Online Customer Experience Top Priority for Suppliers in 2023

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Kinetic webinar series

Digital transformation experts highlight the value of digital customer experiences

We often hear that customers’ online expectations are changing in our industry. But how are they changing? And more importantly, how should suppliers respond? 

To find out, our CEO — Ali Amin-Javaheri — sat down last month with Roy van Griensven (Mitsubishi Chemical Group) and Jordan Ankerbrandt (Eastman) to hear their thoughts. During the panel, both digital transformation leaders highlighted the importance of building digital options for customers, and the value it brings to the business. They also shared how they are individually tackling these challenges and using technology to create the online customer experiences of the future. 

You can now watch the entire recording on demand if you missed the live event. Read on to discover highlights from the conversation, along with the complete transcript. 

The customer journey has evolved. 

Over the last few years, we’ve witnessed a shift in how customers engage with suppliers, particularly on the digital side. What may once have been a straightforward purchasing journey has become increasingly complex and harder to understand. 

As Jordan Ankerbrandt points out, the shift has primarily been influenced by two things: 

  • B2C brands and digital experiences. It’s no secret that B2C brands have led the charge to embrace digital. For years, they’ve been delivering rich online experiences that meet customers where they are — providing the ease, flexibility, and service levels that customers desire. And customers now want to see more of it from B2B companies. 

    User experience (UX) has become a critical tool to ensure people can quickly discover exactly what they’re looking for online and instantly take the next step in their buyer journey. Suppliers must take note and begin integrating digital UX best practices or risk falling further behind the curve.
  • The customer journey is no longer linear — it’s circular. Everyone is on a unique journey, and suppliers should design online experiences with this reality in mind. It’s no longer safe to assume that a customer will follow a linear A>B>C path. They have individual needs and seek out self-service options in the discovery process, which is why suppliers should build more nuanced experiences to solve their challenges in real time with digital solutions. 

While this shift got underway five or six years ago, the pandemic accelerated it and exposed many industry gaps and opportunities. The good news? Suppliers are taking digital much more seriously than ever before, and digital transformation initiatives are becoming a top priority for many organizations.

Digital channels are another tool in your toolkit.

Digital selling and online customer interactions don’t replace your existing channels — they complement them. “Your website or digital platforms, or digital in general, are tools that go in a toolkit,” says Jordan. “The toolkit also includes analog items, sales team members following up, in-person presentations, and going to trade shows. There’s a wide variety of things that you’re gonna do to nurture a lead and grow a relationship.”

Don’t just think of digital as a way to drive more leads. Consider how it can solve challenges for customers in the buying journey. No matter how you initially source a lead, digital can take the relationship to the next level. Websites and digital platforms like Knowde can help you create the right touchpoints to serve customers, answer questions and solve their unique challenges in real time. 

Digital is more than technology.

When you hear the word ‘digital’, you might immediately jump to a tool, solution, or technology. But as Roy van Griensven points out, that’s just one part; you also need human resources and investments to change how your company operates. 

Over the next year, his team will focus on bringing people into the digital channel. “I think the biggest investment and focus for us will actually be to invest in our people — to upscale, to train, to educate and to bring people on to leverage digital and open up a wealth of opportunities that we have,” says Roy. 

By shifting priorities and giving this area more focus than it’s received in the past, suppliers can build up these core competencies and people’s willingness or knowledge levels to ensure they’re getting the most out of digital investments.

Online platforms provide insights to guide the process.  

Unlike other sales and marketing channels, digital tools and platforms make it easy to keep a finger on the pulse of progress. “One of my favorite things about working in digital is you get a report card,” says Jordan. “You can use your analytics and your metrics to get an instant read on: is what we’re putting out there effective? And then you can adjust accordingly.”

It may be challenging to get digital right the first time. But Jordan sees real-time analytical insights as a valuable tool to fuel a trial-and-error approach. This approach helps teams dial in their campaigns and reduce those not moving the needle. As she puts it, ask yourself, “how are we expecting people to want to engage?” Did you get what we needed out of it? If not, what can you try next? If you did, double down. 

To hear more of Jordan and Roy’s insights, watch the full recording or read the complete transcript below. 

Panel Transcript

Ali: Over the last few years we’ve certainly witnessed a shift in what customers have come to expect from suppliers, particularly on the digital side.

While this shift from our perspective got underway probably five or six years ago, the pandemic certainly accelerated it, and it also exposed many gaps in the industry — many gaps in opportunities and challenges and all that. From our perspective, throughout all the conversations that we’re having in this space, it’s really clear that we’re taking digital much more seriously than we have in the past.

It’s no longer an optional thing or a nice thing to have. It’s now become a requirement. And our two guests are here to help us, talk through what that means. First is Jordan from Eastman. Jordan leads the global corporate brand at Eastman which heavily touches customer digital experiences.

