What it takes to win in B2B: reflections on the last five years

Growing business awards

This is the fifth successive year in which ECI has sponsored the B2B Business of the Year category in the Growing Business Awards (GBA). This year naturally feels a little different. The Covid-19 pandemic that brought our economy nearly to a standstill has inevitably taken its toll on the B2B sector. But we take a long-term view and our 40+ years of experience partnering with B2B businesses tells us that this is a sector well-placed to bounce back, capitalising on attributes such as its ability to innovate, its agility and adaptability, and its commitment to investment in enabling technologies.

We’ve seen those attributes time and again over the last five years of supporting these awards – but we’ve also seen a great deal of change. The B2B sector continues to develop at pace, exploiting new opportunities and responding to the evolving landscape. Here are five of the most significant changes we’ve seen.

1. The consumerisation of B2B

Businesses are run by people who have become accustomed to being able shop online for products and services at any time and from anywhere. As consumers, they swap devices at any time and expect a streamlined service throughout. Naturally, they want the same levels of convenience, flexibility and usability at work, and many B2B firms now offer apps, platforms, marketplaces and other tools that look and feel very similar to the technologies that consumers take for granted. The gap between B2B and B2C in functionality and UX is rapidly narrowing. 

Eviivo, the winner of the GBA B2B award in 2018, is a good example of this. It offers travel sector businesses a simple way to manage its bookings and channel relationships, all through a one-stop-shop user-friendly technology platform. 

2. The transformation of customer service

B2B enterprises are rightly proud of the products and services they offer, but in many markets the competition is fierce, and standing out from the crowd is increasingly difficult. In this environment, the highest possible levels of customer service have become the key point of competitive differentiation for leading B2B businesses.

Increased transparency has played its part in this theme. Five years ago, measures of customer service success were limited inward focussed metrics such as churn. Today, platforms taking their lead from the consumer sector provide B2B potential customers visibility over other clients’ experiences outside of a narrow referencing process.

3. Data is king 

The most exciting element of the B2B story has been the explosion of data over the past five years. It’s not so much that more information is available; rather it’s the rapid development of new tools that make it possible to secure actionable insight from that data. Leading B2B enterprises have recognised this, embracing data collection, storage and management, but also exploiting new data analytics tools powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence.

In many cases, the B2B sector has been at the forefront of rolling out these tools. but given the pace of change, many businesses are turning to specialist service providers to unlock the insights in their data. Take ECI portfolio company MiQ, a marketing intelligence business which combines real-world and digital data to generate insights from which its clients can make smarter decisions. It has helped clients such as the US Tennis Association to secure returns of 666% on advertising spend.

MVF, which won the GBA B2B award in 2016, is another example. Its data scientists work with its clients around the world to identify high-quality sales leads. The business has been growing at a rate of more than 30% a year since winning the award and now employs more than 400 staff.

Data illustration

4. The growth of the market

By the beginning of last year, there were nearly 6 million privately-owned businesses in the UK alone, a 69% increase on 2000. Leading B2B enterprises have scrambled to meet the growing need for products and services designed with smaller and medium-sized businesses in mind. These customers, that often rely on outsourcing rather than bringing functions in-house, have historically been poorly served. They’re expected to pay for solutions designed for far larger organisations or to buy off-the-shelf products not tailored to their needs.

ECI portfolio company Bionic is an example of what can be achieved when B2B firms offer a bespoke solution. Its service enables businesses to analyse suppliers in areas such as the energy market, telecoms and financial services and automatically be switched to best deal year after year. The service recognises that SMEs do not have the purchasing power to negotiate individual contracts with such suppliers, but also that consumer price comparison services do not meet their business needs.

5. The focus on talent

Last year’s GBA B2B award winner Corndel works with its clients to help them develop their staff and organisational structures, offering a range of training services and helping many businesses to make the best possible use of Apprenticeship Levy funding. The company has tapped into a crucial need in the B2B sector: the battle for the best people in an age of skill shortages and talent gaps. Focusing on recruitment and retention has never been so crucial.

Related to this, many B2B firms now have a sharpened understanding of the importance of employee wellbeing – and of building working cultures to which staff are attracted and engaged. ECI works closely with many of its portfolio companies on exactly this, offering a toolkit that businesses can use to become better places to work and create high engagement across its people. With the Covid-19 pandemic emphasising the importance of team, value and culture more than ever, we expect this to continue to be a prime focus of the most successful B2B firms of the future. 

Find out more about the 2020 Growing Business Awards here! 

Michael Butler, ECI

About the author

Michael Butler

"As a Partner within the Investment Team, I spend my time meeting with ambitious management teams, understanding their aspirations and how a partnership with ECI can help them achieve those. I then work with the companies we back as a board member, helping to develop and deliver their growth strategy."

View Full Profile

About the author

Richard Chapman

"I enjoy leading deals at ECI and have invested in lots of different areas including healthcare, restaurants, business services and tech-enabled services, to name a few. A large part of my role is post-investment, helping companies continue their growth organically and through acquisition, both in the UK and internationally."

View Full Profile

ECI announce close of latest fund

Find out more