Table of contents
Before we dive into B2B customer service best practices, here’s a question for you: What kind of companies come to your mind when you hear someone mention excellent customer service?
If I had to hazard a guess, it would be Zappos, Amazon, JetBlue, or the Ritz Carlton. Right?
And while all of these answers are correct, it is also immediately apparent that these are all B2C (business-to-consumer) companies.
People would rarely mention a business-to-business (B2B) company that offers great customer service.
Table of Contents
- How is B2B customer service different from B2C?
- Complexities in B2B Customer Service
- B2B customer service best practices
- Putting it all together
How is B2B customer service different from B2C?
It is easier to understand the differences between B2B and B2C customer service if we know the basic distinction between the two types of businesses.
B2C companies usually offer products and services built for individual consumers. B2B companies, on the other hand, sell to teams or businesses.
B2C buyers usually have smaller purchase sizes, and their buying decisions are generally governed by factors such as features, pricing, and discounts.
B2C buyers, thus, tend to have a more transactional relationship with a brand.
B2B buyers are generally on the opposite end of this spectrum. In most cases, pricing is secondary. They look for products that can be reliable in the long term. The sales process is complicated, more time-consuming, and usually involves legal teams and contracts. The quality of customer service and turnaround times play a significant role in swinging deals as well.
And why is that?
Well, unlike B2C companies, customer service reps in B2B companies almost always deal with professionals or subject matter experts from other industries. B2B clients are usually more tech-savvy, data-driven, and have their own set of customers to cater to.
In the words of Brian Halligan, HubSpot’s co-founder and CEO:
If B2B companies want to get ahead of the game, they are going to have to get rid of all the friction in their business to better attract, engage, and delight customers… [In the past] your product needed to be 10 times better than the competition’s. Now, your customer experience must be 10 times lighter than the competition’s.Brian Halligan, HubSpot’s co-founder and CEO
Now that we’ve managed to draw some distinction between B2B and B2C customer service, let’s take a detailed look at why B2B businesses are so particular about customer service.
Complexities in B2B Customer Service
B2B customers face more complex problems
Think of the last time you, as an individual, reached out to a company for customer support. It was probably to return a damaged item or check on the status of your refund.
And unless you had a complex issue, the process would have been relatively simple. You may have reached out to the support team via live chat, social media, email, or phone; a customer service rep would have responded to you and resolved your query.
The B2B customer service process, on the other hand, is a lot more complicated. And that’s because most B2B products and services are a lot more technical in nature. Consequently, the issues that one would tend to face would be a lot more complicated, as well.
For instance, if you’re dealing with cloud-based software purchases, you could be looking at issues related to software troubleshooting, security, and network connectivity.
Customer service in B2B is usually a lot more process-oriented. There are many steps that must be followed through (both for the customers while filing a complaint and for the service provider’s support team) before a resolution can be found. And because of the nature of the issues, there is also the inevitable back and forth, multiple teams getting involved, etc.
Multiple teams getting involved
In the case of B2C customer service, a single customer service rep can usually handle a customer’s service request. This is because it is usually a one-to-one relationship. In most cases, the buyer is the one who is facing the issue.
In the case of B2B customer support, however, businesses usually have multiple stakeholders for a single purchase. This is true both for the customer and for the service provider.
For instance, an individual user may face an issue with the software that they are using at work. To raise a support request, the said user would have to inform their internal IT team, which would then escalate it to the head of IT, following which the head of IT will raise the issue with the service provider.
Again, on the service provider’s end, once an issue has been raised, depending on the nature of the issue, multiple customer service representatives, account managers, and different teams might get involved depending on the complexity of the problem.
Deeper relationships between customers and vendors
In the B2C domain, most customer support agents don’t get to talk to the same customer twice. This is mainly due to two reasons: the relationship is transactional and a large customer service rep-to-customer ratio.
The B2B environment, however, is the polar opposite. B2B customer service teams deal with multiple stakeholders at different points in time and develop a personal connection with them over time.
Some companies may even offer dedicated customer service reps to their high-value clients, deepening these customer relationships over time.
B2B customer service best practices
1. Make your customer service proactive
In the ideal world, both B2C and B2B would approach customer service proactively. The reality, however, is quite different. The truth is only B2C businesses provide proactive customer service today. As we’ve stated earlier, this is because the problems faced by B2C customers are, for the most part, a lot simpler.
That being said, B2B customer service teams should go above and beyond to tap into their customers’ needs and pain points, reaching out when it appears a customer is struggling and offering suggestions that could help ease the customer’s pain points.