The unique thing about Jordan is that she’s relatively new to this industry, formally joining Eastman just a few months ago. But she’s definitely not new to digital and creative and brand and strategy and marketing, having spent her entire career in those disciplines. So she brings a fresh outside-in perspective that I think is absolutely necessary.

Also hugely delighted to have Roy with us. He leads business transformation globally at Mitsubishi Chemical. And as part of a very large charter, he’s spending a lot of time thinking through customer experience, how customer expectations are changing and the impact that digital is gonna have on all of this.

I’m terribly excited to have both of them here because as you’ll soon see, they have a strong point of view, strong opinions, which I think is definitely necessary when trying to create change, especially within large organizations. Okay. Let’s get right into this conversation.

We hear often that customer expectations are changing in our industry. These words get thrown out a lot. But what people want to hear is how, from your perspective, are they actually changing?

Jordan: I think one of the biggest things that we’ve seen shift — and I think as you said, Ali, the pandemic has really accelerated this — is the need to move into digital and to experience digital as a consumer, even in a B2B space.

You might not necessarily be looking through or scrolling through something on your phone on a daily basis, but how many times have you gotten an email, skimmed it quickly, and then moved on to the next thing? It’s just the way people are consuming information has really shifted, and it’s much more about snackable bites. How can I read quickly, skim through something quickly, and get the information I’m looking for quickly? I think it’s really a shift in how people are expecting to experience things in the digital space. The user experience is much more focused on where things are going in the consumer end of things.

So the consumer has now really impacted the way people are experiencing B2B. UX is becoming so critical in terms of being able to serve up the right information somebody’s looking for in terms of being able to meet the customer where they are in their journey. 

It used to be a user journey was like point A to point B to point C. It was very linear and now it’s very circular — there’s a million different ways that people might be looking for information. Somebody might come in from one channel and expect something that they might be looking for over here or over there. And we’ve really gotta look through how people are experiencing our brand.

How are people experiencing and looking for information and how can we get them to what they’re looking for as fast as possible? You used to have maybe a minute to get somebody to what they were looking for. I think now you might have, I might say, 20 seconds. And so you’ve really gotta make sure you’re at least capturing people’s attention and then moving them through the information that they’re looking for.

So I think that’s a big shift in how people are experiencing brands in the digital space.

Roy: I think I was gonna build exactly upon the point. Jordan mentioned at the end. I think that what we also see for our company, for Mitsubishi Chemical Group, is that the relevance of understanding and being at the right moment of the customer’s buying decision journey is more critical than ever.

So where we have a long track record and a strong track record of having strong engagements directly with customers who we’ve dealt with for many years. And that will always remain to be said. So it’s not replacing per se, that engagement that we have with good and loyal customers.

It is exactly like Jordan mentioned. It is the expectation that for customers — potential customers, new customers, recurring customers — we need to be where they are at the moment that they need information. And that’s very different from the past where, maybe an inside salesperson got a phone call or an email with a request for information that need for information is now not specific to one brand anymore, right?

So a customer, an engineer, with a different persona, has a certain information needed at a point in their buying decision journey, and they need that information at present, at that moment and not specific to visiting a manufacturer’s website, giving a phone call to a specific inside sales team, etc.

So I think the big change that we also see is that we need to be where our customer is — where they are looking for information. And that’s not necessarily, let’s say on our premises, that’s not to say also on our branded touchpoints. So elements of understanding kind of that journey and then being where the moments in time or in providing that information.

I think that’s the biggest shift that we have seen and probably will still see in the common period. 

Ali: Yep. I mean we’re seeing that in spades. The journey is not linear. You have to meet customer expectations very quickly and you have to meet them where they are. And I think we can all agree that’s shifted. Where they are now versus where they may have been 10 years ago is just dramatically different. 

So we’ve obviously seen suppliers make more investments in digital. And we’ve certainly seen it accelerate since the pandemic. I know it’s still early days for most, but can you share what your company is doing?

Jordan: As we’re trying to shift to meet customer needs — or to create spaces where we can tell our story, tell our brand story in a different way — we’re seeing a lot more shift into what’s happening in digital.

Where can we meet our customers with those parts and pieces that they might be looking for? One of my favorite things about working in digital is you get a report card. You can use your analytics and your metrics to get an instant read on: is what we’re putting out there effective? And then you can adjust accordingly.

So making sure that we’ve got a really clear view of what we are expecting people to do. If we wrote a thought leadership piece and we put it up, are we expecting people to read it? Are we expecting people to share it? Are we expecting people to click on it? If we put up a video, same deal. How are we expecting people to interact?

