Customer Experience - It's Not Just for B-to-C Players Anymore

By Jennifer Barron, Jesse Purewal, and Nancy Lu

For decades, companies in the consumer space have been developing brand experiences around their products and services. These experiences help forge loyalty and create a purpose that resonates in profound, emotional and lasting ways. Who isn’t touched by the magic at the Disney theme parks, exhilarated behind the wheel of BMW’s “Ultimate Driving Machine,” or astounded by the ease of access to a digital world powered by Apple’s products?

Consumer brands have invested billions to create experiences built upon distinctive combinations of products, services and people. Companies on the business-to-business (B2B) side, however, are typically less focused on creating customer experiences as a way to achieve competitive advantage. And that might seem to make sense. After all, success in B2B categories often depends on achieving operational excellence and delivering on “behind the scenes” needs of business customers.

Yet a closer look shows that the attributes describing B2B winners – reliability, accuracy, quality, ease – are often the hallmarks of a great customer experience. In fact, a few B2B “trailblazers” developed experiences that both strengthened their brands and drove competitive advantage in challenging markets. Consider three who have done it right.

UPS

Throughout its history, UPS had always received high marks from business customers for making package delivery easier and more convenient. As it explored customers’ emerging needs, the company discovered that businesses increasingly wanted a partner to assist them with a wide range of shipping and logistics services. They also believed UPS could be this partner, primarily because of the company’s ability to make it easier for “business to focus on business” – a handle that, according to many customers, accurately summarizes the experience of partnering with UPS. The company is now a provider of choice for over 50 percent of the FORTUNE 500, and the company has seen 22 percent revenue growth over the past five years despite a tough global economy. UPS’s storytelling in the marketplace has helped make this experience tangible. From “What Can Brown Do For You?” to its current campaign around “Loving Logistics,” UPS has cemented its position as a partner that will happily take on and add value to important but peripheral elements of a company’s business.

GE

GE has set an industry standard for defining a B2B customer experience. Its financing arm, GE Capital, discovered a key insight early in the development of its business model: Its largest customers not only wanted access to credit, but also needed to learn more about how they should finance their growing business operations. GE Capital addresses this need by delivering an experience that conforms to the mantra “stop just banking, start building.” To this end, GE Capital offers Access GE, which allows customers to benefit from CFO webinars, proprietary cost-reducing tools, and one-on-one engagements with GE experts to resolve business challenges. GE Technology Infrastructure and GE Energy offer similar programs that consistently deliver an on-demand, high-quality experience to business customers. These tailored programs have helped propel GE to the top of each of the most-valuable brands lists. The company had a brand value in 2011 (according to Millward Brown’s BrandZ) of $50.3 billion, up 12 percent from 2010, due in no small measure to GE’s dedicated efforts to build and perfect the B2B experience.

Caterpillar

Caterpillar, the $70 billion manufacturer of heavy machinery based in Peoria, Ill., goes to market through a worldwide dealer network. About a decade ago, the company realized that its future growth would come primarily from emerging markets, which were already saturated with local competitors that also offered high-quality products and services. To build its brand in these new countries, Caterpillar knew it needed to develop a second-to-none dealer experience. The company embarked on a year-long journey to survey customers, conduct interviews with key accounts, and understand why lapsed customers had left. The findings – the “good and bad” of the purchase, fulfillment, delivery, and service experience – were folded into Caterpillar’s strategic plan for global growth, and became the foundation of the playbook against which Caterpillar now assesses its dealers globally. These efforts to deliver an outstanding customer experience have paid off – Caterpillar surpassed rival John Deere in the annual ranking of the Fortune 500 in 2011, and the company has capitalized on emerging markets’ investment in infrastructure – Caterpillar now earns more revenue and profit from outside North America than from within.

What Next?

B2B companies should take note of several points. First, the dizzying pace of change and increasing commoditization of many products will force them to develop customer experiences that form barriers to entry and drive price leadership. Second, the attributes that drive purchase and loyalty in B2B categories – like ease, consistency, and reliability – can all be delivered profitably in the context of a customer experience. Consider several qualifiers in weighing the type of experience that might be right for B2B customers:

- Who are your most critical customers? Who will they be in three to five years?

- Can these customers’ needs over that period be delivered with only products and services, or should there be a new system (i.e., an experience) to help customers derive value from doing business with you?

- What insights from customer research can help inform the required elements of an experience? What role could new sources of inspiration (best practices, company analogs, ethnography) play in developing some powerful, unexpected insights?

- With which accounts could you “test and learn” around an experience before rolling something out to the broader organization?

In today’s global marketplace, products and services will evolve and change, but the drivers of customer loyalty will remain the same. There is no better way to create this loyalty than to define, develop and deliver an experience that defines the brand and makes competitors irrelevant.


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