Business-To-Business Companies: What’s Your Reason For Ignoring Business-to-Consumer Customer Experience Practices?

It disappoints me when customer experience (CX) professionals at business-to-business (B2B) companies won’t even consider CX practices from business-to-consumer (B2C) companies.

Sure, B2B firms can learn a lot from other B2B firms: Cisco has an amazing voice of the customer program, Boeing does great work conducting field studies of its customers, and Adobe has a notable CX governance practice. But unless B2B customer experience practitioners want to run the CX race with one foot in a bucket, they should also learn strategy from Holiday Inn and Burberry, customer understanding from Vanguard and Virgin Mobile Australia, and design practices from Fidelity and the Spanish bank BBVA — the list of relevant B2C case studies goes on and on.

There are two reasons why B2B companies should take this advice to heart. First, no industry has anything close to a monopoly on best practices. So unless companies cast a wide net, they’re cutting themselves off from lessons that could give them an edge over their navel-gazing competitors. Secondly, every customer that B2B companies serve is not only a businessperson but also a consumer, one who has his or her expectations set by daily interactions with Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, and Zappos. And those B2B customers no longer lower their expectations when they go to work — especially because work now gets interspersed with their personal lives.

Although some B2B companies do cast a broad net when looking for best practices, many scoff at the idea that they can learn from B2C firms. Why? Here are some of the objections I hear often:

  • “We sell to businesses, not people.” This one floors me. Until I see an office building sign a purchase order, I’m going to go on believing that B2B is really person-to-person (P2P). Case in point: A few years ago, I did some research with companies that manufacture semiconductors. I was surprised to find that their sales typically depend on one key type of person: a design engineer. He (and it’s almost always “he”) designs and then prototypes the guts of what goes into electronic products ranging from mobile phones to microwave ovens. When he wants a semiconductor with certain technical characteristics, he goes to a manufacturer’s site and looks for something that will meet his specifications.

    If he finds a matching product quickly, he orders a sample, which might then end up in his final design and result in an order for thousands of units that will go into the final product. But if he can’t find the right sample easily, he gives up and goes to a different site, and the manufacturer loses a potentially gigantic sale. Why would the engineer give up so quickly when the decision is so critical? Because design engineers are people who are typically both really smart and really impatient. They won’t waste their valuable time struggling with an unusable site for very long before they conclude that the type of product they want isn’t there — much like a hurried, impatient consumer shopper.

  • “We can’t deliver as good an experience as consumer brands — why try?” Not true (thank god!). helped change the nature of the enterprise software industry with its business model that makes it far easier to buy and own software. Last year when I spoke with John Taschek, the firm’s senior vice president (SVP) of strategy, he told me that CEO Marc Benioff asked a simple question of the other founders when starting the company: “Why can’t software be as usable as Amazon?” That question has guided the direction of the company ever since and helped hammer competitors that cling to the old on-premises license model.
  • “We’re regulated!” As Phil Bienert, SVP digital experience at AT&T put it when speaking at our customer experience forum last year — what industry isn’t regulated? And he should know, having worked in senior CX positions in the automotive, consumer credit, and telecom industries. Of course, regulations can make it challenging to deliver a great customer experience by prohibiting companies from saying or doing certain things. And regulations are tougher for some industries, including some B2B industries, than for others. But if you compare companies in the same regulated industries, you’ll see that some of the companies find innovative ways to create a superior customer experience that helps differentiate them from competitors. Meanwhile, other firms with the same regulations don’t even try. Clearly the innovators figured out how to get the job done despite regulations, while their competitors wrung their hands and gave up.

Here’s the good news.

Increasingly, people who work in customer experience at B2B companies understand that they not only can learn from B2C companies — but also must. They understand that customer experience is still very young as a business discipline, so no one can afford to wait for direct competitors to figure out definitive best practices and then share them.

That’s why when I talk about customer experience with people who work at B2B companies, ranging from freight shippers to pharmaceutical manufacturers, I always include relevant examples from B2C companies. I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t. That’s also why my co-author and I included B2C, B2B, and B2B2C examples in our book, Outside In.

