Busting the B-to-B Myths

In all of my work with b-to-b marketers, this is the first thing they tell me: B-to-b is different from b-to-c. But in public and private “listening lab” research, in which shoppers are viewed as they navigate a Website, the top problems that business customers have in the shopping experience are with finding a product and making a purchasing decision. These are the same problems found when working with consumer marketers.

We saw this at last year’s Annual Catalog Conference (cosponsored by CATALOG AGE and the Direct Marketing Association) when a leading business safety products cataloger participated in a listening lab. The lack of standards in home page merchandising and navigation made it difficult for customers to even start the process of finding a product.

Meanwhile, at another leading business cataloger, visitors had trouble navigating because there was too much explanatory text in the navigation path. Customers, whether they’re shopping for their business or for themselves, do not read while they navigate.

The business customer is like the consumer in key aspects of shopping behavior, only more so. As an executive at one major business supplies cataloger puts it, “Business customers are more impatient than consumers. Because they are at work in the middle of a busy day, they are less apt to waste time or money. At home, consumers in certain segments will keep trying. Their threshold of pain is lower.”

In one listening lab, a purchasing sales manager tried to buy some supplies from a leading b-to-b marketer. But as a purchasing manager, rather than an end user, he was not familiar with certain industry terms. Ultimately he was unable to complete the transaction.

The marketers responsible for the Website were shocked. They had been accustomed to looking at the world from “inside out” — in other words, from the company’s perspective rather than from the customer’s.

The same b-to-b marketers who emphasize how their market is so different from the consumer market are the same professionals who tend to overestimate the specialized knowledge their customers have. It’s an easy mistake to make, and it obscures the work that needs to be done to simplify and improve their merchandising and the overall shopping experience.

Todd Simon, senior vice president of Omaha Steaks and cofounder of OmahaSteaks.com, has found that business customers and consumers are quite similar in terms of how they use the Web to find merchandise. But the food gifts mailer, which sells to consumers and businesses alike, has bolstered its b-to-b revenue by developing for big clients such as Merrill Lynch private sites that provide specialized marketing and administrative support.

Just the facts

Regardless of a company’s budget or size, there are two customer-focused activities that b-to-b marketers can perform to succeed:

  • conduct behavioral customer research early and often.
  • build a customer-experience team.

Companies that succeed in raising their sales conversion rates — and that then manage to maintain those high rates — conduct user research such as listening labs before, during, and after the launch of a site or a functionality. “Research early and often” is the mantra here. Smaller companies may not be able to conduct a multitude of sessions each year, but they certainly can conduct several informal sessions on their own, without hiring consultants.

The best companies ensure that a cross-section of employees observe these behavioral sessions. The direct marketing group at a major high-technology firm recently ran a series of listening labs with customers in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Several hundred observers from across the company came to participate in each session. B-to-b catalogers with smaller staffs should try to have between three and eight people present.

The benefits of the shared research experience include creating a consensus on priorities and improving the organization behind the interface. Most direct marketers struggle with having too many items on their change list. It is not uncommon for a project manager to maintain a list of 125 change requests for the print catalog, the call center, the Website, or the stores. The question becomes which five of the 125 potential changes should be made today — that is, which five of the 125 will lead to the greatest business improvement.

While it can be relatively easy to focus on the customer experience in the short term, many companies find it difficult to maintain that focus over a period of months or years. One way to maintain the momentum of a customer-focused strategy is to create a customer-experience team: a group of employees focused on looking at their company from the customer’s perspective.

Because team members should discuss the trade-offs of one decision or another from various perspectives, they should be a cross-functional representation of key business units and central support services such as design, technology, and customer service. Large companies may have 20-25 people on a team, while smaller businesses may have three. Some teams should even include key outside vendors.

Building a customer-experience discipline is one of the most important investments a b-to-b company can make today. We’ve watched firms realize dramatic increases in return on investment and improvements of up to 150% in key operating metrics.

The bad news is that few b-to-b marketers take the time to build this discipline. The good news is that few b-to-b players take the time to build this discipline — “good news” because in the survival of the fittest, the few companies that invest in the customer experience realize significant competitive advantage, busting the myths that many of their counterparts still hold dear.

Phil Terry is CEO of Creative Good, a strategic customer-experience consultancy based in New York.



Business customers are different from consumers in shopping behavior.


Business customers are like consumers in shopping behavior, only more so.



Business customers are highly knowledgeable about the products they’re shopping for.


Just like their consumer counterparts, b-to-b marketers overstate the knowledge their customers have about their products, thereby confusing them and depressing sales conversion.



Business customers have greater service and support needs.


This myth is indeed fact. Business customers do have greater service and support needs.

Creative Good will be conducting free listening labs at the 2004 Annual Catalog Conference in Chicago, May 3-5. The findings will be the focus of a future “I.Merchant” feature. If you want your b-to-b or consumer catalog business to participate, contact Phil Terry at pterry@creativegood.com.

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