it. As a result, the typical B2B purchasing experience is still extremely unpleasant. When CEB (Gartner’s technology and solutions division) polled thousands of senior decision-makers on their buying experience they used terms like “hard, awful, painful and minefield.” Much of this pain can be ascribed to businesses misunderstanding their customers’ journeys, or not offering ways to ease the purchasing process.

Towards a Full-Service Experience

Businesses miss out on achieving a full-service experience when they compartmentalize different parts of the B2B purchasing process. In a rush to embrace self-service, many businesses either neglect the traditional route of working with a sales rep or bifurcate marketing strategies and spend between the two avenues. That’s a mistake.

While adopting digital initiatives is undoubtedly important, with the possible exception of certain lower-priced SaaS offerings, B2B sales will likely never replace the human touch of a traditional sales rep. Indeed, a 2017 research report from global consultancy McKinsey & Company supports the conclusion that “B2B suppliers cannot choose between a great sales force and great digital assets and capabilities. To drive growth, they need both.” The report goes on to state that salespeople are especially valuable in winning the new customers executives prize so highly, noting that “76 percent of B2B buyers find it helpful to speak to a salesperson when they are researching a new product or service.”

As a result, businesses need to direct resources towards harmonizing experiences across channels so that prospects get a consistent experience that takes previous touchpoints into consideration. In fact, additional research by McKinsey demonstrates that the average B2B customer “will regularly use six different interaction channels throughout the decision journey, and almost 65 percent will come away from it frustrated by inconsistent experiences.” Even simple steps, like offering salespeople a way to view the draft and historical orders of their clients during on-site visits, generate new orders and see pending shipments will go a long way towards giving reps the context they need to be a consultative partner. This is particularly true as McKinsey found that “half of all B2B buyers rely on sellers to remind them when to reorder…but many sellers disappoint.”

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Simplifying Purchasing

Sadly, even a strong sales team and an exceptional omnichannel experience won’t close deals if the buying process itself sucks. There’s no silver bullet here but a host of new technologies offer B2B businesses the opportunity to do better by their customers. One of the most promising is the emergence of chatbots. If sales teams had infinite time (or worked for free) chatbots would not be necessary. But, given the limitations on sales teams’ time, chatbots can handle many rote tasks like scheduling and cancelling meetings, sharing resources and answering common queries. This can help customers get responses faster and more efficiently, a key differentiator for any business.

That being said, chatbots may not be appropriate for all organizations. For one, they will likely require a significant upfront investment in development time, which may be a strain on businesses with more limited engineering resources. In addition, like any other machine-learning system, chatbots rely on large existing datasets on which to train. Even well-constructed chatbots will fail without solid existing data. For that reason the deployment of chatbots is best suited for businesses that have, in the words of Itransition vice president of business development Denis Kostusev, a “large amount of CRM or call-center data.” (Itransition provides technology services designed to help companies with digital transformation strategies.)

Another set of technologies that has caught the eye of many in the B2B community are so-called price optimization tools. Technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. says it “saw a significant increase in the volume of PO&M [price optimization and management] inquiry calls during 2017… we estimate that the market grew by 20% in 2017 to $318 million.” Offered by vendors like Apttus, Navetti and Perfect Price, price optimization tools seek to analyze an organization’s own sales history, plus pricing information from competitors, to determine the optimum price point for a specific service or offering.

These technologies offer real benefit to customers, with Gartner survey respondents citing improved revenues and margins, but they can be expensive. As a result, it should be noted that not all PO&M offerings are offered by standalone vendors and it can be risky to enter into multi-year contracts without first going through an extended proof of concept within a single department.

Opportunity to improve

B2B sales have a long way to go but we should see this as an opportunity to improve rather than a sign of our shortcomings. Customers are always going to be tough to please, and in a world where they have more choice than ever, B2B organizations are going to have to do that much more to create competitive advantages along customer experience. Fortunately, there are plethora of practices and tools that can be deployed to help us do just that.

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Corbin Murakami is a product manager at Liferay, a software company that helps businesses develop digital experiences. He oversees the vision and strategy for Liferay Commerce.

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