The focus of conversations about customer experiences (CXs) has generally been on the consumer, namely business-to-consumer (B2C) or B2C CX.
But the B2C experiences are, to a considerable extent, driven by the business-to-business (B2B) customer experiences (B2B CX).
Ones that occur in long and complex supply chains that include retailers, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, resource extraction, processing, and refining businesses, and transportation companies.
Conversely the B2C CX shapes the B2B CX. A product or service complaint, concern, or suggestion by a consumer often involves, has their root cause in, or can be fixed or developed by a business somewhere on the supply chain. And the same goes for those of a business consumer.
The B2B CX environment, like that of the B2C CX, has been buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme shipment-impeding weather, labor market disruptions (like the Great Resignation), and by the tragic turmoil and the global geopolitical and economic impacts from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Contact center suppliers provide a vital link in this chain. So, to understand what is happening with the B2B CX and where it is going Contact Center Pipeline reached out to thought leaders at several leading companies.
We had virtual conversations with Chris Arnold, Vice President of Customer Experience Strategy, ASAPP; Bonnie Chase, Director of Product Marketing, Coveo; Eric Head, Vice President, Go-To-Market Strategy, Experience Management, Verint; David Singer, Vice President, Product Strategy, Verint; Tom Minifie, Director of Product Management, Digital Experience, OpenText; and Einat Weiss, Chief Marketing Officer, NICE.
Q: Outline the state of the B2B CX, both the opportunities but also the challenges, and what is driving them?
Chris Arnold: The B2B customer experience is a more personalized experience—with people and knowledge of an account a key factor.
Nonetheless, the B2B operations can be expensive and still face similar challenges as B2C. These include a shift in labor resulting in resource shortages, onboarding challenges, and the need for effective and efficient training.
These challenges also include, and often more so, having to adapt to work-from-home (WFH).
B2B operations are sometimes in more regulated industries, notably finance, which were never set up for the WFH environment. This has resulted in a dearth of technology and IT support that is now an area of growth and opportunity. B2B operations are now having to look at evolving their cloud, privacy, and security applications to enable mobile interactions and WFH.
Additionally, with products, services, and pricing becoming commoditized, personalization is a competitive advantage for B2B.
Which companies can create the most personalized experience at scale? That’s the challenge, which can be uniquely addressed by artificial intelligence (AI) that can feed all the relevant biographical and context information to agents. It’s a big opportunity given that the typical B2B 1:1 relationship is inefficient while revenue growth and retention is becoming everyone’s job.
There’s also a rapidly growing expectation of multi- (voice + digital) and omni- (seamless and persistent) channel CX. Healthcare is a great example, particularly as you look across patient, provider, and payer CX.
Bonnie Chase: Customer experience continues to be a high priority for B2B companies, especially as they become digital-first with the move to digitization accelerated by the pandemic.
But being digital isn’t enough. Customers expect seamlessness across their digital journeys, and companies must now compete on customer service over products.
That high water mark has been set by giants in the space, and once it is in place, customers are unlikely to accept subpar experiences.
But most businesses, without hundreds of millions to invest in digital transformation, continue to face gaps and information chasms. Over the years, they have rolled out new channels, like chatbots, to keep up with customer expectations. However, these channels remain siloed and continue to create disjointed experiences for customers.
One of the biggest challenges in CX is turning these multichannel customer service experiences into seamless and connected (omnichannel) experiences.
Feeding into this challenge is the need to address the underlying data across those technologies. To create that good experience, you need to be able to analyze the behavior of an individual’s journey across all digital touchpoints, not just one of them.
We are now in a place where AI has evolved to the point where the same technology that led to the ascent of companies like Amazon is now readily available for everyone.
Companies should seize this opportunity to support their digital initiatives with AI that unifies data and drives relevance. Relevance is the experience that gives us what we want, when we want it, in the most effortless way, and sometimes before we even know we want it. These are the kinds of experiences that rise to the top because everyone is hooked.
Finally, today everyone expects relevance. By providing the information seamlessly in their preferred channels, you empower your customers and employees to have better digital experiences that will add value to your business. The future-thinking companies that deliver this will find reduced support costs, increased engagement, and happier customers.
