OPINION9 December 2015

The business of emotion

B2B Opinion

There have been long held assumptions that the key to unlocking B2B relationships is rational. That the ability for an employee to justify their choice or spend rested solely on their ability to demonstrate a tangible business benefit to others in their hierarchy.

The trouble is that the B2B reality has changed. Technology more than anything else has started to narrow the differences in process between competing corporates by shifting more and more interactions online. We all are aware that clicks are encroaching on bricks and that the impact of this is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for human-to-human contact.

Without an emotional connection, B2B relationships are at serious risk.

This reality is becoming more pertinent with the emergence of a new breed of B2B customer: one that is tech-savvy, informed, socially connected, values peer recommendations and places more emphasis on customer experience. In essence, one that more closely resembles its B2C counterparts.

As a result, B2B customer needs and expectations are shifting, with emotional engagement playing an increasingly important role. In fact, the value of the customer experience is now said to have surpassed cost as the top factor in a B2B purchasing decision, and customers show a willingness to pay a premium for a superior experience – suggesting this area holds serious future commercial value.

B2B brands are beginning to recognise customer experience as a key competitive differentiator. However, efforts to devise an optimal approach and connect emotionally tend to focus on the first ‘pre-purchase’ stage of the customer journey. This strategy is short-sighted as arguably equal, if not more attention, should be paid to the aftercare experience.

Take the case of international shipping providers. The world of international express shipments is becoming increasingly homogenised: consolidation and technology advances have reduced the differences in the process of express parcel shipments between operators to almost nothing.

What appears to be more valuable is to recognise that emotion and customer empathy needs not just to be delivered, but needs to be delivered at the right time

The new frontier in B2B competitiveness within this sector comes down to who is seen to care more. At the highest level brands such as UPS, FedEx and DHL are spending considerable amounts on brand campaigns that have a strong emotional undercurrent. But in many cases, the reality of the customer journey means that the delivery of this emotion is in the wrong place. If all else is going well, then rational process and simple, efficient operation that minimises customer time and effort is entirely appropriate.

What appears to be more valuable is to recognise that emotion and customer empathy needs not just to be delivered, but needs to be delivered at the right time. That the best solution lies in meeting customers with equivalent emotion when they are most ‘emotionally galvanised’ themselves. In the case of international express shipments, as with many B2B providers, this tends to be not when things are going right, but when they are going wrong.

The irony is that participants in this sector have tried to streamline the process around complaint handling in the same way that they have streamlined the process of shipping itself, the assumption being that a speedy and efficient response to locating a misplaced parcel or delayed shipment is enough. What they have generally failed to realise is that while this process might be appropriate for a customer in a non-agitated state (i.e. when booking a shipment), it is open to misinterpretation and criticism when they are more emotionally invested (as they are when things go missing or wrong). It is exactly at this moment that an emotional mirror needs to be held up so that the customer feels that the provider cares.

With trust being at the heart of any successful, long-term B2B relationship, when promises are not kept, the stakes are high. Moreover, the extent to which a bad customer experience has long-term and far-reaching implications is only likely to increase. As B2B buyers increasingly mimic consumer actions, enterprises can expect similar behaviours from B2B decision-makers. The threat of bad B2B experiences proliferating on social media looms.

Positive complaint handling requires highly trained employees who are empathetic, autonomous and empowered to respond to the individual’s needs at the point of emotional distress. Fundamentally, it requires a human response – challenging the discourse that we are not far away from technology replacing human interaction with B2B customers. And so while B2B enterprises continue to concentrate on investing time and money in digital systems and strategies, it is easy to overlook the power of people and their ability to make or break customer engagement and deliver upon customers increasing emotive needs.

Inconsistency of corporate performance is inevitable within any category. And when things go wrong, while you can’t turn the clock back and change what’s happened, you can influence how the customer is left feeling. Illustrating the power of positive complaint handling, studies have proven that a well-handled complaint not only counters feelings of negativity toward the company, it has the potential to increase loyalty, repurchase intentions and positive word of mouth.

Samantha Bond is a research manager at Northstar