The undervaluation of digital assets
In the B2B engineering industry, digital has rarely been a strategic channel for communicating and working with customers.
Some leaders within the industry even fear digital communications, equaling it to leaking information to the competition. Another often-heard phrase in the defense of minimal online investments is that “people know us anyway”, an outright but unintended dismissal of the value of marketing in and of itself.
Nevertheless, forward looking engineering companies have already demonstrated that investing in the development of digital assets across different channels leads to increased market share, improved perceived value and higher internal effectiveness.
One of the ways to true business transformation lies in the (small) first steps of (re)building online assets such as the corporate website.
The product no longer provides all of the value
Today, competing for a customer’s business is no longer a matter of building the best product. Long gone are the days that an engineering business’ sole differentiator was its product offering.
With communication boundaries disappearing and information being available at the touch of a button, no company is an island. Businesses must recognize they are part of a global context of competitors, substitute offerings and rising customer expectations. Unprecedented access to knowledge and eroding barriers to entry lead to faster product and service commoditization, which in turn lead to diminishing returns on product development investments.
To grow their businesses, managers must look beyond pure product features. They must focus on discovering true customer value, on ways to delivering it and means of capturing it.
Customers literally have the power at their fingertips to find what is to them the most valuable supplier, product or service. To become that most valuable supplier, engineering enterprises must move from an organization-centric to a customer-centric business.
Discovering, delivering and capturing customer value
Our experience with B2B engineering companies shows that this particular industry has difficulty moving beyond product features in its marketing and communication. Engineers rightfully take pride in the products they have designed, but that pride can stand in the way of customer-centric value delivery.
Shifting from a product-centric to a customer-centric perspective means striking the right balance between company strengths, its culture and ambitions and the customer’s desires and expectations.
We have found that developing online assets (even the seemingly easy task of renewing the corporate website) is a perfect catalyst for this much-needed shift in perspective and culture:
- The inherent measurability of digital assets allows leadership to base investment decisions on facts and figures, not opinions;
- Fitting digital into the customer decision journey forces the business to think outside-in;
- The speed and transparency of digital fosters learning and continuous improvement.
Digital is measurable by default: towards a culture of metrics
A prime requisite of any digital effort is leadership buy-in. Management must be aware of the need for, but also the potential return of digital assets. However, the onus does not lie with leadership alone: it is as much the responsibility of the digital team to think in terms of metrics and return on investment, financial or otherwise.
We have learned that at the origins of digital success lies the introduction of a culture of metrics. Through this, a shared vocabulary between management and operations but also between departments is established.
By allowing data to trump personal opinions, decision-taking becomes highly effective, accountability is easy to appoint and most importantly, progress becomes measurable.
This shared understanding of what happens at the intersection between the business and customers (because that’s what digital ultimately is) increases customer insight, ultimately leading to the adoption of the customer perspective on a business.
Adopting the customer perspective
Digital data provides businesses with ample opportunity to delve into the customer mindset.
A simple, tangible example comes from a recent collaboration with a global electronics engineering company. One of the identified audiences was the “researching engineer”, who, while designing a system of interoperating parts, is looking for suppliers who can deliver some of these parts.
We discovered that the structure of our client’s extensive product catalogue did not match with the way engineers were searching for these products. The categorization was based on technical specifications, market or system application, while our research revealed that engineers were simply and almost exclusively searching for the actual function of a product.
In other words, their engineering audience does not think in terms of product features or market applications; instead they simply have functional needs. They were not looking for a widget that “is used to regulate room temperature in a hospital environment” but instead for a widget that “measures heat”.
Improving the online product catalogue by significantly reducing its complexity increases the value to the visitor. Not only does the visitor find unequivocally what he is looking for (no extra mental effort is needed), he also feels understood. He has found a supplier that understands his context and his needs.
In another case, where we worked at a US-based customer on prototyping the new corporate website, we found a tremendous opportunity in constructing pages around the specific business problems their customers encounter.
This proved to be a true blue ocean: not only was the direct and indirect competition almost completely absent (meaning none of them were catering for any of these customer problems through their online communications), it was also a direct driver of value.
After all, who would not want to engage with a business that shows a true understanding of the problem he is struggling with?
Digital forces us to keep doing better
Once a new asset is put in use (such as a new corporate website) the dynamics that emerged during its construction are only amplified. Goals that were defined at the start (e.g. increased product awareness or improved quality of leads in the examples above) are now monitored, meaning the business keeps looking for new ways to improve on these KPI’s, leading to improved visitor experience and ultimately higher value.
Decision-taking is increasingly based on facts and figures instead of opinions. The customer perspective (“Why are the numbers such as they are? We never knew this is how customers actually behave!”) is further strengthened throughout the organisation.
Soon enough, this digital mindset permeates the other business layers. During a collaboration with another global B2B engineering company, we have observed that combining visitors' countries of origin with the product pages they visited most often even influenced decisions on where to invest in new manufacturing plants.
We therefore strongly advocate installing a digital board where marketers, business decision takers and C-suite executives gather on a regular basis to pour over the data, gather insights and define improvement measures. As in the above example, participants will very quickly see the relevance to their situations. The measures they will want to undertake will no longer be limited to online marketing assets.
On the contrary, as valuable information on customer behavior is being collected, it is exactly that information that will help shape and improve sales pitches, marketing messages, product development, employer branding and ultimately even new venues of providing and capturing value.
It's your business
Digital has forced industries to rethink themselves and get organized for a world where customers have the final say, products are being commoditized at an alarming rate and competition comes from more and more unexpected corners.
By adopting a digital mindset, engineering companies who traditionally are product-focused and have difficulty adopting a customer-centric perspective, are able to take a big step forward in their transformation. Bringing digital into the heart of their businesses will allow B2B engineering companies to explore new venues of growth through increased customer understanding and improved value delivery. Adopting this digital mindset can be the consequence of something as seemingly mundane as the construction of a new website, provided leadership is willing to start on this journey.
What could initially be perceived as a non-strategic asset used for mere communication purposes can be the catalyst for the digital transformation of a complete engineering business.
Next time you think of revamping your website or app, watch out. It might very well be the start of a whole new era of growth.