The amount of effort spent on talking and thinking about the best ways to connect with customers truly is incredible. The amount of ink spilled — real and virtual — the number of conferences held, and the dollars spent on efforts and expertise are vast.
The irony is that businesses often start out with a natural ability to behave in a customer-centric way. When a business is small enough, it can have significant knowledge of its customers, especially its best customers.
It’s when the business scales that this knowledge starts to become unmanageable; more employees and more customers means customer information that must be managed and presented to employees effectively to keep the intimate feeling that a very small business can maintain naturally. Over time, a degree of impersonality can creep into the buyer-seller relationship.
Customers are coming to expect something different, however. The era of social media has changed how people see the companies they buy from. They expect your company to behave like a single entity, regardless of the role of the people they talk to. Customers know companies are collecting information about them, and they expect it to be used for their benefit to create better and easier busying experiences.
Here’s the reason for all the spilled ink, frustrated discussions and expended money: Doing this as your business scales is hard. It forces you to adjust everything — technology, process and mindset. Following are five of tough but necessary tasks to tackle as your company grows.
1. Treat Customers Like You Know Them
Customers expect your products and services to meet their needs — that’s a given. Otherwise, they’ll buy from someone else. They also want to buy from people and businesses they like. Establishing relationships is vital for survival in the subscription economy, as return customers become the key to profitability.
One key to doing this is to enable everyone in your organization who deals with customers — in sales, marketing and support — to have a consistent and complete view of the customer. That is a classic CRM objective, but it takes much more than technology to achieve. It also takes a mindset — it’s not enough for you to have the customer data; the people working with it need to use that data to demonstrate that they care about the customer.
Knowing customers is not about segmenting them correctly or matching upsells to their profiles, although those things are important. It’s really about demonstrating that, in a moment of truth for customers, you will work for their success because you understand them.
2. Orient Your Processes Around the Customer
Too many businesses have spent the last decade honing their internal processes with the mathematics of productivity as their primary driver. There’s nothing wrong with improving your efficiency — as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the customer.
If you’ve ever had to call your cable company, you probably have experienced a display of disregard for the customer: multiple tiers of interactive voice response questions, canned ads and service personnel who may have goals on things (like average call time or frequency of escalation) that actually prevent you from achieving the objective of your call.
These are great examples of processes introduced solely to benefit the business. However, today’s much more savvy customers find these roadblocks to their happiness less and less tolerable.
We now live in a connected world in which customers expect answers immediately. If your process requires something that delays what the customer wants or requires additional effort from your buyers, there had better be a significant benefit to the customer — not the company.
3. Give Employees the Power to Solve Problems
The concept of the business as a single entity with many employees having access to a single view of the customer also shifts the customer’s view of who can solve problems.
In the past, it might have been tolerable to be shunted from person to person within the company to resolve an issue. Today, giving customers the runaround in this way would be almost quaint if it weren’t so enormously frustrating. If I’m talking to you, and you can understand my problem as a customer, you should be able to fix it.
Many companies still have hierarchical structures that keep employees from being empowered to solve customer issues, and they also lack a process for escalating customer requests to the right person. Make an effort to enable more employees to provide solutions, and at the same time create a process and an ability within the organization to advance truly difficult customer issues to the right people rapidly.
4. Respect Customers’ Time While Maximizing Your Productivity
In business-to-business buying especially, the customer is under significant time pressure. That shouldn’t come as a shock; the companies that sell to them are under the same pressures, which is why they seek to become more productive.
Somewhere along the way, however, what I call “corporate empathy” breaks down. In theory, the business facing the most internal time pressure should be the best at reacting to its customers’ time pressures. Instead, businesses focus inward and solve their own problems at the expense of their customers.
The key is to examine the buying process and discover where steps can be overhauled to make both buyer and seller faster and more productive. Is the quote process gumming up transactions? Look into configure price quote solutions. Is your online ordering process generating a glut of follow-up calls to clarify orders, or worse, abandoned shopping carts? Re-examine the structure of your website’s ordering pages. Is your legal department overwhelmed in creating contracts for subscription customers? Research contract life cycle management solutions.
In these and many other areas, you can find ways to accelerate the sales process, smooth out bumps in the sales process, and make life easier for both you and your customers.
5. Stay Connected in the Way That Customers Want
In most cases, customers do not want one-and-done transactions for key purchases, especially in B2B. While they may not be thinking about their next purchase as they close the current one, they certainly would prefer to make their next buying experience quick and relatively effortless, and that probably will mean buying from a vendor they’ve dealt with before (i.e., you).
However, many companies do nothing to maintain a conversation with customers after sales, or between the initial sale and the anticipated time of the next sale. Others take an aggressive approach and market relentlessly to their existing customers, wearing out their welcomes. It’s critical that you keep in touch, but at a cadence that works with your customers’ expectations.
Furthermore, those communications must bring real value to enable you to cut through the clutter. If you can do this, not only will you reach customers, but they’ll look forward to hearing from you — which puts you in a far better position to sell to them again when the time comes.
All these things are easier said than done, as the foibles of some very capable businesses demonstrate. But if you can identify the most pressing areas, devote some thought to them based on the customer’s needs and expectations, and invest in technology, process redesign and training, you can take major steps toward becoming the company your customers want you to be while improving productivity and sales performance.