Todays' customers are rapidly changing their buying behavior, and, as a consequence brand loyalty is diminishing quickly. Today's customers place less trust in brands and tend to switch brands more often than they did in the past. For a long time, a company’s brand was seen as its most important asset—sometimes even considered as more valuable than products, patents, and process perfection put together. However, as customers are increasingly becoming empowered buyers, they tend to investigate the real value of products and rely on facts and peer reviews more than on logos and old habits.
When customers relied on printed brochures and catalogs that they could pick up at a retail store or from a sales representative, combined with their previous experience with a company, brands served as proxies for quality. If a TV was made by Sony, or a mobile phone by Nokia, customers typically assumed that it was a good product. Back then, if the first experience was a good one, customers often bought products from the same brand over and over and stuck to that single brand for extended periods of time. In the transparent marketplace that is driven by universal Internet access and constant mobile connectivity, customers now shop around, looking for the best product for the best possible price—regardless of brand.
In the book “Absolute Value,” Itamar Simonson & Emanuel Rosen illustrate that brand used to be an effective tool when information was scarce and hard to come by. In the book, they write: “The new information environment around us allows consumers to predict much more accurately the experienced quality (or absolute value) of products and services they consider getting. The implications for consumers and businesses are enormous. First, reliance on absolute values means that, on average, consumers tend to make better decisions and become less susceptible to context or framing manipulations. For businesses, it means that marketing is changing forever.”
This shift from brand value to absolute value is very positive for the customer as it helps them make better and more educated purchasing decisions. At the same time, it increases competition that raises product quality, while keeping prices down. Upstarts can benefit immensely from this behavioral and technological change as it is now cheaper, faster, and easier to compete with established brands. Social media and data-driven marketing make it quick and cost effective to get the product story out there, if they have a good one. The product is front and center in the new world of commerce.
Without the brand, the product is on its own
When empowered buyers quickly research their way to a buying decision, each product now has to prove itself on its own. It can no longer be marketed and sold based on brand value alone. This means that companies need to focus more on the product and especially on its accompanying product information. This is equally true for B2B as it is for B2C as the modern B2B buyer is inclined to use the same buying behavior at work as they do as consumers. The consumerization of B2B has already happened, and it is continually growing in strength.
Reviews and other types of user-generated content are of course very valuable as customers tend to trust their peers more than the retailer or the manufacturer. Besides building trust for the product, it also is great for SEO (Search Engine Optimization). It also puts pressure on the product itself, as it needs to be satisfactory for the customer and live up to the promise that is being made in the product story. With customers that focus on products rather than brands, it is the product’s promise, not the brand’s. In many cases, the product is completely on its own and needs to be able to tell its story by itself.
Customers + products = business
Customer-centricity is now more important than ever and knowing your customer becomes critical if you want to provide them with the best possible customer experience. If you combine customer intelligence with product intelligence and use that to serve up the right product with the right information to your customers, you are in a good position to win new customers and keep them loyal, regardless of brand.
As a consequence, high quality information about your customers and products is essential to be the winner in the battle of the customer. You have to be great at managing both types of information to succeed. To do that you need the appropriate organization, processes, and systems support to get there and stay there.
Johan Boström, Co-founder and Evangelist, inRiver
Today, manufacturers are as responsible for their company’s product information as they are for the physical product. But, as many know, the manufacturing of physical goods is often more efficient and lean than the production of the accompanying product information. The creation of product information is mostly a chaotic and inefficient process, with enormous potential for improvement. This inefficiency in the product information management process is equally valid for managing data and digital assets, creating bundles and kits, and merchandising, publishing and syndication. The cost of the content creation chaos is enormous, and it is time to do something about it.
The lean way out of chaos
Chaotic and unstructured ways of working can cause waste in all sorts of production processes. This waste can increase production cost, cause a loss in sales, and be detrimental to the quality of the end-product. Lean production is a tool used by businesses to streamline manufacturing and production processes. Lean Six Sigma defines waste as any step or action in a process that is not required to complete it successfully; these steps are called “Non-Value-Adding.”
When all waste is removed, only the steps that are necessary to deliver a satisfactory product or service to the customer remain in the process; these steps are called “Value-Adding.” Removing actions that do not add value is, of course, common sense. Lean Six Sigma just provides some useful methods to do it in a structured way and to help refine the processes over time.
TIMWOODS for product information creation
Lean Six Sigma defines eight (7+1) primary types of waste in a process, and there is an acronym—“TIM WOODS”—to help us remember them. Nevertheless, the way that the types of waste are defined in Lean Six Sigma are not entirely applicable to the creation of product information, so we need to redefine the types of waste, so they better fit the creation of product information, rather than the production of physical products or services.