Research by OpenSpan and Forbes has shown that providing proactive customer service in the B2B domain can have far-reaching benefits for businesses despite the complexities. Some of these benefits include:
- 3-5% increase in customer retention
- Reduction in inbound customer service requests by 20-30% over 12 months
- Subsequently, a 25% reduction in customer contact center costs
The best way for B2B companies to provide proactive customer service is by arming themselves with the right technology. The right type of customer service software allows teams to access in-depth analytics, enabling service teams to understand their customers at an account level. Customer service teams, over some time, can draw patterns to understand their customer’s situations. This allows them to proactively reach out to the customer with solutions and long-term strategies.
2. Have well-defined SLAs in place
SLAs or Service Level Agreements define the level of service a vendor provides, laying out the metrics by which the customer service is measured, and the penalties should agreed-on service levels not be achieved. It is a critical component of any vendor-client contract.
And in the B2B domain, not all businesses are created equal. Some clients have more complex requirements than others. Some might have larger teams and thus might be of higher value to your company.
While it is not right to let one business cut in line and get ahead of another to receive customer service, it is perfectly acceptable to prioritize your support queue. This prioritization can be done with the help of SLAs.
SLAs can help you prioritize your support queue based on your team’s bandwidth, the severity of the issues, and the type of customer.
SLAs help set the right expectations with customers about your quality of service as well as your limitations. A study by Hiver found that close to 50% of customer service teams today have an SLA policy to resolve customer requests in under six hours.
3. Build multiple customer self-service options
Yes, B2B customer service is usually very high-touch. But, it needn’t always be this way.
Think about it. Most of your customer issues are usually simple – resetting passwords, adding/deleting users, changing basic settings, billing issues, etc.
Ideally, most businesses are staffed with technical experts (given that they in turn work with other businesses) who should be able to handle these simple tasks on their own; all they need is a little nudge from your side. And this nudge can come in the form of various customer self-service options like knowledge base, FAQ sections, community forums, and chatbots.
A well-written self-service knowledge base consisting of how-to articles, product documentation, basic troubleshooting, how-to videos, and FAQs can help take a significant load off your support team. This would give them ample time to handle more complex support queries.
4. Personalize your B2B customer service experience
B2B customer service is relationship-driven. You need to play the long game here, and to win at this game, you need to know your customers inside out. You need to build a solid rapport with all stakeholders and offer them personalized solutions.
Research by CMS Wire indicates that B2B customers expect the companies they work with to have all the context necessary to support them in their endeavors. This includes history, recent activity, and individual preferences.
In the B2B context, customer service personalization refers to making your content relevant to the business, industry, and unique processes of your business customers. The simplest way to do this is by arming your customer service team with the right customer service tools and data they need to truly understand their customers, both at a company and individual level.
Every customer success rep must have access to a central database containing every customers’ touchpoints, support history, product details, and more. This gives your reps the context customers expect, allowing them to understand the customer’s needs without asking for repetitive or easily accessible information.
Additionally, your customer support helpdesk software must integrate with your business software: the sales CRM, marketing automation software, accounting software, and so on. By ensuring constant data sync between these systems, you’ll ensure that your teams are always on the same page, reducing the scope for error and providing a consistent customer experience.
5. Personalize your B2B customer service experience
Out of all the above-mentioned B2B customer service best practices, this one most often overlooked.
Most businesses think of marketing automation as a tool that’s solely used for marketing purposes – to generate and nurture leads. But in reality, marketing automation can do so much more than that.
When used to its full potential, marketing automation can be a powerful ally for your customer service team as well. Marketing automation tools can help you segment and target customers with highly personalized content, increasing the chances of upsells and cross-sells. It can also be used to target a subset of your customer base for feature adoption, educate them on how to use new updates and functionalities, and more.
Marketing automation can also be leveraged to keep track of all brand conversations that happen online. For example, you can set up real-time alerts for any negative comment or feedback across social media and third-party review-sites, and address them in a timely manner.
Beyond helping promote a product or service, marketing automation is something that companies can use to engage with their customer base, and improve their bottom line.
Putting it all together
B2B customer service is tedious and unglamorous when compared to B2C customer service. B2B customers can also be a difficult lot to please. We’ve also come to see over and over again that B2B customer service is far more complicated than B2C customer service.
But, B2B customer service, when done right, can give your business an impenetrable competitive advantage.
And of course, it’ll help you improve customer retention, thus improving your bottom line and reputation — this is the single biggest reason to invest in customer service if you’re running a B2B business.