Tom Minifie: B2B companies have historically been focused on longer sales cycles, centered predominately around long-term relationship building.
The complexity of the products and solutions that they offer, as well as the often-higher costs associated with those offerings, often means that these businesses and their customers work together for longer periods of time as compared to how traditional consumers may interact with B2C organizations.
However, in today’s market, consumers have access to highly personalized and accessible experiences. Compounded even further by the global pandemic, consumers make purchasing decisions, engage and build relationships with businesses, and establish brand loyalty with companies around the world, all from the convenience of their smartphones or laptops.
B2C companies have had to stay more competitive than ever in the CX landscape. Now B2B customers are also increasingly seeking similar consumer experiences from the B2B companies they work with.
B2B customers are demanding digital experience options relating to self-service, multichannel interactions, having greater visibility into service status, and much more in addition to the traditional engagement options provided by B2B companies.
The upside is that these new customer demands present opportunities for B2B companies to reevaluate their traditional customer engagement techniques and build truly unique CX programs at a pivotal time.
David Singer: The B2B experience is becoming more important—especially given the fact that the sales process is increasingly becoming digitized, as opposed to the in-person engagement model that was in place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a longer sales cycle and greater complexity with a larger number of stakeholders (buyers, users, procurement teams), more influencers, and more touchpoints. There effectively is two-tiered customer service prerogative—to serve both buyers/dealers/distributors—and end-users.
As well, B2B products are generally more complex—think jet engines or enterprise software—with many different models, configurations, and customizations. The price points tend to be higher than in the B2C world, adding to the importance of CX.
Over the past few years, social media and ratings and reviews community forums for B2B buyers have grown in prominence, giving users a voice and a place where a bad user experience can be amplified, thereby having a negative impact on the path to purchase.
Einat Weiss: More than price or product quality, experience is becoming the biggest differentiator for finding customers and driving loyalty, even in the B2B space.
This shifting CX landscape means B2B companies need to focus on creating great experiences across every touchpoint that customers interact with businesses.
While there’s undoubtedly been an increase in the attention paid to CX in the B2C markets, the same cannot be claimed consistently for B2B firms. This means there’s an opportunity for B2B companies to differentiate their brands and improve profitability by delivering a frictionless, exceptional CX.
If it isn’t already ingrained in the company culture, B2B firms should therefore focus on making CX a core component of their strategies, setting a structured vision for the execution of strong experiences.
Central to this should be an emphasis on digital customer service. Organizations need to meet customers where they are: which means going digital.
Digital self-service is a huge opportunity to meet customer demands and deflect costly agent-assisted interactions.
In fact, digital self-service isn’t just a convenience for consumers, it also factors into who they choose to do business with. Our research found that 84% of consumers are more willing to do business with companies that offer self-service options.
Q: Does the B2B CX and its components differ from the B2C CX and its components?And is there a convergence between the two and if so, in what lines of business, and what factors are causing this?
Chris Arnold: The scale of B2B operations versus that of B2C are smaller with more personalized service and specialized knowledge that requires a different level of empathy and critical thinking, given contractual service level agreements.
And yes, there is more of a convergence than ever before as companies emphasize the efficiency and effectiveness of CX as a competitive advantage. A great CX is a superior predictor of brand loyalty versus product and price.
There is an opportunity to raise a B2B contact center’s CX both in the B2B and B2C spaces through a combination of AI technology that is designed to support and elevate an agent’s performance—the people who are the voices and faces of the company brand.
Bonnie Chase: There are many differences between B2B CX and B2C CX components. B2B customers are typically account-based, so there are fewer in number than there are in B2C, but their service and support needs tend to be more complex.
Also, B2B sales has historically been relationship-driven with a multi-step buying process, while B2C sales typically targets a larger market with a single-step buying process.
But the similarities really converge when it comes to expectations of the experience. While the pandemic continues to drive a digital channel dependency, consumer expectations of that digital experience continue to increase.
People are used to having content personalized to them, from the shows they are watching to products they are purchasing. They expect this level of personalization at every digital interaction. Feeding into this expectation is that consumers are aware of the data being collected about them, and technology has evolved to the point that anyone can leverage AI to personalize experiences.
