One question that is often asked by many of our business-to-business (B2B) clients is this – how important is it for us to be engaged with or knowledgeable about the end user experience?

It’s a great question, especially given the investment required to make that choice.

According to Gallup, B2B companies must engage their customers and create impact by providing a meaningful change in their business (or business processes) that significantly improves their overall performance. So, if you’re trying to influence a change in your customer business, don’t you need to be pretty well versed in what they do?

It used to be easy. For B2C companies, they knew that for the most part, consumers made buying decisions based on status, security, comfort and quality. Traditionally, B2B procurement buyers made buying decisions based on increasing profitability, reducing costs and enhancing productivity.

But things have changed.
• Innovation, differentiation and consumer trends have found their way into the conversation.
• B2B buyers are asking their suppliers for ideas that set the stage for downstream innovation and new product introductions.
• Providing customers with a less expensive mousetrap is a perfect way to commoditize your offering.

This is game changing for a B2B supplier.

The old adage “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” is no longer true. This has major implications for a B2B supplier, especially as it relates to your traditional marketing spend.

In the past, a traditional B2B offering products and services to other businesses would put their marketing dollars into programs and materials that offer your target market what they need to make a rational buying decision. That would include quality materials, testimonials and other activities that build credibility.

But now, in an effort to provide a value proposition that sets you apart, some things have to change in how you approach the business:

1. Understand the path to purchase
Getting yourself rooted in the complete value chain for your customer is vital – from raw material to the end user. There are steps along the way for your customer, which include how they distribute their products, how they communicate with end users and how those end users make decisions. This will identify your opportunity to intervene and innovate within that process.

2. Innovate (but not in the traditional way)
Don’t get caught in the trap of creating solutions while looking for problems. Innovation comes in many shapes and sizes. Innovation cannot only be about something “new and shiny”. Innovation can also come from improvements or optimization throughout and across the value chain. Re-engineering a process that saves money, adds value in the marketplace or creates competitive advantage for your customer can be just as sexy as creating the next great widget.

3. Change you how invest marketing dollars
Consider changing your marketing investment to developing your own understanding of the end user experience, their needs/challenges and the role you’re offering can play in developing products and solutions that directly address those opportunities. For example, a company that makes components for the auto industry should be compelled to understand what matters to the person buying the car. A packaging supplier should take a leadership position in developing packaging that is more shelf friendly and easier to shop.

4. Reset your market position and value proposition
Consider your product positioning and your value proposition. If you cannot be the lowest cost supplier (and don’t want to be) and you choose to establish yourself as a value-added supplier, how do you achieve downstream recognition for that capability? This is where marketing vehicles – including sales materials, website and ongoing engagement with your customers (i.e., newsletters or blogs) matters. The best chance you have to avoid being commoditized is to look, feel and act differently.

5. Collaborate (but don’t forget that you have to earn that seat at the table)
Often times the customer has the answer you’re seeking relative to the end user experience – you just have to ask the right question. You earn the right to have this conversation with a customer when you demonstrate a meaningful impact to their business. Once you do, engage with them in a setting that makes it easy for them to share and collaborate.

Times are changing. Expectations are changing. Staying power in this space is no longer related to having the lowest price. Sustainability in these relationships is shifting from price to value. The question you need to ask yourself is this: how are we bringing value every day?