4 reasons why it's not too hard for B2B brands to become customer-centric

Research by B2B International back in 2018 found that the increase in attention paid to the discipline of customer experience in direct-to-consumer (D2C) markets had not been matched by B2B brands and only 14% of large B2B companies were truly customer-centric.

Fast forward to 2022 and one pandemic later, with D2C brands racing to respond to the seismic shifts in customers attitudes and expectations, little has changed in the B2B arena.

So, is understanding customers and their needs, then systematically responding to them so much more difficult for B2B brands? Having reflecting on our last four projects with some of the UK’s most successful B2B businesses I have good news - it really isn't.
It just takes strong intent and investment in time and yes, money.    

1. The process is the same - just a bit more complicated

There’s no getting away from it - B2B businesses are more complex. There are more customer journeys to consider (21 in one case) and many more entities and actors involved in each journey, from colleagues to partners to customers.

But these journeys aren’t more complicated, there are just more dimensions to understand and capture. This means the process of identifying these actors, mapping their end-to-end journeys and prioritising opportunities based on their unmet needs is not that different. It just takes more time and more effort.

2. You’re surrounded by experts

Whilst this complexity can feel overwhelming, it doesn’t need to be, there’s a sea of knowledge in every B2B business that provides an invaluable source of information about customers, from Area Managers to Account Managers, technical specialists and contact centre colleagues. We've always been surrounded by experts.

This means that, although additional customer research is inevitably required, close collaboration between the experience design team and internal experts provides an incredibly efficient way to understand customers, their journeys and their needs. A much stronger starting point than in any D2C project.

3. Focusing on Key Accounts helps the long tail. 

B2B brands serve a broad range of customer segments, from huge “Key Accounts" to a long tail of smaller businesses. On the surface at least, the needs of these segments are very different and add an additional dimension to the work of customer experience innovation. Which segments should we focus on first?

In reality, these segments have more to unite than divide them. Yes, the different actors within a large B2B customer have different needs based on their roles (such as equipment specifier vs wearer, or restaurant manager vs chef) but these needs are also present in smaller organisations, just consolidated into fewer roles. By creating experiences that respond to these specific needs, B2B brands can make a difference. 

By focusing on the experience for customers within the large and complex key accounts (which are usually managed anyway) then providing similar experiences to smaller accounts on a self-service basis, it's possible to deliver a high-quality experience to both segments and everything in-between.

4. B2B customers are human too

Of course it’s essential to identify and meet the practical needs of customers in B2B projects, such as the ability to find product specifications, food allergy information, cut ratings for protective gloves, ensure items are delivered on time, resolve any issues quickly etc, but this is only part of the story. It’s also critical to meet customers' emotional needs, such as the need to build and retain trust, provide inspiration and create a sense of community and belonging. This is new territory for some B2B brands,

Thankfully, this is where experience with D2C comes in, which has taught us a great deal about understanding and responding to the motivations and expectations of customers, as well as providing experiences that are usable and convenient. By using the same techniques to understand the gap between customer needs and the current reality, we can start to explore and experiment in order to close them. B2B customers are human too.

In Summary

Of course there's a lot more to becoming truly customer-centric than I've covered here. The overall B2B business landscape and its operating processes tend to be complex and there are lots of barriers to rapid change, such as legacy technologies and multi-layered organisation structures and I'm not making light of any of this. Change can be a big challenge.

But the unavoidable starting point in any journey to put customers at the centre of everything you do is to understand who they are, how they feel about the current reality of your brand experience, then set out a vision to improve it. In this limited context at least, we have found that the processes we use to achieve this in D2C businesses can be applied very effectively in a B2B context. In some areas it's easier to do and in others it's more difficult.

Yes it’s hard work, it takes grit and it takes investment, but the benefits are huge. The clarity gained in understanding what your customers want provides a lens through which every subsequent business decision can then be made. It provides a purpose for measurable progress and, if iterated, sets your business on a path towards customer-centricity and even customer-obsession, which has become essential in our new age of uncertainty.


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