Let’s first burst a myth bubble before we dive into the topic.
What kinds of companies come to mind immediately when you hear someone mention good customer service?
If we had to guess, you most probably thought of brands like Disney, Zappos, or JetBlue Airlines. Right?
And although those were all correct answers, it shows a tendency that most of us have to think that good customer service exists only in the realm of business-to-consumer (B2C) companies
People rarely mention a company from the business-to-business (B2B) domain that offers excellent customer service.
(Go ahead and try it. Name three B2B brands that are famous for their customer service. Was it tough?)
Now, if you work in customer service for a B2B company, that makes things a little harder. Your customers are businesses that need to get stuff done. Quickly. They want efficient and competent customer service, and they don’t want those “fun” customer service gimmicks that B2C companies seem to get away with—nay, get heaps of praise for—all the time.
So, can you provide good customer service for your B2B company? We’ll show you. In this post, we will look at:
- The difference between B2C customer service and B2B customer service
- 5 B2B customer service best practices
- 3 B2B customer service examples from real-life brands
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How is B2B customer service different from B2C customer service?
It’s easier to understand the differences between B2B customer service and B2C customer service if we know the basic distinction between the two.
B2C companies offer products and services that are built for the masses—individuals and households.
If you take a look around your house at retail products like your breakfast cereal, your iPhone 11 Pro, or the concert ticket to see your favorite band—these are all B2C products.
B2C buyers have smaller purchase sizes. They want quality products (who doesn’t?), but their buying decision is heavily influenced by features, pricing, or discounts.
B2C buyers also respond favorably to simple, catchy marketing—like McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” or State Farm’s “Like a good neighbor…” ads.
B2C companies’ relationships with brands are relatively transactional, short-term, and fickle—unless they have good incentives to be brand loyalists.
The way the B2B world operates is the polar opposite of B2C. B2B buyers’ requirements tend to be more demanding and often, the-only-one-of-its-kind unique.
B2B companies market their products at an account level—that is, to teams or functions, rather than individuals.
For B2B buyers, price is usually secondary. They insist on quality products that they can rely on for the long-term, even if it means paying a few thousand dollars extra.
Their sales process is complicated too—they often involve legal teams, signing contracts, and negotiating service-level agreements (SLAs).
Finally, the quality of customer service is a huge consideration for B2B companies when they make a purchase decision.
And there are good reasons why B2B brands are so particular about customer service.
Let’s talk about each of them!
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1. B2B brands have more complex issues
As an individual buyer, when you call a B2C brand’s customer service, it’s mostly for common issues such as a refund on a damaged item or checking on the return status of a shipment.
And the process is pretty straightforward: you contact their online customer support team via email, chat, or phone and get your question resolved. You don’t always have to go through the hassles of submitting a support ticket.
But in B2B, the customer service process is… a little more entangled than that.
That’s because most B2B customer service requests tend to be more technical.
For instance, let’s say your business bought Mac desktops for your entire team of 20 people. In this case, you’re more likely to call Apple’s enterprise support team for issues related to software troubleshooting, IT security, or network configuration.
There’s also an inevitable amount of back-and-forth since a B2B customer service team often has to dive deep to resolve a customer issue.
2. Collaboration is the key to B2B customer service
In the B2C domain, a single customer service rep might be able to handle a customer’s request independently because the nature of service relationship is usually one-to-one. The buyer is almost always the person seeking customer service.
But B2B customer service teams often have to work with multiple stakeholders within one client account.
Going back to the example above, while it might have been Martha from your procurement team who placed the order for 20 Macs for your business, it could be Bob from the IT who contacts Apple’s enterprise support to ask for help with device configuration issues.
This is also true on the vendor side. For instance, when your Head of IT calls Apple’s customer service, the latter might have to rope in an IT expert from another team to get your issues resolved.
Here, customer service teamwork is always the antidote to complexity. You should be able to offer a holistic and consistently uniform customer experience when customers contact your business for help.
3. Customer relationships are deeper in a B2B setup
How’s this for a paradox? B2B customer service teams deal with multiple stakeholders at different points of time—and yet, they tend to develop a uniquely personal connection with their customers over time.
For instance—unlike in a B2C domain—most of the B2B customer service reps know their customers on a first-name basis.
This is true because B2B service reps work with their clients for a relatively longer time—sometimes, repeatedly—deepening these customer relationships over time.
To be fair, B2C brands also offer great personalization to their customers in their marketing and product experience.
But most B2C customer service reps don’t get to talk to the same customer twice because the reps-to-customers ratio is usually pretty huge.
4. B2B teams tend to take longer to resolve customer issues
At a cursory level, this sounds like we’re saying B2B customer service teams are unnecessarily long-winded.
But hear us out before you make that call.