Let's look at TIM WOODS with our PIM glasses on:
The content creation factory
To make product content creation and distribution as efficient as all other production and logistics processes requires that we start looking at product content creation in the same way that we do with all other production. We need to build an efficient content creation factory combined with stellar information logistics. Looking at Lean Six Sigma can be one of many starting points to build an efficient content creation factory.
It is unwise to leap a chasm in two bounds; starting small is always advisable. However, every company that wants to win the battle of the customer must start now. Start with the people in the organization, define an efficient process, and procure the right tools. Lean Six Sigma aims to make the work simple enough to understand, execute, and manage. Having simplicity as a top priority will help you design a reliable, predictable, and repeatable process. Good luck in your endeavors to build your product content factory!
Johan Boström, Co-founder and Evangelist, inRiver
Forrester analyst Andy Hoar wrote an excellent report—“Death of a (B2B) Salesman”—about how B2B buyer preferences have quickly and fundamentally shifted. The name of the report refers to the trend that B2B buyers increasingly prefer to self-educate versus talk to sales representatives to learn about products and services. They also think that buying online is more convenient than buying from a salesperson. As Andy Hoar concludes, the B2B buyer behavior has changed signiﬁcantly in the past few years, but B2B corporate sales activity has not.
When more than 70% of customers do not want to interact with sales representatives, the appearance of the sales funnel changes in a dramatic way. Instead of looking in a printed catalog and calling the sales rep, B2B buyers are now starting their buying journey—and their entry into the funnel—by searching Google, Amazon Business, or other B2B eCommerce sites, increasingly using a mobile device while being on the go. You need to quickly help them find you, guide them to the right solution, and gain their trust without any human interaction. This is not easy to do, but a lot of business and revenue will be lost if you fail. In contrast, a lot of business will be won if you succeed.
So how can you turn this dramatic shift to your advantage and gain B2B sales superpowers?
Step 1: Get found.
To be found you need to be great at SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and provide Google and Amazon with the right high-quality content. SEO is constantly changing as Google and others optimize and modify their search algorithms, and many people make a good living out of consulting on the subject. However, without that high-quality content, these consultants cannot help you, because the foundation for successful SEO is high-quality, keyword-rich content. You need to provide this content to all your attracting channels, and to do so, you need to produce large amounts of it. It is much more efficient if it is created and stored granularly—instead of as large chunks of text—and is professionally localized.
Step 2: Guide the customer.
If you succeed with step 1, congratulations! The buyer has found you. You now need to guide them, as they most likely landed on a product page and not on a Home or category page. Your goal now is to provide the buyer with a guided navigation that quickly presents relevant products and the associated ecosystem of up-sells and cross-sells. Since the buyer may be using a mobile device, time is of the essence, and your on-site search and navigation will determine if they will find what you have to sell.
Your on-site search must be fast and efficient. Most likely, your search functionality is driving the guided (faceted) navigation. It is called a search engine for a reason, and the fuel for that engine is product content—high-quality, granular content.
Step 3: Gain trust.
If you have your product attributes and assortment in order, the B2B buyer should now have a few alternatives to choose from that match their need. Like any great sales rep, your goal now is to build rapport and trust with the customer—through your website interaction. You need to make it fast and easy to compare products, by providing all the necessary information. Most importantly, you need to display accurate information that is consistent across all the touchpoints in the customer's buying journey. Even small errors, such as the gross weight being lower than the net weight, will make the rest of your information not seem very trustworthy. On the other hand, a product video or a 360-degree spin will increase the chances of a sale, by increasing the customer's confidence in your product.
Selling complex products
If you sell complex products, it is often necessary to have an expert, such as a customer care or sales representative, help the customer to create a correct order. However, even if that is the case, most buyers will have done considerable research before they contact your sales rep or product expert. B2B buyers are empowered buyers, and you need to empower your sales team to meet this new challenge. Buyers and sellers alike need access to all the knowledge you have about the product, and they need it in real time, just like your website. You may also need to augment this information with a CPQ tool (Configure Price Quote) with configuration capabilities, which will unquestionably drive the need for more and extremely accurate product information.
Content is still king!
I hope you get my point. Content is the foundation for turning this dramatic shift to your advantage, in all phases of the buying journey, and irrespective of the systems and tools you invest in. Don't get me wrong: digital marketing and sales tools are necessary to manage the new B2B sales funnel efficiently. But before you invest in tools that empower customers and sales reps alike, invest in your content and keep investing in it. Content is a lot like fruit; it is a perishable asset with a shelf life, and you can never stop producing and updating it.
Johan Boström, Co-founder and Evangelist, inRiver