girl with hand in robot's
PHOTO: Andy Kelly

The stakes of creating compelling customer experiences are higher than ever for B2B sellers — because B2B customers have never been so difficult to retain. My firm, Accenture Interactive’s recent "Service is the New Sales" research — which collected data from 700 B2B buyers and 1,500 sellers — found that 80% of frequent buyers either switched sellers within the last year or plan to in the coming 12 months. The report also found that leading sellers are managing to achieve both higher profitability and growing market share in increasingly challenging environments. This group of sales leaders we identified has several traits in common: a finely-tuned balance between human and digital-based sales interactions, agility with data, and organizational alignment around customer service goals.

Most importantly, these leaders show an unwavering and concentrated focus on delivering exceptional customer experiences as the central metric of their B2B transactions.

Balancing Human and Digital B2B Service Interactions

The embrace of digitalization and the ever-broadening availability of interaction-altering solutions has led many B2B sellers to over-pivot on digital self-service experiences. 

For instance, more and more sales and service inquiries are moving to AI, because of great improvements in the training of chatbots which increases their capability to field increasingly complex questions. But it is very hard for a bot to sense frustration, so over-pivoting in this direction can remove too much of the human interaction  B2B buyers desire. 

Chatbots are just one example of a digitalization trend for B2B buyer interactions, which also includes the increase in the use of self-service portals, B2B direct ecommerce, knowledge bases, etc. These are all welcome evolutions but, in the race toward digital, I’d argue it’s been too easy for B2B sales organizations to get too wrapped around the self-service axle. B2B companies that don’t strike the right human/digital investment balance find they are unable to improve buyer retention (and their market position).

Our research points to the fact that B2B sellers have hit an inflection point, where further investment in digital experiences fails to improve results unless balanced with human-to-human experiences. While consumer brands that adopt digital self-service solutions often see success in sales efficiency and growth, B2B sales processes are often much more complex.

For example, B2B buyers in need of a CRM solution are going to have questions and requirements specific to their particular businesses that a conversation with a chatbot simply cannot address. Many B2B buyers require — and now expect — trusted human engagements with skilled and experienced sales representatives able to provide the advice necessary to make informed purchase decisions. In short, the machines are absolutely not taking over B2B sales: if they are, you’re likely doing something wrong.

B2B buyers want and need to interact with smart salespeople

At the same time, the answer isn’t simply to over invest sales resources into delivering personal human interactions. Focusing purely on either digital upgrades or organic one-on-one sales are each a misstep: digital lacks the advantages of making personal connections, but personal attention isn’t scalable. The research shows that balancing and uniting human and digital experiences achieves the most successful B2B sales outcomes.

Related Article: Balancing the Human and the Digital in Your Customer Experience

Backing Experiences With Centralized Data

The ability to deliver well-informed, high-quality B2B customer service and experiences depends in large part on the seller’s command of data. Leading B2B sellers are twice as likely as non-leaders to have centralized and regularly updated data at hand.

survey question: What is the quality of the data that your business holds on its customers?

Leveraging centralized data enables sales and marketing at leading B2B sellers to provide more relevant service and offers, as well as more seamless customer engagement across service channels. Our report showed these leaders were twice as likely to empower their marketers and salesforce with interactive engagement interfaces, and three times more likely to invest in click-to-chat access to connect customers with expert sales representatives when then need that extra human touch. At the same time, leading B2B sellers are four times more likely to implement emerging martech and salestech solutions, more likely to track customer purchase histories and browsed items, and generally possess a more accurate picture of the experiences they deliver to buyers.

Related Article: The Data-Driven Organization Is an Endangered Species

Barriers Holding Back Balanced and Effective B2B Buyer Experiences

Humans are also at the root of the primary challenge B2B brands face when delivering optimized digital-human experiences. Our research data paints a picture of the cultural resistance that keeps B2B laggards from closing the gap with the frontrunners: laggard organizations cite a lack of leadership and an aversion to risk as particularly challenging obstacles.

It takes a unified effort across the organization to deliver effective B2B buyer service experiences. Success requires commitment from leaders to drive the necessary organizational transformation, along with an appetite for digital investments and the risks that come with exploration. Leading service-driven organizations most often have more board-level support and are four times more likely to have buy-in from senior stakeholders. Leaders also feature an integrated marketing function, making it that much simpler to capitalize on technologies and practices that elude organizations in which the CIO, CMO and CTO are not on the same page.

Leading B2B sellers also actively hire and acquire to develop competitive offerings. Where laggards seek to minimize risk, leaders make meaningful budgetary commitments to emerging technology with less stringent ROI expectations on a portion of the investment. Many leading organizations set up tiger teams to experiment with new solutions, allowing these teams to take risks, fail quickly and prove out opportunities. 

Leaders also better understand the value of an upskilled workforce augmented by access to data, implement employee innovation programs, and champion collaborative team structures that combine experience design, marketing and technology experts to tailor buyer experiences. Given these practices, it’s no surprise that leaders with organizations built around service are three times more likely to achieve sales growth of 10% or more.