The complex nature of B2B customer service typically requires customer service teams to do some research in order to provide the best possible solutions to their clients. It’s not like they can just fire off a two-line reply through their website’s live chat and be done with it.
The time it takes for them to do the homework, follow protocols, run tests, make sure everything’s compliant, and document everything naturally prolongs the service delivery time.
While most of the metrics used to measure the performance of customer service in B2C and B2B are the same, brands in the respective domains look at them differently.
For example, the average first-call resolution time (FCR) for B2C brands is way higher than it is for B2B brands. (Thankfully, B2B brands can take several measures to improve their FCR rate.)
The 5 B2B customer service best practices
If you ever find yourself wondering, “How can I improve online customer service?”… here are five go-to customer service tips for B2B brands.
1. Know your customers inside out
B2B customer service is relationship-driven. You’re playing the long game here. To really master B2B customer service, you have to build a solid rapport with multiple people on your account—while offering them personalized solutions.
Unlike in the B2C space, B2B customer service teams are always dealing with professionals or experts from another industry. Remember that your B2B clients are technically-savvy, data-obsessed, and they have their own customers to cater to.
Build a customer-centric strategy and support culture that positions you as a partner in your customers’ growth and success. Offer them technically superior, contextual, and long-term solutions that’ll help them achieve their own business goals.
2. Build some omni-digital support muscle
Each B2B customer has their unique set of problems to solve.
Sometimes, they might call you for solving housekeeping issues like managing their software’s performance. Other times, they might have more advanced questions related to maybe scaling the product usage.
This naturally demands cross-functional collaboration between multiple experts and teams in your business (as well as in your client’s team).
In these situations, you have to make sure the groundwork for communication and collaboration is in place.
For example, you might want a collaboration tool for your contact center to automatically sync data from your customer relationship management (CRM) software to your helpdesk app. That means all your customer-facing teams such as marketing, sales, and customer support can have easy access to your customers’ data. No more emailing or messaging each other to find out answers to simple questions like “When did this customer last contact us?” or “What product did they purchase from us?”
Other times, you might want a software that lets every team in your business see your customer data in a central dashboard.
3. Sign SLAs, especially with complex B2B customers
Not all customers are created equal.
Some B2B companies have service requirements that are more complicated than others (for example, government entities that need on-premises solutions for security reasons).
Others might have compliant-related issues (such as healthcare companies that require HIPAA compliance).
But most B2B customer service works on a first-come, first-served model; you can’t let one client jump the support queue before another.
Unless, of course, you have a prioritization system. In the B2B space, this goes by the name of SLAs.
The SLAs are somewhat like prenuptial agreements. It describes a mutual understanding between you and your clients, and the services you offer them (including customer support), their availability, and your responsibilities.
Because it’s signed before you enter into a sales contract, it sets the right expectations about your support capabilities and limitations.
An SLA can help you re-prioritize your support tickets based on your existing support bandwidth, the severity of issues, and their complexities.
4. Create helpful self-service options
Yes, B2B customer issues can often be very demanding and high-touch.
On the flip side, many companies have internal experts who can take care of their problems on their own. After all, they’re business professionals.
All they need might be a little nudge from your side.
Offering them self-service support options is a great way to help them do this. For example, you could build a support page with frequently asked questions (FAQs), product documentation, how-to guides, video tutorials, and knowledge base articles.
Self-service support has multiple advantages, not just for your clients but also for your business. It’s a form of automated customer service that’s always-on and scalable—very important for B2B customer service especially because it can take a huge load off of your team when it comes to technical questions.
Pro-tip: If you have good self-service options, it can help your contact center team run more efficiently and focus on the complicated questions that absolutely need a human to resolve.
5. Make your customer service proactive
When it comes to business success, the future is in the hands of brands that can offer proactive customer service.
Think of any B2B brand that’s successful by objective standards. Now pay attention to what makes them different from their decidedly more average competition. More often than not, it’s a difference in not just their products and service, but also the quality of their customer support.
Proactive customer service is a competitive advantage for any business in today’s hyper-competitive business environment. For most B2B brands, it can lead to higher customer lifetime value and customer retention. Not to mention being proactive also helps you create a direct customer feedback loop so that you can take care of minor problems before they become big ones.
The trend of setting up customer success teams in the B2B space is a testimony to why the focus is shifting from new customer acquisition to increased customer retention.1
Some B2B brands are also making adjustments to their traditional sales practices by setting up farming teams2 or investing in customer marketing teams3 to create more revenue from existing customers. Someone who bought from you once is more likely to buy from you again (if they were happy with the product and service).
Don’t be reactive and wait for your customers to come to you with complaints. By then, they’re already annoyed and probably frustrated. Empower your customer service team to start these interactions off on the right foot by proactively and regularly looking for opportunities for your business to improve the customer experience.
B2B customer service examples from real-life companies
For a change, let’s talk about brands not named Zappos or Amazon that operate in the B2B world—but are equally famous for sweeping customers off their feet.
