As many of my blog readers know, I’ve written about B2B digital transformation and B2B digital hiring for many years. The shift by many old-line industries into digital has been a slow move, but the success stories show how B2B digital transformation can radically streamline processes, eliminate red tape and create a powerful customer experience. Five years ago, calls and emails from B2B’ers accounted for maybe one out of every five searches here at Bernhart Association. Today, fully one-half of my practice is B2B digital marketing recruiting, and there have been brief periods when it’s reached as much as three-quarters or more. According to Gallup only 29% of B2B customers are engaged with the companies they do business with. Sounds like pretty fertile ground to me. My number one search right now is with a multi-billion dollar manufacturer that knows it needs to do a better job exploiting the digital channel, and what’s interesting is that this push didn’t just come from just the CIO to whom this position reports. It came out of a series of meetings at the highest levels of the company’s executive branch, spearheaded by the CEO himself who declared that delivering a subpar customer experience is “no longer an option.” They’ve already been transacting online for many years so we’re not talking about a seismic cultural shift, but this particular manufacturer takes product to market through thousands of distributors, dealers and wholesalers, not to mention their own sales force and also some direct to end-user. In this environment, managing customer engagement is truly multi-dimensional, and it’s going to take a multi-dimensional digital marketing leader to do the job right.
Applying B2C Principles to B2B
Companies that are just beginning the B2B journey can borrow basic principles from their B2C counterparts, because at the end of the day, the business concepts of B2C and B2B are just different flavors of marketing, namely:
– Not all customers have the same value. The 80/20 rule applies to both 20% of B2B customers, just like in B2C, account for 80% of sales
– Customer behavior changes over time. The fundamental nature of consumer behavior tends not to change drastically from year to year, but customer mindsets have a considerable impact when it comes to making purchasing decisions, and we all know how purchasing decisions can change very suddenly in both B2B and B2C.
– All competitors will react.
Resources are limited and must be prioritized.
The differences are subtle. B2C is brand building, B2B is lead generation. B2C tends to have lower SKU counts that than B2B. B2C is more about instant gratification compared with B2B which typically has a longer, more complex sales cycle. B2C features product-based pricing, while B2B is more about customer-specific pricing. B2C is characterized by direct decision marketing versus B2B which involves both direct and distributed sales channels. B2B is driven by highly sensitive media consumption, while B2B purchases are based more on trigger-based media consumption.
There are plenty of other differences, but at the end of the day, it’s kind of like comparing a Chevy with a Ford: It’s all about giving buyers the best possible customer experience.
COVID-Induced B2B Acceleration
By some estimates, the Covid-19 pandemic last year accelerated three years worth of future B2B ecommerce into 9 months, and that acceleration continues. Businesses across a wide spectrum of B2B verticals including manufacturing, construction, machinery, chemicals and mining are looking at how to introduce Amazon-like customer experiences into their selling processes. This, of course, has huge implications for inside/outside sales reps, who historically were the first point of contact for a potential B2B buyer. But those buyers are now looking for the same usability and functionality as they experience when they go to Facebook, Google, Amazon and the websites of other consumer-facing brands. In fact, Gartner found that B2B buyers are now spending less than 20% of their time meeting with potential suppliers when they are considering a purchase, and when they are comparing multiple suppliers, that time falls to as low as 5%!
Even when a B2B business goes “all in” with digital transformation, it’s still akin to turning around an aircraft carrier compared with more nimble B2C businesses which can pivot much quicker. There’s also the “motivational” factor, as I like to call it. B2B companies such as manufacturing don’t always see the need to change. Restructuring is a big deal, and it can be outright destabilizing for a company that has been serving the same markets for decades. A B2B digital hiring search I recently worked on for a precast concrete company is a textbook example of this. They’ve been in business for more than 50 years and have worked with many of the same clients for decades. Most of their employees have been with the company for their entire careers. To many of these workers, digitization is a topic they have about as much familiarity with as 5th century kings of Crimea. It can raise a fear factor among those who have become comfortable in their day to day work. I credit the CEO for having the vision and the fortitude to spearhead the culture shift and change in mindset that is required for more entrenched organizations like this one to “think” digital.
