Technology + ‘human’ marketing will be a killer combination

Dr Anupam Narula, Amity School of Business, Amity University, Noida, feels that marketers now have more data than ever before on reach, frequency, ROI, audience, and targeting and this can influence the way they strategize, engage with consumers and drive innovation. As an added complexity, customers also want to control their engagement with marketers and brands. Marketing professionals must focus on fostering meaningful relationships and enable customers to provide inputs into their brand experiences.

Anupam Narula

IBT: How has COVID-19 changed the business landscape and client expectations for B2B firms India in your view?

Dr Anupam Narula: Business landscape has changed over the last five months due to COVID-19 with technology at the forefront of the change. Just as consumers have taken benefit from the increase in available information, companies must do the same to stay on top of new buying behaviours. More broadly, marketing is now boundary less and applicable to any geographic market, essentially based on understanding the behaviors of clients in B2B firms and end customers in B2C in domestic and global markets. Therefore, in this sense, these behaviors constantly vary depending on an array of internal and external factors. For any company determined to market its product or service, the most important goal is to keep a real-time pulse on changing clients’ preferences and expectations and to rapidly innovate to redesign the interaction journey with their target customers.

COVID-19 crisis is a shock and an unusual external factor, which has affected the whole world and all aspects of businesses. In this situation, companies are required to put their clients’ interests first; this can be a time for them to build strong long-term relationships with customers by innovating on their customer service models, being transparent and flexible to quickly solve real-life problems of their clients. This will also give momentum to their businesses by creating client loyalty and trust in the post-COVID-19 scenario.

We have come back again to Peter Drucker’s famous words:

“Business has only two functions, marketing and innovation”.

These produce revenues. All others are costs. As we know, most B2B companies still look at marketing as an expense but now they need to develop a much deeper understanding of the modern Customer Decision Journey (CDJ). In fact, in this approach, the post-purchase phase is often as, or more, important than other steps along the way. When client reach a decision at the moment of purchase, the marketer’s work has just begun: the post-purchase experience shapes their opinion for every subsequent decision in the category. The need now is to provide an effective after-sales experience that inspires trust, loyalty and retention in building long term customer relationships in the next normal.

IBT: In what ways does this landscape change expectations from the marketing teams of such companies and how could this reallocate marketing budgets?

Dr Anupam Narula: Marketing teams need to focus on that point in the customer decision journeys where they can be most successful in influencing those decision makers. They have to understand what parts of the buying process are most important to their clients and what matters most to them in purchasing decisions during this time. Marketing teams can make smarter and more informed decisions about where to allocate marketing dollars.

So many B2B firms, which relied in the pre-COVID time on metrics of lead generation, trade shows and events have to cut their marketing dollars and refocus on marketing’s evolving role as an organizer of systems like online technology initiatives, AI-driven programs and analytics to improve business operations, salesperson’s point-of- contact engagement for both acquisition and retention of customers and also towards community and society. The key competitive advantage for B2B firms will come from competently integrating technologies to execute and respond effectively to customer needs in the decision journey.

IBT: Marketing professionals are compelled to embrace digital engagement due to travel bans across the world and major business events/conferences getting cancelled/postponed. What constraints does this forced shift place on customer networking and engagement, and what benefits does it offer? Do you expect this to permanently shift some aspects of customer engagement to the online mode? Why or why not?

Dr Anupam Narula: The extraordinary constraints and imperatives brought on by the COVID-19 crisis have rapidly thrust businesses into challenges they could never have envisioned. Many companies are forced to innovate new capabilities for remote operation almost overnight, complete digital transformations in weeks rather than months or years, and launched new products and services in a matter of days. This gave more buying power to primarily digital consumers and they also demanded a comprehensive digital support system. So ‘Self-service touchless technologies’ (SSTT), Artificial Intelligence, design thinking, data-driven marketing and voice search engine optimization (VSEO) are the fastest growing channels in customer networking and engagement in the next normal.

Marketers now have more data than ever before on reach, frequency, ROI, audience, and targeting and this can influence the way they strategize, engage with consumers and drive innovation. As an added complexity, customers also want to control their engagement with marketers and brands. Now more than ever, marketing professionals must focus on fostering meaningful relationships with their customers and must enable customers to provide inputs into their brand experiences. To accomplish this, marketing professionals need to consider the full customer life cycle, work outside traditional organizational silos, and engage cross-functional teams to focus on elements such as customer service, operations, or web design. Gartner predicted that over the next three years, around 60% of digital commerce analytics investments would be spent on customer decision journey (CDJ) analytics.

