• “We put customers first.”
  • “Customers are at the heart of everything we do.”
  • “Exceptional customer service is our number one goal.”


If you ask almost any seller what drives their business, you’ll hear statements like these. And it makes sense in today’s economy, where customers are more digitally connected, socially networked, and highly informed than ever before. Let’s make no mistake: they have changed the rules, and they are in control. Their expectations are on the rise, and if they aren’t met, they go buy somewhere else in an instant, no second chance. Their tolerance for negative experiences or inconvenience is lower than ever. In this context it has become absolutely critical to focus on the customer experience and better engage with customers throughout their entire purchasing journey—because if you don’t, you quickly become irrelevant and lose market share and sales to competitors who do.


Yet talking about a customer-centric business is one thing, and actually creating it quite another. We asked Volker Hildebrand, global vice president of Customer Engagement & Commerce solutions for SAP and co-author of The Customer Experience Edge, for insights on how sellers can make it happen. “You have to rethink the fundamentals of your business,” he says. “And to do that, you have to start with the customer and the customer expectation.” Success depends on your delivery in four key areas:


1. Convenience. “B2B customers want the same experience when buying for their business as they have shopping on sites like amazon.com, which is super easy and convenient for them,” Volker says. In the past, local vendors were the most convenient because you didn’t have to drive far to reach them. “The fundamental need for convenience hasn’t changed, but what convenience means for customers has. For example, convenience for my teenaged daughter is, can she do it on her phone?” Assess what your specific target market wants at these stages:

  • Before the sale. The majority of B2B customers spend about 60% of their shopping time researching online before they contact a seller, so early engagement is critical. “You have to be where your customers want to be, and today that means multiple channels and touch points,” Volker says. “You need to figure out, how do I engage with my customers in the moment it matters to them? Not when I want to run a marketing campaign.”
    • During the sale. “Whether you sell through an e-commerce store or a business network, start with the basics: good, transparent, easy-to-consume information about your products and services, with images, specs, prices, availability, and similar details,” Volker advises. Make it simple for customers to connect with you via multiple channels, but don’t assume they will: Forrester research shows that 59% of B2B buyers who purchase online don’t want to interact with a sales rep at all.[i] Easy switching between channels is becoming increasingly crucial, too: a customer might tweet you a question or send a text, then want to shift the discussion to online chat or phone.
    • After the sale. Customer-centric sellers offer high post-sale engagement, making it easy for customers to fix any problems that occur. Provide as many access channels as possible, including phone, email, chat, video chat, and online support communities.


2. Relevance. “This means not only having the right product, but also making personalized offers that make sense for the customer at a particular time and in a certain context,” Volker says. Context includes the customer’s buying history as well as their current situation, location, and need—all of which can change rapidly.


How do you capture this information? In addition to your CRM system, data analytics tools—such as customer engagement analytics and predictive analytics—are invaluable, especially for larger organizations with thousands of customers. But you can also learn plenty through simple methods. “Ask yourself: ‘If I were looking for a product I sell, what would I do?’” Volker suggests. “The first thing for both B2C and B2B customers is Google search, so do your own search online.” This can uncover communities and discussion forums for your product categories, where you can create visibility and engagement by providing interesting and helpful materials. It also reveals experts and key influencers you can build valuable relationships with. Use a direct approach, too: talk with customers to get their opinions, and tap your customer service staff, who understand what customers think from interacting with them every day.


Finally, be sure to consider millennials in your strategy: recent research shows that 72% of those influencing corporate buying decisions are less than 45 years old, and 48% are younger than 35.[ii] “So if you’re not looking at the expectations of the younger generation, you’re making a big mistake,” says Volker.


3. Responsiveness. A fast, effective response to customer needs is another essential differentiator. “If I have a problem now, I want it fixed now, not tomorrow,” Volker says. Yet one of the biggest impediments to responsiveness, especially in larger organizations, is silos—multiple departments and teams using different systems, with different objectives and KPIs that aren’t necessarily aligned. Solving the problem requires a culture change that comes from the top (this article includes tips on creating the shift).


And while some companies still prioritize sales over service, that approach is proving increasingly shortsighted. “There’s a moment of truth in every service interaction where an opportunity arises to get the customer more engaged and provide positive experiences, even if they’re having challenges at the time,” Volker says. “We’re seeing that the lines between marketing and service are blurring, and a lot of service engagements are upsell or cross-sell opportunities.”


4. Reliability. Though it may sound obvious, organizations of all sizes forget this. “Make sure your execution is flawless. Because if you can’t deliver on your promise, it doesn’t matter how great the customer’s online shopping experience was,” Volker notes. “If you say they’ll have it in 24 hours and the product isn’t at their doorstep the next day, customer experience turns sour.” And in today’s social marketplace, those failures can be exposed to the world in seconds.


On the up side, the same is true for happy responses—so if you’re delivering well on all four engagement areas, ask customers to provide favorable reviews, and make it easy for them to do so. The result? More customers and faster growth. “If you start getting mostly positive or all positive reviews, you’ll pop up higher in searches, and suddenly you’ll gain an advantage over even larger competitors not paying much attention to flawless execution,” Volker says.



Learn more

For additional tips and insights on making your business truly customer-centric—along with case study examples of how leading sellers are effecting the change—check out this article and this blog post.



[i] Peter O’Neill and Andy Hoar, “Threats to Their Traditional Sales Force Will Change the Focus for B2B Marketers: Death of a (B2B) Salesman,” Forrester Research, 8 May 2015, as reported by Tom Pisello, “Death of a Salesman? Forrester Says Yes,” Alinean, 12 March 2015.

[ii] Google/Millward Brown Digital, B2B Path to Purchase Study 2014, as reported by Hanne Tuomisto-Inch, “Digital Tipping Points for 2015,” 5 November 2014, slide 11.