The future of B2B
Michael Lombardi and Alex Warner explore all the changes impacting commerce and show how any business leader can drive the future of the adaptive business
It’s a wild time to be leading a B2B business. Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but brewing for years prior, customer expectations are changing. Supplier dynamics are in flux, sales organisations are set for a remix, and a wave of new technologies and data analytics tools are just waiting to assist with your competitive advantage – if your organisation can operationalise them quickly enough, that is.
The reality is that adapting to this change is hard, but not impossible. As a B2B leader, tackling hard is in your DNA.
The results of our analysis are lessons learned and a playbook that any leader can harness to continuously revolutionise their business to meet any number of challenges that come their way in the future. Those that fail to change in this new world will be left behind.
We see four key strategies to drive business growth through continuous adaptation.
1. Hybrid customer relationships
Accelerate growth by blending virtual and physical engagement.
Customer engagement is not relegated to the role of sellers alone. Often marketing is the first interaction a prospect has with a company.
Marketers can play a key role in the adaptive business, rethinking static communications and focusing instead on delivering more engaging virtual experiences, such as hyper-personalised content and experiential demonstrations. They can also serve as a strategic partner to the business by providing account-level insights back to the sales, product and other organisations.
But as buyer needs and interests change, so must content and experiences. Marketing must continuously work to know how buyers want to engage, and it must be ready and willing to adapt.
Find and grow adaptive talent
Your talent does the heavy lifting of customer engagement. But do your people have the skills and training to adapt as quickly as your ambitions?
The future is adaptive talent. Consider the following – is your talent ready for the hybrid environment? Can they listen and detect preferences for engagement channels? Are they equally as comfortable in person as they are in virtual environments? Can your digital experiences facilitate the needs of a self-service buyer, supported by a seller who is ready to step in at the right moment? Can your sales and marketing teams blend to make your efforts successful? The ability to find and grow adaptive talent will be at the core of developing the adaptive business.
Make your business hybrid
Sure, your teams have become adept at using video conferencing systems, but what other operations, processes or even products could go virtual? From products and services to customer interactions, every part of your business can be re-evaluated to be physical, virtual or a hybrid of both.
Can your services be delivered virtually? Can you provide self-service online tools? Do your virtualisation efforts build trust and advocacy as well as or better than in-person experiences? Where should virtualisation never occur, whether because of a loss of a customer connection or your ability to provide your offering? Driving this decision must be a behavioural understanding of your customers, both as businesses and as individuals.
2. Dynamic partner networks
Establish a dynamic partner ecosystem that can flex and adapt to activate the right partnership structure at the right time.
Looking back over the turbulent pandemic era, could your partners keep up with your changing business demands? Were they by your side, working together on solutions? If yes, then you are likely in a strategic relationship. If not, then it is more likely you are in a transactional relationship.
When re-evaluating your roster of partners to construct your dynamic network, consider the following. Is this partner as concerned with co-creation and value exchange as we are? Will this partnership not only create value, but create exponential return? Will this partner be willing to develop a trusting exchange of knowledge and data?
Shape flexible routes to market
As customer needs and preferences changed during the pandemic, business leaders were forced to quickly re-evaluate their distribution channels to meet the new environment. But should adapting to new conditions always mean the pain of radical change? Instead, how can you keep up with reaching your buyer in new ways? Approaching distribution through a dynamic network leads adaptive businesses to explore traditional and unconventional routes to market, flexing which routes are active at the right time.
Keep channels in harmony
Creating valuable partner networks applies as much to selling as it does to supply chain purchasing – whether that is B2B selling through traditional or ecommerce channels, B2B2C networks through distributors and other channels, or an increasingly D2C approach exploring more classically B2C channels.
Whatever channel mix is right for your business model, in creating an adaptive environment, consider: can your customers seamlessly move between channels, such as beginning online and moving to a seller?
Do your customers benefit t through each channel in some way, such as more personalised services? Are your channels free of competition from each other, and periodically reviewed to stay that way?
Apply the next generation of technology to create distinctive new experiences.
Integrate human and machine
Innovations like AI and machine learning should complement human ingenuity and creativity. Examine then how your employees could enhance the customer experience if they had these technological superpowers: they could better predict client needs, quickly suggest complementary services, and they could anticipate likely maintenance requests.
B2B buyer expectations are increasingly informed by their experience as consumers. Which customer touchpoints could technology improve, such as personalised web or ecommerce?
Tomorrow’s advantage will not just be built by purchasing technology out of the box. Like other transformations, the biggest innovations are creative and first to market. Are you able to strike upon these innovations by practice, not luck? Doing so requires developing an innovation incubation environment that is centred on solving a core customer challenge while being free to embrace risk. Businesses that institutionalise innovation will be able to not just embrace new technologies but harness them to achieve greater competitive advantage.
Create a culture of change
With AI, automation and other new technologies comes speed and the need for more agility as things change. But how easy is it for your teams to move quickly, to test and iterate in a changing tech landscape, and continuously create new distinctive experiences?
The reality is that so much new tech implementation either never leaves the experimental stage or gets mired in internal inertia. Why is that? The answer lies in the optimal mix of people, process and tools – an imbalance in any can leave projects hanging, but especially when people are not ready to adopt and embrace new ways of working.
The adaptive business cannot be built on technology or process innovations alone – people are just as important.
4. People and planet forward
Ensure that your business is having positive impact on society and the planet.
Live your purpose
Are you clearly demonstrating your brand purpose to your prospective buyers and with your employees? Take inspiration from both B2C and B2B brands in terms of how they set the agenda, join and elevate movements, leverage new ways to engage, and reach existing buyers and prospects. And take inspiration from employees: what matters to them, what are their shared values, what motivates them?
B2B brands should review their purpose and related communications and initiatives. Brand purpose should be relevant to both business and culture, and actions should realise this purpose and connected values. Adaptive businesses must ensure that brand purpose is relevant and incorporated into the DNA of the business to drive meaningful and continuous impact for employees, customers and the greater good.
Integrate sustainability and business goals
Can you lead the market in sustainability while driving continuous growth? Corporate sustainability and economic growth should not be mutually exclusive. One does not negate the other, but rather sustainable business transformation reframes the bottom line, and where a company derives value.
Listen to your people
Are you actively listening and responding to the diverse needs of your employee population? Diversity and Inclusion is an indication of a business doing well for society, or not, and as buyers and employees look to different values when selecting a business, how that business values and drives employee well-being is a consideration increasingly front of mind. Employee well-being, productivity and customer experience are tightly linked, and diversity and inclusion should be supported and nurtured to transform company DNA.
The adaptive business must create systems to continuously listen to the voice of their employees and show them that they’ve been heard – turning their values and the company values into meaningful engagement activities, motivating them to realise their interests and enabling positive change.
5. Embrace the adaptive business approach
The challenges and change catalysed by the pandemic have opened the door to new sources of growth and business evolution. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for approaching this, but the four strategies identified and set out above present accessible opportunities and accelerants for businesses to adopt and apply to start their journey into adaptive business.
06 December 2022
More in Commerce
What consumers really value about the modern grocery run
Social commerce: building brand love and delivering growth
Debbie Ellison, of WPP’s VMLY&R Commerce, says that both how and where consumers are shopping is changing radically, and we are seeing a confluence of social and commerce on media platforms powered by influence and brand love
UK shoppers love promotions
Customers are becoming more and more savvy about marketing tactics and techniques. These are the findings of the second in the series of ‘What the Brits want from promotions’ from WPP’s Mando