Thanks to Brent Wingerter (CK Supply), Dave Bent (ECI/EvolutionX eCommerce), Elisabete Gondim (Messer-US), and Dave Beltz (former CIO of Covanta and Versum Materials) for their contributions.
Customer service (CS) in the B2B environment is often not a visible area of the company, and frequently overshadowed by the trendier “customer experience” and “customer success” teams. However, when there is a product/service issue, CS is the “glue” that maintains the customer’s good perception of your business and helps ensure long term growth with that customer. An organization’s growth is significantly linked to its ability to deliver frontline services of which customer service is a key component. However, good and differentiated customer service is now considered “table stakes,” as customer expectations continue to rise partly due to the acceleration of digital capabilities resulting from the pandemic of 1-2 years ago, as well as influenced by the services they receive as consumers (in the B2C marketplace). In a survey of B2B corporate buyers, 82% expect the same experience regardless of whether they are buying as a B2C or B2B customer, yet only 27% feel that companies provide excellent overall B2B experience. As a result, we will take a look at the latest trends in the B2B customer service space and the underlying technology, with a focus on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms. We will also identify best practices for those companies that desire to truly differentiate themselves in the marketplace using customer service as one of their levers. The full article was published in October’s Global Print edition of Gasworld magazine.
State of Customer Service
Over the past few years, we have seen customer service teams pivot operating models, go hybrid, and embrace all sorts of emerging technology — all while managing increased volumes of queries and higher customer expectations. In Gartner’s most recent annual survey in the Customer Service space, across multiple industries by its Customer Service & Support (CSS) practice, striving to become more of a “Value Driven Service and Support Organization” while at the same time improving operational excellence was clearly the headline. However, doing this while at the same time scaling support to meet business growth, and convincing management to accept the level of investment necessary to make customer service be that “value driven organization” and competitive differentiator is a big challenge. To overcome those headwinds, several trends are being observed across the B2B landscape, in many cases initiated in the B2C space first.
Operations and delivery of customer service for B2B customers is undergoing several shifts and trends including:
- Personalization – many companies have turned towards scalable customer service models that provide highly personalized service to their biggest customers. This trend is not totally new, but the use of advanced analytics to identify and anticipate trends in customer service inquiries and being much more proactive instead of reactive, is what is new. Placement of orders, delivery history, inventory balances and/or consumption data has become the norm in Liquid/Bulk, and is increasing rapidly in the Packaged Gases space.
- Omnichannel/Digital – customers want to engage with your company on their terms, be it through email, chat, web forms, phone, text, video or self-service portals. They want the flexibility to switch between channels as needed and desire a consistent experience across those different channels. It has been proven that when a company is consistently meeting expectations across channels, it improves the overall customer experience, which can greatly increase their satisfaction and loyalty.
It is well documented that the pandemic ‘forced’ major changes in how Customer Service was delivered to customers, helping us to move faster and embrace change. It exposed our industry to changes we may not have been ready for and as a result, we now offer services such as Live Chat on the website with a human (not a chatbot) and texting functionality for customers which routes texts directly to a CSR, giving customers more options to engage with us.Brent Wingerter, Marketing & Brand Manager for CK Supply
- Self-Service – the Major Industrial Gas companies were some of the early adopters in developing self-service portals for their customers offering a variety of order, invoice and payment capabilities starting in the early 2000s. However, more recently a growing number of Gas & Welding distributors are taking it to a new-level and utilizing their eCommerce websites as multi-function “customer self-service solutions” that enable 24/7 engagement from any device. The websites provide lead generation, product research, product data sheets, invoice history, invoice payments, orders status, order history, inventory visibility, online sales, proof of delivery, cylinder tracking, cylinder balances, procurement spend budgeting/approvals, and more.
We have seen Gas & Welding Distributors on our eCommerce platforms experiencing significant ROI and improved customer satisfaction. It is well documented that Customer online self-service delivers the lowest cost of customer interaction (for both the distributor and their customer) and the lowest cost-of-sale. The outcome is driving customer loyalty and satisfaction that leads to increased sales with existing customers and a lower cost-to-serve.Dave Bent, SVP Operations, at ECI/EvolutionX eCommerce
- AI and Automation – a variety of automation tools are being used to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the customer service representative (CSR) as well as reduce the number of inquiries requiring live support. Leveraging AI-enabled chatbots to automate where possible is helping to reduce customers’ wait times, stress levels, and burnout amongst customer service staff. The use of self-service tools to provide customers quick answers to simple questions via FAQs and other knowledge bases are one of the most common and effective options.
