Smarten Up the B2B Customer Experience: 5 Big Ideas

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the B-to-B Customer Experience Summit, organized by Walker, a customer intelligence consulting firm. This two-day conference, the first CX event focused exclusively on B2B, was a big hit with attendees — CX leaders representing prominent brands in technology, telecom, distribution and more.

The keynotes were amazing, and I really enjoyed moderating two panels on predictive analytics and customer intelligence ROI. The setting was delightful in a Hilton hotel overlooking the San Diego bay. Kudos to the Walker team for a stimulating two days and great experience.

Walker President Phil Bounsall kicked off the conference with highlights of the firm’s “Customers 2020” study, which revealed major changes expected by, yup, the year 2020. Three big trends:

  • Personalized experience. The study found that customers expect experiences to be more tailored to their individual preferences. To meet the changing needs of customers, nearly two-thirds of companies selected investments aimed to understand individual needs, challenges and future directions.
  • Proactive relationships. Reacting to customer needs is not enough. Progressive companies also want to anticipate and influence future behaviors. In the study, 83% of respondents said they expect “a lot” of emphasis on metrics that describe customer intentions, up from 41% currently. Furthermore, more information sources will be used to create a holistic view of the customer.
  • Consistent multi-channel communications. Among the communications channels “likely to use often,” email (77%), phone (76%), in-person (57%) and website (42%) dominated the survey results for today. By 2020, the top 4 are expected to shift to online communities (68%), social media (63%), website (61%) and email (58%). Customers will expect companies to deliver a consistent experience across multiple channels.

Based on the sessions I attended and the two panels I moderated, here are five ideas to help you get smarter about B2B CEM.

  1. Your Big Boss must lead the customer-centric journey

    Nearly 90% of executives say they want to be CX leaders. But there’s a big difference between a dream and a meaningful goal that everyone is committed to achieve. Cisco has been customer-centric for as long as I can remember, but like any tech company has had to navigate market changes to remain viable. CEO John Chambers instilled a “fanatical focus on customer success,” according to keynoter Edzard Overbeek, SVP for Cisco Services. In 1997 Cisco began to measure customer sat and over the years has improved from 4.06 to an impressive 4.45. Overbeek emphasized that all employees have to be engaged in listening and improving, which must be driven from the top.

  2. If you think Customer Intelligence is expensive, try ignorance

    When something is a strategic asset, it can be maddeningly difficult to “prove” the ROI in a strict financial sense. In my panel discussion on “What’s the Payoff on Customer Intelligence?” speakers Tammy Dujmovich (Cisco), Connie Cassel (NetApp) and Jeff Ernst (EMC) illustrated three contrasting ways that analytics can applied to Voice of Customer data to yield impressive results. For example:

    • Strategic: Cisco, as part of its ongoing VoC program, identify a need for improving “ease of doing business” which became a company-wide priority to improve the Customer Experience.
    • Operational: NetApp increased customer loyalty/retention by making changes to technical documentation, improving software quality and identifying at-risk customers so account teams could act before it was too late.
    • Communications: EMC used VoC analytics to figure out the optimum frequency and method (email or text message) for progress updates on open incidents, segmented by severity. Good example of why one size does not fit all!
  3. Insights must drive action to the front lines of the organization

    I lost track of the number of times I heard “actionable” at this conference, and for good reason. Forrester Research has found less than half of companies use VoC insight to systematically drive change. In his keynote speech, Bill Goetz, SVP of Marketing for Sysco, spoke about the key role of actionable insights in helping the company transform itself to be more customer-centric. With the help of VoC analytics, the company improved new customer onboarding, delivery information and business reviews. But the “home run” was an alert program developed with Walker, which helped field reps engage more proactively with customers at risk for defection, and turn them into growth opportunities. Impressive.

  4. Analytics will shift from “What Happened?” to “Make It Happen!”

    A stunning array of tools are available to slice and dice data to understand why something happened in the past. These sorts of “descriptive” analytics yield useful insights, but it’s a bit like driving a car by looking in the rear view mirror. In my panel on Predictive Analytics, three Walker experts shed some light on how to get value from more advanced forms of analytics designed to predict or even influence future customer behaviors. Potential benefits include improved customer retention, deeper engagement and proactive sales enablement. Three disciplines need to work together.

    • Business: Lauri Jones emphasized working backwards from the desired business outcomes and decisions and “making it actionable.”
    • Technology: Mike Schwartz discussed technology considerations, such as infrastructure and data warehouse tools. His advice: make friends with your IT department early.
    • Science: Troy Powell said that with the right business direction and IT capabilities in place, data scientists can earn their keep by matching the right tools and models to the right business problems.
  5. An enduring role for humans: Perspicacity

    Anyone expecting analytics to spit out “the answer” is bound to be disappointed, because with multiple sources of data, you’ll get multiple answers. In addition to survey-based VoC data, companies are mining behavioral data and social media to try to infer what customers perceive and plan to do next. That’s why I feel quite confident predicting that analytics won’t replace human judgment. American astronaut David Wolf spoke about his adventures in space and how good decisions were made, and sometimes not. He called the human element in decision making “perspicacity,” which means making the right decision at the right time, even in the face of confusing and conflicting information.


