7 ways COVID-19 has changed B2B customer experience in 2021

By Stephanie Overby

Posted on 10-28-2020

A global pandemic shook the nature of selling, buying, and marketing for B2B organizations in several ways that will permanently shape their evolution in the coming months.

Historically, B2B companies have not rushed to adopt new technologies promising to reshape their approaches to sales, marketing, and customer experience. But the COVID-19 crisis has done what no other world event has done in recent memory: Exponentially sped up the implementation of transformational tools, processes, and approaches.

“It has accelerated the adoption of technology,” Gary Specter, vice president of Adobe’s global commerce business, says. “And we are never going to go back to the old ways.”

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Jim Hertzfeld, chief strategist of digital at Perficient agrees. “This has accelerated everything for everyone,” he says. “If you were doing poorly with digital transformation before this, it accelerated your downward trajectory. If you were already on a good track with digital transformation, then things have really taken off.”

What that looks like within B2B organizations right now is not just the introduction of new digital tools. “It’s not just turning on new technology and launching an ecommerce capability or an app or email marketing program,” says Matt Egol, managing partner with PwC’s strategy consulting business Strategy&. “Those are valuable. But this is about changing the way people engage across the value chain—both your own people in sales and marketing as well as customers—from product configuration and sales to engineering procurement processes to production, logistics, and installation.”

These profound changes are not simply new costs that B2B organizations must take on to survive right now, insisted Specter, “but an incredibly unique opportunity. It’s changing the way people think about their business. It’s both a bigger problem—and a bigger opportunity—than it is in B2C. Technology has become a game changer and a differentiator.

To that end, following are seven ways COVID-19 has altered the B2B customer experience landscape for good.

1. The line between B2B and B2C is disappearing

The same changes that impacted B2C have impacted B2B according to Specter, and COVID-19 has clearly jumpstarted ecommerce efforts within all organizations. It has also further blurred the lines between B2B and B2C. Facing the need to explore new routes to market during the pandemic, B2B organizations are either building or speeding up their B2C capabilities, said Specter, who estimates that some 70 percent of organizations are now hybrid B2B and B2C. He calls this new hybrid B2E, which is business to everyone. “Companies are now asking why they can’t do both, and they’re looking for technology platforms that support that,” Specter explained. “There are some nuances, but you can use the same infrastructure for both.”

2. Digital will go into overdrive

According to Egol of Strategy&, the shift from face-to-face sales interactions in B2B to more digital and virtual processes was already underway. COVID-19 has made it a necessity. To do so effectively, however, B2B can’t simply replace in-person processes with a direct digital corollary.

“It’s not just substituting the virtual for the physical,” Egol said. “It’s about accelerating things like ecommerce in ways that enable them to drive specs, build better customer relationships, and accelerate innovation—all the things you need to do to grow a business.”

Business consultancy CapGemini, for example, has thrown out the slideware that may have sufficed in the past for digital supplements to sales efforts, and in its place developed live, demonstratable content in the cloud. Cap Gemini North America CMO Shade Vaughn and Charlie Li, the company’s executive vice president of application and cloud technologies, also collaborated to create LinkedIn conversational ads, based on an underlying set of data and analytics, that leads business buyers to information tailored to their specific needs. That approach also delivers critical insight about the customer that Li’s team can use when approaching the current or potential client.

3. Intelligent automation becomes a mandate

There is a huge opportunity for CX transformation that incorporates artificial intelligence capabilities. Automation is becoming the name of the game with B2B organizations increasingly looking at anticipating or predicting customer orders or automated ecommerce fulfillment (think: manufacturing), for example. “Everyone talks about how COVID-19 depressed a lot of things, but it’s accelerated innovation and automation around B2B,” said Specter. “First, it’s way more efficient. Secondly, it’s less expensive. And, with the right automation, it can build more agility into the business and supply chain.”

While B2B organizations may never aim for zero touch, they will certainly embrace more “low touch” wherever they can, from catalogs to pricing, Egol said. “They will make it easier for people to find content and interact with them.” Some B2B companies have implemented chatbot technology, for example, to help customers with basic product, service, or aftermarket support, bringing in real people (a.k.a. employees) into the mix when necessary.

Anticipating a rocky recovery in many parts of the globe, B2B companies will also embrace data and AI to predict future disruptions. “A couple of the biggest distributors are looking at the best ways to leverage COVID data to uncover early indications of outbreaks and predict the kind of demand generation that’s going to occur,” Mike Rabbior, chief strategist of commerce for Perficient, says. “There will have to be some threading of the needle when it comes to future demand and that’s a level of precision that B2B has historically done a bad job at. But ones that will be able to embrace the kind of churn and bumps that will occur over the next 12 months will continue to do well.”

