It’s a sad but true fact that the vast majority of B2B apps out there have traditionally focused on basic functionality, satisfying RFP checklists, and convincing corporate buyers of the value that they offer over delighting and amazing the end users who acting really interact with the product in a daily basis. Unfortunately for the companies who have taken this tack in the past, the world of corporate technology is rapidly changing, with increasing focus on BYOD, and with the increasing exposure of end users to the world of apps on their phones and tablets, the world of corporate technology is undergoing a massive paradigm shift. Expectations are higher, and the bar had been raised with regard to what users will accept when it comes to their daily work experiences.
Why All The Fuss?
The history of many B2B platforms begins with a very specific problem and a very technical solution to that problem. More often than not, the initial problem set that the product or platform is designed to solve is primarily a back-end, integration, or functional problem — and thus the early hires in the company tend to be those kinds of people who focus on solving these problems in an efficient and effective manner. Unfortunately, the approach that most companies take in these initial efforts is naturally to focus on the technology over the user experience. Plus, because the people making the decisions to buy B2B products are often not the same people using the solutions, companies begin to conform their plans, strategies, and deliveries around what will move the buying needle and less about what will delight the actual end users.
This is a natural process, though — and there’s nothing at all wrong with starting with a functional, stripped down MVP to test and validate your solution. There’s nothing inherently wrong with starting out with a very narrow focus. But in modern technology, there is something terribly wrong with keeping that status quo once you reach a level of acceptance and market position where you’re starting to make real money. There needs to be a conscious decision made to shift from a primarily functional approach to one that focuses on providing end-user delight. Unfortunately, far too many B2B platforms wind up running on tight margins and doing so much custom work on their platform to secure the buyer that they aren’t ever able to switch gears and start to focus on meeting the needs of both their buyers and their users. How many B2B platforms have you encountered that seem like they were made 5 years ago and never revisited or revised for user delight? Far too many, if my personal experience is any indication.
The biggest problem with an aged, unrevised B2B product is that the world has changed significantly in the years since that platform was originally built. We’re not in an era of desktop computers and word processing — we’re in an era of on-demand data, of tablets and smartphones, and of apps that constantly update without any intervention by the end user. We’re in an era where startup costs, even for enterprise-level solutions are minimal — where the cloud and open-source solutions enable cheap, rapid iteration on even the most complex market and technology problems. We’re in an era where the level of influence that end users can exert over purchasing decisions is increasing, and the separation between buyers and users is rapidly closing.
What worked ten years ago just doesn’t cut it in today’s markets. Switching costs are rapidly diminishing, small players are gaining investment that goes directly in to R&D while established players are struggling to maintain and manage their rickety old technology. And end users expect more of their technology — seamless updates, delightful user experiences, efficient and innovative solutions to their actual problems, not what their third-level manager perceives to be their problems.
The entire game has changed, and those who continue to rely on the status quo will quickly wind up being passed by and buried in the wake of others in the market.
Focus on Delight
The primary goal for any B2B system is primarily to lock in your customers in some way — many such platforms focus on using proprietary technology, or to providing a necessary level of service above and beyond what the platform itself provides, or aggressively discount their product in order to keep their existing cash-cow customers happy. But they’re missing the #1 way to ensure that your platform isn’t replaced — by delighting the end users. Providing a merely functional, workmanlike solution that has a steep learning curve and that people dread opening up every day leaves you susceptible to other players who understand the value of delight.
However, focusing on providing the end user with an experience that they look forward to — or, at worst, don’t dread — will establish a foothold in your target markets that is extremely difficult to unseat. Not only do your competitors have to solve the same problem that you do, but they have to convince the buyers and the users that they do so in a more elegant way; if you’ve got a workmanlike product, that’s not a problem at all…but if you have a solution that delights your users, you’ve set a very high bar. Even if they can beat you on price, that won’t be enough if you’ve taken the time and effort to create goodwill above and beyond numbers on a purchase order.