If you’re a B2B company leader, you know how important face time is. Sales visits, trade shows, and demonstrations present opportunities to engage with customers and highlight your knowledge, experience, and the ability to solve problems at scale are key differentiating factors that can make or break your growth curve. But the pandemic brought in-person to a screeching halt. As leaders, we were forced to react and accelerate digital investments and virtual models in order to engage customers and evolve our operating models to realize the full potential of those investments.

We discovered that some investments added value quickly, without too much difficulty, and others required more time. Launching or bolstering e-commerce, virtual trade shows and innovation center demonstrations, and digital configuration tools can be done in a matter of months. For example, the time frame for standing up e-commerce channels was cut in half due to advances in available technology platforms, combined with the ability to design and build new customer experiences via agile ways of work. Investments, too, can also be rolled out in a series of sprints, starting with a minimum viable product.

While grabbing the “low hanging fruit,” you can progress slower moving, multiyear technology investments, such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, or content management systems, which often take a year and a half to three years to deliver returns. For example, real-time supply chain visibility is likely to come later on the road map, given how complex it is to implement.

To realize the full benefit of any of these changes, you’ll need to reconfigure your operating model, and you can do that by concentrating on the following six building blocks.

Apply design thinking to meet the needs of specific customer personas. Find out what’s working and what’s not for the procurement managers, design engineers, production planners, and other types of customer you’re trying to engage along the path to purchase. At the same time, think about the needs of your own internal personas, such as sales representatives, service operations personnel, or solution engineers. By seeking understanding and challenging assumptions, you can determine which specific experience elements will drive the most value with the least reliance on heroic efforts to overcome back-end limitations or inefficient business processes.

Drive the automation of work activities by rethinking jobs and business processes. Our own work and multiple studies have shown that a large share of activities — in some instances more than 40 percent — can be automated or eliminated, thus reducing cost while dramatically enhancing customer experiences. For example, calls to a contact center can be decreased through digital experiences that feature advanced search, access to the right content, and use of chatbots.

Leverage more flexible and modular infrastructure, digital tools and ways of working. Low-code platforms such as Salesforce and Mendix can be used to develop new digital experiences, including e-commerce storefronts, collaboration portals, and virtual trade shows, in far less time and at a lower cost than via existing approaches. And breaking your digital engagement road map into a set of short sprints helps to speed the time to value, driving adoption by customers and internal teams. Taken together, these steps enable a focus beyond the basic implementation of technology, to ensure that investments in experiences are effective and efficient.

Consider changes to the sales and distribution chain to better leverage digitization, respond to omnichannel models, and differentiate your customer experience. To do this, you’ll need to ask yourself several questions: What is the role of channel partners as online sales increase as a proportion of all sales? How can value be created and delivered using various channels? What pricing policies can deliver the intended strategy? Your answers will provoke many changes that will take time to implement, especially if they require contractual alterations and negotiations, but some can nevertheless be put in place within weeks and months.

Link marketing and sales to the supply chain. Enterprise systems now have the capability to connect the demand side to the supply side. Consider how your organization can differentiate customer experiences and more effectively deliver what customers need by leveraging supply chain visibility and responsiveness. You need to have the ability to dynamically manage orders, products, pricing, and fulfillment options. A static sales and order-planning process that struggles to deliver the basics simply isn’t viable.

Measure the impact of your efforts on customer and employee experiences. You can do this through a holistic approach that we call return on experience (ROX). An ROX system of metrics brings two different kinds of data together to create a fast-moving insights-to-action loop. The first kind of data is experience data (“X data”), which includes pulse surveys, text analytics, and social sentiment analysis. The second kind is operational KPIs and outcomes (“O data”), which come from your systems and can be analyzed together with your X data. For example, a customer requesting a sample, accessing content at a virtual trade show, or completing an order can trigger a survey, and that survey-derived X data can be looked at in conjunction with O data, such as call center volumes, order conversion rates, or realized pricing. ROX gives business leaders and employees access to insights for decision-making, fueling a virtuous circle of continuous improvement over the course of your agile sprints, while also providing better confidence in the value that your investments are driving.

Securing these six foundational building blocks for digital engagement with your B2B customers will drive immediate value for your company and help you to become stronger. Businesses are constantly searching for ways to engage with their suppliers. Moreover, by effectively tapping into virtual models for projecting your expertise into the market and engaging with your contacts, you’ll be able to reach more customers and optimize your content along their path to purchase.

originally published by strategy + business

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