5 golden rules for B2B CX

The five golden rules of managing B2B customer experiences


B2B customer experiences aren't as different to B2C as we think – they both involve buying decisions, loyalty, and emotions. Colin Shaw explains.

20th Dec 2021

Business relationships are like customer relationships – they both involve buying decisions, loyalty, and emotions. However, there are some differences between managing customer experience in business-to-business (B2B) relationships and business-to-consumer (B2C) relationships. There are also some clear rules:

Rule #1: B2B is complicated, so you need to simplify it

We’ve worked with many large corporations around the world that deliver many different products and services globally. The more people you get involved in something, the greater the logistical hurdles, and the more complicated the problems get with things like consistent communication. It is essential to simplify everything as much as you can and break it down into smaller parts. 

One of the critical ways to improve the customer experience in a sizable B2B would be to have a central team to help with the alignment of the organisation and ensure that everybody is heading in the right direction. Then, the individual units would also manage their part of the experience. Matrix management in the B2B environment is also much more prevalent.

Moreover, it would be wise to remember the Dunbar Number - a principle that governs how many relationships people tend to form and manage, which is about 153. Of those 153, the closeness of the relationships vary, and the closest relationships tend to be around five, with varying degrees of intimacy radiating out from that. 

The crucial part of the dunbar concept is that there are limits on how much social interaction people can effectively manage. It would help if you broke down your team’s responsibility to be in line with this idea, so as to simplify it for people and allow them to provide the experience.

We were doing some work with a client who had their extensive global customers divided by revenue. The senior account manager handled the most critical accounts – it then cascaded down from there in account management seniority to the smaller accounts, which a telephone account manager managed. 

When we did some analysis, we found that the sales team knew 80% of their revenue came from 20% of their accounts. So they focused on that 20%, which effectively left the other ones without an account manager. In essence, this strategy was the sales team’s response to managing too many accounts at one time.

Understanding how many people it takes to deal with an account effectively is essential. Neglecting this crucial area could mean that your future big accounts (aka, the 80%) would not be developed.

Rule #2: Recognise that customer emotions apply

We do the majority of our work in B2B. The first question I ask when we meet with clients is, “are relationships important to you?” The client always says they are, that the company is built on them. But then, when I ask if they think emotions are important, clients consistently say that their customers make logical decisions based upon the product or service.

I understand why we have this dichotomy. Individuals feel emotions, not organisations. While the organisation feels nothing towards the customers, the individuals in that organisation and work with you, do. Managing emotions can be complicated, but just because it’s difficult that doesn’t mean that we can ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Emotions account for a large part of what drives value in a B2B experience. You have to define which emotions drive value for you and then work out how you can achieve those emotions throughout that experience.

Rule #3: Manage different customers differently

The organisation as a whole wants something from you on average. But if you need to get approval from purchasing, from senior management, and from the shop floor, and they all want different things – then aiming for the average will not do any good. 

It would be best to segment those customers in different ways. Within that organisation, there are many other people with individual needs. Recognising these variations, and changing how you serve them will deliver a much better customer experience.

In a typical B2B environment, you might have one account but many different customers within that account. You may have different job types that interact with your organisation. Depending on their role and how you work with them, their perception of you will be different. 

These differences in perception may require a different experience that will drive value for them as individuals within the whole.

Rule #4: define the experience to align the organisation 

The first two things that we do with any client are to define what drives value and then determine the experience that you want to deliver. 

For example, if an organisation thinks trust and feeling cared for provides value, then apply that to your plan for providing the experience, with specific actions that get customers to feel those things.

Simplify it by communicating the strategy instead of the tactics. Communicate to all the departments the emotions you want the customer to feel, for example: trust and care. Then, ask the different business units to focus on how they are going to do that. It empowers the team to come up with the how for your what.

Moreover, it makes it easier to get the team’s buy-in. Each unit might do it differently, depending on the circumstances, but the goal and the end game are the same: make the customer feel like they can trust us and feel cared for.

Also, it is essential to remember what those emotions might be affected by cultural perspective. The way you deliver trust and make people feel cared for in Japan might differ from how you do it in India. Again, it isn’t effortless, but you simplify it by heading towards that overall goal.

Rule # 5: focus on the art of the possible

In a complex organisation, parts of the organisation will improve the customer experience in a much broader, more profound way than other parts of the organisation – that’s just life. 

Focusing on the art of the possible means pushing things far enough, but without breaking everything.

Also, it is important to remember that not everyone will be on board with your program. Let’s assume there are ten different business units in the larger organisation. Typically, you get three or four to focus on the goal and embrace the idea of delivering customer emotions with the experience. 

That means the other six or seven see this whole exercise as a waste of time. These business unit representatives might turn up for the meetings but couldn’t care less about doing anything for it.

However, once these naysaying units see the results come in, they will want to get involved. So, focus on getting results with those three or four units, and you will win over the hearts and minds of the less-than-convinced ones.

I talked to a B2B client recently, and you could see the lights coming on for them about how all of these units fit together. I had advised them not to be too ambitious or intellectual about customer experience because drastic changes could scare people off. 

However, if they see how changes are working for other parts of the organisation, they will be more likely to make changes.

Let me be clear: you’ve still got to push the boundaries. However, you’ve got to educate people about what those interactions are, what those points are, and the concepts behind emotions in customer experience. 

More importantly, they need to see how they manifest themselves and what it takes to make the changes that deliver those emotions.

Also, look for low-hanging fruit, easy wins, or the areas of least resistance. Nothing breeds enthusiasm like success.

Simplification is key

Cultural change is hard. In B2B organisations, you are likely to run into some resistance. So make that a part of your plan. 

Pick your battles and figure out how you can use your successes as a rhetorical device to emphasise and allow people to convince themselves that this is important, rather than having to fight an uphill battle every step of the way.

Customer relationships have many similarities to business customer relationships, but there are still differences, which require you to modify your tactics to manage the customer experience. 

By simplifying the complicated nature of managing customer experience for the team and convincing them that customer emotions are at work in these relationships, you can help them manage different customers to an appropriate outcome. 

Moreover, it would be best to define the feelings and get the individual parts of your organisation to explain how they will get it done to facilitate employee buy-in. 

Finally, by focusing on little wins and what you can accomplish, you will eventually win over the team to your side, with everyone working together to deliver a B2B Experience that will surprise and delight even the most business-minded customer.


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Aki Kalliatakis Photo
By aki.kalliatakis1
20th Dec 2021 10:25

Great insights once again, Colin, and this serves as a wonderful summary to end off the year. Sometimes (often?) executives and managers become their own worst enemies by creating unnecessary friction when it could all be simplified - both for customers, and for their own people. Ignore feelings at your peril.

I've just finished reading the book "The Human Element," by Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal, and on the first page they make a beautiful analogy: we all think that a bullet moves fast because of the power (gunpowder,) behind it, but if the bullet is not aerodynamically shaped, friction will stop it from being effective.

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