The pace of digitalisation in business has increased since the pandemic started. But as usual, it's generally B2C companies that are leading the drive and developing the most interesting new ways of doing things. In this episode, I spoke with Stellan and Anders about why and how historically slow B2B companies can speed up a bit.
Even now, as it appears like the worst of the pandemic is drawing to a close, B2B companies really have a golden opportunity to change their way of doing things. Their prospects' and customers' expectations changed a long time ago. Still, now both employees and leaders have realised the new opportunities that digital can bring - whether that's about moving into e-commerce or something a bit more complex. At this point, a decision has to be made - should change be pursued, or should we just wait for things to go back to how they were before?
Anders and Stellan have a lot of experience working with large, traditional B2B companies, so it was great to hear some of their thoughts about how these kinds of businesses can speed up and what challenges they typically have to overcome.
As usual, below, you can watch the video version of this episode, listen and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Soundcloud, or get the RSS feed and use the podcast platform of your choice. Enjoy!
AE: [00:00:00] During 2020, many companies were challenged to rethink their offering. They needed to develop more digital offerings - Stellan, how do you define a digital offering?
SB: [00:00:12] It's a very good question. For me, it's anything that can be bought online. So, in short, it could be a physical product or a digital product.
AE: [00:00:22] Anders, what's your definition of a digital offering?
AB: [00:00:25] I would agree. And then you can go down to semantics or nomenclature that, how you get there, meaning what you use to provide in a traditional or analog way that you start doing that digitally as well. But I agree with Stellan that if it's an offering, you're able to buy it.
AE: [00:00:47] And during 2020, have you seen any successful examples where companies have developed a digital offering, Anders?
AB: [00:00:56] If I heard your first sort of background input right, I will try to rephrase what you said, built-in in the first question to Stellan. In 2020, and depending on where we are in the world, all companies, all organizations, all families, all individuals in the whole world had a unique and still have a unique opportunity to challenge themselves, to make things happen. Some, let's take for example, companies have been doing absolutely nothing but talking about hopefully it soon gets back to normal. And some have tried to make baby steps and perhaps some have moved quickly. I would presume that the ones that started a while ago have increased the speed, and some that didn't start a while ago, nothing has happened because, yes, companies have been challenged to execute, but I'm not sure that many have been taking on that challenge and I'm sure that some haven't looked at it as a very positive challenge. I don't know what you say about my prologue Stellan, but...
SB: [00:02:24] I think in B2C the examples are plenty, especially when it comes to retail restaurants, service industry in general, and so on, because they had to survive. In B2B, I think there are much fewer examples and I haven't observed any with my own eyes, I've just read about them. And that's mainly been going the e-commerce route for physical goods. And I'm still lacking, like really good examples of people who have invented completely new offerings, moving their various services, sales sides of things online in a proper way, and so on.
AB: [00:03:11] And to add to that Stellan, I would say, now, if we cluster B2B, we should at the same time know that that some B2B companies have had golden times now, depending on what business they are in. So when we sort of generally speak about B2B, there are all kinds of examples of how this has affected companies. But I would generally say like this, that the companies that have been challenged, I hope they have been looking at it, what I think is the right way, that this is a unique possibility to be forced to actually take decisions and move forward with things that they have struggled with, that is definitely something I can stand for. And we do have insights and have been involved with a couple of owner groups where the intention is to be fast. But we have also been involved with decision-makers and on the groups where they await what will happen. That's a huge difference.
AE: [00:04:29] Yeah, and Anders, do you think the pandemic has been a time where companies can take time to invest in more projects that will have the results in the long term, rather than in the short term? If we're thinking about public companies who have short-term demand from investors, during this pandemic, those kinds of expectations disappeared in the short term. And this is the time now to really launch projects which have long-term benefits and results.
AB: [00:05:09] Long question. And the short answer is, if we look like in Sweden - since March, that opportunity exists. Yes.
AE: [00:05:22] That was a short answer, and concise! Stellan, you mentioned a difference between B2B and B2C, why are B2C, generally quicker to adapt to the new way of doing things?
SB: [00:05:40] I think spontaneously, historical reasons, no direct relationship with customers. So when your relationship with the customer is the sale, the transaction itself, and that moves from the physical world to an online world, you have to follow, or you no longer exist as a business. Whereas in B2B the relationship has been more personal and those have been over the phone and so on historically, not just in the physical realm, so to speak. So the situation we've been in the last year has not forced, I think, the customer or companies, in the same way, to go digital as in B2C.
AE: [00:06:26] And so if they have succeeded in surviving without adapting or changing, what makes this now the most critical thing?
SB: [00:06:37] Because your new competitors will go digital-first and your buyers will definitely move to a digital-first over time. So it becomes a challenge, I think, to leave this on the table for too long.
AE: [00:06:54] And what skill set do you think is required for B2B companies to move more quickly into digital offerings?
AB: [00:07:03] I would say for the last 20 years, they've been overthrown by the 'whys', meaning why they should do it. And they have been very active in running IT projects, whatever they have been referred to as, but I would call them system projects. What I mean by this is that it's easy from the outside to say they should prioritize this, prioritize that. But if no one ever has shown any proof before, then it's very, very difficult to motivate any change and to motivate a digital change or a digital transformation without ever having seen any proof of a result. It's difficult for most B2B companies. So what it takes as a skill set, is someone, one, showing them the proof in advance, and two, taking charge of what and how to do it. And those examples are very, very few.
