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B2B Mentors: Business Innovation Expert Mark Dancer on Embracing Innovation

What does it mean to be innovative? A narrow perspective would suggest that it’s the simple act of coming up with a new idea. Although that’s certainly part of it, if you stop at the idea, you’re only looking at blade of grass instead of looking up to see the entire field. Business Innovation Expert Mark Dancer shares insights and practical tips for making the most of your business innovation and helping your organization embrace the change. Mark is the author of Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Force of Change® Series — an innovation roadmap for every B2B innovator.

What are most people missing with the current state of digital transformation?

MD: First, it’s important to recognize that digital transformation is part of business innovation, but it’s not all of it. Many companies focus far too much on e-commerce as a means to remain competitive and gain revenue. Unfortunately, as a result, they don’t focus enough on how to enable their core business processes and how to use modern digital tools for learning and education — for themselves and their customers.

Digital transformation — like broader innovation — is about not just how we sell, but it’s how we do our work and how we learn as an organization.

There’s so much power and exponential change in technology-driven innovation — which e-commerce is a part of — that people often forget about human-centric innovation. It’s almost not talked about. But sometimes companies need to take a step back. If you really want to be differentiated and you really want to be powerful, you need to remember that selling to an individual or to a business is about helping them do their work and helping them live their lives.

The best technology innovations are better when they are packaged with human-centric innovation. Apple CEO Tim Cook said it best during an MIT Commencement Address in 2017:

“Technology is capable of doing great things. But it doesn’t want to do great things. It doesn’t want anything. That part takes all of us.”

To me, that’s about human-centric innovation.

What are 2-3 strategies or best practices that you recommend for B2B professionals who want to elevate innovation as a priority for their business in 2020?

MD: You must have foresight, which is essentially sharing your vision for how the future will unfold for your industry, markets, customers, business, and partners in a way that’s compelling, meaningful, and engaging. It’s almost like doing a TED talk on where you think the market will go. You don’t have to be right, but you have to be engaging. That’s foresight. It’s a learnable skill and one that is practiced by many innovation leaders.

It’s also important to assess and build your organization’s culture. Culture can be a great enabler for innovation, but it also can be a huge roadblock. If you haven’t articulated the specific behaviors and values that you want to see in your organization, you won’t go as far as you’d like and possibly not anywhere at all.

Finally, you need to think wide before you think narrow. The truth is that innovation, while we may see it elsewhere as a dramatic, overnight change, it actually involves many small steps that happen on the fringes and eventually add up to something big. At the very beginning of that process, if you aren’t thinking wide — thinking about possibilities — or if you go narrow too fast, you’ll miss those critical small steps. For example, if you’re only focused on next quarter sales, you won’t be thinking about innovation.

What do you see as the biggest roadblocks to change in an organization? And how can businesses minimize or even eliminate them?

MD: A major roadblock to change is looking for immediate returns. I’ve talked to individuals who, when asked how they will know if their innovations will be accepted by customers, they say they simply ask them. And if their customers don’t say “Yes, I’d be willing to buy,” they drop it. Leadership can expect immediate returns on innovation as well, further compounding the problem. Truth is, it’s a journey with many small steps that will lead to returns, but they may take time. To address this, some companies create innovation teams. These teams have specific directives to not get involved with solving an emerging client problem or selling a product or service. They are expected to maintain long-term vision because if they don’t, if they focus on immediate returns, they will lose sight of the larger vision on the journey.

Additionally, you need to think about your incentives and rewards program. Every organization has one — how you compensate employees or write performance reviews, for example. If you’re thinking about innovation, you’re thinking long term. Non-monetary rewards are a great way to reward individuals or teams for generating ideas and making progress. For example, you could offer education and networking opportunities as rewards. This type of reward demonstrates your commitment and value of your employees’ growth. This benefits them in professional development and benefits the company through advanced knowledge and skills, and innovative thinking. Monetary rewards like spot bonuses that managers can give out on the fly or annual bonuses can also be used to incentivize employees. The value of innovation should infiltrate the entire organization and be considered a core principle at every level.

