tightrope walker
PHOTO: Wiros

Today’s B2B brands fall into three camps: Traditional businesses that want to close every deal with a handshake. Hyper-modern organizations that want to run all B2B sales and marketing like an Amazon app. And a small but growing subset of market leaders that have effectively found an equilibrium in an increasingly complex B2B buyer landscape.

The balanced strategy of human-to-human and digital self-service experiences is now a crucial solution for combating what’s become an existential customer retention challenge. The recent and extensive Service is the New Sales research compiled by my firm, Accenture Interactive, collected wide-ranging sentiments from 1500 B2B sellers and 700 B2B buyers. The results paint a picture of a rapid and tumultuous change in B2B buyer-seller relationships.

The research reveals that even a B2B seller’s most frequent buyers (80% of them, in fact) have changed to new suppliers in the past year or say they plan to do so within the next year. These dynamic shifts are driven by buyers’ desires for more personalized pricing and offers, broader fulfillment options, and more holistic and attentive (human) support throughout the entire B2B purchase cycle. And, of course, these cycles are often drawn out over a series of months and involve multidisciplinary influencers, buyers and approvers.

An Unmistakable Need for Human-Digital Balance

B2B sellers have been increasingly adopting digital self-service solutions. They are (rightfully) taking pages from the B2C playbook and adding AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants, offering contextual search tools, building out modernized portals, and following through on other self-service experiences. But these digital self-service initiatives offered in isolation and without an equal commitment to (quality) human-to-human interaction experiences are failing to solve the buyer retention challenge. The trap is turning the B2B buyer experience into an either-or decision.

To counter the doom and gloom, the research is able to quantitatively identify the subset of B2B sellers that are bucking the prevailing trends. These businesses are successfully increasing their market share and profitability even as buyer loyalty is increasingly up for grabs. What are these companies doing right? The common threads are a determined focus on providing outstanding customer service options and a careful, very integrated balance of human and digital sales connections. These leading sellers know how to make the newest self-service technologies work to their advantage, but within a framework that also ensures customers have all the access to expert human salespeople they’ll require.

Related Article: Where Self-Service Ends and Direct Customer Support Begins

Many B2Bs Have Over-Pursued Digitalization

It wasn’t long ago that B2B sellers were oriented almost completely around person-to-person sales interactions. In the race to catch up to the B2C world, however, many B2B sellers over-committed to digital interactions at the direct expense of maintaining the strength of their traditional sales channels built up via human relationships. The research indicates that B2B sellers in general have already pushed self-service channels as far as possible without further optimization and better collaboration with human sales resources.

While B2C sales can often flourish by scaling self-service purchase paths, B2B sales are unique in ways that make that success challenging to mimic, especially in relation to new-customer sales efforts. B2B products are vastly more complex, and as a result take more complicated routes to purchase. For a buyer to commit to a product and enter what it hopes to be a lasting partnership with a B2B supplier, a purchase team — including stakeholders from across the business — must have each of their concerns satisfied.

No matter the quality of a B2B seller’s self-service options and available information, transactional interfaces simply aren’t the right tools for brokering these sales in their early stages, when buyers have a multitude of questions and must be won over. Experienced (human) salespeople — enabled by data and technology — are better able to shepherd buyers through their nuanced buying decisions, especially those with sector-specific knowledge that’s on-point to the buyer’s needs.

Related Article: When Did B2B Marketing Become so Complicated?

The Role of Self-Service B2B Sales Technologies

To be clear: the balanced approach championed by leading B2B sellers is unmistakably technology-forward. These businesses are actively testing and deploying new tools that enhance both human salesforce engagement and self-service experiences. The research showed leading sellers are twice as likely as their peers to support their sales reps with interactive interfaces purpose-built to facilitate better customer engagement. They’re also three times as likely to leverage click-to-chat solutions that provide customers with direct access to sales experts.

On the self-service side of the equation, leading sellers are four times more likely to leverage emerging technologies. The aforementioned chatbots, virtual assistants, contextual search tools and modernized portals are prime examples. Once a buyer does decide on a product and is ready to move forward, they want the option of using on-demand, streamlined interfaces to complete purchases or to fine-tune purchases during subsequent supply cycles.

Similarly, modern portals significantly simplify the ability to provide full-supply chain visibility and deliver customer-specific pricing (along with other buyer-sought customizations). Per the research, buyers demand the flexibility to conduct business in a seamless, omnichannel process. The sellers they’re sticking with are those that enable convenient purchases that travel the path of least resistance, whatever that might mean for them.

Carbonite, the cloud backup company acquired by OpenText in 2019, offers a fascinating example of a business that has evolved to strike a winning balance between hands-on sales and self-service options for a B2B audience. The data backup and protection provider has the uncommon experience of growing from a B2C company into a B2B enterprise. Carbonite reports that earning purchases from B2C and small business customers often directly correlates with its ability to deliver transactional ecommerce experiences that are as simple and seamless as possible. Initial online contact can result in an automated transaction and be the end of the story for these customers — however, it’s only the beginning of the story for B2B buyers with buying committees and multiple personas to account for. Carbonite has found success in pursuing both sophisticated B2B marketing and frictionless automation technologies that focus on fulfilling each of those needs accordingly.

Related Article: B2B Customer Experience Is Catching Up, But Still Has a Long Way to Go

Staying on the Balance Beam

B2B sellers wobble off their best path forward when they over-commit to either human or digital interactions. Human-to-human B2B sales efforts deliver hands-on expertise and guidance that’s impossible to duplicate, but come with scalability limitations and lack the automation simplicity that buyers want as an option — maybe not with the first sale, but with those to come. Digital self-service interfaces deliver that automation and ease, but cannot handle complex personalized queries or forge crucial human connections. What leading B2B sellers have discovered is that a balanced integration of these approaches successfully retains customers by offering the best of both worlds.