These digital and personalization expectations have expanded from business buyers’ experiences as consumers to their work engagements with suppliers.
Because of this, both B2C and B2B should have a digital-first approach to the CX, offering a seamless and relevant experience from pre-purchase to post-sale service.
Eric Head: The stakes are higher, so agents need to be smarter and react more quickly as every delay could impose hundreds of millions of dollars of damages and the repercussions can be devastating. For example, many companies in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) sector have been sued due to implementation delays and/or “non-performance.”
B2B agents need a high level of training and better content/context. Knowledge management plays a key role in helping agents serve customers with more complex products or services.
We have been seeing business users form and engage in customer communities, particularly in software applications where it has been part of their “DNA” since the days of bulletin boards. Deploying them can be very opportunistic, both to companies and customers as it provides an always-on, self-serve channel where customers’ users can help and support one another.
But more than that, customer/user communities can also be used to support co-creation and co-ideation, which can play key roles in customer engagement and product development that ultimately fosters greater buyer loyalty.
One thing we generally see in the B2B world is segmentation—a separation of sales from service and contact centers or support organized by the size of the organization—i.e., enterprise and small-midsized business (SMB), where the types of service are tiered and geared towards the specific needs of the buyers.
There also is indeed a growing convergence between B2C CX and B2B CX; the lines are being blurred. This is being led by organizations such as Amazon that today services both consumer and business buyers and Microsoft that sells to consumers, businesses, governments, and even the K-12 education sector.
Practically everything that is sold B2C is also being sold B2B, which is levelling up and normalizing the CX expectations in the B2B world.
For example, just as customers can go into their accounts or emails and track packages that are out for delivery in the B2C world, B2B buyers want to have the same functionality.
Tom Minifie: B2C is further ahead in some CX aspects than B2B. However, B2B companies are quickly realizing the importance of placing higher priority on providing customers with seamless digital experiences.
Although the objectives for delivering CX are the same, B2B companies have unique characteristics that come into play, such as:
- Having multiple contacts associated with customer accounts. These contacts need to be treated as individuals, but also as parts of groups to make sure the companies’ needs are met. Therefore, tracking of all interactions across multiple contacts within companies is paramount.
- B2B companies are likely to engage in more complex interactions—long sales cycles, complex support engagements, etc. B2B agent training is significant and requires time and experience. Therefore, turnover is extremely difficult in B2B because onboarding takes so much time.
- Previously it was common for B2B representatives to travel to see their customers in person. But travel has dramatically decreased since COVID-19, so the demand for videoconferencing tools to replace in-person visits has become more important.
Einat Weiss: Anticipate. Personalize. Delight. And make it effortless and quick. Those are keys to winning CX for both B2C and B2B companies.
Just like in the consumer world, B2B firms are also seeking improved experiences through customer journeys that are digital, frictionless, more convenient, and hassle-free. Such experiences help them, in turn, build stronger relationships with their own customers.
Consumers are turning more frequently to digital channels like chat, email, text, and social messaging. That means digital customer support must be a key component of customers’ overall experiences with brands.
Since consumers are already using technology to find information and resolve problems, B2B companies need to match that with their own use of technology, ensuring digital support channels are seamlessly integrated into the overall CX design. Taking advantage of technologies like automation, AI, cloud, and workforce optimization helps create a seamless CX.
Since consumers are already using technology to find information and resolve problems, B2B companies need to match that with their own use of technology, ensuring digital support channels are seamlessly integrated.
Keeping a pulse on innovative technology development is crucial to staying ahead of the curve. Using customer data to automate redundant tasks, adopting chatbots to connect with customers any time of day and from any place, setting up a digital system that streamlines communication across any channel—the possibilities are endless and can be adapted to the needs of each company and customer.
In the end, the principles of customer support are essentially the same for both B2B and B2C firms: both need to solve customers’ problems and answer their questions quickly and efficiently.
Q: What are your recommendations to B2B companies in providing an excellent CX?
Chris Arnold: 1. Focus and evolve the employee experience (EX) through modernized policies and procedures. Whether it’s WFH, onboarding, monitoring/coaching, and critically thinking about schedule flexibility for employees.
