How to improve the B2B customer experience with market research

How to improve the B2B customer experience with market research

B2B customer experience research can explore all of your customer touchpoints in detail and measure your performance, then show you where and how to improve. Many studies show that a better customer experience in B2B drives growth.

The customer experience (CX) in B2B

Finding the right way to improve your customers’ experience in B2B isn’t easy, but it pays off long-term.

It leads to higher satisfaction scores, plus up to 15% revenue growth and 20% lower costs to serve them, according to McKinsey.

By the same token, over time you risk losing business to competitors that offer better customer experiences than you. Out of frequent B2B customers, Accenture reports that 80% change suppliers at least once every two years, mainly because the last provider didn’t meet their needs.

Similarly, the vast majority – 87% – say they would switch or consider changing providers if they are difficult to do business with, according to Deloitte.

However, in many ways, the customer experience is more difficult to analyze and optimize in B2B industries compared to consumer ones. B2B purchases usually cost more – therefore, they can be more business-critical and involve more risk.

To minimize the risk of making wrong decisions, B2B decision-making units feature multiple people, so there tend to be several individuals at every interaction or touchpoint.

And a B2B buying process can last months and go through many steps. The person who makes a purchasing decision may not be the one ultimately using the product or service.

In short, the B2B customer experience is more complex and involves more people than in consumer markets.

That makes it harder to optimize, but brands doing it well see major benefits and enjoy a competitive advantage. Another study from Deloitte found that B2B buyers are 34% more likely to buy from brands getting the customer experience right and 32% more likely to renew a contract with them.

Contents

How customer preferences evolve

Defining the B2B customer experience

Identifying and mapping customer experience touchpoints

Measuring the B2B customer experience

Analyzing and addressing areas of improvement

Best practices for customer experience B2B research

 

 

How customer preferences evolve

Customer expectations, preferences, needs, and wants change over time. Therefore, the customer experience you provide must adapt accordingly.

Things a business learned about its customers’ preferences several years ago could be out of date by now, particularly for insights from before COVID-19. For example, compared to pre-pandemic years, 70% of B2B decision-makers are now comfortable making large buys via remote human or digital self-service channels, according to McKinsey.

The customers are changing too – Millennials have now replaced Gen X as the most represented generation in the workforce and therefore, among B2B buyers.

Many of them are decision-makers, with studies showing they spend more time researching products online than previous generations. Arguably, age now matters in B2B when before, the prevailing wisdom was that it was only really a key factor in B2C purchases.

There have been other shifts and without doubt, there will be other new widespread trends across B2B industries soon. For example, advances in generative AI look set to have a major impact on customer relationships.

But to keep your customer experience at a consistently high level, there’s much more to it than staying up-to-date with digital or technological trends.

Defining the B2B customer experience

As a catch-all term, it’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about the customer experience or being customer-centric, in a vague and nonspecific way. But in reality, the specific customer experience for any brand is often complex and multifaceted.

So before trying to improve things, it helps to think about your current customer experience in more granular detail. In other words – who, what, when, where, why, and how customers interact with your brand.

Depending on your business model and industry, it could include the following, but this list is merely a starting point:

  • Marketing touchpoints that raise awareness and interest in your brand
  • Purchase journey touchpoints
  • Activation touchpoints e.g. proofs of concept
  • Usage touchpoints
  • User experience (UX)
  • Support touchpoints e.g. customer service teams
  • Lapsing or switching touchpoints e.g. closing an account

It’s also worth thinking about how these touchpoints link together and form complete customer journeys or lifecycles.

Identifying and mapping customer experience touchpoints

By establishing a granular understanding of your buyers’ journey, you can pinpoint where specifically the customer experience needs to improve. A detailed, visual map of all the customer experience touchpoints helps to achieve this.

Alongside this, an analysis of the current experience at key touchpoints should outline where you need to make the biggest changes and how. Evaluate the importance of each one and prioritize the make-or-break moments.

There are several ways to do this via B2B market research – for example, by exploring at key touchpoints:

  • Customers’ motivations and emotions that affect their behavior or thoughts
  • Their needs and expectations
  • Their typical actions
  • The individuals or business functions involved
  • Who or what is responsible for delivering the customer experience
  • What questions customers are asking and how easy or difficult it is to get answers
  • What drives customer success outcomes

For a fresh perspective, often it helps to use jobs-to-be-done research that identifies what customers expect to ‘hire’ your solutions for specifically.

Measuring the B2B customer experience

The steps above usually need qualitative research to explore the customer experience in detail.

But to get more insights required to improve the customer experience, you can use both quantitative and qualitative research to collect customer feedback.

There is no set quantitative metric to measure the customer experience specifically, but typical perception tracking metrics can be useful.

Some non-bespoke metrics are:

However, there are challenges with the last two metrics in B2B research. Asking customers to use five-star rating systems is simple and straightforward – but limited.

And because there are different types of customer loyalty in B2B industries, NPS questions are not as useful as in B2C studies, in our experience. Arguably, metrics such as these only provide valuable insights if combined with more in-depth research.

