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Guest Blogger

By Larry Augustin, CEO SugarCRM

In the pre-digital, pre-computerised era, which in historical terms is really not that long ago, the concept of personalisation within customer relationships often meant a face to face meeting with the relevant person.  If you wanted a mortgage, you’d sit down in the office of your local branch of your bank and make your case and it would be within his power to make the decision right there in front of you. At the local shop, it wouldn’t be unusual to hand your shopping list to a man in a brown coat who’d then peruse the shelves and select the products on your behalf.

Then of course things changed. Not overnight but quickly and profoundly and the mass-consumption revolution swept away many of the reassuringly friendly quirks and ticks of personalisation that people had taken for granted for so long. Where once your local butcher would have known your favourite cut of pork, the person behind the meat counter in the supermarket didn’t even know your name.

Not that it was all bad; economies of scale meant that prices in all sectors were lower than ever before, but what’s interesting is that since the early 90s, the B2C world, has led a drive towards a contemporary equivalent of the old-fashioned concept of personal service. Money talks, of course, and when someone realised that customers would spend more if they felt that their relationship with a retailer or service provider was personal, there was no going back.

Retailers, most notably Tesco, led the charge towards this modern version of personalisation with their use of points, vouchers and loyalty cards. Not that loyalty cards had much to do with loyalty but instead were, and are, incredibly effective tools that enable supermarkets to match their offering to customers’ shopping habits. Other areas of the B2C space were soon to follow.

Then, with the advancement of Big Data and technology, the process became seamless, responsive and mobile.  Due to this there are now very few areas of customers’ interactions with businesses that have not been shaped in some way to meet their specific and unique needs. There are numerous examples: banks giving a choice of benefits and services to accompany fee-paying accounts; online subscription services that the ingredients to make meals that their customers like to eat; smart meters that allow not only the control of appliances in the home from a customer’s commute home but also ensure that their utility bills are precisely accurate.

The B2B space is lagging some way behind their colleagues in B2C in establishing personalisation principles within their business practice. That’s not to say that there’s not some great work being done but there are a number of inherent factors that make personalisation more of a challenge when dealing with other businesses. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that whereas a B2C customer is a singular decision maker, business decisions involve multiple people. It’s therefore a lot harder to provide a personal service when your customer may well be represented by five, ten, or a hundred different individuals. Decision-making processes can be similarly multi-faceted and often can take a very long time; a different world from a customer making a buying decision in a supermarket.

However, I’d argue that the risks of losing customers for a B2B business are too great for personalisation to be ignored. A B2B enterprise is likely to have a much smaller customer base than the average B2C business and so losing even a handful of them to shoddy service is potentially disastrous; likewise, in a world where the very existence of a company can be founded on successful long-term relationships, to put these in jeopardy by failing to innovate in areas of customer service practice seems to me like too much of a risk.

So what can B2B learn from the B2C sector? I think the biggest lesson is to avoid complacency and ensure that there’s investment in innovation. This investment should be in people as well as systems but where systems are purchased or upgraded they should be flexible, powerful and portable enough to ensure that a 360-degree view of a customer is the starting point for all interactions and processes.

Same-day delivery network, CitySprint provides a good example of what’s possible in a business that’s only as good as its most recent on-time delivery. Through a radical overhaul of their CRM system they’ve been able to ensure that a single view of a customer is available to every staff member that needs it, whether they are a business ordering their services or a customer arranging a collection. They bring improvements to both customer service and order tracking, as well as aggregating data in a single platform driving both satisfaction and sales leads.

The pace of personalisation within B2C has been relentless and although B2B is necessarily a more slow-moving beast, we’re reaching a point where the decision-makers and purse-string-holders within a company, are now so used to a personal, bespoke and attentive service in their private life, they are beginning to expect the same in their professional one.  If a B2B company is not yet in a position to provide this, then I’d suggest that it needs to be added to the very top of their priority list for the coming months.

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