Why Business-To-Business Companies Need To Act More Like Business-To-Consumer Companies

There’s been a lot of talk recently about companies’ reactions to fans’ online activities. Target, Ford and Hasbro have all been on the receiving end of many bloggers’ wrath following their responses to these activities (rightly or wrongly, depending on the situation).

Hasbro, in particular, seems to be having a hard time getting its message out in response to the Scrabulous issue. Conversely, Target (which, in my opinion, dug its own grave on this particular issue) managed to communicate that it is "reviewing the policy" of not dealing with non-traditional media and Ford quickly set the record straight with the Mustang/CafePress issue.

Could it be that the reason why Hasbro is struggling is that it’s not used to dealing directly with consumers?

Business-to-business (B2B) companies – companies that sell their products or services to other companies, rather than directly to consumers – face a difficult challenge when it comes to online communication. On one hand they’re not used to dealing directly with the public except in carefully controlled forums (call centres, for example, where the company controls the conversation). On the other, modern web technologies raise consumers’ expectations that the company will deal directly with them.

These new tools, which let individuals produce audio, video and other multimedia content at the touch of a button, bring consumers much closer to being on an even footing with companies online. Without them, dissatisfied customers are like a falling tree in a forest – no-one hears them. With these new tools, though, consumers can reach hundreds or thousands of people, each of whom can reach many more. This kind of ‘word of mouth‘ can do real damage to a company’s brand.

All this means that B2B companies are starting to have to think and communicate like B2C (business-to-consumer) companies. To complicate matters they’re being forced to do it on other peoples’ terms, not their own. Consumers are forcing them to dive in before they’re ready, and before they’ve experimented with these new tools.

The solution? Business-to-business companies need to start thinking like their business-to-consumer counterparts before consumers make them engage on the consumers’ terms. Experiment with the tools. Engage (or at least listen to) the blogosphere. Be proactive.

It’s impossible to predict when consumers will decide to remove the middleman and talk directly to companies. Preparation can be the difference between a flash in the pan and a major crisis for a company’s reputation.

(hat tip to Mitch Joel for kick-starting my thoughts on episode #91 of Six Pixels of Separation)

  • Dave

    While I agree with you that B2B companies should take the steps that you suggest, do you not think the Target/Ford/Hasbro situations have been overblown?

    Target’s decision to not engage bloggers may be shortsighted, but the resulting controversy hardly affected their bottom line. Same for the miscommunication on the Ford/Cafe Press mishap. I’d say that more than 99% of the public has no idea what happened in either case.

    My concern is that we often tend to use relatively lightweight examples of corporate mistakes in our call for wholesale mindset change of industry culture.

    My two cents.

  • Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for your comment. If you read carefully, you’ll see that I noted that Target and Ford have managed to get their messages out (Ford to a greater extent than Target). I didn’t use those examples to call for change. However, when I see Hasbro, Mattel, or any of the other business-to-business companies out there struggle to communicate using these new tools, it makes me stop and think.

  • Sorry, my bad!

  • Great conversation. There still *might* be the notion that this is a big fishbowl. Until the day comes when these types of action actually do affect the bottom-line, we have to see how “bad” these actions are for these companies.

    It will also be interesting to lay that on top of how this affects their search results going forward as I think that will be an huge brand indicator.

  • I don’t know if the issue splits so much between B2C and B2B, as to direct and high touch businesses versus channel businesses. Many big names sell through a channel (retailers), and as you point out, have only ever had one way interactions with customers – very indirect ones at that. Businesses with more direct models, or high touch models (where they sell through channels, but have direct outreach to customers too) are much more ready for social media and pro-active consumers. Only just though!