The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the need for B2B suppliers to personalize the customer buying experience online, a new report says.

With the coronavirus pandemic prompting B2B buyers to interact with suppliers more through digital channels, the need for suppliers to deliver a better customer experience on their website is greater than ever, says a report from Episerver, a provider of ecommerce, content management and digital marketing technology.

You can't not be digital anymore; you can't not create content to create engaging experiences.
Alex Atzberger, CEO
Episerver
AlexAtzberger-Episerver

Alex Atzberger, CEO, Episerver

Indeed, 71% of B2B executives surveyed say their company’s digital experience does not meet the needs and expectations of its customers, the survey says. That’s despite more than 37% of B2B executives acknowledging that the digital experience on their company’s website is what differentiates them from the competition.

By failing to meet buyers’ needs digitally, companies develop what Episerver terms a “customer-centricity gap.”

The largest customer-centricity gaps exist in healthcare and financial services, where 93% and 85% of respondents, respectively, say they have a customer-centricity gap, the survey found. Between 71% and 77% respondents in the remaining four market segments—manufacturing, distribution, commercial services and supplies, and high tech—acknowledged they had a customer-centricity gap. For its “Digital Experience Report: A Customer-Centric Pivot in Pivotal Times,” Episerver interviewed 600 B2B executives in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and Australia in March 2020.

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Lack of personalization hinders sales

One reason for the customer-centricity gap, the report says, is that, despite 95% of respondents saying their company has adequately invested in the digital customer experience, the top three areas B2B executives say still are in need of improvement are personalization, knowing the customer, and managing content to meet customer needs.

Some B2B suppliers are still struggling to improve in these three areas, even after they have completed what they feel is a successful transformation of their digital channel, the report indicates. This trend most likely stems from a failure on the part of companies to fully commit to understanding and meeting their customer’s needs, it notes. These companies “could be potentially still working with disparate systems, which is why they don’t know who their customers are, nor personalize content for them,” the report says.

In addition to the need to better understand their customers and personalize content for them, B2B suppliers also face myriad external threats to their business. 27% of respondents cite B2B buyers’ expectations that B2B ecommerce mirror the B2C buying experience as their top external threat. Another 27% of respondents also cite customer acquisition costs as their top external threat and 17% list digitally native start-ups that can disrupt their industry as an external threat.

Amazon: both threat and opportunity

Large marketplaces also represent a serious external threat to B2B suppliers’ ecommerce business. 52% of respondents say their company is losing revenue to Amazon.com Inc. Among distributors and providers of commercial services and supplies, 65% and 64%, respectively, say they feel they are losing revenue to Amazon, the report says.

While Amazon’s scale can help sellers open new revenue streams that aren’t limited by geography, selling through the marketplace distances the seller from the buyer and erodes already slim margins, the report says.

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Nevertheless, 52% of respondents say they feel Amazon represents an opportunity for their ecommerce business.

Key to successfully leveraging Amazon as a marketplace is to put together a strategic plan for selling on it to find out what works and what doesn’t, before jumping headfirst into selling on the marketplace. “Organizations that do this well can realize a huge opportunity, but it must be done thoughtfully,” the report says.

The top internal threat to delivering a satisfying customer experience is legacy software, followed by disparate and siloed applications and databases, the report says.

Key to B2B suppliers closing the customer-centricity gap is putting buyers at the heart of all businesses processes, investing in online and digital customer experiences, designing products around customer needs, and having a continuous feedback loop for customers, the report says.

Investing for revenue gains

When it comes to improving the customer experience, 60% of respondents say they plan to invest in personalization by 2022, after which they plan to invest in web content management and ecommerce platforms. Investing in personalization can provide quick gains in revenue and brand reputation, as 46% of B2B buyers say they are getting a better user experience when content is personalized, and 42% say a company cares about their experience when content is personalized based on their purchasing history, behavior patterns and personal information, the report says.

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In addition to personalizing content, 41% of respondents say that selling directly to customers online is the most significant opportunity for their business in the next year, followed by expanding into new geographies (37%) and providing their salesforce with digital selling tools (36%). Despite the economic downturn from the coronavirus, 85% of B2B organizations still expect their digital experience budget to increase next year, which will help those companies that say their digital experience does not meet the needs and expectations of its customers, the report says.

“Direct-to-consumer sales, for example, have been discussed for years, but now the time is there to rethink your go-to-market channel,” says Episerver CEO Alex Atzberger. “Getting in touch with customers directly and in a hyper-relevant way is business-critical when in-person tactics are impossible to execute. You can’t not be digital anymore; you can’t not create content to create engaging experiences; you can’t not sell directly.”

Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.  

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