Educating the business on the ‘new’ customer imperative

Recently I was responsible for the decision to switch our marketing automation platform, a fairly major change in our lead-generation infrastructure and one that would impact a significant number of people across the business.

To say the least, the marketing team and I were fastidious about making the right selection for the new platform. We ran an exhaustive decision process: we watched all the product videos, read countless whitepapers and blog posts, divided up research into each key feature area, asked for additional case studies, met each provider several times, completed customised trials, developed detailed comparison spreadsheets and consulted closely with our counterparts in B2B sales, IT and purchasing. Phew! And that’s the condensed version.

If this all sounds a bit complicated and time-consuming, you’re right. Of course there was a lot riding on making the right call, but this was a serious amount of work - why so much fuss across the buying process?

The ‘new’ customer environment
The buying behaviours described in this story might sound familiar; highly-informed customers who are more demanding, expecting personalisation, interacting heavily across online channels and acutely aware of the reputational impact of getting a decision right.

Enter, the ‘new B2B customer’. People just don’t buy like they used to in the B2B space. Getting a decision over the line – for buyer and seller – is harder than it has ever been. Meeting the expectations of increasingly discerning buyers across the customer lifecycle has become a whole lot more complex.

For many of us this is old news, however the implications of what we need to do to adapt are still sinking in. The shift to organise around how the customer wants to interact with us – rather than how we want to drive interactions with them – requires a fundamental re-think of how we go to market and operate. Not to mention actually driving and operationalising the change.

Business imperative, functional imperative or solo mission?
Whilst many leaders are aware of the imperative to adapt, functional peers and the rest of the business may not necessarily be on board yet, or in some cases even aware of the criticality of getting moving. We are often hearing the same story – “We know our customers aren’t buying like they used to, we’ve got to change, but we’ve got near-term numbers to hit and without XYZ division on board there’s only so much we can really do.”

This highlights the key challenge many leaders are facing. While for some organisations the new buying environment is evident to all concerned, for many it’s just starting to bite, or things may even still feel like business as usual. In an environment where there is already change fatigue and a whole lot of well-intentioned people already working hard on high-priority initiatives – how do you create the ‘burning platform’ for colossal change when nothing yet feels like it’s on fire?

Creating momentum for the ‘new customer’ adaptation imperative
From our work with a broad range of industries and clients on ‘awakening’ the business to the need for change, the following are some key themes we have found effective to help educate the business around the need to get moving.

1. We no longer control the conversation with buyers
But we can influence it - assuming we are in the conversation. Customers now prefer to self-educate online before they engage with providers. This means if we aren’t creating great online content across channels that is being found and cutting through, it is increasingly likely we aren’t even in the consideration process.

Building the ‘demand generation engine’ which will nurture customers through their buying journey sets us up to engage and influence the conversation, but we shouldn’t underestimate the work required to stand this up. Creating differentiated content is hard, and there are new marketing capabilities and supporting technologies required that will take time to build and optimise.

2. If interacting with us isn’t amazing all the time, our customers will go where it is
The first problem is that we have to deliver more relevance across a broader and more fluid channel landscape. Secondly, ‘amazing’ means different things to different customers. For some this could mean the ability to self-serve easily online, for others the ability to live chat or quickly talk to someone on the phone or face-to-face – with more channels in play, the preferences are increasingly variable.

A lot of this will come down to tighter segmentation and prioritisation. We can’t deliver personalised and hyper-relevant interactions to everyone. As an organisation we will need to be very clear about our high-value segments. We will also have some tricky decisions to make around our channel mix which will require experimentation and a test-and-learn approach. With the expectations of customers only increasing, we can’t afford to let the competition get ahead of us in delivering a higher quality and more relevant experience.

3. We can’t rely solely on good selling and relationships like we used to
Once upon a time we could control the narrative with buyers. Information was relatively scarce and the best source of product information was us, the provider. Good selling and coverage could go a long way towards successful revenue growth, irrespective of the post-purchase experience. How times have changed. Putting it bluntly, the internet and social media has well and truly ‘opened the kimono’ when it comes to our product value and the experience of dealing with us.

Additionally, the influence of relationships has changed. People may have continued to buy from us in the past because they have a good relationship with a rep or enjoy the perks we provide, however this isn’t necessarily what customers now value. Relationships are still critical, but people increasingly want efficiency, value and the ability to interact through their preferred channel. Based on this, are we future-fit to deliver?

4. There is a lot of integration and change required, it’s going to hurt for a while
Delivering the true multi-channel experience is going to require fundamental shifts spanning organisational design, culture, processes and technology. Most providers have functional and data silos as well as emerging channels which need to be better integrated. The CRM is typically useful but the data in it is hardly ship-shape. Marketing and sales might have become friends over the last few years but are still far from aligned.

While the current organisational design in most provider’s works well for internal efficiency, to adapt we are going to need to break down and reconstitute our ways of working with the customer at the centre. Only once we have operationally integrated all customer-facing functions - and the enabling systems around these - will we be positioned to truly deliver. As with all significant transformations, this is going to take time.

5. There is only one bus, guess who’s driving?
Hint: It’s not us. With the customer firmly at the wheel; in order to successfully adapt customer-centricity can no longer be just an intention - it’s now an operational imperative. All the technology and processes in the world can only get us so far, ultimately the step-change can only be achieved if all of our people are on board.

The business is going to have to go all-in. If there are recalcitrants, people in denial about the value of the change, if there is patch protection or a defence of legacy roles – it just won’t gain traction. We will need resilience and commitment around driving the change agenda, but also the cultural shift and operational hardwiring that will make it sustainable. Our reward frameworks, operating rhythm, dashboards, marketing strategy and sales execution will all need to evolve.

There’s no time like the present
If you are in the position where you need to bring the business on board you’ve got some serious educating ahead of you. Our advice is to bring home the cold, hard realities of falling behind, balanced carefully with selling the payoff.

While it will take time to realise, with new levels of customer loyalty and advocacy on offer for the fast movers - the payoff will be significant. More efficient and effective marketing and sales execution, higher quality lead-flow, lower costs to sell and serve, automation of low value tasks, higher engagement and satisfaction across both customers and staff, the list goes on.

Most importantly, the whole business will need to progressively get behind the change. There may be senior buy-in and funding for sexier parts of the picture such as digital initiatives, however there is often not a holistic, business-wide vision for how these investments will tie into a much broader transformation that will adapt the organisation to the new customer.

To bring this about you’re going to have to be bold, provocative and maybe even ruffle some feathers in order to cut-through. With the very ability to remain relevant to existing customers and compete for new ones at stake; in our opinion, this is one to stick your neck out for.

Worded by Chris Horn

Adapting to the Digitally Empowered B2B Buyer
Adapting to the Digitally Empowered B2B Buyer

Digital has changed fundamentally how B2B customers buy, bringing both opportunity and unprecedented complexity for marketing and sales organisations.