In an inflationary environment, B2B businesses need to innovate and focus on their customers’ current needs, says marketing strategist Andy Slipher.
One of my favorite experts on strategy, Richard Rumelt, wisely declared that strategy is episodic in nature. It’s not meant to last forever. It can change with major events or disturbances to the equilibrium of your approach, like the inflation we are currently seeing and the cost-of-living crisis. But these changes in conditions also represent opportunities – for B2C, B2B and DTC alike. And if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably observed such a state in your B2B environment and are searching for additional guidance.
At present, external factors, such as rising costs and low unemployment, are likely forcing you to change or modify the way you’re doing business. But what about the opportunities presenting themselves that you may be missing by just maintaining the status quo?
Rising interest rates and inflationary conditions are an opportunity to evaluate your marketing approach. Declare a revisit if you’re noticing the effects with your customers or in your B2B sales outcomes. The whole pandemic mess set many of these current factors into motion in 2020. COVID sideswiped B2B marketers (supply chain issues, sinking demand, loss of live meetings with clients and prospects), and now inflation is flanking us on the other side. It’s almost a textbook case for the need to be flexible and how to survive in trying times.
Here are four areas for investigation that can be used to evaluate the condition of and changes to your B2B strategic marketing.
Approach instability as an opportunity to innovate
Some of the best ideas and innovations have thrived during times of instability or recession – app-based self-serve transportation, the PC, privatized overnight shipping, cable television. All these innovations were started or thrived during economic downturns. Even MTV, music television, was born during the sluggish economy of the early 1980s. Amidst the downturn, people increasingly adopted cable as a relatively low-cost expanded home entertainment option. MTV was there as a part of many basic cable subscription packages to offer something wholly different and engaging to the youth audience of the time.
You may not invent the next PC or be the next MTV, but the idea remains: find something of specific value with a specific buyer cohort when external factors change. If it’s raining, offer bigger umbrellas instead of simply telling customers how to take shelter.
Look to insights derived from customers themselves. Listen to and learn from customers’ current need states. They will tell you their priorities, which can give you the seeds to innovate. What are their current pain points? Is it internal strife due to a dearth of talent? Are supply chain issues making things harder? Have upstart competitors changed the landscape?
Odds are in B2B, you have greater access to your customers than a B2C environment dealing with greater masses at a relatively lower cost. Your product or service is essential (or at least important) to B2B customers. Clients are often happy to provide feedback, input, and insights. Just ask them!
Address how and what your customer is buying today, amid inflation
When times change, habits often change. Research published by Gartner in 2019 shows that today’s B2B buyers spend only 17% of their time interfacing with a potential supplier. The rest of the time is dedicated to self-initiated activities such as research (online and offline) and internal team discussions. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has only accelerated this self-service approach. Question your current approach. How finely focused are your offerings? Is there a lower cost, but feature comparable substitute? How is your messaging answering implicit buyer questions in this disruption? What kinds of content do you provide to both address buyer needs and establish credibility? How easy does your engagement process make it for the B2B buyer to say, “yes”?
Invest in a systematic approach, not another tactic
Too narrow an approach is not an approach at all. It’s a tactic. Tactics are necessary, as they make up the way we deploy strategies, but they work best when integrated and not as stand-alone, single purpose efforts.
To be clear, a strategy is a systematic and integrated approach to tackling a particular challenge – any challenge. Successful strategies involve choice, commitment, focus and even sacrifice. You might sacrifice more service offerings in favor of greater expertise and efficiency. You may choose fewer products over ubiquity. You may even sacrifice a wider target base to exploit the unmet needs of a narrow set of industries. Strategy is not easy for the very fact that it is singular and systematic in its focus. And knowing/admitting what you don’t know is important. There is no shame in seeking outside help in developing a distilled and efficient strategy. Sometimes you just need a new set of eyes to reveal opportunities.
Integrate sales and marketing; leave the silos behind
Marketing is anything you do to get your product or service into the proverbial hands of the customer. Using this framing, some B2B marketers are looking beyond separate sales and marketing strategies to one of simply driving revenue in its various forms. Organizations are hiring chief revenue officers responsible for uniting activities between marketing and sales. The intent is to turns these functional siloes into integrated teams who serve the buyer first – building products, offers, messaging and processes around all aspects of the customer journey. B2B companies like Motorola Solutions are successfully undertaking new protocols and data analysis methods in order to better align sales and marketing to the benefit of greater sales revenues.
In this integrated scenario, marketers become more involved in the formulation of products and services, thinking earlier of value, customer experience, and messaging while being the voice of the customer. Likewise, the sales function should work with and learn from in-house subject matter experts to be more consultative during the sales process. Bring these SMEs along to your client conversations; integrate them into your process. These are but a few examples of how the roles of marketing and sales may need to change and evolve within your B2B organization.
Notice, none of the ideas offered here are tactical silver bullets for how to navigate your B2B business in an inflationary environment. Rather, effective tactics are an outgrowth of the development and application of a distilled and sharp strategy. Start with an approach that shifts your point of view away from uncertainty and scarcity to strategies that offer alternate solutions, aimed directly at the current needs of the buyer. With this, you’ll be prepared to act appropriately when external economic forces change.