Measuring customer satisfaction in consumer markets is relatively straightforward. Many buyers are only too willing to offer star ratings, share their opinions on social media and respond to post-engagement surveys.

In the business-to-business realm, however, assessing customer sentiment is a lot trickier. B2B transactions can involve multiple stakeholders and a buying cycle that stretches for months. Complex sales aren’t easily reduced to a single number.

When Jim Fitterling took over as chief executive of Dow Chemical Co. in 2018, he outlined a goal that was simple in concept but difficult in practice: Dow would become the most customer-centric materials science company in the world. That meant collecting and analyzing a lot of data across a $50 billion company with six global businesses, nearly 38,000 employees and a presence in 160 countries.

“That was the year we started measuring, structuring and driving customer experience,” said Riccardo Porta, Dow’s global director for customer experience. “We built teams around it, created a director of customer experience and have been measuring and monitoring performance and progress with significant improvements on all angles.”

Culture change

The technology side of the equation was fairly straightforward: Dow enlisted Qualtrics International Inc. to capture customer sentiment at each stage of the buying process and provide the analytics know-how to derive insight from it.

The bigger problem was cultural. Dow had no centralized CX teams or common CX metrics. “Some units were running customer surveys to collect satisfaction data, some were doing customer interviews and others were doing nothing,” Porta said.

Different business units also treated the same customers differently. A tier-one customer for one business unit might be only a small account with another. That meant the same customer could get different levels of support and attention depending on the line of business they were dealing with. “For some customers, it was like dealing with five different Dows,” Porta said.

Dow started with a blank-slate approach “to get every business, every region and every function on the same page with only one approach to listening and measuring customer feedback,” he said. The company used Qualtrics’ customer experience platform to ask questions that helped establish each customer’s unique needs at each stage of the buying process. It analyzed and published key results internally and measured how the customer experience progressed over time.

Qualtrics-delivered relationship surveys were the main source of feedback, but the CX team also conducted deep dives on topics such as complaint handling and support. They analyzed unstructured data in email exchanges and phone calls and monitored customer behavior on its digital commerce platform to determine “what type of documents they were downloading to help us build the picture of what customers are trying to achieve and how we can optimize their journeys,” Porta said.

Employee experience matters

The research also turned up the importance of employee experience to customer satisfaction. “Whenever we found a customer pain point, we also identified a matching employee pain point,” Porta said. “When customers said they weren’t getting the information they needed, the reason was often because employees were struggling themselves to find that information.” Making it easier for employees to satisfy customers thus became a core part of the CX overhaul.

Perhaps the most important product of the research was the timely realization that customer buying patterns were changing. In 2018, the company’s approach to sales was largely high-touch, with sales leads generated by trade shows, direct mail and outbound sales calls. “We had a completely separate digital and commerce strategy, plan, team and program,” Porta said. “As time went on, it became obvious to us that customer experience and digital experience are one and the same.”

The timing was fortunate, since COVID-19 was about to administer a shock to traditional sales approaches, with B2C experiences increasingly informing B2B decisions. “Customers were asking why they could order shoes online but not Dow products,” Porta said. The company poured resources into its digital channels with the aim of making it as simple as possible for customers to find products, place orders and track shipments.

Digital overhaul

It also unlocked information stored in the brains of its employees and put it on the web. For example, “over 100 years, we had created thousands and thousands of formulations of different paints that use our products,” Porta said. “All that expertise resided in people’s minds and offline files in our R&D or technical service groups. We digitized all of that knowledge and made it accessible to paint customers with pre-built tools so that instead of having to do 50 trials to get the optimal formulation, they could find it in five.” Customers can even create their own formulations, a capability that was previously unavailable.

The results have been dramatic. Online sales accounted for less than 10% of Dow’s business in 2018. Today it’s 40%. The company has seen a 450% increase in repeat visitors to its e-commerce platform and a more than 200% increase in online orders.

Digital channels now generate 65% of new sales leads, up from 5% in 2018. By publishing technical documents on its website, the company also cut call center inquiries by 70%.

The results weren’t only online. Investments in integrated planning and inventory optimization technologies lowered inventory volume by 7% and improved customer confidence in product availability by 10%, translating into more than a $1 billion in increased cash flow.

The initiative’s success has prompted the company to launch the AMCX Consortium, a group of more than B2B manufacturers that are working to establish standard customer experience benchmarks. The idea is to get a large group of companies in an industry to agree on a survey-based customer experience definition and measurements, then administer the same survey at the same time to their own customers and generate anonymous benchmark reports.

“In the end, everybody wins,” Porta said. “We all elevate our performance, customers get a better experience, and CX practitioners can spend more time improving experiences instead of trying to justify why they exist.”

Photo: Dow Chemical

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