A new McKinsey & Co. report reveals a startling disconnect between b-to-b companies and their customers that should give every marketer pause to reflect on their priorities.
The study, “How B2B Companies Talk Past Their Customers,” asked 700 global executives how they evaluate the brand strengths of their suppliers. Researchers then compared those priorities with messages from the world's 90 largest b-to-b companies.
They found that two of the “themes” that customers value most—open dialogue and responsible business practices—received almost no attention in messages from big b-to-b companies. Conversely, the themes that marketers emphasize the most—from global reach to sustainable practices—are of little interest to customers.
“Honest and open dialogue, which customers considered most important, was one of the three themes not emphasized at all by the 90 companies in our sample,” the researchers reported. McKinsey also observed a herd mentality among b-to-b marketers, with themes such as innovation and corporate social responsibility appearing so often that the messages effectively cancel each other out. Low prices actually had a negative connotation with customers.
My own experience is consistent with McKinsey's findings. Front-line marketers in large companies are often buried deep within org charts. They aren't encouraged to contact customers directly but rather to think of them as demographic segments.
Subject matter experts are shielded from direct customer involvement out of concern for their time, fears of competitive poaching and worries that they'll simply say the wrong thing. Tech companies have led the way in opening up channels through blogs and social networks, but for many b-to-b companies social media remains simply another one-way delivery channel.
This research suggests an opportunity for smaller companies to set themselves apart by making customer contact part of everyone's job. Last month I attended a user conference put on by Spiceworks, which is shaking up the media landscape with an innovative model based on software-as-a-service. More than 800 IT professionals attended this two-day love-in, and Spiceworks turned nearly its entire workforce loose to mix and mingle. Spiceworks has more than 3,000 feature requests in its queue, and direct contact between developers and customers is not only the best way to set priorities but also a sign that the company cares about what its customers think.
Spiceworks is an exception. Many small b-to-b companies are founded by people who used to work for large ones. Instead of breaking the mold, they seek to recreate it. McKinsey's research suggests that these companies have an opportunity to make transparency and engagement a competitive advantage. Few have yet seized that opportunity.
For big companies, it's time to rethink the tradition of protecting subject matter experts from the public. Marketing needs to change its traditional view of media training as being limited to a handful of top executives. Today, the challenge is to media train the entire company.