B2B companies are increasingly aware their customers expect a variety of well-coordinated buyer’s journey options—face-to-face, telephone, digital. Meeting buyer’s omnichannel expectations is one of the most pressing B2B strategic challenges of the day.
Sometimes the call center’s role in omnichannel strategy is set to the side as companies race to keep up with their buyers’ digital expectations. Website and CRM technology enhancements are often the top initiatives in B2B sales and marketing departments. Sometimes these efforts ignore the strategic importance of call centers, or the top initiatives are funded by call center cost reductions.
As noted in a recent McKinsey survey, the fastest-growing B2B companies use digital and inside sales channels more effectively than slower-growing companies. In other words, the integration of call centers with field sales and digital into an omnichannel, customer-centric strategy is key to achieving above-average sales growth.
The Decline in B2B Field Sales
In 2015, Forrester predicted “1 million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service ecommerce by the year 2020.” Two years later, Forrester remained quite confident in their prediction. The decline of field sales reflects the robust growth of inside sales (i.e., telemarketing, telesales, inbound and outbound contact center agents) and digital channels (e.g., website, ecommerce, chatbox, email). Some estimate that inside sales jobs are growing three times faster than traditional field sales.
The decline in B2B field sales jobs is ultimately driven by customer power and their preferences. Without customer pressure, most B2B companies would avoid field sales cuts. First, conventional B2B wisdom holds that field sales provides the greatest opportunity to influence the customer and drive sales growth. Second, they reason that a five percent cut in selling expense is small compared to the bottom-line impact of a five percent drop in revenue. So cuts in field sales have been more or less imposed on many B2B companies by their customers.
Buyers now demand remote, impersonal access to information that helps them navigate the buyer’s journey long before they are willing to engage in a telephone call with an agent or a face-to-face meeting with a field sales rep. To describe it more generally, B2B customers demand an omnichannel experience and the right to choose the channel that suits them best at any given moment in time.
B2B companies have responded by rapidly enhancing their digital channel and creating stronger links between the digital and field sales channels. But where is the call center in all of this?
B2B Buyer Segments
The best answers come from customers when you ask them about their buying process. Some common themes emerging from B2B buyer’s journey research include:
- Match the channel to research question complexity: During the research phase, B2B buyers often want to obtain answers to their questions in a way that fits the complexity of their question. A website product page might provide basic details on price and specifications. A digital chatbox might work for a simple product question. Email might work better for a question that is a bit more complex but still easy to describe. A phone call might be best if the question is more complex and hard to articulate. Buyers expect suppliers to offer all of these options, and they do not want to be forced into one channel or the other.
- Match the channel to the newness of the purchase. Research indicates that first-time B2B buyers prefer to speak to a salesperson when researching a completely new product or service purchase. The value of a salesperson conversation drops when making a repeat purchase with different specifications and declines even further when the purchase is an exact repeat of a previous purchase.
The important conclusion here is that B2B companies can configure an optimal blend of field sales, call center, and digital channels by studying the buyer’s journey. We recommend using jobs-to-be-done theory and the Outcomes Driven Innovation (ODI) methodology championed by Tony Ulwick. This way it is possible to map the entire buyer’s journey for your customers, segment them by their most important unmet needs, and then design your omnichannel strategy to fully satisfy the needs of your target segments.
Reduce Call Volume or Enhance Buyer Satisfaction?
The top objective of many customer care executives is to greatly reduce call center volume. This strategy can be company-centric, which is a death-wish in today’s highly competitive world. B2B buyers have a sixth sense when it comes to detecting a lack of customer-centricity. If customer care executives seek call volume reductions merely to cut costs, the strategy is indeed company-centric, and effectively encourages buyers to take their business somewhere else.
When B2B buyers choose to speak with someone on the phone, they apply what they know from the B2C world to set standards for their B2B interactions. Their biggest complaint, across multiple industries, is slow response time. It is very hard to improve response time while cutting call center costs. Indeed, the logical consequence of a simple “reduce call volume” strategy is to increase response time, not reduce it.
A highly abbreviated customer-centric omnichannel strategy, that might also include call volume reduction as a by-product, could look something like this:
- Our buyer’s journey research tells us customers place high importance on response time and this need is not well served by us or our competition.
- Our research also tells us many buyer inquiries involve early buying stage research and easy-to-answer questions about price and basic product features and specifications.
- Currently our prices and specifications are hard to find digitally, we offer no pdf downloads of our prices and specifications, and we offer no content that walks potential buyers through the process of assessing their needs and choosing a product.
- By simplifying our pricing and specifications, and by enhancing our digital content and search capability, we can fully resolve many buyer questions far more quickly through our digital channel rather than through our call center.
- Our strategy is to encourage current accounts to use our enhanced digital channel to resolve simple questions through an email campaign summarizing our enhanced digital features.
- We will continue providing easy access to our call center, either through digital chat, follow-up call requests, and our 800 number. We will train call center agents to quickly detect whether a caller is a repeat customer and where they are in their current buyer’s journey. To assist them, agents will be armed with easy-to-access customer screens with customer purchase and inquiry histories, both digital and via the call center.
- As the call center talks to customers, agents will offer to educate them on quickly obtaining answers to simple questions with our enhanced digital tools and content.
- We fully expect repeat customers to increasingly prefer our enhanced digital channel to make repeat orders or refine repeat orders. We also anticipate the digital channel will take an increasing share of early stage research questions from new customers. In combination, these steps will place a downward pressure on call volume.
- Our digital enhancements should increase the volume of new prospects who complete their initial digital research with a more favorable impression of us, and now want to take the next step and test the waters through an initial phone call. This will place an upward pressure on call volume.
Our conclusion is that omnichannel strategy is today’s only path to customer-centricity. These strategies must encompass all channels used by buyers in your target markets. Anything less will probably be punished by competitive market forces.
Andrew Harrison is EVP, Contact Centers & Chief Human Resources Officer for Harte Hanks.
Mark Blessington is a sales and marketing consultant at Mark Blessington Inc and is the author of four books.