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The Revolution in B2B Customer Engagement

As buyer expectations continue to grow, sellers scramble to up their game, say experts at Earley Information Science roundtable. One rising star: the online marketplace.

It used to be that it was all business on the B2B front. Buyers didn’t expect to find a touchy-feely environment as they trudged from site to site—and manufacturers and distributors were happy to comply, delivering the goods in a bare-bones setting.

But as B2C marketers have worked hard to make it easier for shoppers to find what they need, the fallout has found its way to B2B. Buyers there are increasingly impatient with experiences that fall flat and leave them frustrated, compared with what they now expect when shopping as a pure consumer.

In short, the revolution has arrived in B2B, rewriting the rules of customer engagement in both the direct and distribution channels and giving rise to a new star, the online marketplace, said a panel of experts at a recent Executive Roundtable hosted by Earley Information Science (EIS), a leading consulting firm focused on organizing information for business impact. The message is clear, the experts said: B2B players have to up their game in an ever-more complicated ecosystem where roles have blurred and expectations are soaring.  

“Think about how complex this has become for most of our business models,” said Jeannine Bartlett, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Strategist of EIS. In traditional manufacturing, for example, “it’s hard to know if you are a consumer brand or B2B. Or are you B2B2C?” In some cases, these classifications have lost much of their meaning. “What hasn’t lost its meaning, though, is that you have a lot of trading partners you are sharing the load with.”

What all B2B players are after, Bartlett added, “is getting into the right customer engagement touchpoints, regardless of where they live around the ecosystem—whether we own them or they are owned by our trading partners or are out in the wild on social media. But doing that in a coordinated, choreographed way is the challenge in 2018: the trick is to make it look like a seamless, frictionless experience for the customer regardless of who’s providing the interaction.”    

The April 18 discussion, “What’s New/Now/Next in B2B Customer Engagement,” was led by Bartlett, who was joined by Siamak Baharloo and Nicholas Rioux, the co-founders of Labviva, a B2B marketplace in the life sciences sector. Baharloo is the company’s Chief Executive Officer and Rioux serves as the Chief Technology Officer.

To offer the right B2B experience, you first have to understand that there are two personas to satisfy, with “intrinsic conflicts of interest,” Baharloo said. There are the business buyers, “driven by priorities set for them by a finance or procurement department—they want to standardize purchasing,” automate the process, cut costs and get the most leverage when dealing with suppliers and manufacturers. Then there are the consumers, who want “to have access to the widest variety and availability of products, and they may be concerned about parameters other than price.” All B2B companies must understand the differences between the two personas, Baharloo said, “and have a solution that addresses the needs of each one.”   

The advent of marketplaces in B2B is one acknowledgment of those differences. The marketplaces are collections of “very specific, very technical expert-level shops, manufacturers and distributors that provide large amounts of choice for the end users,” Baharloo said. They offer “a much more comprehensive set of products and solutions that goes beyond what is available in general markets and distribution chains.”  

Easier said than done, Labviva’s Rioux said. “One of the challenges with marketplaces is doing this in scale. You’re not just selling a single product portfolio from one manufacturer with 10,000 products. For the customer experience to be rich and have the product selection that the customer is looking for, you need a process and a system that can handle millions of products and billions of parameters because you are bringing products together from many sellers.”

In Labviva’s case, Rioux said, “we need to be able to handle millions of scientific products with millions of different applications. And so we heavily automate this,” augmented by the newest techniques in natural language programming and statistical evaluation. “The secret to participating in a high-information market like this in the B2B space is beyond having operational excellence for transactions and order taking.” What’s key is grappling with “theoretically an unlimited portfolio” of product information, “so you to need to constantly improve your data quality” and that’s where automation becomes such a big part of the differentiation.

Whatever the challenge, the marketplace channel is proliferating, Baharloo said. Many sectors are adopting it and “it is going to be a lot more significant in the coming years, giving the old established distributors and manufacturers a real run for their money. Customer experience, the user experience, is at the heart of it. Done right, it can be revolutionary.”  

All customers, whether B2B or B2C, “are looking for neutral trusted advice,” said EIS’s Bartlett. “In a way, marketplaces can act as that neutral third party,” she noted, by aggregating expertise and content that adds value for both buyers and sellers. “In effect, marketplaces are becoming the Consumer Reports of a given vertical that helps the dialogue go back and forth.”   

The roundtable featured a real-time survey of the webinar attendees:  

  • In describing their approach to customer engagement, 13% said they are “customer obsessed” and in dialogue at every buying stage; 38% have “solution offerings” for key customer types; and another 38% share customer engagement with their trading partners. But 13% focus on “describing what we sell rather than on who buys.”  
  • In assessing the added value that new marketplace alternatives offer, 25% said they participate in marketplaces as an extension of their customer engagement strategy while 75% are still investigating how the channel could fit into their strategy.      
  • One-third of the attendees said they have plans to go beyond product data syndication and fund next-generation engagement strategies within the next 12 months; two-thirds are still evaluating ways to leverage their current approach.   

Please use this link to access the roundtable.

The Earley Executive Roundtable is an educational webinar series focusing on topics of interest in the areas of digital transformation and information science. Each month, EIS leads a lively discussion with a panel of industry experts.

The next Roundtable, taking place on June 20th, will explore the implications of building voice capabilities whether that is for conversational commerce, voice-based search or chat/voice hybrid interfaces.  Use this link to register.

About Earley Information Science: EIS is a specialized information agency. We support business outcomes by organizing your data—making it findable, usable and valuable. Our proven methodologies are designed specifically to address product data, content assets, customer data and corporate knowledge bases. We deliver governance-driven solutions that scale and adapt to your business as it grows. For more information, visit