For the vast majority of my clients who have made that transition, the pay-off has been well worth the investment, and that’s more than just my own empirical observation. According to McKinsey, B2B digital leaders drive 5 times more digital growth than their peers, and eight percent more in shareholder returns. These unassailable results show just how powerful digital transformation has been in creating successful B2B companies.
B2B Digital Hiring is About to Enter a New Phase
For those companies that have been looking at digital transformation, the COVID-19 crisis will serve as a serious wakeup call. Buyers are struggling to make decisions, sellers are stressed. Manufacturers and suppliers are watching functions like customer service and sales come under extraordinary demand, causing backlogs of inquiries, orders and inventory. Buyers are trying to make sense of it all making both personal as well as business decisions to protect their colleagues, communities, end-customers and families.
As a veteran B2B marketing recruiter, it’s my job to ask the question: What does this mean for the future of B2B digital hiring once this crisis is behind us? Will certain skills be more sought after, and if so, what industries will need them the most?
To be clear, the basics of B2B digitization have not changed. But while earlier B2B digital transformations were largely focused on updating systems and improving efficiencies, more recent transformations have also centered around improving the buyer experience and creating a more seamless multichannel experience. In the words of one CEO I recently worked with, “We want to make it easier for our customers to work with us.” B2B’ers must ensure that buyers receive the guidance and assistance they require when searching for mission critical products. This often requires more streamlined data analytics to allow employees to digitally track where each customer is in their decision-making journey and facilitate more personalized product recommendations that are tailored to meet the customer’s own unique challenges and needs. New technologies may be required to help translate complex product specifications. And more of this will be done on a remote basis as B2B’ers become more comfortable with idea of certain job functions being performed off-site. Effective and efficient communications both externally as well as internal will be key.
At the industry level, personal protection equipment (PPE) and safety products, health & hygiene, ventilators and generators are going to remain in VERY strong demand for many, many months to come.
This new breed of B2B marketer will be more of a problem solver, and organizations are going to have no shortage of problems to solve. B2B digital leaders will be hired for their ability to find digital solutions to streamline internal and external processes, eliminate red tape and create a powerful, frictionless experience. B2B digital leaders will be valued for their ability to focus on the product categories that buyers struggle with most. They will be valued for their ability to eliminate kinks in the customer journey, and provide the absolute best guidance and experience they can for buyers who are looking for specialized products online. They will be valued for their ability to leverage data and turn it into actionable insights. They will be valued for their ability to learn and apply new technologies that will make that happen. They will be valued for their ability to utilize email and social media as conversational tools in their marketing campaigns. They will be valued for their ability to thoroughly understand the buyer and their evolving digital behaviors, and leveraging that knowledge to inform the development and build out of a digital commerce strategy. And perhaps most important of all, they will be valued for their ability to instill a new digital “mindset” in the organization and encourage more open-minded thinking.
No doubt about it: In the new world of B2B digital hiring, the days of “just selling stuff” are totally gone.
Are You Up to the Challenge?
We are living through one of the biggest peacetime economic upheavals ever known, and it is hard to argue against the notion that buyers will appreciate (and return) to vendors who made their lives easier during this crisis. Even prior to COVID-19, consumers expected more assistance and guidance when searching for products online. That need will grow. So will the need for B2B companies to finally prioritize digital transformation and meet that need head-on. Bottom line: This will become a golden moment for companies to set themselves up to transform the customer journey forever, and equally as opportune for B2B marketing candidates to step up and make it happen.
Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC, is one of the nation’s preeminent executive recruiters in ecommerce, digital and omnichannel marketing. Jerry has been recruiting and placing marketing professionals for more than 33 years. With more than 200 published articles on his blog and LinkedIn profile, and widely quoted by leading business publishers including Bloomberg, AdAge, AdWeek, DigitalCommerce 360 and Target Marketing, Jerry is the “voice” of best practices in the recruitment and hiring of ecommerce and digital marketing professionals. Jerry is also the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing,” on Amazon, and participates in many leading digital marketing and ecommerce conferences and webinars. He is also a vetted member of the Clarity.fm faculty of experts, specializing in the fields of digital commerce. Check out Jerry’s other insights on the Thought Leadership section of the Bernhart Associates website.