AE: [00:08:14] So internally, do you think that it's required that you hire new employees? And how do you balance between new employees and existing employees, or is it educating existing employees?
AB: [00:08:30] Most companies have owners. Most executive management are not owners of large B2B companies. Of course, it's a lot up to the owners and also to the people that they put in the positions of running the company. But as I said, when you haven't seen that much proof, there is a high risk that you tell stuff about digital offerings and digitalization from a PR perspective to say, oh, we have done this and we have done that. But on the inside, you know that we haven't digitalised so much, meaning going from analog to digital. We, therefore, haven't come very far with digitalisation. Perhaps the digital readiness internally is very low and therefore not that much has happened with digital transformation. And for me, digital transformation is its three main pillars - it's the offering and the business model, it's the internal processes, and thirdly, it's the customers, the clients, their experience.
AE: [00:09:49] Stellan, do you agree on those three pillars?
SB: [00:09:51] Yeah, I'd
SB: [00:09:52] Like to offer another perspective on this. And I think that whether you have to bring in new people, or you can rely on the skills that you have within the organisation, is a lot dependent on the fact that most people are naturally skeptical about change. So whenever you're going to do a change project, and it's not just for digitalization, it's like any change that you could have within an organisation, most people are reluctant. Because we know what we have, but we don't know what the alternative is, so whenever you're going to do the kind of move that we're talking about now, you need people who have sort of a curiosity and who like change. And so if you get those people, then the next factor is basically how digital are they? How analytical are they? And I would say to a large extent as well, looks at how high a factor do they have when it comes to getting stuff done? Basically, you can't just plan this, as you have to have a certain uncertainty, and just do it and see what happens and adapt.
AB: [00:11:06] And I would say more than bringing another perspective, you answered the question.
SB: [00:11:14] It's another way of looking at it!
AE: [00:11:18] And Stellan, you mentioned that the new competition will be digital first, and these employees, these new people that have the required skill sets, how do you succeed if you're a traditional B2B company to hire them before they go to the competition, who goes digital first?
SB: [00:11:47] Yeah, this is a challenge, because obviously, you have a disadvantage to start with. I just know from my own personal experience as well that, you know, just the type of atmosphere that can be in in a company can be enough to scare away those people. So I think you have to be very open to taking advantage of the new situation that we have where people can work from other places. They might not have to come into your office and be part of your existing culture and way of doing things. Hopefully, it could even make it easier to hire a set of people who can work as a team remotely and change things.
AB: [00:12:34] I like to add one thing to that, or maybe two if OK, how about leading by example? The way we learn to use computers was not that we had an academic degree in using computers. We helped each other, someone we knew something and we helped each other to become better. Why I say this is because I think in 2021 in a Western world company, it's impossible to increase the digital readiness or increase the digitalization and so forth if you have a leadership who doesn't allow your colleagues to have their videos on in a video meeting. That is not leading by example. And sorry to bring this specific thing up, but imagine booking a meeting with someone in the physical world, bringing a black blanket, and putting it over your head. That's how the world is right now. It doesn't need dinosaurs. It needs people who lead by example who are willing to show that they can make mistakes and let their colleagues say, hey, you could do this and you could do that. And it would become much better. Happens every day in every meeting, one of the meetings before today, Stellan has a reflection, he took a screenshot, sent it through the chat in the meeting to me, I changed immediately. Helping each other to lead by example, improving each other is the culture we need if we want to be able to be more relevant for our customers. And I think, generally speaking, in the whole world, digital-first has been for a long time among the potential and existing customers, it's just that as B2B owners and leaders, we don't always grasp that. We think it's a cool expression where you do the design of the iPhone interface before you do the design of your website. I would gladly say that for the last 10 years, wake up, digital-first is how people behave no matter where they come from and where they are.
AE: [00:14:54] And still, if you worked at a company with those kinds of dinosaurs that Anders is referring to and you were not able to quit that job, what would you do? How would you change the dinosaurs?
SB: [00:15:09] I'm the type of person who likes to do skunkworks. So I would just go about them, as I was saying, lead by example, make things happen, and be prepared for the consequences. And, you know, if people hate what you do and get you fired, well, then at least you did what you believed in. I have a very hard time doing this sort of, nine-to-five, accept the status quo and things would be like they've always been, and have a boring life. It's kind of not my thing.
AE: [00:15:43] Anything to add there Anders?.
AB: [00:15:45] I had a conversation that's always difficult when you're about to give examples so that I don't expose someone who doesn't want to get exposed. So let me tell you this story. Let's say that I talked to an owner a while ago. Let's say that this owner let me meet some CEOs of the companies that he owned. And let's say that I had a couple of conversations with these CEOs after these sessions. This owner asked me, "I have understood, Anders, that you think you believed that one of the keys to achieve the needed change is to lead by example. How many of the individuals that you now have met do you think are able to lead by example?" I answered. Let's start with you. You are not able to lead by example. He smiled and said that was not the answer I was looking for. And then I said, You have one CEO that can lead by example, whatever he would do, because I just tell a story I won't tell now or what he could do I won't tell now, but it's an interesting way of looking at it as an owner.
SB: [00:17:19] And now it's fika!
AE: [00:17:22] Thank you, everyone, for participating.