B2B Customer Centricity: Why competitor differentiation matters
by Mark Eardley (@mdeardley) In this second Q&A with Laura Ramos, Forrester’s VP and principal analyst serving B2B marketing professionals, we’ll examine how a centric approach may be used to differentiate a B2B enterprise from its competitors.
Differentiation seriously matters. In B2B: A Game of Clones?, I presented reasons that being seen to be positively different is the engine that drives profitable sales. I also suggested the steps marketers should take to distinguish their organisation from the competition and be recognised as the obvious choice in their markets.
Back2Basics: In terms of proving to customers why they should even consider a particular offering, what role does customer centricity play in differentiating a vendor from its competitors? How does it make them stand out from the crowd?
Laura Ramos: When it comes to B2B marketing, few vendors differentiate on customer experience, choosing instead to feature products and offerings in their marketing, and selling messages and failing to engage with customers throughout their lifetime. Last year, Forrester reviewed 60 B2B websites to see which ones passed a very simple set of tests for customer centricity. Only six of the 60 passed. They did so by, for example, focusing homepage content on buyers not products, providing content that targets different roles, or using narrative or video to tell customer stories. More details on this are on my Forrester blog post, Empathy Is Key To Engaging B2B Buyers.
Simply put, if your message, content and brand deliverables are focused on customers, you’ll stand apart from 90% of the crowd. As prospects discover and explore technology solutions to their key business problems, the type of content they find most helpful in decision-making is information from peers: case studies, testimonials, industry examples. In our most-recent customer content credibility study, 71% of the responding B2B technology and business buyers agreed that hearing from your customers is most important to them. (Source: Forrester report, Peer Stories And Credible Data Attract And Engage B2B Buyers.)
Vendor: “We are an intrinsically 100% customer-centric enterprise.”
Buyers: “So what? How does that help me and my organisation?”
B2B: It seems to me that a centric approach should loom large in a vendor’s brand — so that customers can recognise and buy-into the benefits it creates for them. How can centricity be positioned as a brand-attribute that becomes a clear sales-creating differentiator?
LR: Turning customer-centricity into a brand attribute and sales-creating differentiator requires walking the talk — it means marketing must evolve from “saying” to “doing”. This is a big switch for marketers tethered to comms-oriented benchmarks like reach and frequency. From the CMO on down, marketers must take on new responsibilities associated with not just creating a brand but of developing a unique brand experience.
A customer-centric brand experience solves customer problems while also demonstrating your brand in every physical or digital customer interaction. Working with your company should be immersive — customers should know it’s “you” every time they see, hear, or talk about you. A consistent, customer-centric brand experience is key to winning and retaining customers long term and, provided this experience is majorly positive, the result will be easy to measure in increased sales and loyal, longer customers relationships.
Marketers needn’t formally own all customer-facing functions to fulfil their responsibility for customer experience, but they must ensure it consistently represents their brand values, regardless of who delivers it. To make this transition stick, we believe marketers need to adopt three new habits:
- Be human: treat your customers like your friends or colleagues — with empathy.
- Be helpful: aim to solve real customer problems, not just create catchy taglines.
- Be handy: flex to accommodate changing market conditions. Keep it simple and find lean ways to get things done.
(Source: Forrester reports, Three Steps To Modernize Marketing Thinking and Empathy: The Hallmark Of The Customer-Obsessed B2B Marketer.)
B2B: Commoditisation is a major threat to B2B margins. It creates markets where price is regarded as the only differentiator across competing vendors — so customers search for the cheapest. How does centricity help to justify and secure the premium prices that produce higher margins?
LR: When you treat customers like people, demonstrate empathy for their business problems, aim to solve those problems, and flex to accommodate change willingly — buyers learn they can trust you and that trust breeds loyalty. Loyal customers don’t see you as a commodity, but as an asset to their business. They deliver greater lifetime value at generally better margins because they aren’t looking for special consideration or concessions. If your brand experience helps them succeed, they will be more flexible and forgiving, which creates less pain and frustration.
Most importantly, they will advocate for you — tell others about their experience and reinforce the (true) perception that working with you is more valuable than going with a lower-cost alternative.
- Following on from this overview of how centricity can be used as a powerful differentiator that attracts and retains profitable customers, we’re going to look at how a centric approach enables B2B companies to identify key audiences for their marcoms; target those audiences; and measure outcomes. Next up: B2B Customer Centricity — how it allows marketers to create the right messages for the right people.
Mark Eardley (@mdeardley) advises B2B companies on how to govern their marketing to attract and retain profitable customers; several of his clients have grown to become market leaders. He and Charlie Stewart have written Business-to-Business Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide (Penguin Random House), which offers practical, actionable advice on how to make marketing make money. His monthly “Back2Basics” column covers how B2B companies and their agencies should manage their marketing.
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