From its inception in 2006 to becoming a global brand with over 18,000 users across 100 countries in 2020, PipelineDeals has grown to become one of the fastest-growing B2B brands in the US.
(And if you don’t find that impressive, maybe you’ll change your mind in a minute.)
PipelineDeals is in the business of providing CRM software—a market that’s crowded with more than 80 players in the US market alone.
And the competition is tough; everyone from a 10-member mom-and-pop brand to Silicon
Valley giants want a piece of the profit pie in the CRM marketplace. Salesforce, a monolith from the Valley area, single-handedly owns over 19% of market share.4
Despite all of this, PipelineDeals has made the annual Inc. 5000 list since 2014 (it’s like climbing the billboard charts of the CRM world) while also adding a string of awards to its claim.5
So what’s the secret recipe to PipelineDeals’ success? You guessed it—the magic lies in the uncompromising quality of customer service it offers.
By the way, PipelineDeals is a fully bootstrapped company, and half of its employees work remotely—including the support team.
(Still not impressed? Keep reading.)
PipelineDeals realized the value of team communication and collaboration during its early days of growth. And because most of their customers prefer calling their customer service, they use RingCentral’s cloud phone solution (that’s us!) to make sure there is a human in place to attend a call—regardless of what time or day it is.
They also use RingCentral’s platform to train and onboard new reps, loop in experts from other teams in a live call to address a customer issue, and pull reporting data to monitor and improve their agents’ performance:
“A big part of our value proposition is that, as a customer, you’ll always be able to reach a human when you call us,” explains Paige Thomas, the company’s Customer Care Manager.
Thomas also says that RingCentral helps her remote support team stay on top of each customer issue, even if they’re on the road or not in the same country. Now that’s customer service.
If you haven’t heard of Qumulo before, we don’t blame you.
Qumulo is a B2B company that lives in the small niche of enterprise data storage.
But while most people haven’t heard of Qumulo, Qumulo’s own customers love the brand to bits. And it’s easy to see why.
For starters, every Qumulo customer gets a dedicated Customer Success (CS) rep. The brand believes that by offering proactive help and support, they create a kind of magnetic field around their customers to attract more customers. A very interesting concept.
Qumulo also invests in a whole spectrum of communication channels such as its customer care team, an online community, and a cloud-based monitoring platform that lets customers send real-time data automatically to Qumulo’s CS team.
Here’s how Qumulo’s range of customer service looks like in one picture:
Their native-built cloud-based monitoring platform is one of the most innovative customer service cases we’ve ever seen.
Basically, it kicks into action when a Qumulo customer enables the cloud platform to send automated, Qumulo-related data to their CS team. In turn, the CS team gets in touch with that customer if they see an issue so that they can fix it—even before the customers can raise a ticket.
This approach also allows the Qumulo team to proactively witness how customers are using their product and improve the product experience.
HubSpot might just be the opposite case of Qumulo because—well, who hasn’t heard of their sales and marketing automation software?
But while HubSpot is world-famous for their inbound marketing strategies, not a lot of people know that their customer service is equally awesome.
HubSpot offers one of the most high-touch customer support among all B2B brands. Their proactive support is present in every interaction you have with their product or brand—whether it’s their product pages, software, or mobile apps.
By encouraging customers to make the most of their easy-to-use products, HubSpot increases the customers’ dependency on its products and retains them as its lifelong, fanatic users.
What’s incredible about HubSpot is that they make B2B customer service look so easy. For one, they’ve gamified their support by offering online courses, product training, and HubSpot certifications.
That means being knowledgeable about using HubSpot products earns people some sort of bragging rights in their professional circles—while the brand takes a load off its customer support and delegates it to these newfound “product evangelists.” Genius.
HubSpot’s customer-centric vision flows directly from HubSpot leadership. Here’s what Brian Halligan, HubSpot’s co-founder and CEO, believes in:
“If B2B companies want to get ahead of the game, they are going to have to get rid of all the friction in their business to better attract, engage, and delight customers… [In the past] your product needed to be 10 times better than the competition’s. Now, your customer experience must be 10 times lighter than the competition’s.”
We can’t agree more, Brian.
Give B2B customer service its due credit
B2B customer service can sound dry, boring, and unglamorous by B2C company standards. It’s also more difficult to please B2B customers. It often takes more than just a 5-minute chat with customer service to resolve most complex issues, and it’s not like these types of issues are few and far between either.
But if you can do B2B customer service right, you can give your business an advantage that defends you against cutthroat pricing from competitors, minor mistakes, and more.
And of course, you’d be making a huge difference to not only your own bottom line—but also your customers’ businesses as well.
And that’s the single biggest reason why B2B customer service is worth doing well.
Originally published Mar 31, 2020, updated Jul 01, 2022