Mentoring or lack thereof can be a roadblock for some organizations. When you’re going to mentor or coach, it’s important to have a standard. For example, for innovation, I have four criteria that you can mentor:

  1. A sense of curiosity and acting on it.
  2. Ways to join the conversation as an expert.
  3. Importance of not obstructing innovation either consciously or subconsciously.
  4. How to be facile with data. Not everyone will be a data scientist in an organization, but the fact is, in today’s world, almost every innovation you can think of has data or artificial intelligence as an underlying enabler.

What role does social technology/media play in customer engagement?

MD: It all starts with storytelling. Innovative companies need to develop their expertise in storytelling. Why? If you innovate and you don’t tell the world, that’s kind of like a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear it. Did it really happen? Same thing is true for innovations. You need to tell the story, in a modern storytelling way, through social media and face-to-face communication.

Storytelling is listening. If you’re telling a story about your innovations through social media or face-to-face interactions, you need to listen to what comes back — the comments, likes, and feedback. You also can take this idea further by asking your customers or business partners to tell their stories through your social media. The act of doing that is huge listening because you’re learning a lot about what stories they’re telling and why.

What are 2-3 key strategies for developing a solid digital channel strategy?

MD: Think omnichannel. Omnichannel is the idea that every customer-facing individual or platform within your organization must work together, offering a consistent and truly integrated experience. To do this, you need to create a list of what customers want pre-sale, during a transaction, and post-sale. You also must look at what you’re offering through human channels and digital channels. It all needs to work together instantaneously, enabled by your CRM and technology stack, as well as your business processes, your culture, and your data.

Next, think about customer experience. You should start with what the customer wants and how they justify their decisions, which can be really hard to identify. It’s easy to shortcut that discovery process and think that you know what your customers want. Or you may even ask them and take their superficial answer without any further investigation. Instead, think about why your customers hire your business or buy your products. It’s a whole language about getting to a deeper understanding of why customers want to work with you and how they get the value you can create for them through your existing products and services and through your innovations.

Omnichannel and customer experience are two critical strategies, and you really need a framework or discipline for both.

What do you see as the biggest innovations in marketing and sales for B2B companies in 2020?

MD: We are already into 2020, so the pressure is on. I try to think about what’s immediate. One trend I see in 2020 is a recalibration on e-commerce platforms. Many companies have made an investment in e-commerce with state-of-the-art platforms; however, many will discover that customers don’t see the value or that their platform isn’t differentiated. I don’t know what the answer is, but I like this analogy proposed by Forbes Contributor Steve Dennis — physical retail isn’t dead, boring retail is. I think that applies to e-commerce sites that are world-class from a best practices and technology perspective (or even if they’re not), they’re just boring. So, #1 is to realize that your e-commerce site needs to, essentially, not be boring.

I think we will see more companies putting in place the tools to help customers succeed and move forward to the future. So many companies are thinking about themselves and how they get to the future but are missing the connection between helping their customers succeed and the return on investment for their own company’s success. In essence, you’re building a relationship with your customers. You are building a community.

Companies should begin by asking the simple question, “How do I help my customers live their lives better or, if they are a business, do their work better?”

The future of business is up for grabs. I define the future of business as the future of work, the future of learning, and the future of sourcing. The reality is, customers make sourcing decisions (where they buy) based on who can help them do the work they need to get done and who can help their organization learn. It all comes back to helping your customers learn and providing them with tools, resources, or strategies that can help them do their job better. It’s as simple as that. If you help them, they will see you as a valued resource, which will, in turn, help your business as well.

I challenge you to think about your critical processes. Are they tied to helping your customer reach the future?

About the Author:

Mark Dancer founded the Network for Business Innovation to drive awareness, advocacy, and excellence for B2B innovation, and to enable an exchange of ideas between leaders on business transformation, technology adoption, social impact, and community engagement. For more than 30 years, Mark has worked with leading companies to achieve go-to-market excellence across a wide range of industries in developed and emerging markets. As a Fellow for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW) Institute for Distribution Excellence, Mark works to help distribution set the standard for B2B innovation and supports every distributor’s efforts to lead and win. Mark also is the author of Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series.

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