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PHOTO: Mārtiņš Zemlickis

For B2B organizations, the quality, personalization and innovation of the customer experiences they deliver are swiftly and unequivocally increasing in importance across all digital channels.

While B2B’s more acute focus on customer experience (CX) is in its (relatively) early stages compared to the B2C sector, it’s clear that the rise of digital commerce in the consumer market has definitively — and permanently — shifted B2B customer expectations.

A recent survey by Accenture Interactive (pdf) investigating the current practices and future plans of more than 1,000 B2B sales executives sheds light on how these companies are adapting to this sea change. Here are the most significant CX takeaways from the survey results, with a look at what they mean for forward-looking B2B organizations today.

1. The Rise of Digital Commerce Is Spurring Change

B2B companies have been slow to embrace digital channels like the web and mobile apps for transactions, instead relying on the personal relationships their salespeople have forged with clients. According to Accenture’s research, more than half of B2B companies have only begun implementing a digital strategy within the last three years.

Part of the slowness can certainly be attributed to persistent obstacles, including aging technologies, antiquated legacy operational processes, rigid organizational structures and information security concerns. However, according to the Accenture report, digital commerce is expected to account for nearly half of total B2B revenue within the next two years, a marked rise from 29 percent in 2017. 

To capitalize on this shift in attention toward digital-focused customer experiences, 42 percent of the B2B leaders Accenture surveyed said they plan to implement online-only loyalty programs, 35 percent will offer online training for both internal teams and customers, and 32 percent will sweeten the pot by offering incentives for making sales completed through digital channels.

Related Article: 5 B2B Customer Touchpoints You Can't Afford to Ignore

2. Multichannel and Omnichannel Customer Experiences in Demand

Consumers want multichannel service. For B2B companies, this means they must deliver experiences that integrate customer touchpoints and provide seamless online access to flourish — especially in light of the fact that multichannel customers are 15 percent more profitable than digital-only customers and 25 percent more profitable than those using human-only interactions.

Accenture research also found 90 percent of B2B leaders agree that customer experience is crucial to their companies’ strategic priorities. Many are already making the necessary investments to understand their customers’ preferred channels and methods of interaction — and putting the technology pieces in place to capitalize on those opportunities.

3. B2B Customers Start the Buying Process Online — and Through Social Channels

Bolstering the case for providing omnichannel customer experiences, today’s B2B customers initiate 61 percent of transactions online, with half now starting their research via social media. These customers fully expect to utilize online and offline channels nimbly when interacting with businesses, both as they move toward purchasing decisions and throughout the product life cycle. What’s become the standard modus operandi in the B2C world is quickly moving to the enterprise.

In response to this trend, 65 percent of B2B companies now offer online-offline multichannel support across all transactions. Smart B2B companies are also leveraging the increasingly robust power of big data and artificial intelligence to improve the omnichannel customer experiences they can offer. In this way, delving into data collected from customer interactions across all channels can yield insights into customer behavior and inform a company’s efforts to offer personalized, thoughtful and fruitful experiences at each and every touchpoint.

Related Article: B2B Customer Experience Doesn't Have to Lag B2C

4. Despite Its Potential, Mobile Remains an Afterthought

For 42 percent of B2B organizations, the entirety of their mobile strategy is to offer a responsive web experience (but fortunately, less than 10 percent will admit to having no mobile strategy whatsoever). Given the oft-complex nature of B2B products and services — as well as the traditional focus on client relationships over online outreach — this reality is somewhat understandable. However, B2B companies that forgo investment in mobile CX strategies miss a tremendous opportunity for unique interactions. For instance, companies can use app notifications to inform customers of automated product renewals, and apps with augmented reality capabilities could provide visual interfaces to, for example, simplify the part ordering process or enhance installation instructions. With mobile devices as omnipresent as they are, it’s assured that the mobile platform will increase in importance as a CX strategy among B2B companies. B2B organizations still have time to get ahead of the curve here.

5. Technology Is Transforming Sales and Customer Support Experiences

Organizations in the B2B sector are also investing in new approaches to sales and customer service that rely on emerging technologies. For example, 42 percent of companies surveyed currently use chatbots (and 79 percent of those that do are using them in a customer service context). Adoption has been slower for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), with just 24 percent of B2B companies tapping into their potential. Of those that do, two-thirds use AR and VR in the sales process.

That said, according to the Accenture survey, 88 percent of B2B companies plan to be actively using chatbots as part of their CX efforts within the next two years, and 83 percent said they expect to deploy an AR or VR solution in that time frame. Those figures point to a massive change on the horizon: Compared to current usage levels, chatbot use will double and use of AR and VR tools will triple.

B2B leaders are also increasing the share of marketing and IT budgets earmarked for investments in new technologies from 12 percent to 21 percent. Among other things, that increased spending is likely to go toward advanced marketing technologies like natural-language-based tools and contextual analytics search solutions that will help companies gain a more holistic understanding of their customers and their behavior.

Related Article: The Customer Journey: Content Marketing for B2B Software Buyers

6. CX Personalization Seen as a Top Priority for B2B Growth

B2C marketers have long focused on delivering contextualized, personal experiences to their customers, and B2B leaders are now acknowledging the need to make similar efforts with their customers. A different Accenture study highlights the importance of such efforts, finding that 33 percent of customers abandoned business relationships due to a lack of personalization. Given this opportunity to better leverage the customer knowledge their organizations possess, the B2B leaders surveyed said they are prioritizing efforts to capture a 360-degree view of the customer — and they are making far better use of that data to inform how they serve and sell to their customers.

Make no mistake about it: B2B companies that properly execute digital customer experience strategies can gain an immediate advantage over their still-lagging competitors. But the gap won’t be as wide in a couple of years.