- Customer Expectations – they continue to rise both in intensity and complexity, driven by their customer’s rise in expectations and to some extent, the rise of remote and hybrid work. Expectations of “near real-time” response to inquiries, greater agility in offering customer service across preferred channels, and greater availability not just during operating hours, but offering valuable self-service solutions 24/7, are quickly tracking toward becoming the norm.
- Employee Demands – companies are having to move fast to keep up with the way customers want to experience CS, which often requires scaling of support as the business grows. This scaling of support has been tapping into a talent pool of skilled resources that has become more and more challenged to retain as well as increase due to the “war for talent.” Companies have had to be creative not just for securing external talent but to ensure they keep existing employees happy and challenged.
Another big trend is better understanding the overall customer experience that your company is delivering to your customers. It is not just making seamless the delivery of products throughout your customer’s journey, but also gathering the right data at the right points to assist in driving improvement in service/product delivery.Elisabete Gondim, Director of Customer Service and OTC for Messer-US
watch the consumer market and the B2C space (i.e., Amazon), because they are the early adopters with respect to technology trends affecting most B2B business processes. Within 5 years the same capabilities are being implemented in the B2B space. For example, over the last 5-7 years when you called most large services companies (i.e., Amex, AT&T, etc.), you typically were first connected to a Chatbot using NLP (Natural language processing), before you got to a person. In the Industrial Gas space that has arrived and become more common across some of the Majors larger Independents, as costs continue to come down for the technology.Dave Beltz former CIO of Covanta and Versum Materials
Technology enabled business processes are one of the keys to sustaining an efficient CS operation. There are several tools that enable customer service and the broader Order-to-Cash (OTC) process, but for the sake of this article we will focus on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms. It is viewed as one of the critical enablers for delivery of operational excellence in CS, and there continues to be plenty happening in this space including:
- Platform Options – variety continues to grow with 500+ CRM choices, with tools that cater to both generalized needs and specific niches and requirements. The options are continuing to cover more and more of the holistic Lead Generation and OTC process areas.
- Artificial intelligence (AI) – it is becoming standard in CRM software as well as a competitive differentiator in the market. AI is being used (today) to help businesses automate routine processes like inputting and cleansing customer data, reduce human errors, and improve decision-making via predictive analytics and forecasting capabilities.
Due to the expansion of data storage technology in recent years, consuming large amounts of data is no longer a physical issue but a financial one. As a result, CRM is able to input every bit of customer activity (i.e., transactional data, business transactions, marketing announcements), and is capable of running algorithms at scale, delivering insights and even predictions quickly to CSRs/Sales.Dave Beltz former CIO of Covanta and Versum Materials
- Voice and Natural language processing (NLP) – features allow users to give the system commands that save time and lead to a more pleasant user experience. NLP-enabled CRM systems can analyze customer conversations in real-time, allowing customer service agents to quickly respond to customer queries with greater accuracy and efficiency.
- Social media integration – CRM platforms continue to use a growing number of social media metrics to measure the level of successful customer engagement. For example, measuring traffic and conversion rates from social media platforms, enables businesses to see how many customers visit sites and how those clicks convert into value.
- Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) – are becoming essential and more embedded in CRM. They integrate all customer touchpoints, interactions, and other relevant data sets into the CRM database. CDPs are helping sales and service teams to rapidly create accurate customer profiles from all available sources, enhancing sales conversions as well as customer data analysis processes.
In recent years CRM has improved immensely paying more attention to data management, offering more analytics, and being more user friendly for all customer-facing teams. The Customer One-View or 360-degree view of the customer that CRM offers is very helpful, but the additional value of helping us gain more of an “end to end” process view of the Lead to Cash process provides even greater value.Elisabete of Messer-US
CRM is starting to meet (or exceed in some cases) the expectations it has had for a long time. A system that not only manages all your company’s relationships and interactions with customers and potential customers, but also helps all customer-facing organizations (CS, sales, marketing, others) increase their productivity and efficiency. This value is not only limited to when interacting with customers and amongst themselves by automating and streamlining their activities, but ultimately to improving business relationships and leading to higher organizational profitability.