Many of these emerging technologies will continue in the next normal as they are cost and time efficient. However, some part of direct customer engagement will resume, especially for high involvement products that are one time big sales and for services, but not for routinized buying products. B2B firms will have to strike a good balance between human and technological interface to manage the key clients or customers.

IBT: The salesforce has a major role to play in the customer outreach and engagement strategy of a B2B marketer. With rising adoption of digital channels, are some sales roles in B2B organizations under threat?

Dr Anupam Narula: Digitization and AI technologies pose a disruptive force that is likely to be more significant and pervasive and these disruptions are a source of threat as much as they are a source of opportunity. Digitization of sales channels may also provide novel opportunities for the salesforce to create value for customers and their own organizations through increased speed of service as well as time and cost savings.

Many organizations have relied on this growth to complement their outside sales force and online channels to create hybrid sales structures. As a relatively new form of sales-force design, hybrid sales structures heavily rely on coordination among inside sales, outside sales, and online channels to deliver value along the various touch points in the customer decision journey.

Digitization, in and of itself, cannot replace traditional sales methods, but instead offers the potential to embrace new learning and opportunities. Furthermore, the nature of these changing requirements of sales skills is dependent on the type of sale being undertaken, with the simple sale likely to be carried out completely automatically; but more complex solution selling still relying on soft skills and negotiation abilities of a salesperson, supported by information gained through digital technology. Of course, the complex sales situation (often involving large accounts) will require salespeople to become “knowledge workers” who can integrate intellectual capital from digitization with their own experience during the sale, which could generate the need for a new set of interactive selling skills.

So with rising adoption of digital channels, the role of sales force will shift from order handling, negotiation and closing the sale to consulting, value co-creation and facilitating the sale with authenticity, particularly for complex products.

IBT: Also, as the digital space becomes more crowded, how can B2B brands stand out in terms of content approach, strategy, use of influencers, targeting, etc?

Dr Anupam Narula: As Brian Solis puts it:

“Each business is a victim of Digital Darwinism, the evolution of consumer behavior when society and technology evolve faster than the ability to exploit it. Digital Darwinism does not discriminate. Every business is threatened.”

If B2B brands want to stand out, marketers need to personalize their marketing. It will be more important for B2B brands available across a broad spectrum of channels and marketers make sure that they communicate and deliver the way customers prefer in the CDJ. Ultimately, the primary goal is to enhance user experience through a feedback-driven model that fosters higher engagement, greater loyalty and retention.

Netflix and Amazon are fine examples with their tailored recommended products or movie titles to personalize customer experience. Everything Netflix does is driven by data and powered by smart AI algorithms. The company is always brainstorming, and testing ideas to ensure that whatever is disseminated on its platform matches the exact thought process of its target users. Further, the company also uses customer data to create unique homepages for each of its users.  It shows content it believes would best match the interest of its users as well as enhance their overall experience with the platform.

Amazon is an e-commerce giant, and nearly 35% of its sales come from such personalized recommendations and nearly 56% of them are likely to turn into repeat buyers as well. Its attempt to personalize a customer’s shopping experience didn’t just stop there. Amazon has made some remarkable personalization advancements with the help of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Predictive Analytics. One thing that the company reflects is that recommendations have the prowess to skyrocket sales. Amazon constantly delivers a personalized experience with relevant, recommended items that keeps users coming back for the same.

B2B services like retailers, software providers, insurance firms that need to provide tailored packages like this can learn a lot from the approach to personalisation. It’s time for B2B brands to start implementing personalisation as a key marketing strategy to stand out in the crowded digital space.

IBT: Harvard Business Review research estimates from an analysis of past recessions that 17% of companies didn’t survive, 80% hadn’t regained their pre-recession growth rate over three years while only 9% flourished (outperforming competitors by at least 10% in revenue and profit growth). What characteristics will separate the winners in the post-COVID period in your opinion in the B2B arena?

Dr Anupam Narula: In my opinion B2B e-commerce will, consequently, become the main channel that drives demand and keeps the industry’s engines running. The B2B marketer’s game plan, therefore, needs to adequately address their brand’s digital presence and to ensure that all digital channels have authentic and up-to-date information.

