B2B Customer Strategy: Who Do You Serve and What Are You Solving?

We encounter many business to business clients who have realized “what got them here is not what is going to get them there.”  One of the consistent themes that emerges regardless of industry is that over time, B2B companies often develop a portfolio of customers with different requirements.  As illustrated in the grid below, we find that there are often certain characteristics associated with clients who are satisfied with a “vendor” relationship vs. those that are seeking a partner to “advise” them beyond the standard offering.  Those who are satisfied with a solid vendor relationship oftentimes are less focused on the future and put a larger emphasis on the efficiencies they can gain today through cost reduction or process improvement.  Those who are looking for their business partner to play an advisory role are typically more focused on the future and are exploring new or better products and services, new ways to deliver value to the end customer, or new markets to enter.  This can be a result of intense competitive pressure, industry innovation, or shifts in customer behaviors.

The horizontal axis below illustrates the maturity level of internal capabilities a given company may have.  A couple examples are Financial Services industries and their level of internal analytical capabilities and Healthcare organizations and their level of expertise around enterprise system solutions.  The sophistication level of internal abilities and expertise a business customer has will have a direct impact on the way you advise or serve them.  Let’s break it down by quadrant:

GUIDE:  Businesses in this quadrant have fewer internal capabilities but are more focused on pursuing new opportunities in new markets, new customers, or new needs of existing customers.  These might be smaller, early stage companies or mid to large, but they are entering a new market where their B2B advisor has experience and they do not.  Regardless, the companies that fall in this quadrant are happy to be advised and “shown the way.”

PROTECT:  Businesses in this quadrant also are low on internal capabilities, but they are more focused on protecting the current state.  They don’t have the desire to “create new” and want a vendor who understands their need for best price and highest level of efficiency.  They want SLA’s adhered to and implementation to run smoothly.

SERVE:  Businesses in this quadrant have more internal capabilities but again are mostly focused on protecting the current state.  They feel they “know what they need” but would like a vendor who can work with their teams to analyze process and service opportunities to uncover inefficiencies or improve existing relationships with their customers.  They want someone who is willing to work with them on the problems they have already identified.

PARTNER:  Businesses in this quadrant have more internal capabilities and are focused on pursuing new opportunities in new markets, new customers, or new needs of existing customers.  These are often mid to large companies who are open to having their B2B advisor collaborate with their teams to build strategies for the future.  They want a partner who can advise them on the latest trends, uncover unmet needs, and work with them to devise strategies to be tested or implemented to drive incremental growth.

As a B2B service provider with long-term client relationships, there can be a tendency to become complacent.  There are 4 steps you can follow to help you break out of this complacency and ultimately embed a customer centric view of your client base into your organization’s culture:

  1. Ensure you have extreme clarity around who you serve, the problem you solve for them, and the position you want to occupy in the marketplace. Ask yourself these questions: What goals do our customers have in front of them now (vs. when you established your partnership) and what additional value can our organization provide to help them achieve those goals?  This may require some research or creation of an advisory council to get under the hood of unmet or unstated needs and opportunities.
  2. Create a point of view around where each of your business customers sits in this matrix. This exercise can often force a great dialogue internally with sales, marketing, and operations teams and provide good direction that allows them to begin tailoring their approaches.
  3. Consistently re-visit customers that may be ready to move to a different quadrant. Those who once wanted someone to protect their interests may evolve to needing a guide to move them into a new category, country, or customer segment.  Be on the lookout for these opportunities to serve your customers differently.
  4. The final question you will want to consider is this: Are we ready to deliver value in all 4 of these quadrants? As you become clearer about customers who need a “guide,” do you have the brand positioning, products, services, teams, and capabilities that can seamlessly support them?

Doing the work to better understand your customers and their different needs is one of the best things you can do to inspire and engage your teams, keep your product and service portfolio fresh, stay ahead of the competition, and ultimately attract new and retain existing customers.

Deborah is a retail and wholesale executive who has spent the last 20 years leading business teams to continuously improve the customer experience.