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March 04, 2016
B2B customer experiences: Does the C-suite really care?
By: Rachel Barton

Among business-to-consumer (B2C) companies, it’s common knowledge that digital has turned the traditional buying path—in which customers move from discovery to consideration to evaluation to purchase—on its head. In response, they are putting new customer models in place that satisfy the demands of today’s “nonstop” customers, who use digital technologies to continuously evaluate products, services and brand promises. For B2C leaders, it’s all about creating seamless, convenient and satisfying customer experiences.

The same customer dynamics are playing out in the business-to-business (B2B) arena. It’s hardly surprising considering that business buyers are also personal consumers. They’ve become accustomed to the treatment they receive from, say, their favorite retailer, and they’re bringing expectations of high-quality experiences from their homes to their offices. B2B companies are taking notice. Findings from recent Accenture Strategy research shows that 86 percent of B2B executives consider the customer experiences provided during sales and service interactions to be very important. Nearly four out of five are convinced that differentiated customer experiences not only have a direct impact on business results, but also provide competitive advantage.

It’s encouraging that B2B executives now believe that the experiences they provide their business customers have value. What’s less encouraging is that many B2B companies aren’t acting on those beliefs—or at least not to the extent they should. Consider this: despite their acknowledgement that customer experiences are important, only around 40 percent put the customer experience at the top of their list of strategic priorities. Furthermore, less than a quarter (23 percent) are achieving strong returns from experience-related investments. The rest are either losing money or simply treading water.

So, why are so many B2B companies apparently just paying lip service to customer experiences? One explanation is that conversations about—and initiatives to improve—customer experiences fall to managers in sales and service roles. The topic is rarely discussed in the C-suite. And because customer experience doesn't make it onto board-level agendas, it’s understandable that the executives’ priorities and investments are channeled elsewhere. Another explanation finds no real fault in executives’ intentions and interests. The problem lies in the fact that B2B companies are less mature than their B2C counterparts when it comes to creating a strategic vision, developing customer understanding, and using digital to effectively engage customers. Simply put, many B2B companies lack the skills and capabilities to change the customer experience in a positive way. With just some, but not all, of the strategic priorities or operational abilities they need, they fail to set themselves apart in meaningful ways.

Accenture Strategy’s experience and research suggests there are four things B2B companies can do to take full advantage of the “always-on” customer phenomenon and boost the returns on their customer experience investments. Specifically, they need to:

  1. Elevate the customer experience as a C-suite topic: By talking about it at the board level and educating executives about the value that can come from getting customer experience right, it is more likely to become a strategic priority. And once it truly becomes a C-level priority, it is more likely that investments will follow.

  2. Identify and develop the skills needed to bring the vision of customer experience to life: They should follow B2C companies’ lead by focusing on both traditional and digital capabilities. Our research showed that B2B companies that generate the highest returns from their customer experience investments invest twice as much as their peers in traditional capabilities such as contact centers, field service processes and tools, and even legacy CRM systems. These leaders also invest more—and more broadly—in digital enablement. In fact, two-thirds of those companies’ customer experience budgets are devoted to things like eCommerce, customer self-service, digital sales and service integration, cloud-based sales, digital marketing, collaboration tools and mobility.

  3. Measure the return on B2B customer experience investments: With those insights, board members will understand how experiences tie to financial levers and feel more comfortable dedicating the necessary funding. The value of customer experience can be measured in several ways, including ratings of customer satisfaction or Net Promoter Score®. B2C companies often link such customer satisfaction indicators to compensation. There’s no reason why B2B companies can’t do the same.

  4. Stay committed: Once customer experience becomes a priority, it is imperative that executives maintain their investments, even when other business issues that demand attention—and funding—arise. Improving the B2B customer experience is a marathon, not a sprint.

B2B companies that are faking their commitment to customer experience can’t do so for much longer. It’s time for those executives who purport to appreciate the importance of customer experience to put their money—and attention—where their mouths are. If they don’t, their customers will switch to providers who offer the seamless interactions and multi-channel experiences they now demand.

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