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 Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.