On a recent podcast with my colleagues Deanna Laufer and Sam Stern, I was asked about the difference between business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) customer experience (CX). My answer is what I believe is the problem that vexes CX professionals trying to establish CX programs in B2B firms: In a given account there isn't one "customer"; there are many stakeholders whose interactions with the firm must help them be successful in their work. This puts stress on the B2B CX organization — how do you coordinate these many experiences to ensure each of these stakeholders gets the value they seek from the firm? 

In my report Customer Collaboration Powers B2B Customer Experience, I propose the path to solving this problem starts with B2B CX professionals embracing the concept of customer collaboration. We define this as the reciprocal exchange of valuable insights and information between a vendor and its client stakeholders. Done correctly, this is a continuous set of interactions that happens throughout the account's life, as the picture below illustrates.

Now some of you may be saying to yourselves that your business is purely transactional and your clients aren't seeking this type of relationship. I would argue that those transactions won't be satisfactory for your clients if you don't develop relationships that help you tune them. For example, CDW revamped its customer feedback surveys, ensuring that more clients had the opportunity to give their perspective on their interactions with the value-added reseller. In so doing, they were able to gather leads for potential upsells or cross-sales. Others of you may argue that your customer bases are too large or too disintermediated by partners to do this consistently. Here I would argue that this is where a strong CX ecosystem can help you effectively collaborate with your customers.

In the report, we state that there are two ways to effect collaborative relationships: 

  1. Facilitate collaboration between customers and partners.
  2. Participate in a collaborative network with partners and customers.

In the former condition, B2B CX organizations create environments that allow for customers to help each other or for partners to provide those valuable insights. For example, Rackspace Support Network — an online community the company operates — provides a venue for over 5,000 enterprise technologists to discuss amongst themselves issues with Rackspace's technology, as well as helping each other find solutions. The result? A 50% reduction in over-the-phone support calls, as well as substantial reductions in trouble-ticket submissions and online chat sessions.

In the latter scenario, B2B CX organizations carefully select high-value customers and partners to work with directly. For example, file synchronization and sharing service provider Box's customer success organization rolls out new features and functions to those accounts that have agreed to help the cloud services provider test, iterate on and verify the efficacy of these new capabilities.

In either case, a company will only be successful if they've built a network of partners and customers who trust the company enough and feel there is enough value for them to share insights with the company or each other. The question now, though, is how B2B CX pros help their organizations decide when to simply facilitate collaboration and when to participate in the collaborative network. And this leads to the next logical area of investigation in our B2B CX research: Who is the "customer" B2B CX organizations must focus on?

B2B CX organizations must understand which stakeholders in their accounts carry the most influence over the ultimate disposition of the account (i.e. whether the client renews at a higher, similar or lower level) and at which stage of the account's lifecycle they play the biggest role. Our work here will help CX pros understand how to:

  1. Identify the consequential parts of the account lifecycle
  2. Find the key influencers (visible and hidden) at each point in that lifecycle
  3. Build a CX organization to address the needs of these key people
  4. Work with the CX ecosystem to care for the rest of the stakeholders

If you would like to participate in this next iteration of this research, feel free to reach out to me. And if you have thoughts you'd like to share about customer collaboration, please share them in the comments section below.