If you work at a B2B (or B2B2C) company, my advice to you is to cast a broad net when it comes to learning customer experience practices. Ultimately you’ll decide which ones to accept or reject — so why not give yourself an advantage by starting with a more diversified list of possibilities than your narrow-minded competitors will even consider?


Excellent Post

I hear you! I have been floored myself but what I have heard not only from folks in industry, but from "expert" bloggers who comment on the vast differences of CX when it comes to B2B versus B2C. Excellent point that it's all Person-to-Person. the only difference in a B2B world is it can be harder to pinpoint who to talk to. In the B2C world, you usually have the Person with the Need, the Decision-Maker, the Purchaser, and the Consumer all wrapped up in one person. In B2B, those can be different people and even different departments. Regardless, that just means a change of tactics, not a change of direction.
I think you'll like my own "B2B vs B2C - Debunking Five Customer Experience Myths" post.
Sorry for the self-plug, but I think you and other readers will find it a good complement to the above.

thanks again!

Simply Inspiring..

“We sell to businesses, not people.” -- That's hilarious.. for the mere fact that people run businesses. I love the insights you shared here; I guess, those who have succeeded along the way have found the perfect mix between B2B and B2C practices in delivering that great customer experience. The possibilities are indeed endless for those who are ready to embrace change. Thanks!

Universal CX Factors and B2B CEM

Great points, Harley. After 20+ years in B2B CEM myself, I agree with B2Bs do indeed sell to people whose expectations are shaped in part by their off-hours roles as consumers, and that B2B experiences can and need to be as good as B2C experiences regardless of your industry or regulation status.

What I'd love to see more is B2C companies learning from B2B! That's why I've deployed the Annual ClearAction B2B CEM Best Practices Study for the past 3 years. There is an inexcusable dearth of B2B presence in conferences, articles, and books (thanks for bucking this trend in your book!), which implies that B2B isn't involved or is behind B2C in CEM. I have my doubts about that. Myriad B2B companies have been practicing some aspect of CEM for 20+ years: satisfaction surveys, systemic and individual customer issue resolution, customer-focused culture, customer engagement, customer retention, experiential marketing, etc.

Additionally, there *are* unique B2B CEM factors, such as:
1) multiple influencers of buying decisions
2) multiple accounts within a customer company
3) multiple functional areas as touch-points in the customer life cycle
4) extensive post-purchase touch-points
5) career-impacting purchase decisions
6) single-source and captive limitations
7) revenue-enabling solutions
8) dynamics of customer-facing versus other functions
9) strong customer savvy

Still, one could say that certain B2Cs have their own version of any of the 9 items listed above. Perhaps because these specific challenges aren't discussed much, some B2B managers are resistant to finding commonalities in what they're hearing about CEM when it's focused on B2C. Good food for thought.

B2B is different

Dear Harley,
B2B is about relationships, not experiences, and that is why there is little take-up of CX in B2B.

In B2C it’s the point of sale, the sales process and the experience the customer has with the product or service that matters.

B2B, however, is a complex long-term relationship between two companies, made up of people in design engineering, product engineering, maintenance, logistics, the supply-chain, planning, finance, accounts and, of course, purchasing. The relationship builds over time, based on trust, cooperation and mutual understanding – sometimes ending up as a partnership with shared goals and values. That’s why B2B companies have key account managers.

The typical mid-sized B2B organisation will have between 50 and 500 customers – that’s all – and with plenty of touch-points. As you know, we conduct business-to-business customer satisfaction surveys and one of my clients includes 35 people in their survey of just ONE customer. That’s extreme, but we normally include both decision-makers and key influencers in our clients’ surveys.

My recommendation, Harley, is to take a look at the following: - looks at the key elements of a B2B customer satisfaction survey. is a 10-point pre-survey check list.

And defines who the most important customers are for a B2B organisation.

As you know, Harley, I’d be happy to chat (and have been trying to talk with you without success for many years now). I’m very easy to get hold of.

John Coldwell