B2B brands need to design a personalization approach through AI and data-driven marketing to enhance the user experience through a feedback-driven model that fosters higher engagement, greater loyalty and retention of target customers. Companies have to align marketing metrics with business priorities, favoring customer value creation and return on investment (ROI) as main priority.

Those B2B brands that will invest in community and society will create a unique opportunity for them to lead in B2B market place. Being human is the only way to get ahead in business today. The businesses that will adapt and shift their messages from ‘What my offering can do’ to ‘How we are helping the community in solving an immediate pain’ will thrive in the post-COVID period. Consequently, giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn and YouTube are all working with governments and scientists to combat the virus, misinformation, and fraud. So B2B firms can also go a long way in aiding community response, which eventually will enhance their customer loyalty and retention base.

B2B organizations have to implement agile ways of working that requires teams to execute their missions with minimum dependencies while ensuring the overall organization is geared toward generating customer value at each phase of the CDJ. While most organizations can design a logical blueprint, they struggle to understand and manage its implications. Those organizations that will succeed in implementing agile ways of working will outweigh their competitors.

So the above four characteristics of B2B firms will provide guardrails to navigate through current VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) scenario with resilience and emerge as winners from this trying time in the post-COVID period.

IBT: How will the pandemic change approach of B2B companies towards hiring young marketing talent in your opinion? What kind of skills could be in greater demand? Will contractual employment or gig economy rise? Please elaborate.

Dr Anupam Narula: COVID-19 showed the world that while technology can augment and supplement work, it does not replace what is needed from humans. The health crisis gave people a greater appreciation for the fact that humans and technology are more powerful together than either can be on their own. For example, telemedicine, manufacturing, education, and even grocery delivery drew on the power of integrated human-machine teams during the crisis.

B2B firms will seek young professionals who have combination of digital marketing and data analytics skills which can deliver connected customer experience. MARTECH – the blend of marketing and technology talent – will be in more demand due to marketing automation happening in almost all B2B companies.

Gig economy and freelancing will definitely see a new high, especially as marketing technologists want to be associated with niche high-tech companies, which require their expertise in a particular area on hourly or contractual basis, so as to optimize their work hours and also to de-risk them. Many experts who returned back to India from abroad due to this crisis will also join the gig economy, because of flexibility, high hourly payment, and passion for particular work.

With more marketing technologies being brought on to the market year-on-year, there’s also a risk that marketing technologists will stretch themselves too far, rather than becoming specialized in their niche areas. MARTECH will surely facilitate workforce collaboration and make working anywhere, anytime possible on a global scale.

At the end, in my opinion all the innovations that are occurring in and around the marketing ecosystem will have some link to customer experience across their entire CDJ, so coupling of technology and the ‘human’ side of marketing strategy will prove to be a killer combination of skills for B2B companies in the post-COVID digital world. .

Dr. Anupam Narula is Professor of Marketing at Amity School of Business, Amity University, Noida, India. Prior to this, he served as Faculty of Marketing at FORE School of Management, New Delhi. A consistent first class holder, he has done Ph.D. in Economics, PGDBM in Marketing (Silver Medalist) and M.A in Economics. He is an IVEY Business school, Ontario Canada trained faculty in Case teaching and Writing techniques and has to his credit Certificate of Achievement of two weeks course in Marketing, held at Nanyang Business School, NTU, Singapore.

Dr Narula has a total professional experience of 23 years in teaching, research and industry. He has presented papers in various reputed international and national conferences at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Indore, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, ISB Hyderabad, IIT Delhi, Nirma University, Ahmedabad, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi, IMI New Delhi,  FORE School of Management etc. He also published research papers and articles in referred journals, magazines, edited books and newspapers and has travelled extensively all around the globe as part of his professional work. He is on the editorial review board of two international and six national refereed journals. He has been invited as external expert member for Academic Advisory and Management Consulting services by various premier universities and management B-schools in India

He has conducted MDPs for corporate executives in both public and private sector organizations (TATA Chemicals Ltd, IRCTC, MTNL, Mahagun Group, Sentiss pharmaceuticals, Relaxo footwear, Tata Pigments Ltd, Jain Irrigation systems Ltd, Oriental Refractories Ltd, G.D Foods Mfg. Pvt. Ltd., Indian Army to name a few) and Faculty development programmes on understanding consumer behavior: Contemporary tools and techniques, Case methods of teaching and writing and How to deliver Quality Service to customers?. His area of expertise includes Consumer Buying Behavior, Service Marketing, Marketing and Branding and International Marketing.

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