The way we do business and choose our products in a B2B world has forever changed in the last two years. Suppliers are racing towards embracing a digital-first approach. Those who operate in the B2B space are increasingly expecting more of the immediacy and convenience of the B2C world offered in their personal lives. The hallmarks of our experiences in B2C are rapidly permeating the construction sector, including the lighting industry.
In a McKinsey report from mid-2020, two-thirds of respondents believed that COVID-19 would accelerate the construction industry’s digital transformation. This shift can allude to everything from future construction methodologies to digital disruptions. Since the onset of COVID, many of the traditional channels of establishing B2B relationships has waned — from printed spec sheets and catalogues to in-person product demonstrations and phone calls from sales reps. In many ways, the hands of every B2B company have been forced.
This force rings true as many of us have settled into a new normal of spending more time working from home. At this point, the line between professional and personal lives starts to fade. The line between our expectations of ordering food delivered to our door and configuring lighting for an office building is beginning to fade. As customers, we want more information at our fingertips without picking up the phone or sending an email. In true B2C fashion, most B2B clients now want to be able to conduct their research and narrow down product choices online before finalising with a supplier. Therefore, as B2B companies, we need to continue adapting and engaging with customers, not just in new ways but also in customers’ preferred ways.
At a glance, the cornerstone of every positive B2C experience includes — a seamless user interface, availability and pricing transparency, and real-time customer service.
In the context of the lighting industry, this means having a strong foundation of up-to-date online data, including specifications, BIM objects, IES files and CAD drawings. In addition, allowing customers to discover, search and narrow down their selections via tools such as product configurators is becoming the price of admission to help save time and simplify selection.
The expectations of the B2C world and the conventional B2B standards
“The expectations in B2B commerce are increasingly informed by developments and experiences in B2C. Common expectations in B2C, such as transparency, a rich, tailored user experience, communities and social connections, are rapidly permeating B2B.” — Deloitte.
The distinction between B2C and B2B customer experiences has always been clear. Where B2B has conventionally relied on traditional channels, B2C has prioritised a customer-first approach that is frictionless and on-demand. Similarly, where B2C is delivering exceptional online experiences, B2B has functioned based on websites more akin to static billboards with limited product information and insight.
This is not to criticise the ways B2B industries function since we operate this way for a reason. It is historically known that B2B industries, specifically the lighting industry, are incredibly complex, with project cycles ranging from months to years. In addition, there are often many stakeholders involved in the decision-making process of lighting selection — architects, lighting designers, consulting engineers, builders, developers, and more. This is not new information to most; however, maintaining the status quo is no longer an option since the customer expectations and user experience that connects an entire project are rapidly changing. Therefore, the criteria and battleground for B2B businesses have been set — it’s up to customers to demand more from their suppliers and suppliers to evolve to a new way of connecting with customers.
The building pressure
In a survey conducted by Unios across 2021, a range of lighting specifiers was asked — “how is your customer’s world changing?” The common threads across the survey results ranged from supply chain constraints to pricing and availability transparency. In addition, the impacts of component shortages, stop-start construction schedules and the decline of face-to-face meetings are being felt across the entire value chain.
“Due to the ongoing impacts of COVID, everything has been affected — pricing, budgets, availability, lead times, stock, materials, specification values, holding specification, design considerations…and so on.” — Survey Participant.
Professionals within the construction industry are busier and increasingly time-poor. Delivering value to a project in a timely manner is crucial, including the selection and buying process for products and building materials. With thousands of options in every product category — lighting, carpet, doors, glass — narrowing your options and evaluating fast is essential. The B2B companies able to provide a seamless experience in delivering product recommendations and comparisons are going to be looked at more favourably during the process.
Many industries are in the midst of a rapid digital transformation as new entrants in the market bring fresh perspectives and an ability to adapt nimbly. The furniture industry sits at the forefront of change with companies such as Koala disrupting initially the mattress market and, consequently, other furniture categories.
As a furniture supplier, Koala is disrupting the norms by existing primarily in the vast space of the Internet, without expensive showrooms or pricing mark-ups. True to the brand’s promise, Koala’s offerings include quality products with a transparent and supported customer experience, where all products are “easy to buy, easy to try, and easy to return”. For residential and commercial customers, companies like Koala are tackling long-accepted pain points of lengthy delivery times, inflated costs and antiquated traditional buying processes.
What the future holds
Always-on. It’s the fundamental shift in how B2B industries will operate. The new frontier and state-of-play involve B2B companies becoming experts at delivering highly personalised and on-demand platforms and tools. The tradition of picking up the phone to find out more information will be replaced by on-demand product details available around the clock. Often complex procedures of receiving indicative pricing for budgeting will become more transparent. Product recommendations based on previous selections and criteria will be accurate and useful. Similarly, while the goal of B2B sales teams remains the same, their approach to engaging with customers is changing to a digital-first environment.
A balancing act
While the push for a more seamless customer experience is an apparent one, it is not an easy one to capture and get right. Companies need to invest in digital – that much is certain. However, where should those investments go? First, where digital is most valued by customers – online tools for customer service or offering real-time pricing with product configurators. Second, where digital can enable humans to do a better job of interacting with customers when the human touch is required.
In many ways, the digital transformation of B2B businesses isn’t just about meeting customer demands. It is also about empowering them through clarity and self-efficacy for better and more informed decision making, which potentially lessens the mental load of any cognitive dissonance.
The future isn’t a dystopian world where machines replace all humans in B2B industries. Instead, it will have to find the right balance between when a human touch is required and when on-demand digital tools are needed. Both will need to work hand-in-hand to deliver speed, transparency and expertise.