How are we expecting people to want to engage? And then looking at the metrics and the report card. Did we get what we needed out of it? And then using that to say, okay, if we didn’t, what do we try next? If we did, let’s do more of it.

When I started many years ago in the industry, I did a lot of work in TV.  And on TV, you didn’t really ever get a real report card. You could never tell if my commercial was successful or not. And one of the reasons why I glommed onto digital in the early days was because you can get that read and you can use your analytics to figure out, am I moving the needle for my brand?

Am I moving the needle for my sales team? Am I moving the needle for everyone at the company? And so that’s one of the biggest things that I think is interesting to engage with in digital and a new sort of way of looking at where we can go in the future?

Roy: Compared to some other industries, we still have quite some catching up to do in the chemical industry. Which is not a negative thing.

It’s a fantastic opportunity for people working in our industry to learn from other industries. We can certainly learn from the B2C space as well. So I think if I look at our company the biggest investment probably is even in people, the investment that we are doing and will be doing in people.

I need to use the phrase probably at least once a day, that ‘digital does not equal technology,’ right? And that’s still a big part of the assumption that people have — when we say digital, they immediately jump to a tool, a solution, the technology, etc. 

I think the biggest investment and focus for us will actually be to invest in our people — to upscale, to train, to educate and to bring people on to leverage digital and open up a wealth of opportunities that we have. 

Right now we have many discussions, for example,on lead management. We, we don’t need a tool to bring us more leads per se, but the art of how to do lead management, how to do lead nurturing and make sure that you land with the proper, signed off handshake and MQLs to SQLs, and then can bring them into order.

That’s something a tool will not do for you. You also need to build up your competencies and the amount of people in the organization. And it’s not, in many cases, about the people’s willingness or knowledge levels, or whatever — but it’s also the sheer attention that it hasn’t gotten in the past.

So if you’re running around as a marketer trying to prepare for a trade show, do all the marketing collateral the content, and then also need to nurture that funnel of leads. That’s more than a one person job. And I think that realization in our company certainly has been there and now the biggest investment is scaling up and making sure that you can also do these things at a global scale.

Ali: Yep. I think you brought up a really important point that I’m gonna drill in on for a second, and it’s gonna get a little tactical, but I know folks will care about this. Lots of suppliers are redoing their websites or considering a redesign, and what we hear is that they want to better tell their brand story and all of that, but they’re also thinking through customer experience — and how do we want to take a customer through that online journey on our own website? 

The larger suppliers that we speak to already generate a lot of leads. A lot of the smaller, medium sized suppliers, not as much. And when they’re going into the customer experience, conversations are all about ‘how do we open the top of the funnel and generate more leads?’ 

For larger suppliers, look, people know who Eastman is. They’re gonna come to us anyway. And given where both you guys work, I would assume lead generation is probably not the biggest pain point. It’s that next step of the funnel. It’s okay now we’ve generated leads, whether it came from this source or this source, this online source, whatever.

Now they just leave the organization and nobody ever knows what happens to them all. And so is that something that you guys are spending a lot of time thinking through? 

Roy: Yeah. And I think Ali, that’s exactly I think the biggest attention point for us as well is, like you said, it’s not about in general generating more unqualified leads by people saying, oh, let me ask the question to Mitsubishi.

They might have an answer. It is making sure that as a company globally widely, we understand our customers buying decision journeys and truly understanding not just the interaction moment when they have a request, but really understanding what are the challenges, what other problems, what are the different steps they go through, and then being able to help them.

And you raise an interesting point. A global website as an example of these topics. Typically, we have the urge to load a global website with as much technical data and information as possible. The question might be, are we really serving the personas that we’re targeting in the journey? Are they visiting our website for that, yes or no?

Or are they actually looking for a very specific solution, leveraging marketplaces like Knowde or searching somewhere else? So the purpose of each and every touchpoint can only be properly determined if you understand the full customer experience journey. And then be very specific.

What is the purpose of this touchpoint? What do we wanna do? Is it creating interest? Is it driving awareness? Is it conversion related and typically in the past, yeah, we thought of a website for doing everything, from creating brand value all the way up to getting your inputs.

And I think that’s a big change. How can we bring information at the right touchpoint for the right audience? I think in many cases it also means it’s not ours, it’s owned, but also not a touchpoint.

Jordan: I think to that point your website or your digital platforms, or digital in general, are tools that go in a toolkit. The toolkit also includes analog items, sales team members following up, in-person presentations, and going to trade shows. There’s a wide variety of things that you’re gonna do to nurture a lead, and grow a relationship.

And it’s really important that you do trial and error across all the different tools to make sure that people are getting what they need. And not every customer who comes in, even if it’s two different customers asking about the same product, they might not be looking for the same thing.

