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B2B Barriers to Organic Growth (Part One)

by Craig Kamins

Story Highlights

  • Historical growth has created a false sense of security among B2Bs
  • B2B companies don't know where they stand with customers
  • Key account reviews are crucial for B2B companies

This is the first article in a three-part series about the barriers business-to-business companies confront in getting the most out of their customer relationships.

Business-to-business (B2B) companies are only engaging 29% of their customers, according to Gallup. That means 71% of global B2B customers are either indifferent toward a business or actively disengaged with it -- representing a significant loss in growth opportunities for B2Bs.

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Over the past few years, Gallup has conducted a series of in-depth reviews with leading B2B companies across various industries. By analyzing these interviews, Gallup has identified the most common barriers these companies face when changing or maximizing their business approach.

The barriers fall into three categories:

  • those that limit a company's understanding of its customer relationships
  • those that keep a company constantly playing defense
  • those that prevent a company from growing organically

Overcoming a Lack of Customer Awareness

Many B2B companies invest in a survey or similar tool to measure their customers' satisfaction or engagement at the overall and account levels. Surveys and other quantitative measures have value, but they typically only assess surface-level satisfaction or engagement.

A deeper understanding comes from qualitative research. Companies have to talk with their customers to know where they stand. Unfortunately, not enough do. Without those conversations with customers, companies tend to develop misguided beliefs about their accounts, including the following:

Historical growth has created a false sense of security among B2B companies. While engagement is vital to enhancing customer relationships, many companies grow without focusing on engagement. Expanding accounts from mergers and acquisitions can make it seem as if customer relationships are sound and productive, but that "growth" could be masking wider problems.

B2B companies don't know where they stand with their customers. Customers often complain when there are blatant or recurring performance issues. But unless a company makes an effort to find out, customers might not reveal how they feel about their relationship with the company or whether it's meeting their needs. Even in the healthiest relationships, customers may hold back, fearing that they could be giving up some of their future advantage with the company if they speak up. Though customers might evaluate a company's performance, these reviews tend to be fairly narrow. If a business wants to know where it stands with customers, it has to talk with them.

Day-to-day relationships may not accurately represent an account. Absent an ongoing conversation, a company might receive glowing reviews about a sales or account representative from the customer. The B2B company could assume that if the customer likes the representative, he or she must feel the same way about the company overall. However, this isn't always the case. A representative's primary responsibility is to minimize or mitigate problems and prevent them from escalating to the company's senior leaders. When this happens, it can skew the company's perspective of its customer relationships.

Key Account Reviews Are Crucial

Companies should conduct key account reviews annually with their largest, most important accounts to identify barriers to a strong, mutually beneficial relationship. Ideally, these reviews should include interviews with key stakeholders for each account, such as:

  • Decision-makers: those who commit funds, choose and sign off on products and services, and make the final decisions
  • Influencers: those who aren't decision-makers themselves but who influence whether the company continues to work with a provider or chooses to do business with a new provider
  • Buyers: those who are involved in the procurement process itself, such as purchasing agents or procurement specialists
  • Users: those who interact with account representatives and who "run" the programs, as well as those who ultimately use the company's products or services

Key account reviews highlight what is happening within each account and can reveal different stakeholders' motivations or concerns. Buyers and users often focus on short-term transactions. Decision-makers and influencers typically take a long-term, strategic view of the accounts. These reviews also provide insights into a company's strengths and opportunities across accounts and review themes and patterns that reflect the company's sales and service philosophy.

As an example, Gallup interviewed customers who described a B2B company's account teams as being "great problem-solvers." In other words, the account teams were extremely responsive to their customers' requests and would always find a way to deliver on what customers asked of them -- an approach that served the company well over time. However, the account teams hesitated to offer ideas that could help the company improve or expand its business. Though the account teams excelled at problem-solving, they operated in reactive mode. Only responding and not being proactive left the account teams at a disadvantage when customers compared them with competitors they believed were more proactive or innovative.

The next two articles on barriers B2Bs face will focus on those that keep companies constantly playing defense and those that prevent them from growing organically.

Gallup


Gallup http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/188993/poll/232319/facebook-users-privacy-concerns-2011.aspx
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