How B2B business leaders are adopting a customer-obsessed operating model with composable commerce

The hero’s journey to composable: How B2B business leaders are adopting a customer-obsessed operating model to succeed

Julia Rabkin
Julia Rabkin
Senior B2B Product Expert, commercetools
Published 20 November 2023
Estimated reading time minutes

While modern B2B buyers now demand outstanding customer experiences, whether purchasing products for themselves or on behalf of their employers, many B2B organizations continue to grapple with how to meet these expectations. To change this reality, embracing a customer-centric operating model is more crucial than ever. 

In a recent webinar hosted by commercetools and featuring Forrester Research, experts shared how they embarked on a quest to nail what customers want, the technology that delivers it and the change management needed for the ultimate reward: Long-lasting success.  

How B2B business leaders are adopting a customer-obsessed operating model with composable commerce

B2B digital commerce has shown tremendous growth this year, especially as scores of B2B organizations embrace the power of composability to surf such a challenging year and achieve the ultimate business holy grail: Meeting customer expectations. 

While “customer centricity” might seem obvious to consumer-facing business leaders, it’s not widespread in the B2B sector just yet, as a significant portion of manufacturers, wholesalers and distributions still lack a clear digital strategy to meet their customers’ needs. 

In a recent webinar, guest speaker Joe Cicman, Principal Analyst for B2B Commerce at Forrester Research, and industry practitioners Mark A. Pickett, Former VP of Marketing at MSC Industrial Supply, and Jeff Amash, CMO and co-owner at Tekton, delved into the rewards of embracing a customer-obsessed model and the pivotal role of composable commerce to empower it. 

Drawing from the powerful storytelling structure of the hero’s journey, depicting a hero’s transformative quest through challenges, growth and ultimate triumph, our panelists shared their inspiring stories of how they’re now able to meet customer needs with composable, and the results they achieved.

The preface: What is a customer-obsessed operating model?

Joe Cicman set the context on the challenges B2B companies face today in the form of the “3D connected consumer”: Essentially, people are connected to the internet through multiple devices, platforms (e.g., LinkedIn, Instagram) and channels (e.g., apps, browsers). Digital businesses need to serve customers wherever they are in these increasingly complex and non-linear journeys, so that they can then map the portfolio of customer experiences and craft the technology accordingly. 

Addressing these requirements isn’t an easy task, and companies need all the help they can get. That means organizations must have tech teams and business practitioners — the ones in close contact with customers — having an active role in delivering innovation, breaking down the traditional “business versus technology” divide that impedes B2B firms in the journey to becoming a customer-first organization. 

Over the years, Forrester Research has defined an operational model rooted in “customer obsession,” as placing the customer at the helm of leadership strategies and operational approaches.

Truly customer-obsessed enterprises grew 1.6 times faster than their less mature peers. We measure the year-over-year revenue growth of enterprises around the world, and the success chasm is widening between businesses that are customer-obsessed and those that are not. That's why you obsess over your customers: So you can grow faster.
Joe Cicman

Principal Analyst for B2B Commerce, Forrester Research

If businesses orient their strategies around a customer-obsessed operating model, how does this translate into technology? A future-fit technology strategy is needed to achieve this goal, enabling companies to cultivate adaptability and resilience. This empowers them to seize emerging opportunities and navigate situations out of their control, such as a pandemic. 

Joe emphasized that transitioning from packaged eCommerce platforms to a composable model “must be undertaken with eyes wide open” because composable architecture was designed to solve a specific problem under specific circumstances, and not as an “out-of-the-box” solution that achieves “digital sameness.” Instead, a composable approach is designed to allow “you to quickly build and rebuild solutions so that you work to remain differentiated."

To advance in customer obsession, you need to advance your technology strategy in lockstep.
Joe Cicman

Principal Analyst for B2B Commerce, Forrester Research

Furthermore, companies of any size can leverage a customer-obsession model and capture the benefits of composable. As a starting point, Joe recommends that business leaders answer key questions* to understand the state of customer obsession within their business, including:

  1. Do your senior executives put aside their opinions when faced with customer insights that contradict them?

  2. Do you have a C-level executive responsible for making sure that the customer is considered first in decisions about strategy and operations? 

  3. Do you balance customer and business needs? 

  4. Do you apply design thinking methods to decisions throughout the company? 

  5. Do you analyze the relationship among customer loyalty indicators, employee engagement indicators and business outcomes? 

*Source: Forrester Research, Inc. 

After answering these questions, it’s key to follow three main steps: 

Step #1 — Build a customer journey map and highlight the moments of engagement, taking the 3D-connected customer as the Northstar.   

Step #2 — Prioritize key engagement moments and define the backend processes based on the benefit to customers and the value for the business.

