Beyond Customer-Centric Why responsive companies are toast

Robert Wolcott PhD – Kellogg School of Management

Robert Wolcott, PhD, Kellogg School of Management, with Bob Domenz, CEO, Avenue

Customer-centricity is about as popular a buzzword as you’re likely to find in B2B – but now a leading professor, author and consultant is saying that most B2B organizations are getting it all wrong.

This observation emerged from a larger discussion I had with B2B Brand Council member Robert Wolcott, Ph.D. (who is also Clinical Professor at the Kellogg School of Mangagement, Founder and Executive Director of the Kellogg innovation Network (KIN), and a principal in Clareo Partners LLC). I believe it’s worth consideration for any B2B marketer looking to significantly grow their customer relationships and overall bottom line. Here’s what he had to say:

Robert Wolcott, PhD: “One thing that I have noticed at many B2B companies is the way they think about their relationship with customers. Most companies believe that they’re pretty customer focused. Many know that they could certainly be a lot better, but generally they think, “Yeah, we’re customer focused.”

Whether they are or not is a different question. In B2B, what often happens is people will say, ‘Oh, we’re customer focused. As soon as the customer calls, we’re on it. We respond, we talk with them all the time, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’ If they tell us they need something, we go and develop it and we’re very responsive.

That’s a good thing—but if that’s all you’re doing then really what you really are is customer reactive, and that’s not enough, for a variety of reasons. In particular it’s not enough because if customers are telling you that they need something, they’re probably also telling your competitors the same thing–and that’s certainly not good enough to stay ahead of the competition.

Furthermore, your customers can’t always tell you what exactly they want or need, because often they don’t know. Even if they think they do, sometimes they don’t have any idea what could even be possible. When they do have a need or a challenge that they know they want help with, that they’d be willing to pay for, they still might not know to ask you. They might not know that your company could actually help them with that issue.

“Your customers can’t always tell you what exactly they want or need, because often they don’t know.”

The big opportunity for a lot of B2B companies is to ask, “How can we become customer leading? How can we think beyond what the customers are already telling us? What the customers already know that they need? To what they don’t even know is possible that would add a lot of value for our customers? That’s where B2B needs to go.”

Three ways to become customer leading

Wolcott’s points ring true as I look over my years of helping B2B companies change and grow—and from that experience I can recommend three important ways to effectively lead your customers and escape the “me-too” trap reactive companies fall into.

1. Always keep your customers focused on theirs.
Wolcott’s point that your customers may not even know what they’ll need tomorrow could be expanded to the thought that, frankly, they may not even care. After all, if you’re currently successful in helping your sales-focused B2B organizations make this quarter’s numbers—and given the inherently short-term mindset underlying that scenario—they may not even be inclined to think ahead, or be on the lookout for the category disruption that’s right around the corner, about to take them by surprise.

What they will care about, however, is what their customers care about. Encourage them to probe customer needs, desires and opportunities in multiple ways (and obviously not by just asking them what they need). Even in B2B, social listening (online and at events), trend-spotting, and, perhaps best of all, good old one-on-one interviewing by objective third parties (to whom customers are more likely to tell the truth) will help keep your customers effectively looking ahead, around that corner, and anticipating customer needs and marketplace opportunities.

2. Work to expand your customers’ horizons.
One of the most striking observations Wolcott makes is that your customers may not even know what’s possible. Call it lack of imagination or “the myopia of the moment” (the lack of vision that results from focusing only on the immediate and the known), B2B organizations are not always prone to keeping up with cutting edge industry, technological or even relevant cultural developments (insert “millennials” here). This presents an opportunity for you and your account managers to become their eyes and ears, their “forward scouts” as to what’s new and what’s next. Practically speaking, this can be as simple as periodically sending them a link to an interesting article with a simple note “Thought you’d find this interesting” (or for real breakthrough power, going old school and sending a physical clipping, magazine or book).

“Become your customers’ eyes and ears on the future – their forward scouts.”

3. Never assume your customers know all that you can do.
Most B2B companies are not only sales-centered, they are centered on the sales person. In fact, a single sales person is often the primary lens through which customers see a company, and the result is that they focus only on what that sales person has to sell and may never be made aware of a companies comprehensive offering. It’s critical that B2B marketers expand in-person relationships to the broader organization, in an effective account team model, and also develop a regular program of meaningful brand communication that goes directly to customers. (For more on this important point, see the article and video by my Avenue colleague, and B2B Brand Council Member, Rachel Klein, “3 Ways to Prevent B2B Loyalty Giveaway.”)

Yes, we should all be responsive to our customers—but as Wolcott points out, being responsive and customer-focused simply isn’t enough anymore.

About Robert C. Wolcott, PhD: Robert is Founder & Executive Director, Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN) & Clinical Professor, Kellogg School of Management. He is also a noted author and speaker, and a founder of Clareo Partners, providing innovation strategy & management guidance for senior management at established firms, as well as company creation and development expertise for a limited set of entrepreneurs.

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.