Use bespoke metrics in combination with exploratory questioning, exploring exactly why customers give good or bad scores. If you have a North Star goal, it’s a good idea to base the bespoke metric on this – for example, how many times do you use [service] each week, on average?

For a complete picture of the customer experience, you also need to get insights from those choosing to abandon it.

Lapsed or churned customers can give you important findings that current ones cannot. Ask them questions such as – what was the main reason why you stopped using [company]?

Similarly, you can get useful insights by conducting a win-loss analysis interrogating the key touchpoints between lost prospects and your brand.

Analyzing and addressing areas of improvement

Identify the most significant pain points that customers recognize. Explore the barriers preventing customers from having a strong experience – analyze your fieldwork results to find:

  • Customers’ biggest frustrations in their experience with your brand
  • Occasions and touchpoints that are the biggest contributors
  • Reasons why

Then work out how to improve these aspects of the customer experience. This approach helps you allocate budget and resources more efficiently – some improvements might be slight tweaks, but others may require a complete overhaul.

For example, it could require that:

  • Account managers or the customer service team act more proactively at key touchpoints
  • Sales teams anticipate customer journey needs and information gaps better
  • Marketing teams communicate different messages at the right time
  • Website teams restructure the homepage and optimize the content
  • Product teams design new offerings that better suit customers’ needs
  • Operational decision-makers remove unnecessary processes (potentially reducing costs in the process)

Sometimes the solution will be clear, or customers may know what they want and tell you in interviews if you ask the right questions.

But sometimes the answers won’t be straightforward. In that case, you may need to run a brainstorming session or some ideation exercises at an in-person or virtual workshop with relevant stakeholders to come up with potential solutions.

Best practices for customer experience B2B research

#1 Keep it confidential and anonymize the customer feedback

When recruiting decision-makers for B2B market research projects, many request anonymity anyway – but confidentiality is key for this type of research.

It encourages honest and – if needed – blunt, constructive feedback to help you identify and make improvements. If using metrics, it also reduces the likelihood of any manipulation.

For example, sometimes account managers or sales reps encourage customers to give high scores beforehand, particularly if the scores are linked to their bonuses.

Alternatively, they may follow up afterward asking why they gave a specific score, potentially harming that customer’s trust.

#2 Consider segmenting your results

A tailored market segmentation can provide a deeper understanding of different experiences in your customer base.

Segmenting your customers divides them into groups with similar traits – such as behavior, needs, wants, purchase habits, profitability potential, and so on.

This is a valuable approach if you have a broad range of customer types and a large CRM database. Ensure you have permission to use customer data for research purposes first.

Different groups may have varying perceptions of a positive customer experience, in which case you’ll need to make the improvements with a more targeted approach.

#3 Ask about competitors’ customer experience too

Even if your customer experience is strong, if competitors offer a better one, you should consider making improvements to keep up with them.

You may need competitive intelligence research to find out from prospects what other brands are doing that you’re not.

Prioritize your biggest competitors. In particular, if you’re running international market research, the longlist of competitors can be lengthy so you’ll need to shorten it.

But don’t overlook smaller competitors that could be providing an outstanding customer experience. They may be growing and set to become more of a threat in the future.

#4 Track the customer experience over time – but not too regularly

While some B2C brands survey customers on their perceptions and collect metric scores every quarter or even monthly, often this isn’t viable or necessary in B2B industries.

Usually, there aren’t enough B2B customers for this kind of frequency. Key decision-makers won’t take part regularly in research.

Also, since it can often take months to sell business to business, it takes time to shift customer perceptions. It will also take you time to make internal changes that will improve the customer experience and show different results in your research.

Leaving longer gaps – e.g. 12 to 18 months – between each study increases the likelihood that you will see your changes reflected in the research data.

Summary

B2B customer experience research explores your customer interactions and touchpoints in detail, measures your performance, and shows you where to improve. Studies show that better customer experiences drive business growth.

Defining the B2B customer experience

Depending on your business model and industry, it could include the following, but this list is merely a starting point: marketing touchpoints that raise awareness and interest in your brand; purchase journey touchpoints; activation touchpoints; usage touchpoints; user experience; support touchpoints; and lapsing or switching touchpoints.

Identifying and mapping customer experience touchpoints

There are several ways to do this via B2B market research, exploring: customers’ motivations and emotions that affect their behavior or thoughts; their needs and expectations; their typical actions; the individuals or business functions involved; who or what is responsible for delivering the customer experience; what questions customers are asking and how easy or difficult it is to get answers; what drives customer success outcomes.

Measuring the B2B customer experience

Some non-bespoke metrics are: customer satisfaction score (CSAT); customer effort score (CES); net promoter score (NPS); and a five-star rating. Lapsed or churned customers can give you important findings that current ones can’t and similarly, you can get insights by conducting a win-loss analysis.

Analyzing and addressing areas of improvement

Analyze your fieldwork results to find: customers’ biggest frustrations in their experience with your brand; occasions and touchpoints that are the biggest contributors; and the reasons why.

Best practices for customer experience B2B research

We recommend that you: keep it confidential and anonymize the customer feedback; consider segmenting your results; ask about competitors’ customer experience too; and track the customer experience over time – but not too regularly.

Chris Wells
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