To truly differentiate your business amongst your peers requires focused attention on the customer across all customer-facing parts of the organization especially in customer service. Some of the best practices being employed to accomplish this include:
- Culture is Key – In order to ace customer service, each member of the organization must be dedicated to consistently meet/exceed expectations, and if possible, even “delight” customers. This is not new and it can sometimes be as simple as doing what you say you will…delivering on your promises. One way of exceeding expectations is by being proactive with your efforts, as opposed to reactive…such as resolving issues before they occur. A simple example is resending “corrected” delivery paperwork to your customer (electronically and following up with a call before the shipment arrives), once you are aware it left the terminal or depot incorrect. Also, the best at customer service asks, collects and acts on feedback, both explicit which customers willingly provide as well as implicit from the analysis of interactions (i.e., call, website and other data). It is understood that although it may be annoying at times to the customer, they know that customer feedback is the key to improving your customer service in the long run and is how they stay ahead of the competition. The final element is onboarding and continuous training as part of building and sustaining the culture. Making sure CSRs are intimately familiar with every product and service, possess the soft skills required for their positions, and knowledgeable with the technology tools available to them, are key to helping to sustain the culture.
- The Human Touch – Automation is a key component in delivering CS, but the human touch is irreplaceable. The key element that makes human touch irreplaceable is the empathy that can be demonstrated by a person. Customers are able to feel a sense of being valued by your company when a CS rep directly communicates with them, and it is also obvious that a person can better understand your customer’s problems. So, the key is accurately balancing the use of automation with the human touch. One approach is the use of segmentation to separate customers into categories based on selected characteristics (i.e., revenues, products purchased, CS support levels, etc.). Specific to CS, this may result in certain services being delivered with live support, and others may be pushed to self-service for specific groups of customers. Typically, segmentation is done across your entire commercial organization (sales, marketing and customer service) to ensure the customer is receiving the same experience across all touchpoints. Often these decisions are difficult and hotly debated, but will result in alignment across the organization.
Even though phone contact is down, and technology platforms are making CSRs more productive, when CSRs do speak to the customer it is about more significant and complex issues. The human touch is even more important than in the past to not only solve complex issues but treat customers with empathy, something that technology cannot do effectively at this point.Elisabete of Messer-US
- Digitize and Automate – Technology is your friend and is also your greatest ally in providing an exceptional customer service experience. Whenever there are opportunities to set up automated notifications, reports, emails or task reminders – take advantage of them. With the right technology platform and tools, and paying close attention to detail during set-up, these automated reminders and notifications can not only save businesses a substantial amount of time and labor, but can also leave a lasting impression on customers. Another important practice is the use of data and analytics to drive decisions and actions. Data comes from all points in a customer relationship — inquiries, purchases, survey feedback, product returns, sales calls and many more. Leading companies often use analytics tools to collect customer data sourced from across the business to generate valuable insights. Ideally, these findings inform marketing, product development, and guide the overall customer experience.
With customer expectations constantly rising, you can’t be afraid of change or trying something new. Identify what a vast majority of customers desire and target delivering on them.Brent Wingerter, Marketing & Brand Manager for CK Supply
Although the concept of customer service and leveraging CRM have been around for a long time, it is clear that with every new technology or work process innovation (i.e., computers/laptops, eCommerce, mobile, social media, Chat, and more recently AI), CS scope and delivery expectations continue to rise. The advent of Generative AI and ChatGPT technology specifically, appears to be the next one and has the potential to provide disruptive benefits. Its potential to improve productivity and scalability through automation and intelligent routing, elimination of language barriers, and offer consistent and unified customer experiences across an omnichannel platform, potentially makes it a perfect tool to elevate the customer experience. In August of this year, Gartner’s Hype Cycle which distills key insights from more than 2,000 technologies each year into a succinct set of “must-know” emerging technologies, states that this space has potential to deliver transformational benefits over the next 2-5 years. As a result, there are many pilots and use cases being developed to use Generative AI for CS across a wide variety of industries including industrial gases. So, it may be a good time to “stick your toe in the water,” and test it out for yourself and see if it compliments your business model.