Don’t Apply the B2C Customer Journey to B2B

Regular readers of our blog know that we have an instinctive negative reaction to consumer marketing concepts being applied in B2B. Ideas like personas and brand equity are critical in B2C marketing, but when inappropriately applied in B2B they can drive bad decisions based on customer preferences and personalities as opposed to real business needs and the economics underlying those needs. So, it would not surprise you that we were initially skeptical about applying the concept of “customer journey” to B2B markets.

In researching the topic, we found no shortage of customer mapping tools and templates available on-line. However, unlike some earlier business fads, there does not seem to be one generally accepted method for documenting a customer journey. We found many websites that offered their journey template and others that said it can’t be reduced to a template. We even found one website that offered this sage advice to the novice: “Customer journey mapping is the process of creating a customer journey map”.

In addition, much of the material is built for the digital customer experience.  This is understandable, as understanding why and where potential customers are abandoning carts, for example, is critical in digital B2C channels. The literature is less helpful in how to apply to hybrid or personal touch channels still found in much of the B2B world. Against the noise, however, there does seem to be agreement that the basic steps of a customer journey are: awareness, consideration, conversion, loyalty and advocacy.  Needless to say, this list describes a consumer journey and does not fit the reality of most B2B purchasing behavior.

Imagine for example that your company makes composite parts for the aerospace industry.  You may want to map a customer journey for say, Boeing.  Does their journey start with awareness? Most likely you have done business with them for years. Consideration and conversion may be your goals, but we would argue that getting to the underlying needs of the business is the way to achieve them. And lastly, loyalty and advocacy have even less relevance – a purchasing manager at Boeing would get fired for buying based on loyalty if it is not the best economic outcome for the company, and they would get fired even faster if they encouraged a competitor to use the same supplier!

Suppressing our initial instinct to reject the concept completely, we dug a little deeper and realized that beneath the hype, there are some critical ideas around customer journey that are absolutely applicable in B2B.

A recent client example helped us crystallize the relevant pieces.  Our client had a division that distributed specialized ‘furniture’ used in scientific laboratories (lab benches, shelves cabinets, etc.). The business was reasonably profitable but was barely growing at the rate of GDP. They sold single items for replacement or lab expansion, but realized that their big-ticket sales were usually associated with the construction of a new lab. When we began to talk about customer value and potential differentiation around this purchase occassion, we quickly hit a dead-end.

After some back and forth, the team realized that they only saw a fraction of the customer journey, specifically the part that started with them receiving a request for a quote on a given list of furniture. Knowing that this was insufficient, the team set out to do some broader VOC to understand the complete decision process.

What they discovered was a lengthy process of lab design and budget approvals. Then customers, or the designers and consultants they hired, selected suppliers for each category of equipment including furniture. Once the equipment started to arrive, the customer (or their contractor) needed to find people qualified to install it, connect it and de-bug it. They then needed to stock the lab with consumables and hire and train people to work there.

In short, they discovered an entire universe of parties involved in the decision and installation process, many of whom they had not spoken with before. When they started to do VOC up and down this value chain they discovered dozens of pain-points that they could address by getting more involved in the design phase. For example, using knowledge of lab workflows they could leverage 3D modeling capabilities to optimize layouts and even customize furniture to ensure that all the items being ordered would fit properly and work better (e.g., making sure a lab bench the same length as the vent hood that needs to go above it). By re-thinking their business and then adapting their go to market approach, this once overlooked division is now on a steep growth trajectory.

Mapping this B2B customer journey alongside our client reinforced four key themes:

  1. Make sure you understand the eco-system in which your offering exists. Is your offering ultimately used as part of a bigger package? Is the bigger package designed around your offering or does your offering need to conform to the design of the bigger package? Who specifies the bigger package? Who specifies the requirements for your offering within the bigger package? Who integrates/installs your offering? Who maintains it?
  2. Invest in documenting the entire customer journey, end-to-end. This should include the journey pre-sale, and post-sale. For example; How do they gather information? What design decisions need to be made? How do they make those decisions?  What are the issues with how they install your offering, use it, upgrade and potentially even dispose of it?
  3. Keep your eyes open for pain-points. In our story above, one of the clients was visiting a major university with multiple labs on the campus. On the day of her visit, one of the contractors was cursing that he was going to have to return a lab table that would not fit through the door to the lab. Trained in good VOC principles, our client asked how often this happens. The contractor shook his head, “almost every job. It’s as if the people designing the lab don’t talk to each other.” The idea for using 3D software was born.
  4. You may be able to reimagine customer engagement by capturing a broader set of “touchpoints”. – In the case above, enabling designers to deliver a faster timeline and less returned product for a new lab would give them a reason to use your software and specify your product.

The focus of B2B businesses should be to create economic value for their customers. Effective B2B marketing requires articulating economic value in the form of a clear value proposition. Understanding the full “customer journey” for the B2B customer helps to identify value you may have otherwise missed. Equally important, make sure you tailor and communicate the value proposition to the influencers and actual decision maker that ultimately impact the purchase of your offering.

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