Connecting with Customers: Pushing Through Turbulence and Disintermediation
Published on May 12, 2017 | LinkedIn
Given consumer volatility with a strong, anti-establishment sentiment, it’s more important than ever to understand customer motivations. Businesses are under pressure to deliver strong financial performance and forced to do more with less. And with most brands in the marketplace professing to put their customer at the center, any misstep or missed promise tends to rapidly erode a brand’s effectiveness.
Best in Class Has a Lot of Competition
Even iconic consumer brands that became the models of great customer experiences find themselves having to work harder. In Shanghai, it’s not uncommon to reach a street corner that may include a Starbucks, Costa and Pacific cafes. While Starbucks may enjoy an edge with global stature, the experience is eerily similar across all three. In mature markets the Starbucks brand is scoring points with customers utilizing mobile ordering but overall has focused on managing throughput. This does not bode well for the brand and many industries are falling into the same predicament.
With B2B brands there is an even greater need to rethink products, services and the experience. Given the accepted frequency of change and rapidly shifting perceptions, its never been more important to have focus, speed and agility.
The Elusive Quest for Growth
First and foremost, you need to understand the vulnerability of your brand based on its sector and business model. For brands that are built on strong relationships with a manageable set of customers, the impact of share erosion and margin compression from upstart businesses hasn’t taken hold. While these brands may be less vulnerable, what do you do when you dominate market share? Where will growth come from? Who will it come from? For many “impenetrable” brands, success is breeding complacency.
For brands that sell through intermediaries the rapidly changing landscape is forcing them to connect with customers they have never dealt with nor understand. Whether you have a “safe” direct model or sell through various channels, every B2B brand should be challenging their current business model and creating an experience that calibrates the right level of engagement with the shifting needs of customers.
Reframe the Conversation
Customer centricity is at the heart of B2B relationships. For many B2B brands, responding to the most challenging customer requirements and playing an integral role in their success is part of their DNA. But with greater access to technology and an aggressive pace of change, the relationships haven’t proportionately evolved with today’s needs. It’s not unusual for many B2B brands to find themselves in a role that is more supportive and commoditized. It’s not that these brands haven’t been innovative or responsive, but they now find themselves hostage to a procurement-driven process focused on terms and purchasing power.
It may seem like a fundamental step to understand the range of audiences and their needs but for many this exercise has lapsed. Today it’s also not uncommon for many B2B brands to acknowledge that there are customer groups that they have little or no knowledge of. These newer customers tend to be more digitally-native and do not demonstrate a preference for engaging in traditional ways. Understanding this new generation of customers is critical to future-proofing the business.
With mature B2B brands trying to broaden their reach, an additional deeper understanding with meaningful insights from end-users or consumers will earn you a seat at the table. Having a high-quality product, acceptable experience and proven track record will just not be enough.
Rethink the Offering
Incumbent brands in the consumer space are under siege. Since B2B customers are also consumers, it’s only a matter of time before expectations dramatically shift. For several elite B2B brands, innovation has garnered success. GE has been successful at infusing digital into all aspects of their business. The result is using data to better understand performance of equipment and ultimately help customers better utilize the equipment they own. Yet many B2B brands lag behind industry stalwarts such as GE, Honeywell and Ingersoll Rand, as well as disruptors like Square.
We live in unprecedented times where technology will reset experiences. Electrified autonomous vehicles will change ownership patterns and the way we travel; buildings will be automated to run cleaner and more efficiently; more direct relationships will create more competition and flatten distribution channels; digital payments will change the role of brands and how we shop. The list goes on. Every B2B brand needs to have a bold vision and a strong roadmap. To get customers to embrace what they will need, B2B brands should be focused on redefining their categories rather than just strengthening the business.
Focus on the Experience
As a new generation of digitally native customers establish influential roles, the desire to deal with human sales reps begins to diminish. While self-directed models have existed in industries such as financial services, the reality is that every industry will need to engage with customers in a simpler, faster and digitally-oriented manner. Our patience is getting shorter and the expectation is that if you can’t deliver in the quickest, most efficient way, there is someone else one click or swipe away.
For B2B brands, changing the experience is the most difficult endeavour a company can take. Legacy cultures take time to change and technology infrastructures may require considerable retooling, integration and training. While a strong brand purpose will help organizational cultures understand and believe, they need to know what the experience should be and how to consistently deliver. An experience built on customer insights will not only drive relevance but help create sustainable differentiation in competitive markets.
Be Agile and Transform with Confidence
With the pressure to transform you need to be bold and accept a higher level of risk. You will experience failure. But learning from failure creates more agility and a better understanding of how to serve your customers. A couple of things to keep in mind:
• Have conviction, not arrogance. Embrace the fact that your barriers to entry will erode and introducing more barriers will attract more innovative competitors to challenge and disrupt. Don’t be afraid to take risks and stop thinking of the days where higher margins were easier to achieve.
• Rethink how you engage, but don’t throw away knowledge and experience. Have a deep understanding of your customers and the people they serve. Invest more in learning about your market, consumer trends that are driving change, and frequent performance measurement.
• Embrace disintermediation and drive the category. Encourage employees to learn about and actively participate in growing global shifts such as Smart Cities, IoT, Urban Mobility, etc. The list of brands that hesitated to change and subsequently became permanently irrelevant will double if not triple in size.
• Loosen control of your channels and use the experience to drive deeper relationships. Infuse a digital experience into everything you do. Not every customer wants or needs hand-holding. B2B brands should continue to empower their customers to take control of things themselves, rather than dominating the relationship.
The old paradigms for staying relevant are gone. Is your strategy built for the future?