So, you work for a business-to-consumer (B2C) company – and you think you can skip this article, huh? Sorry, I’ve got news for you. While business-to-business (B2B) interactions may not be as sexy as selling brightly colored running shoes, caffeinated beverages, or rollercoaster rides, nearly everyone who’s interested in customer experience needs to consider B2B customer relationships.

Why’s that, you ask? Well, the fun-loving sportswear company may have its own mobile app and website where customers can buy direct – but it also distributes through third-party retailers (AKA customers). That amazing new coffee chain doesn’t just want to sell to techie hipsters – it wants to get its product into airports and sports stadiums, too. And your favorite amusement park wants to utilize off-peak time for school and corporate events.

So, whether you work for a company that identifies primarily as B2B or B2C – chances are you, or someone in your organization, needs to consider the B2B customer experience.

The good news is that the main activities of customer experience design and management – like insight gathering, measurement, process improvement, and cultural change – translate across various types of organizations. But while these activities may look similar on a macro level, you need to tweak the details to accommodate the nuances of the B2B environment. That’s because the B2B customer experiences typically involve a smaller number of customers, people in multiple roles working together to accomplish a goal, and a different channel mix.

A Smaller Number Of Customers

While many B2C companies have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, or (in the case of Facebook) even billions of customers, B2B companies skew towards smaller customer bases. In some industries – consider automotive part manufacturing or some government contractors – the CEO might be able to count their company’s customers on both hands.

Why is this important?

B2C companies can survey a subset of customers, get a response rate of 2%, and still have a data set that statistically represents their customer base. Not so with B2B. If your customers number in the tens or hundreds, you’ll need to supplement standard VoC surveys with more targeted listening methods. Start by soliciting honest feedback from frontline employees like account managers and support reps. Add in one-on-one interviews with execs, users, and other key stakeholders either after important milestones or on a regularly scheduled basis. Finally, invite people from key roles to spend a day mapping their customer journey with you and your colleagues. (Believe it or not, your B2B customers will jump at this opportunity!)

A smaller customer base also necessitates a different approach to customer relationship management. When you call your internet provider, you probably don’t expect them to know every last detail about you and your specific needs. (That’d be nice, of course, but personalization to this degree is a topic for a different article.) Business customers, however, get frustrated when their primary contact, like an account manager, moves on and they’re forced to build their relationship with your organization from scratch. Such pain points are ripe opportunities for designing an improved experience and defining the required technology and processes to ensure a seamless experience.

Multiple Roles – One Goal

If you’re working with small- or medium-sized business customers, you’ll find that individuals wear many hats. (In my own business, for example, I run the marketing, human resources, and finance departments.) But if your customers are large businesses, there are likely multiple people that need to work with your organization throughout each customer journey. For example, your sales team may approach someone in a particular business unit about a service that would enhance their communications efforts, but then work with individuals in procurement and legal to actually sign the deal.

Why is this important?

One of the most common ways for organizations to document their understanding of the customer experience is through journey maps. In B2C land, each map represents the actions, thoughts, and feelings of a particular persona or customer profile as they work towards a specific goal, like buying a pair of running shoes. When you create B2B journey maps, you’ll sometimes use this model for individual roles that involve a complex series of tasks and limited interactions with others. But often, you’ll need to represent multiple roles on a single map to show the coordination of their work – and the best way I’ve found to do this is to draw each role’s “journey line” in a different color.

To make sure you’re capturing all of the relevant roles in the first place, you’ll also need to adjust your research methods. Asking B2C customers who they consult with when making buying decisions, for example, is helpful – but asking your primary B2B stakeholders who they need to work with in order to make a purchase is mission critical. In a recent workshop, we asked this very question and uncovered a need for better communications aimed at purchasers’ bosses, who had to allocate budget for the request.

A Different Channel Mix

B2C customers flock to third-party social media whenever they run into trouble with a brand. And they’ve been trained well: The louder they shout, they more likely they are to get a desirable outcome. In recent years, consumers have also shifted away from more established contact channels, like the call center, in favor of mobile apps and texting. However, the contact strategies that B2C companies employ – and that are so easy to copy – don’t necessarily translate directly to your B2B customer experience.

Why is this important?

Some third-party social channels, like Twitter or public review sites, may just not be relevant to your industry or the types of issues your customers are having. But that doesn’t mean a social solution isn’t valuable. It may just mean that you need to develop your own branded solution, like the nearly 3 million strong Salesforce customer community. And while B2C customer texts can be handled by just about anyone in your contact center, you may need to route B2B customers to their dedicated team, regardless of what channel they use to contact your organization.

The personal nature of many B2B relationships, and business customers’ lingering desire to just pick up the phone to get their problems solved, can also pose challenges for your customer research efforts. You customers’ primary contacts – often, their account managers – may feel that they own these relationships and need to keep them properly guarded. Such gatekeepers make customer recruiting for your VoC efforts difficult, if not impossible. Win them over by explaining your research methods – and how the insights you’ll gather will not only improve the customer experience, but also help them sell more offerings down the road.

 

As with any business advice, your mileage may vary. To understand how to adjust your specific B2B customer experience design and management efforts, you must do two things. First, research the heck out of your customers in any way that works to find out what they need and expect from your organization. And second, be fearless in prototyping new strategies and tactics, learning from these initiatives, and iterating on the best practices you find.