2. Move to a cloud-based architecture and modernize the technology that uses AI to create personalized, proactive, and predictive CX outcomes.
3. Prioritize omnichannel outcomes. Think digital first, provide seamless communication channels across engagement points, and evolve voice technology to include speech recognition and natural language processing as part of a larger solution.
4. Everyone needs to be in selling mode throughout the company. Champion solutions-based sales training.
5. Modernize performance measurements. It’s critical for organizations to measure what matters and update thinking by looking at what existing, and new metrics, will deliver. Looking at the right measures can deliver results that will truly represent the CX overall.
6. Given the labor shortages as part of the Great Resignation, make sure to align customer and company success criteria with compensation.
Bonnie Chase: The new digital support reality is a living, breathing, and constantly adapting environment. One that views customer self-service and contact center support as a united front.
Organizations should be providing an intelligent and dynamic online self-service experience for their customers. One that is not only personalized to the customer but also brings insights about that customer back to the organization so that every interaction can shape the overall CX and influence customer loyalty.
Offering those same personalized and relevant experiences to employees is key as well, as the EX is proven to impact CX. Contact center agents are at the crux of this, and the better you support your agents, the better they can support your customers.
Eric Head: The B2B customer relationship has far reaching effects and organizations must think deeply and broadly about the CX.
There needs to be pervasive awareness and attention to care as much about the downstream end-customer as the buyer or the stakeholder they are currently engaged with or talking to.
First off, make sure to understand where that client is in the journey, and what are their level of expectations. This should be done via a mix of both direct and unstructured input. There are many ways to immediately assess and detect their experience level, whether this is through a live agent or a chatbot.
Secondly, automate, when possible, to ensure immediate recovery. This can be done via content in a chatbot exchange, for example.
Thirdly, deliver the right insights to the organization. The best defense against poor CX is a great offense—position your customer engagement insights to be the hero for the rest of the organization.
For example, if a customer is unable to get what they need online, they will call into the contact center.
You can register these digital failure points via text or voice analytics to ensure the organization can make changes to ensure continuous improvement in the B2B CX.
Tom Minifie: The key to B2B success is to deliver quality products and services, delivered in a timely and competent manner with a focus on customer service.
To achieve this, B2B companies need to evaluate how they are currently communicating with their customers and compare that to how their customers want to communicate with them.
Keep in mind that meaningful interactions are a gold mine of customer insights where companies can learn what their customers like and don’t like, as well as new service or product opportunities that they haven’t thought of before.
For example, customer feedback may be centered around opening more communication channels. In this case, should a B2B company go down a multichannel path, it is imperative that they monitor and analyze the entire customer journey, regardless of where the customer interactions take place.
This set of practices will allow them to glean new insights, adjust strategies, and ultimately boost customer satisfaction and loyalty longer-term.
Another example would be if multiple customers are commenting on how difficult a company’s website is to navigate, causing them to call into the contact center.
This type of feedback can enable companies to revisit their web design plans and investment, helping to optimize the digital CX and in turn, help to decrease unnecessary calls to the contact center and save money.
Additionally, in the current business environment where new employee demands, increased turnover, and WFH challenges continue to be a reality, proactively monitoring employee satisfaction should be a priority to minimize disruptions.
One example of a step B2B contact centers can take to better support employees is by automating routine tasks so that human agents can focus on more complex problems that can feel more rewarding.
As a result, customers will appreciate more self-service options but also will appreciate working with happier employees who are able to provide the time and attention needed for that optimal CX.
Einat Weiss: The best way to know if you’re delivering effective CX is to ask your customers directly. However, businesses must have good ways to consistently collect and analyze customer sentiment, opinion, and feedback so they can take proactive steps to improve CX and grow the business.
If B2B firms place a priority on knowing what customers think and feel, they should look for CX platforms that include customer analytics and feedback survey functionality. These features allow them to analyze interactions across data points, easily configure surveys, measure what they need, and compile the results in multiple ways.
In addition, these companies should look for analytics and survey solutions with multichannel capabilities in order to deliver consistent CX that’s digitally fluent.