Step #3 — Pursue a roadmap to move quickly while laying the foundations for the future, investing in the digital touchpoints and moments that customers need most. Leaders should also build their team’s confidence in the business impact by estimating the uptake and value of each digital moment, as well as identifying the software and data they need for each of these digital moments.

The only way to run quickly while building the foundations for your digital business is to invest twice: first by rolling out new capabilities in months, and then again in long-term digital experience platforms that can take years to implement.
Joe Cicman

Principal Analyst for B2B Commerce, Forrester Research

That said, Joe unveiled the story of how B2B heroes, Jeff Amash and Mark A. Pickett, have unlocked a customer-obsessed strategy with composable commerce.

The call to adventure: What triggered B2B companies to adopt composable commerce?

Mark’s origin story begins with technology challenges that became increasingly hard to ignore, like soaring maintenance costs and the disconnect between technology tasks and business outcomes. When Mark was leading the marketing team at MSC Industrial Supply, the company faced immense pressure to support changes required by the customer base, which is incredibly tough in the legacy world. 

Recognizing that “necessity is the mother of invention,” the company embraced a composable approach, which changed the way IT and business divisions work together for the better, as the traditional silos that kept departmental goals disparate ceased to exist.

[Legacy] is a standalone sort of solution on the backend where you've got a bunch of hamsters running around trying to basically aggregate everything together. That doesn't work. What does work is when you have those [people] that are responsible for solutioning as part of the actual implementation, who understand a lot of the challenges that are being faced. When you do that, what you come up with becomes an actual workable solution that everyone has responsibility for, and everyone is relating to the business outcome, and tied to that.
Mark A. Pickett

Former VP of Marketing, MSC Industrial Supply

In short, MSC Industrial Supply’s pivot toward a composable commerce strategy stemmed from the realization that customer centricity should be at the core of the company’s strategy, which required a more collaborative way of working across departments. 

The call for adventure for Tekton was different. First, Jeff clarified that the company isn’t a large one, but is considered digitally mature in the way they work with technology, as they “could differentiate ourselves by being leaders in the way that we use technology to reach our customers.” And second, even though they still used a legacy eCommerce solution at that time, Tekton’s tech journey started by developing a D2C (direct-to-consumer) model first, and then expanding to their B2B business. 

However, the limitations of their legacy eCommerce system became evident over time. Speed, flexibility and performance emerged as critical requirements that their existing platform was unable to meet. For instance, the company was incredibly limited by its previous legacy technology to the point that incorporating a new payment solution like Apple Pay into the eCommerce experience was an impossible task to realize. And for a company that wants to be on the cutting edge of technology to meet customer expectations, that’s just not acceptable. 

That’s when Tekton made the choice to adopt composable commerce, and now the only limitation the company faces is how to allocate resources to pursue the strategy it wants.

We moved to commercetools and built out our site based on that. And it was a pretty natural extension to realize our B2B customers expect the same kind of experience that a D2C shopper wants. They are used to shopping in really streamlined, easy ways. We realized within the last year that we could upgrade that whole side of our business as well, which drove us to build our site through commercetools for our B2B customers. And it’s been wonderful.
Jeff Amash

CMO, Tekton

Yet, the transition to a composable approach hasn’t come without a certain level of hesitation. As a relatively novel technology, composable commerce is still misperceived as overly complex and costly, which leaves many executives feeling reluctant to embrace it. In the case of Tekton, Jeff’s main concern was whether the company’s smaller size would be an impediment to adopting composable. After all, many business leaders still believe that taking advantage of modern tech requires, for instance, extensive developer resources.

Do we not have what it takes to do it? And I would say that that was our biggest hesitation [with moving to composable]. We spent a lot of time trying to answer that question and understand it, and I'm really glad that we didn't refuse it because it turned out really well. And I really do like to let other companies in our situation know that it isn't something where you have to be a massive company to benefit from using the most modern frameworks, the most modern technologies. Actually, in some ways, I think the smaller companies could benefit even more because it's something that really differentiates you from a lot of companies who are around your size.
Jeff Amash

CMO, Tekton

The reward: What’s life like with composable now?

At MSC Industrial Supply, the main benefit has been the noticeable boost in collaboration between IT and marketing. These departments now function as an integrated team tied to a common goal — meeting customer expectations. 

Similarly, for Tekton, a composable approach proved instrumental in meeting customer needs. For instance, years ago, a B2B customer reached out and asked for features in Tekton’s online platform. At that time, the company operated with a legacy commerce platform that didn’t help address those needs, and that customer switched suppliers. When Tekton migrated to composable, they made an extra effort to meet the needs of that particular customer. The result: The customer came back. That’s the power of making the customer needs the central piece of a company’s strategy.   

Moreover, leveraging advanced technologies made it easier for Tekton to attract and retain talent, a crucial benefit that enables the company to continue pursuing a customer-first strategy.

