How B2B marketers can stay customer-centric

22 July 2021

By Mairead Brady

Core Insights: Future of Work

As the world slowly moves into a new post-pandemic normal it is vital that businesses move with their customers.

The pandemic saw rapid innovation across many sectors as B2B marketers quickly adapted to their customers working from home, with face-to-face meetings curtailed and new digital ways of working emerging.

For many this sudden change because of COVID-19 involved adopting digital technologies in a hurry. Although this comes with advantages, there are dangers in the digitalisation of customer relationships and internal and network-based operations, which are not customer-centric and that might be efficient for the company, their network and supply chain, but not for the customer.

So how should marketing managers adjust to this new normal and keep using technology, but, most importantly, make sure they stay customer-centric?

There is a temptation to go back to marketing before the pandemic and so treat the last 18 months as a disruption. But this would be wasting a crisis, because the changes that were introduced in a hurry can be leveraged to develop a new way of working to increase customer-centricity and marketing efficiency.

What B2B marketers need now is not a pre-pandemic - or even a pandemic - mindset, but a post-pandemic vision driven by the data that places the customer in the centre of organisational decision-making.

The big question is how do B2B marketers leverage the technological and online skills that are now available within their organisation and combine them with those developed among their customers, albeit not uniformly or with the same enthusiasm. Indeed, despite the acceleration to an online world during the pandemic, there will still be a significant section of customers desperate to return to human face-to-face interaction rather than having to use digital technology.

Faced with a split of some customers wanting to return to pre-pandemic face-to-face relations and those that have embraced the new digital world, it would be easy to assume that marketers have to choose between the two. This is only possible if the offline and online worlds are seen as being on the same dimension – where at either extreme there is a fully offline way of marketing or a total online version, and in the middle is some sort of hybrid that mixes the two.

What this understandable simplification obscures is the possibility of combining the two worlds rather than trading them off against each other. Instead there is the possibility where both marketing worlds are offered and the customer can choose their preferred mode of interaction. This is known as the ‘cafeteria model’ and while it is likely to be more expensive to offer initially, it provides marketing managers with two benefits.

Conceptually managers free themselves of the limiting assumption that online and offline marketing are trade-offs because they can also be offered in parallel.

Secondly, pursuing a cafeteria style strategy allows the question of what digital transformation decisions to make to be answered by the most valid and most important stakeholder – the customer – and ensures that your company is customer-centric in the post-pandemic normal.

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The pandemic saw business invest rapidly in new technology, but technological ability should not be the driving force when adopting a cafeteria model. It is only one of the many considerations. In the race to embrace a socially-distanced model during the pandemic there was no time to ask do we understand the implications of what we are doing, externally and internally in our organisation?

And the most vital aspect of using technology to improve B2B marketing is not the technology, but the people. Transformation is about people and processes. Technology might make this look different but the focus is still the customer. Technology has developed but customer-centricity has not, it is a philosophy that must stay at the heart of any business. Over-focus on the digital and not the relational and your business will suffer.

Using the cafeteria strategy allows the customer to be at the heart of the decision-making as marketers can follow the data to see exactly which channels are producing the best results, whether they are offline or online.

The customer needs to be at the centre of the organisation and that is marketing’s role. As the legendary management thinker Peter Drucker said, there are only two important functions within an organisation and they are marketing and innovation – the rest are costs centres. Companies are in business to satisfy customers at a profit and do it better than their competitors.

This sounds like a fairly simple concept, but amidst the internal politics and departments battling for budgets, this laser-targeted focus on the customer can become blurred and even lost.

Many companies are production-focused, or sales-focused or dominated by finance, rather than being customer-focused, which is where marketing comes in. Is the customer in the boardroom when decisions are made?

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos famously has an empty chair in boardroom meetings representing the customer, but I would argue it should be at least a life-size cut-out of the target customer, if not a real living and breathing one.

Marketing is often under-represented in the boardroom in the UK, and that means a lack of customer voice in the major decision-making. Instead, finance has the final say on decisions, putting budgetary restrictions on what the customer wants and needs.

For many companies the emergency situation of the pandemic saw the finance overlord have to step aside as suddenly investment was needed in digital solutions to continue marketing. But how will that continue after the pandemic as we slowly return to a new normal?

Research by consulting giant McKinsey found 80 per cent of B2B marketers have preferred the digital engagement and the advantages of it, so companies now need to build on this and invest in how to become more customer-centric through marrying the offline and online worlds in a cafeteria strategy.

Making your digital offering customer-centric, goes beyond simply automating processes. This involves a mindset that has to pervade the whole organisation.

In B2B marketing the digital transformation has to be much more calculated and deeper. It involves not just processes, but people as well and that’s people in the online and offline worlds.

The post-pandemic world will be different for B2B marketers, but the essentials will still be the same - the customer has to be the focus.


Mairead Brady is Associate Professor of Marketing and Course Director for The Warwick Executive Diploma in B2B Marketing.

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