Calling BS on B2B Get Human, or Get Lost

Ken Schmidt – Former Director of Communication for Harley-Davidson

Ken Schmidt, Speaker, Consultant and former Harley-Davidson Executive, with Bob Domenz, CEO, Avenue

No one ever has ever accused Ken Schmidt of pulling punches.

Not when he was helping Harley-Davidson craft one of the great comebacks in US business history. Not when he’s speaking on conference stages around the country. And not when he’s going toe-to-toe with a B2B CEO or CMO who’s brought him in looking to shake things up.

So it’s no wonder that this was his opening salvo when I asked what B2B can learn from B2C:

Ken Schmidt: I do a lot of work, like you do, with B2B companies, so you probably hear this same comment all the time, with people complaining that, “Our market has changed a lot — it’s way more price-driven than it’s ever been!” That’s usually when people start with the bullshit, with the self-defeating attitude that’s become the mantra of the B2B marketplace. 

But here’s the deal: Markets don’t change and markets can’t change. People change. We all buy online, we all shop price. We don’t like to admit that, but we all do because we know everything out there is good enough, whether we’re buying cold-rolled steel or a car. As long as it’s coming from somebody reputable and it’s good enough, we’ll shop on price.

So that’s the excuse, that there’s no real point doing anything new, either from a branding or marketing standpoint, because what we have to sell doesn’t elicit any excitement. It’s just a price market, the buyers are who they are, they know who we are , and there’s nothing we can do that’s going to change the dynamic. It’s all “Boo-hoo” and “Woe is me,” and “We’ve really got it tough here.”

This discussion of markets — this unthinking, unknowing, uncaring, price-driven, ugly thing – is incredibly self-limiting. It becomes like a shield that people can hide behind, an excuse as to why their marketing isn’t as successful as it should be, or maybe even why their career isn’t as successful as they wish it was.

But you have to stop thinking of B2B in terms of markets and start thinking about people. After all, the end of the day it’s got to be a human being selling to a human being. You have to humanize your approach ­– much along the lines that a B2C company would follow — and decide what you want people to know about you, what you want them to say about you, and what you’re willing to do to get them to say it.­­

“Stop thinking of B2B in terms of markets and start thinking about people.”

Bob Domenz: So if it comes down to people, how well do you find that B2B companies really know and understand their customers?

Ken: I think most B2B companies have no clue who the end customer is–and I’m faced with this all the time. I’ll be working with a small group, asking, “Who exactly is your customer?” and I’ll get back the pat answer of “Well, you know, our customer is a buyer and he works in purchasing…” and then I’ll say “No, I mean who is he, who is she? How old is this person? How educated? Does this person work in a comfortable office or on a hard metal stool in a shop somewhere?”

I’m always stunned to see how many B2B marketers can’t even generalize about who that human being is at the other of the equation. So of course they can’t figure out how to serve that person or how to improve their work life. They should be asking, “What can we be doing better to really delight that person?” It’s hard to delight someone if you don’t even know who they are.

“Many B2B marketers can’t even generalize about who that human being is at the other of the equation.”

Bob: So how did you get around to really knowing and delighting customers with the Harley-Davidson brand? I mean, everybody forgets now that at one point Harley was riding fast toward irrelevance. What can B2B brands learn from that turnaround?

Ken: The biggest lesson? Just having a great product doesn’t give competitive leverage, especially in a marketplace where everybody’s products are phenomenal. I mean, the company poured hundreds of millions of dollars into improving its product — reengineering, redesigning, rebuilding — only to launch the product into the marketplace and watch the company still lose money. We’d brought out the best stuff the market had ever seen from Harley, and the world still didn’t beat a path to our door. 

Bob: So you were too product-focused? Were you missing that human-to-human element you spoke of?

Ken: Right. So out of total desperation we took some marketing money and loaded up a semi with bikes and allowed people to take demo rides – something nobody did at the time.

People would take the bike out for a 15-mile ride, have an experience with the product… and then we’d talk to them when they hopped off. And everybody was fired up to talk. “The handlebars need to be wider.” “I couldn’t reach foot controls.” “The seat needs to be wider.” Just real short, easy comments. And all of the sudden, people were involved in the process instead of being sold to, and their input was being taken seriously… and the marketplace started to recognize this.

It’s a good example of how any business can do well if it supports the effort to develop real intimacy, where a customer begets a customer. Of course, if you think you know your customer well enough to make decisions without asking them, then you’re bound to go to market and hear them say “We don’t want it.”

Bob: So was the H.O.G (Harley Owners’ Group) movement a conscious part of this humanization of the brand?

Ken: It developed simultaneously, when one year down at Daytona Beach, during Biker Week, we noticed that the company brass from the Big Four in Japan – and also BMW – were all showing up and getting out of taxis or limos – while our brass rolled up on bikes in front of the hotels and were getting recognized by bikers and high-fived and we realized, “Hey, we’ve got something the other guys don’t have – leaders and employees who like being in front of customers and customers who really appreciate that. We need to formalize this process of bringing riders together.”

Bob: And you did, to pretty amazing effect.

What if you sell widgets instead of Harleys?

OK, so you don’t sell a sleek, muscular, full-throated king of the highway. To Ken’s point, that’s no excuse for not selling to the real human need in any B2B situation. There are several practical ways any brand can get to the bottom of how its customers really think and feel.

Shut up and listen.

Ken talks about the need to “put boots on the ground,” but that’s just the first step. While most of us tend to want to talk to our customers when we meet them, the real riches are found in listening. Beyond your formal research, put yourself – your marketing leaders and teams – in situations where you can simply observe. Trade shows and sales call ride-alongs are two good opportunities that almost any B2B marketer can access.

Think of customers as co-creators.

Once upon a time, thinking of customers as “targets” was helpful – it at least meant that you knew which way you were aiming. But in our new world, where customers are moving targets at best, that whole concept can be both difficult to execute against and even counter-productive. Take a page from the Harley playbook and invite your customers into the process – just how far you bring them in will vary from company to company, but largely depends on how open, transparent and collaborative your organization is willing to be.

Don’t be afraid to let your B2B brand have a personality.

Today, no one thinks of Harley-Davidson as “merely” world-class machines.
The name conjures free spirits and adventurous souls. What does your brand name conjure? Particularly in the all-too-common B2B scenario of product parity, which Ken rails against above, what makes your brand memorable, appealing, intriguing, trustworthy? A disciplined branding process that uncovers your true mission, vision and values, and the purpose that arises from them, should also reveal your true personality and its most compelling presentation.

Of course, whether in B2C or B2B, finding your personality is only half the battle – you also have to be willing to live it out in every interaction. Do that, and you’re sure to stand apart from the crowd.


About Ken Schmidt: Ken is a popular keynote speaker, a B2B and B2C marketing consultant, and the former Director of Communications for Harley-Davidson.

About Bob Domenz: Bob is CEO of Avenue, the B2B marketing strategy and activation firm. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the B2B Brand Council.