Disclosure: I collaborated with Walker on the Customers 2020 study and the conference agenda. CustomerThink was a media sponsor for this event, and Walker has been a CustomerThink sponsor within the past year. This post is part of my independent coverage of industry trends and is not meant as an endorsement of any company mentioned.

9 Responses to Smarten Up the B2B Customer Experience: 5 Big Ideas

  1. Steve Walker May 8, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    Bob: Thanks for a great summary of the B2B CX Summit and also for your vision, contributions and partnership in making it a reality. B2B companies have more people involved in delivering the value and also more people are involved in receiving and recognizing the value. Just this alone makes it infinitely more complex than B2C companies. This was a great opportunity for the best to learn from the best. Can’t wait to do it again next year!

  2. Pat McHugh May 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    Personalized, proactive, relationships without a doubt increase customer engagement. But multi-channel consistency is still a disappointment due to the challenge of personalizing the experience in real time on web sites. That’s where smart messaging has made its mark in the high stakes game of not just personalizing engagement in real time, but optimizing conversions.

  3. Bob Thompson May 8, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    Yeah, I would agree that there’s been a lot of talk about personalization, ominchannel and so on. The trend has been building for a long time.

    But, based on the Walker research, it seems that in B2B talk has not been backed up with much action to this point. We’ll have to see what happens in the next few years. I think the big data and predictive analytics trends will take quite a bit more time to mature for most companies.

  4. Christine Crandell May 8, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    As always Bob, a great article. Crisp, insightful with lots of information. In our work with B2B clients the issue is not convincing them why they should align their organizations to the customer journey. They get it. The stumbling block for them is where to start, the steps in the process, and who to partner with.

    It’s logical starting place is with researching customer journey but best practices on how to do that aren’t clear with a cacophony of advice and approaches championed by various consultants. Companies need to understand the roadmap of the customer-centered transformation only then will the fear subside and will they make a serious commitment.

    We have our methodology and it works but the point of this comment is not to be self-serving. Rather it is that the collective “we” need to move the conversation forward from ‘why do it’ to ‘how to it’.

  5. Bob Thompson May 8, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    Christine, I largely agree that the CX industry has moved from “why” to “how.”

    But I worry that many (most?) of those who have decided they must “do” CX don’t actually know why. They are jumping on the bandwagon because it’s what everyone else is doing.

    For those that have a clear vision for “why” I say it’s time to focus on execution. For those who claim they want to be a CX leader, I think they should pause and really understand not only why (what it offers their business and customers) but also what it will take (an organization-wide commitment).

    I’m a big proponent of execution, but there should be a real passion and commitment behind CX. Otherwise after it become clear how much hard work is involved, executives will quickly move on to the next thing. And CX will get the same tarnished reputation that dragged down CRM for many years. That would be a shame.

  6. Michael Lowenstein May 8, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    ….however, I’d respectfully submit that the three big trends identified as what the marketplace landscape will look like seven years from now have actually been occurring, and building, over the past decade or so: http://www.customerthink.com/blog/cultivating_advocacy_behavior_by_making_an_emotional_connection_with_all_customers_yes_includin?goback=.gde_59514_member_188762190.

    The expectations for proactive relationship-building and personalization have been with us for some time. Particularly in the case of omni channel communication and touchpoint availability, B2B customers are already requiring this of suppliers; and, despite some inconvenience associated with changing vendors, will depart when these expectations are met elsewhere. Measurement and analytics beyond customer satisfaction, the increased focus on building and sustaining a customer-centric culture, and the role and contribution of employees to customer value delivery round out these ongoing trends:

    http://www.customerthink.com/blog/after_thousands_of_years_are_we_there_yet_the_effect_of_trust_and_offlineonline_social_media_in

    http://www.customerthink.com/blog/customer_centricity_vs_customer_friendliness_vs_product_centricity

    http://www.customerthink.com/article/customer_advocacy_behavior_personal_brand_connection

    http://www.customerthink.com/article/linking_employee_behavior_to_customer_loyalty_advocacy

    http://www.customerthink.com/article/no_satisfaction_understand_behavior

  7. Michael Lowenstein May 8, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    …and this applies, as well, to degrees of customer focus in B2B products and services industries. Maybe my perspective comes from the volumes of original industry research I’ve reviewed, and the kinds of companies I’ve been exposed to, and worked with as clients; but, for every enterprise where big data (i.e. generation, storage, and application of business intelligence), real-world customer experience research and diagnostics, and predictive analytics and algorithms are still in an embryonic state, there are scores more pretty far down the maturity path, and emerging as industry leaders.

  8. Graham Hill May 23, 2013 at 2:56 am #

    Hi Bob

    I must say I agree with Michael. None of what you wrote about is new. We have been discussing these same themes for 5, 10, even 20 years. And they are not all that hard to do with a bit of joined-up thinking. Yet so many companies seem to have difficulty implementing themy. I wonder what the problem is?

    Are managers too intellectually thick to see the linkages? Are they too organisationally disconnected to do anything about them? Or is CRM/CEM/CXYZM just not that important to business?

    Graham Hill

  9. Bob Thompson May 23, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    Right you are, Graham. Nothing new here at all.

    And yet, companies still struggle with leadership, creating real customer insight, and actually doing something.

    The Customers 2020 study I mentioned quantified the gap between the ideas we’ve all talked about for years, and the reality of where businesses are today. Bottom line: whether you’re a leader or laggard, there’s still work to be done to improve and remain competitive.

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