Transforming Customer Connection in B2B
“No matter whether you are serving a whole company with a complex decision making process or serving a small size business with only one decision maker, it is important to develop a culture of customer intimacy throughout your organisation – but how can this be achieved and what are the benefits?”
The Essence of B2B Relationships
Business to business (B2B) relationships are typically viewed as being more involved, longer-term and in many ways, less transactional than business-to- consumer (B2C) relationships. In fact, it can be argued that B2B relationships are often exactly that – genuine, functional relationships. They are not short-term flirtations, impulse transactions or brief courtships. They are longer-term, more mature perhaps in the sense of the word ‘relationship’.They can be ‘lasting’, especially if the benefit is mutual and as a result, many businesses grow in tandem with their suppliers. Think of a trampoline – in some ways this represents the recurring but short-term, uninvolved character of a stereotypical B2C relationship.
The customer only briefly ‘touches’ the organisation – often on a recurring basis for products and services which are consumed on a regular, for example daily, basis. The relationship is fleeting and each transaction is as if it is the first so the relationship does not necessarily grow except through bland, habitual repetition. A hammock on the other hand could represent the nature of B2B relationships.
Such a relationship may be strategic, considered and designed at least in-part, for mutual benefit, spanning across the individual transactions and gradually blending the organisation and its supplier together, at the interface and beyond, in many ways including a reliance upon and belief in an agreed, potentially ‘comfortable’ process of doing business and culturally in terms of common goals, industry pace and common environmental pressures.
Reasons To Change
It’s useful to briefly discuss some examples of negative B2B experiences in order to highlight the factors which must be successfully managed in order to produce and deliver a real customer connection. Real world pressures and questionable performance are everywhere so most us will experience some of the following:
- Feeling ignored by – or conversely, hurried and pressurized – by one of your clients.
- Being confronted by unnecessary complexity within your client’s processes which causes friction and disrupts the required flow of goods, services and communication between you both.
- Bad communication which causes confusion and leads to you spending extra effort and time.
- Sub-standard quality of goods or services.
- Supply chain issues – especially for JIT scenarios.
- Inaccurate billing.
- Insufficient availability of intelligence about (key) accounts.
- Poor territory planning and scheduling
We can highlight many key issues underlying these examples including staff behaviours, interpersonal skills, staff management, sales capability weaknesses, marketing weaknesses, issues with technical systems and of course more pervasive, cultural issues. Perhaps some negative experiences are due to well-intentioned but badly executed strategies which backfire. Perhaps mismanagement is generating unrealistic pressures on staff. What is evident is that there are many points of failure which can all contribute to a disappointing customer experience. Even automated points of contact such as incorrect administrative processes (billing, CRM updates etc) all affect the overall customer experience.
To really deliver world-class performance within a B2B relationship requires a clear and coherent vision translated into effective strategies and cascaded down throughout the organisation from the top tier CEOs to the front-line delegates. The alignment this provides helps us to achieve the right balance and to streamline our activities to make outstanding customer satisfaction a de-facto standard rather than a continually missed target or occasional triumph.
So how do we achieve this panacea?
Achieving Total Value Connection – The Five Categories
Consider the extensive system of roots under a tree, the vast network infrastructure required by every Telco, the largely unseen rigs, pipelines and massive processing plants maintained by oil and gas companies – or simply put, the huge underwater portion of an iceberg. The connection with customers, the point at which ‘it all comes together’ and becomes publicly visible and accessible to customers can be viewed as being the tip of the iceberg. This is where the customer interfaces are experienced. But the tip, indeed the visible part of the iceberg (or the tree, the Telco or oil and gas company) is only a small part of the whole – the vast remainder being submerged under water – i.e. hidden from the customer.
The hidden part of an organisation’s structure and activities provide the support required for the all-important ‘visible’ interfaces to work well. Both the customer interfaces and the rest of the organisation all need to have the appropriate skills to run and interact smoothly and they need to be able to use these skills in the right way.
This requires development in 4 main categories as described below. However these categories themselves rely on a common basis – understanding and living ‘customer intimacy’, which we’ll discuss next.
01. Customer Intimacy in B2B
Customer intimacy is considered to be one of the three value disciplines, together with product leadership and operational excellence that leads to market leadership.
It is defined as ‘segmenting and tailoring offerings to precisely match the needs of the customers”. It is characterized by the ability to respond quickly to almost any customer need, from customizing a product to fulfilling a special request and it requires and appropriate degree of operational flexibility although it is considered to be a complex construct. Its presence throughout our organisational workforce is critical no matter how direct or indirect is any one individual’s contact with customers, be they front-line sales force, back-office administrator or director; it drives everything we do and infuses in us a passionate, service-oriented mind-set that aims to delight and impress our customers. However, customer intimacy can mean different things to people in different positions and therefore includes a variety of aspects such as understanding client organisation behaviours, pressures and goals, understanding client organisation values and intelligently matching their needs with products and services, utilising the correct mannerisms and tone of voice for each client, understanding procurement processes, the B2B selling process and also how to develop leadership skills, manage performance, quality and maintain solid communication.
