Live from NEMOA: How to Meet B-to-B Buyers’ Distinct Needs

Burlington, VT–If you’re a consumer cataloger looking to expand into selling to businesses, you’d best understand the unique needs of b-to-b customers: That was the theme of “Growing and Sustaining a B-to-B Business,” a workshop held on the first day of the New England Mail Order Association’s fall conference here.

“It was a philosophic shift to realize the corporate division is like a mini-manufacturer,” said panelist George Schmidt, corporate sales marketing manager at Freeport, ME-based apparel cataloger L.L. Bean. The company’s corporate catalog, which sells personalized clothing and corporate gifts and incentives, is treated as a separate, developing entity within a mature company, said Schmidt.

One difference between consumer and business customers is the importance of the purchase to the buyer. A consumer may be disappointed if his nephew’s pullover doesn’t arrive in time for his birthday; “if we don’t get products to a trade show on time, people can get fired,” said Schmidt. “We have to show that we appreciate the situation they’re in.”

With the added stress of the business customer come greatly added expectations. One place these demands become apparent is on the Web. “E-commerce is a much more complex transaction, and a lot of b-to-b customers want their own Website,” Schmidt said, “showing what their product will look like, and the prices they will have to pay.”

At Communication Industries Corp. (CIC), a Grafton, VT-based marketer of audio-visual products, call center representatives are trained to make sure that customers are buying the product that best matches its needs. “We ask, ‘How are you going to use it? Where are you going to use it? And, what are the needs of the room [it will be used in]?” explained president Scott Heller.

CIC has seen success by realizing that b-to-b customers are willing to spend more money than consumers for “value packages” that include all possible accessories. “Spend a little more, get a lot more,” Heller said, is the company’s selling credo.

Another difference between the consumer and the business customer is the particular interest of the latter in extended service guarantees, Heller said: “If you show them you’ll be there for them after the sale, nine times out of ten, you’ll make the sale.”

Marketers seeking to branch out into b-to-b sales need to understand that the customer service model in place for its consumer division will very likely not be adequate for business customers. Doug Woodard, vice president customer service, Staples’ North American Delivery division, pointed out that b-to-b customers, unlike consumers, often need multiple shipment, and that transport of the merchandise often involves governmental regulations that do not apply to consumer goods such as notification to the entity transporting the goods of exactly what is being shipped, in order to ensure that no hazardous materials are included in the shipments.

Staples has separate call centers especially for business customers. “These call centers play an account-executive role,” Woodard said. The b-to-b call centers are divided into teams of representatives, so that when customers call, they are assigned to a specific team that then deals with them in all future transactions, keeping tabs on the relationship.

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