What advice would our heroes give themselves after the journey?

“Be patient but not slow,” would be Mark’s motto when embracing a composable approach. This is because implementing commercetools Composable Commerce isn’t only about technology: It’s primarily about change management as “that's going to be required to gain the adoption for those that are actually going to be doing the work.” For instance, including development teams as part of business decisions is a crucial step for timely delivery. Change management, according to Mark, requires an effort of patience because this is new for people.  

At the same time, he pointed out that, “Everyone prefers the [composable] method because people get included in decisions and conversations that they otherwise wouldn't be in.” This is important also when considering the tech implementation because success will be predicated on the ability of these teams to work through these new requirements.

So I would say in terms of being patient, not being slow, being very, very deliberate in your approach, but not forsaking what I would consider to be your velocity, it will be much more important to your ongoing success than the actual implementation itself.
Mark A. Pickett

Former VP of Marketing, MSC Industrial Supply

For Jeff, the advice that he’d give himself would be: “Don’t let fear prevent you from doing what you know is right for your business.” As the company was hesitant at first about composable, it still knew that the technology was the right match for its goals.

Like I said, [composable] was something that we thought about. It was something that we worried about, but I'm glad that we didn't let it stop us from doing the thing that we knew was right, which was moving to modern architecture. So I think that really is the number one thing, because especially for a smaller company, it can be a big change and that can be something that you may not be comfortable taking on, but in the end, it’s worth it.
Jeff Amash

CMO, Tekton

Removing the journey’s roadblocks: Justifying the investment and getting buy-in

An investment like composable is going to require C-level sponsorship at some level, “not because of the amount [of money], but because of the nature of it,” said Mark. The most effective approach to presenting composable commerce to top executives involves breaking it down into use cases and then formulating the business case around it. 

For example, if a company aims to integrate Apple Pay as a payment method, that’s the use case. The next step is to articulate the business case: Why is it going to address customer needs, how many orders can you expect to get with that use case, and so on. Essentially, it’s not necessary to talk about technology at all; it’s about making technology an enabler to achieve business goals

Joe also highlighted the importance of laying out the strategy first, providing a glimpse of the expected returns before delving into the investment. That’s a more effective strategy than merely justifying a budget, offering a clearer visualization of how the cost can translate into tangible business benefits.

Collaboration and a shared purpose are keys to the ultimate reward

Crafting a customer-centric company powered by a composable engine underscores the pivotal role of robust collaboration

For Mark, collaboration depends on the company’s stage in its digital evolution; for example, the ones that have already implemented Agile methodologies such as SCRUM have a headstart in a composable journey. In addition, reorganizing teams around specific aspects of the customer experience, such as cart and checkout, is valuable but requires patience for people to settle into the new structure. 

Joe expanded on the topic by pointing out that companies can create a shared purpose that brings everyone together by “taking a look at doing user research collaboratively and doing the journey mapping collaboratively. That gets everyone building empathy for your customer and that brings them more upstream into the decision process, and that’ll build the muscle into the actual delivery and iteration of that.” 

And finally, collaboration is also about breaking the walls of the traditional business versus technology dichotomy. Jeff, a Chief Marketing Officer, mentioned that he’s very close to the technology team at Tekton.

I do think that you can't make these decisions in a bubble and that it's important that you get buy-in across the company, especially from the people who are going to be most affected by this. So I think it's my duty really in my role to understand the technology as well as our teams that are going to be using it. I was very closely involved in working with our developer team and some others at the company in choosing commercetools and going with that platform and learning about the platforms and learning about composable.
Jeff Amash

CMO, Tekton

Mark agreed as he mentioned that “technology is not anything new to these newer marketing executives.” In fact, marketers do have an experimentation streak that isn’t always recognized, as they’re always experimenting and forming hypotheses that can only be delivered through the power of technology. And, as composable goes beyond commerce, we’ll see more marketers involved not only in creating a use case but also being a core stakeholder in technology decisions and innovation. 

To wrap up the session, Joe affirmed the importance of speaking in “value language” across all teams, no matter if they’re business or tech.

Build the habit of speaking in value language. Using value-oriented words, not technical jargon. And remember - that value is going to be different in every company. Let value language be the Rosetta Stone that aligns all stakeholders.
Joe Cicman

Principal Analyst for B2B Commerce, Forrester Research

Watch all the insights of this enlightening webinar and learn what benefits B2B organizations can unlock with a customer-obsessed strategy powered by composable commerce. 

Julia Rabkin
Julia Rabkin
Senior B2B Product Expert, commercetools

Julia is a Senior B2B Product Expert at commercetools. With over a decade of experience across product and marketing teams in the tech world, she is an expert at creating innovative, customer-first strategies, and excelling in cross-functional growth & GTM initiatives.

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