Navigating the complexity of B2B customer experience to achieve success

Increasing your understanding of the entire stakeholder ecosystem and building a customer journey map for each role can help you meet and exceed customers’ expectations, says Claire Sporton

B2B organisations that want to harness customer experience (CX) to improve revenue, profitability and growth are faced with an unavoidable reality. B2B customer lifecycles are much longer and dramatically more complex than B2C.

There are typically many-to-many points of contact within each client organisation – users, stakeholders and decision makers. Each of these individuals has a different level of influence at a different stage of the sales cycle. The company selling to that organisation is highly likely to have multiple team members interacting with multiples representative on the client side. This might be collectively or independently of each other. And if a third party is involved, or the customer operates across multiple geographies, the complexity is taken to another level.

It’s no wonder that trying to understand customers’ opinions about products and services is a huge task. Let alone identifying how best to improve the overall customer. And that working out how to link CX to purchase behaviour or contract renewal can appear daunting.

Who’s who?

Clearly no two B2B organisations are alike. However, the most effective way to harness CX in any B2B environment is to truly understand who your customers are and where their expectations lie. This may seem like an obvious statement. It is therefore critical to identify which customers are most engaged with your organisation and to understand how you can create value for every individual you interact with throughout the customer lifecycle. This incorporates everything from funding and purchase through to onboarding, usage and ongoing support.

Just as important is mapping the relationships on the client side against the products or services you offer. In other words, which customers have the most complex relationships (one-to-one or multiple stakeholders)? Which products have the most complex sales cycles? Perhaps more importantly, where does your revenue stream, risk and profitability lie in relation to these two factors?

Building a stakeholder network

B2B customers are defined as ‘individuals at companies who have substantial engagement with sellers and/or their products/services across the lifecycle – from funding and purchase through to on-boarding, actual usage, and ongoing support.’

As a first step towards identifying individuals on the client side that have the most influence at each stage of the customer lifecycle, ask employees. They have first-hand knowledge of the account and can provide great insight. It is also important to combine this feedback with existing data in the customer database, CRM, ERP and case management systems to confirm the accuracy of both employee recall and key business systems.

Next, work with your senior sales and account managers to classify key contacts’ roles. Are they economic buyers, technical buyers, users or influencers? Validate this feedback with qualitative customer interviews and observational research to confirm that the assessment. It important to be sure that roles and responsibilities are correct and that employee feedback is neither biased nor mis-interpreted. 

Define three to five key characteristics of each individuals’ role in order to build a profile of a technical buyer, for example, within the client organisation. Identify interaction patterns so that you can create a customer journey map for each individual and understand when they are most engaged and where you can deliver the most value.

The ultimate goal is to create a stakeholder network of all key influencers client side, including those that might not so obvious. For example, your research may reveal that although the relationship manager might appear to be the most important contact client side, that is not the case. Perhaps the implementation lead and technical administrator are actually the key people because they are involved at more touchpoints throughout the customer lifecycle. This suggests that you should pay close attention to each and every interaction with these individuals. Especially during pitch and renewal. However, your research may also indicate that the building a strong relationship with a ‘hidden’ stakeholder such as accounts payable pays dividends.

Great expectations

Increasing your understanding of the entire stakeholder ecosystem and building a customer journey map for each individual/role can help you meet and exceed customers’ expectations. And this is where delivering an improved customer experience can make a real difference.

It’s not just about focusing on single process and making small incremental improvements. It’s about the bigger picture. Understanding what the customer wants to achieve and helping them to reach their final destination. It’s about delivering value in the form of a great customer experience that differentiates you from your competition.

The challenge for B2B organisations is how to secure a direct route to the stakeholders you have worked so hard to identify to get their undiluted feedback about what they expect from you as a supplier.

Gatekeepers on the client side and in your own company may thwart any attempt for one-to-one interviews in order to protect privacy, relationships or contract negotiations.

One solution is to employ ‘guerrilla’ research methods at company events or industry conferences. You can invite visiting customers to map their buying journey with your organisation on a ‘game board’, for example. Asking them why they identified certain interactions or pain points and mapped their journey in a certain way.

At the same time, involve partners (distributors, resellers) or value chain partners (consultants) to increase your understanding of what key stakeholders expect from indirect interaction with your brand, products or services. Holding co-creation workshops, for example, should help to clarify the role of partners and your own employees across the customer ecosystem. The aim is to find the ‘sweet spot’ where everyone’s interests dovetail to create the ideal, mutually beneficial relationship with each other and, of course, the customer.

What gets measured, gets managed

More than half, 54%, of B2B organisations state that customer retention is now one of their top five business challenges. Having identified who your customers are and what influences them, what can you do on a practical level to help them achieve their desired outcomes?

Establishing a voice of the customer (VoC) programme with ‘listening posts’ at key moments of truth for customers will help you to understand customer behaviour and emotions. And combining that feedback with operational data will add context.

It is vital to put in place a process that will deliver CX insight to the right people at the right time and in the right format. This means they can take the appropriate action to improve customer outcomes.

There is no point in creating a ‘one size fits all’ analysis of customer feedback, providing answers to predefined questions. The solution must enable different people to obtain different views of the data. Ideally via a real-time dashboard that harnesses data from the VoC programme and operational data.

  • Time poor executives will want to focus on the headlines. Which accounts are at risk of churn and need attention? How many cases have been opened but are overdue?
  • Account managers responsible for day-to-day management of a customer portfolio, will want to analyse loyalty scores and examine the loyalty breakdown by role. They need to drill into the data to find out where the risk lies for each account. This helps them to identify where to start to protect revenue and when to take preventative action.
  • Those responsible for revenue need to find out who are supporters and who are disengaged as the risk of revenue loss is closely linked to detractors. Analysing customer feedback can help to predict and protect the contribution that each customer makes to the overall financial stability of the organisation. 
  • Frontline support staff benefit most directly from closed-loop alerts that flag which actions need to be immediately taken at a tactical level in response to customer feedback to ensure that positive outcomes are achieved, revenue or recommendations are secured and NPS levels maintained or improved.

Across the board, research and observation can help to reduce the complexity of the B2B ecosystem, enabling companies to manage multiple many-to-many relationships much more effectively.  Investing in stakeholder analysis and customer journey mapping and combining it with a VoC programme that helps everyone interacting with customers to understand how to deliver value is the ultimate differentiator.

How to measure and monitor CX

Download this free, practical guide to discover how to track customer experience efforts within your organisation – and how to improve it.

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How to measure and monitor customer experience