02. Enhance Assertiveness and Communication in B2B
One of the most effective strengths of any sales delegate, manager or director is to be persuasive, especially in critical presentations. However the basis for this comes not only from an attention to the words spoken but, more importantly, awareness of your physical manner and the presence and power which you project to your audience. Assertiveness is necessary but it also involves setting your own boundaries and respecting those of others while building positive relationships with others. Building relationships also requires compromise and careful consideration – negotiation. But the outcome of your efforts can be enhanced by exercising commercial and political intelligence to diplomatically influence your counterparts’ perception of value and ultimately increase chances of mutual satisfaction. Skills acquired in this category are key presentation skills, overcoming fear and stress, effective use of visual aids, building and maintaining rapport, decoding others’ thinking preferences, tackling conflicts and knowing when to be assertive. Additionally, it is important to learn to appreciate and understand the complexity of negotiation, the tactics involved and to embrace limit management, the customer problem management process, customer service and selling and of course all-important pricing and the closing stages.
03. Developing Technical Skills in B2B Environments
By technical skills, we refer to two broad areas – territory management in combination with time management. And key account management. In order to survive in today’s chaotic and competitive environment, one needs to achieve the best sales territory management possible. This includes the ability to effectively manage a territory, to utilise time management skills and to build upon these good practices in order to meet objectives and targets in an efficient manner. Such an achievement positively improves relationships with clients and helps to increase productivity from a sales point of view. Also, it helps individuals ensure success within their territory and maintain customer coverage as it can minimise a huge part of the sales expenses.
In addition, one can ensure that all the company’s policies are aligned with customer expectations, which ultimately boost the confidence of the sales executives and contributes to profitable outcomes and higher sales performance. Some experts in the field define strategic key account management as “a system of values that reflects the supplier’s ability and willingness to respond effectively to key account needs”.
In most organisations the highest percentage of sales revenue comes from a disproportionately important group of customers that should be managed through a totally different approach to the rest. Therefore, it is of crucial importance to be able to effectively manage strong and strategic relationships with your key customers by applying the best possible practices, such as analysing your customers and competitors, developing a winning key account strategy and continually monitoring the progress.
Skills involved include setting clear, SMART sales goals and objectives, defining strategies for managing time and assessing priorities, properly delegating tasks and responsibilities, defining and intelligently dividing your territories, prioritisation of clients and leads, plus a suitable work-life balance and managing stress. Additionally, it is important to be able to build a key account plan, effectively manage the decision maker(s) in any given account, understand the key account lifecycle and leverage optimal revenues from each stage. It is necessary to understand sources of power within every client-seller relationship and modify your behaviour appropriately plus gradually build and make best use of your network of contacts.
04. Develop Leadership Potential Skills of Your B2B Sales People
Leadership can be sub-divided into several main areas including the autonomous and evolving leadership, emotionally intelligent leadership and of course, innovative and entrepreneurial leadership.Autonomy is the degree of freedom and discretion granted to an employee in order to be able to perform effectively on its own and trust his or her own will and judgment. Statistically, where autonomy exists, workers feel more motivated and inspired to work upon their targets and they gain greater job satisfaction because autonomy fulfills essential needs of the pyramid.Skills involved are the ability to prioritize and set goals to remain in line with organisational targets, to think proactively about problems and challenges and to make decisions ‘on your feet’ while assessing consequences at the same time. It is also key to be influential and persuasive when necessary – but never abrasive.Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise your emotions, to understand what they are telling you and to eventually realise how these emotions may affect the people that surround you – including clients of course! Growing a desire to understand how others feel and how they perceive your organisation can drastically improve your actions and relationships with clients inside and outside of your organisation.
These skills come into play on top of the organisational, practical foundations and involve the ability to empathise with others and from this understand their motivations, pressures and requirements, to communicate clearly and reassuringly and to develop a solid, stable and reliable relationship at an emotional level.
Innovation and entrepreneurship are characteristics of individuals who are able to promote sales within a financially risky and uncertain, commercial environment. These individuals are more often than not, effective observers. They identify the right opportunities, dare to take risks and generate meaningful results from them!
Skills involved are many including self-confidence and the ability to project it, being able to anticipate problems and changes and creatively tackle them, developing effective listening skills and conveying genuine, infectious enthusiasm which will encourage customers to try new products.
05. Sales Effectiveness Strategies
One may say that what sales organisations seek to achieve is profitable revenue growth and the best ingredient required to achieve this is “A winning and effective sales’ strategy”.
Sales organisations are at the forefront of any business and impacts customers during daily interactions. Therefore, shaping the go-to-market direction and managing the sales force resources (structure and systems) is very critical for the success of any organisation! There are many tactics for sales strategies but the most effective practice of these is what makes them more effective than their competitors. These skills, more appropriate for directors and heads of sales, include definition of your go-to-market strategy based on field-force productivity assessments, understanding the impact which the markets and your products will have upon your sales force, the ability to identify the key sales performance drivers, structuring and sizing your sales force, per territory and per key account, establishing a flexible and responsive sales management system, plus the development and implementation of sales policies and control of sales effectiveness programmes.
The B2B environment is more competitive than ever before so partial, strategically weak attempts at enhancing overall customer experience, rolled-out in a disorganised manner, are simply not enough to really make a difference nowadays. To really impress, tightly integrate with and retain customers, organisations need to adopt a culture which is infused throughout the organisation.
Ideally, this culture manifests as tighter integration between departments, better communication, well-developed staff skills – all implemented in a clear direction towards the development of a culture of genuine willingness to delight the client and to grow B2B relationships through genuine customer intimacy – requires cultural change, cascaded from the top as a comprehensive strategy; one which can be seen, heard and felt by clients, which empowers managers and supports delegates to be more customer intimate and which aligns delegates with the well-defined organisational strategy and endows them with the autonomy and authority to really make a tangible, unified improvement to every client’s experience.