And they might be looking for a different kind of white glove experience from the sales team, or somebody else might be looking for, where can I find the least expensive product? Or somebody else might be looking for something different. And so even if they’re looking for the same exact product or chemical or ingredient, everybody’s needs are slightly different.

And so making sure that once you get the inquiry, the lead comes in and they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m interested’. Okay, what happens next is a big part of it. How do you continue that experience? How do you continue that, brand building, that relationship building with that person who comes in, who’s looking for something?

I would say consumer marketing and consumer experiences have impacted that portion of growing relationships with customers — vastly. The expectation is I submitted a request for information. I sure hope somebody’s gonna get back to me in 24 hours. Maybe if it’s a Friday I’ll give them the weekend.

It’s not necessarily about following up to say, ‘Hey, we got your message’. Let’s follow up and say, ‘Hey, let’s have a conversation’. You have to follow up in the right way also. And so that’s something, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about and figuring out, how do we balance what somebody’s looking for?

All leads that come or all requests that come in are not necessarily all leads either. And that’s something else that we’re looking at as well. If somebody’s asking for product specific information or they’re looking for a safety data sheet or whatever it might be, those things are available on the website, go ahead and get it. You need help finding something, we’re here to help you. But that’s a little bit different than somebody who’s maybe looking to make a product purchase or build a relationship. Lead generation is a complicated effort in that sort of way. You have to really understand what the person is looking for and how to funnel their request to the right person who can do the right kind of follow up.

If it’s wayfinding and pointing them to something that’s a little simpler than if it’s, ‘Hey, I’d like to come in and have a conversation with somebody.’ So making sure that we’ve got the tools in our toolkit to be able to follow up in the right ways is really important.

Ali: Yep. I think one misconception is that when you say that we’re building digital capabilities, it means that you’re taking the human out of it and it’s not true. You gotta bring the human into the digital experience.

Jordan: And I I think to that point, every website I go on where I’m getting answered by a chat bot when I ask a question, I’m like, nope, nevermind. I’m done here. 

So I think that’s another big example of, you need a person on the other end who’s gonna answer the phone or respond to your email or, chat with you and answer your questions specifically in real time. Most people are not looking for a chatbot canned response that kicks them something that usually isn’t relevant to what they’re looking for. You need the humans on the other side, and you need the humans to value digital as a tool in their toolkit.

Ali: Okay, last question. You guys are both part of some pretty major transformations happening within your company. Again, tactical, but I know people really care about this stuff. What’s your major focus right now when it comes to customer digital initiatives? What do you wanna build over the next year? 

Roy: We have a wide range of different things that we will be focusing on investing in and building up. But if I pick one thing, I would say improve the customer experience/journey understanding, because, again, we can invest and build fantastic tools, teams and more, but if we’re focusing on the wrong moment or an isolated moment in that journey, we can potentially not serve our customers at all because it might not be what they’re looking for.

And if I think head a year and a half, and can make one wish, I think it’s touching the heart and soul of people in our team — truly understanding what customer experience and customer experience journeys are, and how to treat different moments along that journey, potentially in different ways, like Jordan said, with different elements in the toolbox.

That’s going to be the biggest win then. And the number one priority. 

Jordan: I would say we’re really focused, at least in my me and my role, I’m gonna be really focused over the next year on many things. If I narrow it down to one wish, for me it’s more about having our brand story represented better in the digital space.

That people can understand who we are, what we stand for, and how we bring something different to the table. Why might somebody wanna partner with us? And helping to tell that story. So we’re really focused on It, it’s a part of the user experience for sure. It’s a part of the brand building and the brand storytelling also.

And it’s certainly a part of how people react and interact, I should say, with the folks who work at Eastman on the day-to-day. If you become a lead and you’ve put in a request, who’s the human who’s picking up the phone and what do they have to say? And how do you wanna experience working with us or speaking to us, or even getting questions answered by us?

I think it’s for us gonna be a little bit about building our brand in that space. And, we started this year by revamping our website —  and we’re doing that in a little bit of an agile fashion. We’ve got parts done. We were really encouraged by looking through our data and analytics and seeing what’s working and what’s not.

Continuing that portion of it as well and making sure that we’re including what’s working, and figuring out how to do more of that. And listening to the voice of the customer is a part of that as well. That’s gonna be a really big focus for us. It’s really that brand experience in the digital space and it’s got a couple different arms and legs that grow out of it, but certainly looking to continue that experience for people.

Ali: As someone that’s been in this industry for a little while, it’s so refreshing to hear these comments. It feels like the industry is finally taking this seriously in a real way and saying, okay let’s map out the customer journey. Let’s understand the pain points. Let’s look at the data. Let’s figure out how we’re gonna be more responsive and build that customer experience of the future.