Corporate Boardroom

Living Up to Expectations: Reputation Management for B2B Companies in a B2C World

March 7, 2019

Axios and The Harris Poll recently released their ranking of the reputations of the most visible companies in the United States, based upon a survey of 18,228 Americans conducted earlier this year. What struck me most is to see that very few B2B companies reached the critical level of “visibility” in order to be measured at all. The challenge, though, for B2B companies is that they face the same set of rising expectations among consumers that consumer-facing companies are experiencing. But, B2B companies often have very few touchpoints to build an affinity or relationship with consumers, yet more and more, these B2B companies are evaluated on the same set of metrics as consumer-facing ones.

At APCO, we subscribe to the philosophy that reputation is about meeting the expectations stakeholders have for you. A company can understand what drives their reputation, but they can never control their reputation – we can only work to influence reputation. For B2B companies, understanding the unique drivers of reputation, even among consumers, is critical because these companies have fewer opportunities to influence their reputations with that audience. There are plenty of B2B companies that may disagree with me, but my response would be that consumers are becoming savvier and are paying very close attention to corporate practices.

To those often overlooked B2B companies, I’ve opened up APCO’s vault of data to distribute some advice based upon trends we are seeing in corporate reputation management for B2B companies.

One controversial company in your competitor peer set will dominate what consumers think about you.

For good or bad, companies carry the baggage of their industry. When there is very little understanding of what your company does, all it takes is one company in your peer set to experience a controversy or scandal to change the trajectory of your own reputation. For instance, if a competitor experiences a high-profile safety issue, in an undifferentiated industry, all companies will be under the microscope for safety violations among consumers. In other words, when a crisis strikes a competitor, to an audience that has never heard of your company, there is no credibility or brand equity built to withstand the influence of the issue.

The lesson? B2B companies should not be afraid to be more visible with consumers, do it before another company’s controversy puts you on the defensive.

Highlight the benefits of your company for society.

Countless research studies have shown that consumers expect companies to take on the challenges facing society. It is no longer a question, it is fact. However, it’s often overlooked that these expectations are not only for consumer-facing companies but certainly for companies serving businesses and government who are dealing with the tough challenges facing society. B2B companies should be leaning into these opportunities to highlight how their company’s business strategy is focused on solving these issues facing society.

The lesson? Your company more than likely has a good story here, don’t be afraid to champion it among consumers.

Your employees are truly your best advocates.

When there is little known about your company in the outside world, employees become the most valuable source of proactive reputation management. I once had a B2B client tell me that they were worried about the kitchen table conversations people in the community were having following some negative news. Data from our study analyzing their reputation in the community found that the best way to combat this negative news was through driveway conversations between employees and their neighbors. With new accounts of employee activism in the headlines every day, how a company treats their employees is under the microscope.

The lessons? Ensuring alignment with the values of employees is important for every company, but for B2B, it’s critical to be in lockstep with your most important ambassadors.

It’s time for B2B companies to get on the bandwagon of paying attention to consumer expectations. Those that make the choice to proactively monitor and manage their corporation’s reputation among consumers will be able to more-effectively respond consumer challenges. And maybe next year we’ll see a B2B company listed in those reputation rankings.

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