Notes:  1) The author of this post, Anil V. Pillai, is a Director of the India based consultancy Terragni Consulting (P) Ltd.  Anil and I are members of the Customer Value Creation International.  This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of “Efficient Manufacturing” magazine.

2) About two years ago I co-authored an article in about the six sources of B2B customer expectations.  Anil’s article goes into detail about one of the six.

Build a great product, work out a great price, get the right connections into buyers, land up at their factories, demonstrate the product, give the right customer references and you are well on your way to making that sale.

Sounds familiar?

This is how most organizations that sell to businesses (B2B) think and do business even today.

Times are changing

But times are changing and changing rapidly. And the effects of such a change are beginning to manifest. All of the above are indeed important, but the challenge is that everybody has a similar approach. Such a similar approach means that most B2B vendors are competing on product specifications, price and reach; all fleeting advantages at best and those that can be replicated in the short to medium term.

They’re real people too

We tend to forget that B2B prospects are not some faceless anonymous departments. Buying decisions are taken by real people whose “Thoughts, Emotions and Actions” (the “TEA” of Experience) are shaped by the experiences they go through, not just with what they encounter at their work, but significantly by the day-to-day experiences that they undergo in their own personal buying as consumers. One can make the argument that this has always been the case, and it would be right. But what has changed now is that while the shaping of superlative experiences is now an absolute imperative in the B2C industry, the B2B industry sadly lags significantly in this respect.

A buyer of books on Amazon is impressed by the fact that Amazon remembers his preferences and also by the speed of response of both the buying portal and the delivery as also by the great condition of the books when they are delivered. Now all of a sudden, this buyer is wondering why he cannot get the same experience from his welding rod vendor from whom he has been buying since the last two decades. Meanwhile the welding rod vendor is secure in the perception that he has a superior product and is cheaper than competition by 10% and that he knows the buyer since years.
Any bets what would happen if our friend, the buyer of welding rods came across a welding rod vendor who offered the same quality but gave an experience across all touch points that was Amazon like?
Replace welding rods with CNC, waste heat boilers or Gensets (electric generators).  The answers would still be the same.

The product centric approach is obsolete

The product centric approach to create superior customer engagement is well past its sell by date.

Our extensive experience with helping capital equipment manufacturers create engaged customers that deliver higher than average profitable buying behavior has consistently demonstrated that increasingly the customers of such capital equipment expect and demand a customer experience that mimics what they as individual consumers undergo in their everyday lives.

But, here is the interesting insight. Surprisingly, these customers are unable to explicitly articulate these deep desires when they give the mandatory yearly C-SAT/NPS feedback to their vendors. Result? The buyers are dissatisfied, but do not or cannot attribute this to their own enhanced expectations that are shaped by their individual consumer experiences.

In turn B2B vendors keep wondering what is it that they are not getting right and thus go back to the same old, same old,- tinkering furiously all over again with the product, the price, the delivery and at best the packaging and ironically losing both money and customers in the process.

The B2B vendors unfortunately have little wherewithal to neither capture this customer insight nor compare what they offer as experiences with what a B2C brand offers as an experience. This is because traditionally, being product centric, the B2B businesses have never looked at cross-pollinating ideas from industries beyond their own and lack the internal expertise to do so.

The goalpost has moved

After all, should a Genset manufacturer benchmark the experiences they offer only with other Genset manufacturers? Why? If a prospect is looking for information for Gensets, why do we think she will wade through your site with its numerous slow links and complex pages to get the information she desires? Remember her unit of measure of site responsiveness is now benchmarked with an Amazon or a Flipkart (like Amazon in India), not your competitor. How do you compare? Do you even compare?
How do you compare?  Who are we comparing against? What is our customer comparing us against? What kind of Omni channel presence do we have? What is the customer journey we offer when a customer tries to get a service issue resolved? How different would this journey be, if we benchmarked against the customer journey of a Toyota servicing a car instead of being fixated on bettering my immediate competition?

These need to be the questions that B2B businesses ask of themself across each customer touch point. It is heartening to note that many of them have just about begun to do so.

When the country was an economy where B2B demand was sluggish and customers had very little choice, being excessively product focused was enough to thrive but today the challenge is to search for that ever-elusive competitive advantage beyond price and specifications. Such a competitive differentiator comes in the form of shaping and creating “Experiences” across the entire buying and consumption journey as a formidable entry barrier. Yes, by all means do benchmark against competition when it comes to your product but please do also stop there.

For all other touch points choose the best in class as your benchmark. Building an online spares ordering portal? Use Amazon as your benchmark, building a dealer network? Ask if Maruti (the best selling car brand in India) can be a template, if so which elements? Getting ready to roll out a customer help line? Can battery manufacturers like Exide provide a benchmark? Remember these are all organizations that touch the lives of each of your B2B buyers in their individual capacities. If there are ways you can take the best in class and adapt it to your business touch points, resonance and affinity to your brand is bound to follow.

Moving ahead

Get ready for what is sure to be a rather exciting journey and equip yourself with the insight and the tools that will fashion, shape, design and execute superior experiences as your competitive barrier against intense competition and margin pressures that is around the corner if not already here.