brain one half covered in numbers the other in different colors

Customer experience. The phrase has become ubiquitous in branding and marketing circles. In the B2C world, its relevance is obvious: delight your customers at every “touchpoint,” whether on your website, in a retail environment, on the phone, or when they’re using your product or service.

But what does customer experience mean in the B2B arena, where relationships dominate and decision making is complex and nuanced?

We often hear CEOs complain that they commissioned a powerful new brand, only to discover that it had little measurable impact on the success of their company. And they feel, with some justification, that they did everything right: they revamped their website, launched a brand advertising campaign, retooled their sales presentations. But what’s missing most of the time in these situations is the client: how is the client “experiencing” the brand? The “look and feel” of the company may have changed, but the client, while perhaps noticing the “look,” isn’t “feeling” anything different.

To effectively support a company’s success, a brand needs to be infused into every stage of the client journey, from information seeking to initial contact to contract negotiations to ongoing engagement. The first step toward making this happen is mapping that journey, which can be complex; the B2B sale is a considered choice involving many decision-makers and influencers over many weeks and even months. The brand needs to be present for every person, at every touchpoint along the journey.

This is crucial even in a relationship-focused B2B business, because much of the B2B decision-making process occurs before actual contact is made with a company employee. According to a recent study reported in Forbes, B2B customers today progress more than 70% of the way through the decision-making process before ever engaging a sales representative. Essentially, your prospects are “experiencing” your brand long before they actually meet any of your people. They’re visiting your website, tracking you on social media, consulting colleagues who may know you. So, it’s vital to ask yourself: is my brand promise present at each of these touchpoints, and is it delivering the right experience for my audiences?

We recently worked with a client in the electronic payments industry to create a brand based on its superior knowledge of the space, including its vision for the future of the rapidly evolving payments industry. Yet our brand research had revealed that its customers and prospects were hard-pressed to find that knowledge and vision anywhere within the company. What’s more, while the company’s engineers were considered the best in the business, they were viewed as aloof and reluctant to share their expertise. The brand was spot on…but customers weren’t experiencing it. We partnered with the company to change this, not only through a thought leadership program but also through brand training that showed every employee the importance of sharing insights and knowledge with the marketplace – and gave them the tools to do so consistently.

A truly rewarding experience does more than simply explain who you are and what you do. It invites participation, a two-way, mutually beneficial exchange of value. B2B buyers, much like consumers, do not want to be sold to; they want to be informed, enlightened, even entertained. And when they are, they will give you something in return: their attention, their engagement, their participation. They’ll click on a link, pick up the phone, retweet a piece of content, attend an event. That’s the power of experience: it’s active, two-way, and encourages ongoing interaction, the foundation of the all- important B2B relationship.

For B2B marketers, experiences live in every medium. Not long ago, we partnered with a data and analytics company to change its brand from one focused on features and functionality – the typical playing field for tech brands – to one centered around empowering and supporting its main client group, CMOs. The brand’s power lies not in the words and images used to express it, compelling as they are. It is the way the company infuses the brand into every interaction with target CMOs. The experience begins on the company’s website, which now focuses on issues important to CMOs, reaching beyond the company’s specific solutions. And events are built around CMO needs and aspirations, not the company’s latest release or success story. They’ve placed CMOs at the center of the experience, delivering true value.

Bringing a brand to life through experience is a process that, ideally, begins with the development of the brand itself. Brand research should focus not only on client needs but also on the journey they take from awareness to purchase to advocacy. How, when and where do they access information and interact with their B2B partners? How, when and where would they prefer to do this? Although it is possible to retrofit an experience strategy onto an existing brand – we’ve done this often – the best approach is to develop a brand and experience strategy in tandem; this ensures that the brand is optimally suited to the unique journey that a company’s client base embarks on when considering a new B2B relationship. Even for B2B companies that aren’t contemplating a new brand, it’s well worth taking a hard look at whether and how clients and prospects are experiencing the current brand.

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