The customer has long been deemed royalty in the world of business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing. Increasingly, the dominion of the buyer is spreading to Business-to-Business (B2B) as well. A study on B2B sales by Kearney revealed that maximizing and redefining customer value is integral to the sales practices of leading B2B players. Clearly, the customer is gravitating to the center of B2B marketing efforts, and those living in denial are suffering. A Vantage Partner survey of 250 individuals at 180 B2B organizations shows how customer centricity is related to revenue growth. Over a five-year period, organizations reporting a “very mature” level of customer centricity experienced 2.5x revenue growth compared with those reported as “very immature.” The tangible benefits of customer centricity have built an undeniable case for transformation in the way marketing is conducted in B2B organizations. And the changes are already afoot.
Defining Customer Centricity
Customer centricity isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. It is an endurance marketing effort that goes beyond mere tweaks, gimmicks, and hype. Organizations that seriously practice customer centricity understand its significance for the continued relevance of their product or service. They set up systems to anticipate customers’ wants, needs, and preferences and then transform their functions to satisfy them. Advertising and marketing activities are tailored to enhance the customer experience. The goal is to build a culture that rewards behaviors that lead to customer success. Simply put, they acknowledge that a happy customer will buy your product. And that is key to the growth of their business.
You can recognize a customer-centric organization by the following characteristics, as described in California Review Management:
- Customer-centric thinking and practices embedded across the organization’s functions
- Striving for competitive differentiation through the customer’s journey
- The realization that successful innovation requires customer empathy
- Reorientation of sales from selling to customers to selling for customers
- Marrying customer centricity with employee engagement
Where B2B Marketing Stands on Customer Centricity
The rise in consumerism and competitiveness has, for a while, pushed B2C organizations to embrace customer centricity as a strategic imperative. However, B2B marketing is still playing catch-up since a focus on customer journeys and the experience was not considered a B2B mandate.
The last few years have made B2B organizations shift gears, but the results still reveal a work in progress. Take this research by B2B International, which shows that 14% of large B2B organizations are truly customer centric—in other words, where customer centricity is deeply embedded in the organization’s DNA. Worse, 15 percent are inattentive to it as a focus area. While both of those make for worrisome data, a more reassuring finding is that around a third of the B2B organizations surveyed are at least engaged in the customer experience, even though it isn’t yet an integral part of their culture.
Why Does a Disconnect Exist?
Clearly, the disconnect persists between rising customer expectations and the delivered customer experience, according to an Accenture Interactive report. Consider that in a highly competitive B2B marketplace, 44 percent of buyers reported switching sellers in a 12-month period. This takes customer centricity beyond a nice-to-have to a nonnegotiable for B2B players, and the big guns have been firing.
Among the most popular examples of B2B customer centricity is IBM. The tech giant has made customer experience an effective customer retention tool with measures such as a dedicated team of specialists for each buyer to help them integrate their purchase into their organizations and enable a smooth transition. Another gold standard in customer focus is GE, which uses customer experience centers to demonstrate to organizations exactly how they would benefit from their products. Meanwhile, messaging platform Slack depends on customer feedback to modify features to cater to changing expectations.
It’s Time to Listen
The common thread in most examples of B2B customer-centric successes is a deliberate effort to listen to customers. That will help them understand expectations and thereby reduce disconnect. This, of course, has to be an ongoing process. To reiterate, building customer centricity is not a one-time effort. It is a cultural paradigm shift that needs to be accepted and ingrained organizationally.
Prior to the pandemic, B2B organizations primarily focused on building one-on-one relationships. However, with businesses going digital, organizations had to play catch-up and enhance their digital presence, including websites, social media, and digital collateral. Being customer centric in a digital environment is the new mandate, and B2B organizations that have realized the value of this are definitely ahead of the curve!
Measures to Improve Customer Centricity
Recognizing the inevitability of customer centricity is the first step toward becoming customer centric. The rest of a B2B organization’s journey depends on the nature of its business. However, there are commonly accepted principles that apply across the board.
Incorporating Customer Feedback
One of them is that change begins at the top. That is, the leaders of B2B organizations need to listen by incorporating customer interactions into their admittedly packed schedules. In an HBR article, Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria explain why top-tier meetings with CEOs of customer organizations can prove valuable since peer conversations tend to be “very candid” and a treasure trove of insights. That apart, a steady communication funnel with product and sales teams can supply the upper echelons with customer opinion. Also, it will help them tailor strategic decisions accordingly.
Using Data to Make Decisions
Another practice customer-centric organizations use is the effective use of data. Listening devices (think social media, surveys, and feedback forms) capture raw information that is converted into actionable insights. Technology can be an earnest B2B player’s best friend in this effort, with artificial intelligence making this analysis faster, easier, and more efficient.
The endeavor, really, is to embed customer-centric practices into the organizational DNA such that they last beyond an enthusiastic leader or a prolific phase. For instance, employees should be empowered to engage with customers and be rewarded for their initiative. On the other hand, ignoring customer feedback should be penalized, setting an example for other team members.
These are just a few examples from a host of strategic tools and measures that can be learned by B2B marketers to become transformative players in their organizations.
Programs to Enhance B2B Marketing
Remember, this is a different playing field from B2C marketing and, therefore, demands a specific skill set. And as B2B marketing evolves, professionals have to upgrade their understanding of the new rules of the game. The online B2B Marketing Strategy Program from Columbia Business School Executive Education is tailored for mid-to-senior level marketing executives who want to know how to connect with audiences and build better relationships with them. The program also offers a practical understanding of gaining a competitive advantage with effective marketing, pricing, sales force, and social media tools for each stage of your go-to-market strategy.
Kellogg Executive Education’s B2B Marketing Program is another exciting course that enables learners to understand and utilize the full scope and value that B2B marketing contributes to a business. It centers around the customer and shows managers how to understand them and their expectations better. The program acts as an A-Z playbook on B2B marketing and will help learners identify B2B marketing tools, tactics, and leading practices. This can inform and accelerate organizational performance.
As the marketing landscape continues to become more complex and competitive, with the relentless shift toward digital and shifting customer preferences, staying abreast with the changes is the only way forward for any smart organization—and any successful marketer.
By Abby Kane
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