The B2B Customer Experience: Small Business Strategies Fill Big Business Shoes
I’m in a circle of scrappy, ambitious small B2B business owners—and I serve the same type of businesses in the Strategy Lab. Recent research by Merkle revealed some interesting buying trends in the B2B space, but the study, "Architecting the Ultimate B2B Customer Experience," focuses largely on enterprise B2B players.
What does this research say about driving factors for success that apply to us?
Here are a few of the key points from the study, along with the opportunities for the small business leader.
How Do We Achieve the Ultimate B2B Customer Experience?
While Merkle’s study included mostly “mega-companies” (1,000+ employees), it revealed some insights for B2B businesses of all sizes. Some of them were discouraging, such as companies’ description of securing a supplier as a “nightmarish process.” An analysis of B2B Net Promoter Scores (NPS) showed that two-thirds of customers have a passive or negative experience when purchasing.
One observation from the research was that suppliers are particularly prone to disappoint when there’s more at stake.
You’d think they would take extra effort when there is more on the line, but that’s not true. As the study states, “They are no more impressive when selling to large companies than they are when selling to smaller businesses.”
Clearly, there's a great opportunity for all brands—from mom-and-pop shops to large conglomerates—to step up and disrupt the mediocrity. Merkle identified four B2B “Brand Superpowers” companies can incorporate to deliver the ultimate B2B customer experience.
Superpower #1: Reliability
Reliability is rooted in trust, but trust isn’t developed overnight. Reliability accrues to businesses that can afford to build a big brand presence. Establishing this superpower is a tall order for SMBs that don’t have the luxury of time and money.
SMB Angle: This is where our scrappy nature shines. We get creative with tactics that help us “own” Reliability. A big one is establishing a positive reputation within one’s sector or industry... Assembling a presence with like-minded businesses by being active on LinkedIn or participating in other networking activities and speaking events. Even if the scope and audiences are small, you’re actively drafting a profile of Reliability by the company you keep. I’ve personally seen this come to life on LinkedIn, where my most supportive connections bring a collective essence of this very Superpower.
Superpower #2: Understanding
The goal with Understanding is to create a sense of alignment; business philosophies that say, “We understand you—and we’re on the same wavelength.” Merkle’s report explains that Reliability is focused on meeting expectations—Understanding is about anticipating them.
Large companies often have entire teams dedicated to Understanding, using robust customer data to play in the sandbox of personalization. It’s a costly investment—not just for people's power, but also for all the software and tools needed to achieve this level of flexibility and personalization.
SMB Angle: Software services can help automate segmentation and personalization. Not all are overly expensive and several all-in-one options exist (e.g. Hubspot). Ultimately, SMBs have content on their side. We can craft a voice that claims this space—and then prove its value with 1:1 communication and responsiveness through CRM and email responsiveness. And, as data becomes more affordable, SMBs can tap into its potential with its unique ability to connect up and down the leadership ladder.
Superpower #3: Enrichment
Enrichment and Understanding both have relationships at their core. Whereas Understanding leans more towards the overall business side of the relationship, Enrichment centers on the individual’s need for belonging, connectedness, and recognition. As the report states, “They want a supplier that educates them, challenges them, and improves them professionally and personally – whether or not it benefits their employer.”
“Clearly, there's a great opportunity for all brands to step up and disrupt the mediocrity.”
Again, this can become costly for SMBs. It involves a lot of woman/manpower to rise to this challenge, not to mention the infrastructure to put Enrichment-type processes in place.
SMB Angle: Merkle broke down the four Superpowers into two categories: “Business Value Add” (Reliability, Understanding) and “Personal Value Add” (Enrichment, Preeminence). You can’t get more personal value than the experience of being a small business owner. Something SMBs seem to grasp better than larger companies is articulated in the report’s proposed solutions: "Every interaction with a company is an experience; every step an opportunity to make a difference."
Superpower #4: Preeminence
Characteristics of a B2B brand holding the Preeminence Superpower include “sophisticated, modern, and a leader in its field.” Companies that hire these brands are bolstering their reputation via that brand’s respect among the sector. They’re investing in bragging rights, if you will.
SMB Angle: While there are some cost obstacles here, this Superpower may be more achievable for SMBs in a few ways. Consider all the SMBs that are ahead of their time… Concepts like sustainability or fair trade are forward-thinking and enlightening—and they garner recognition and respect, regardless of the size of a company (or its budget). Today, many small tech companies are gaining notoriety for their innovative solutions.
There’s Always Room for Improvement
The all-encompassing theme throughout Merkle’s analysis is that most brands can do better—and need to do better. Many are either underperforming in regard to these four Superpowers, or not performing at all.
In the Strategy Lab, we identify key areas where SMBs can differentiate from their competitors. We also focus on specific resources they can optimize, without breaking their budget. Then, use those opportunities to build out their own unique Superpowers.