4. B2B customers get hyper-segmented

Personalization has long been a focus for B2C brands, but B2B customers are looking for empathy and problem solving from their suppliers as well. “These brands are trying to become people for the first time,” said Rabbior. “It’s no longer just about the value proposition, but the cultural proposition. They want to work with partners who understand their realities and can solve their biggest pain points.”

In order to provide that level of understanding, some B2B organizations are using customer data to do more segmentation of their customer bases and, in many cases, micro-segmentation, according to Hertzfeld. “If you have some customer with a lot of customization in their products and high margins around that, you want to focus your dealers or frontline salespeople on those clients and giving everyone else self-service,” Hertzfeld said. “A couple of big global manufacturers are using data to hyper segment their customers base.”

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5. Enterprise agility will be an existential issue

A recent study shows that 44 percent of B2B buyers bought directly from salespeople prior to the coronavirus outbreak. This number has now dropped to 16 percent. B2B companies have been forced to make fundamental changes in an extraordinarily short amount of time. In some cases, “they’re changing their whole business models,” says Anil Khurana, principal and global industrial manufacturing and automotive leader with PwC, says. In some cases, B2B companies are now offering short term promotions a la a B2C company. “You don’t see a company offering pumps and valves doing this historically,” Khurana said.

Such transformation requires significant employee training, plant automation, and more.

It’s all about agility, said Egol of Strategy&, “and not just IT. It’s combined with experience management in what we call the business experience technology space,” Egol said, noting that many B2B organizations are embracing design thinking or lean start-up principles like agile methodologies to accomplish this.

“They’re breaking down business challenges and seizing new opportunities to create entirely new experiences with things like customer collaboration portals or voice assistants, too,” Egol said. “Good CMOs are creating closed loop feedback for product, brand, and customer experience innovation; democratizing data access, and insight, and scaling a test and learn approach.”

And, projects that used to be slated for 18 to 36 months are getting done in four or less.

NCR, for example, pivoted from a focus on pitching and selling to solving customers more immediate needs in the wake of the pandemic, launching entirely new programs to help customers properly clean their point-of-sale devices, launch off-premise ordering, or apply for federal relief programs. NCR’s marketing team created a new hub of resources to help their restaurants, retailers and financial services customers navigate the crisis, and that work will continue for the foreseeable future. “The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike other crises of our time,” Marija Zivanovic-Smith, NCR’s senior vice president of corporate marketing, communications,” said in a previous interview with Adobe. Since launching in March, the hub has seen more than 140,000-plus unique visitors and 188,000-page views on NCR.com.

6. Last mile becomes a top priority

To date, much of the marketing focus for B2B centered on the product or catalog. Now there’s a pivot toward fulfillment—particularly the last mile, according to Specter.

“Customer experience, whether B2B or B2C, depends on the ability to deliver,” Adobe’s Specter says. “An order is just a promise. The last mile creates the positive or negative experience. Marketers need to lean into that when trying to resonate with B2B clients. Someone can have the greatest experience buying the product, but if it’s delayed, you’ve just screwed up somebody’s business.”

Last mile is now a differentiator. “These things that most organizations never thought deeply about before are now very important,” he says. “it was all about the buy button, but now you have to think about the entire journey—including returns—if you want to be really good at B2B.”

7. Ease and trust will outweigh price and inventory

For years, B2B companies have competed on price and inventory. But this will not be the case anymore. Post-COVID, says Rabbior, “it’s about the level of friction you create and the amount of trust you can instill.”

Customer experience is important in both B2C and B2B, but in the latter “it’s about expertise and the solution,” said Egol. “Expertise is paramount to get a premium, to get the spec, to drive renewals to solve problems. It’s about making things easy. A lot of the stuff we’ve been talking about with respect to agility and optimizing the way you deliver things virtually and design thinking is all about [setting yourself up] to deliver an amazing experience.”

What the great B2C brands have achieved—Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Uber—is achievable in B2B as well. But B2B organizations must “make sure experience is part of the equation in solving a business problem,” Egol said. Experience management is a discipline B2B firms can build with tools like design thinking, customer listening, and data-driven, insight—to drive frictionless and reliable experiences for the future.

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Topics: CMO by Adobe, B2B, Customer Stories, Analytics, Personalization, Content Management, Campaign Management, Digital Transformation, SMB, Marketing, Demand Marketing, Experience Cloud, Outlook 2021

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