Making Customer Relationships Stick

Jennifer Schulze

stuckdogAre your customers sticking with you because they want to, or because they feel locked in? In the past, sales-oriented organizations simply assumed that their customers stayed satisfied. Any who weren’t happy would seek out technical service or customer support.

That’s not how it works anymore, if it ever did. Times have changed.  Marketing needs to work to keep the customer happy. This is done by keeping a laser focus on customer needs, and by recognizing that different efforts are needed after the sale. In the new world, market-leading firms know that they need to focus on customer care continuously and keep proving their value in order to keep the customers they have. Customers today have more options than ever, and if you don’t treasure them, they will move on and never look back.

You’re not in charge

Buyers travel along multiple winding pathways in the buyer’s journey toward the point of sale. Content motivators and personal interactions in various channels guide buyers toward a successful close. Don’t picture a funnel where customers drop out at the bottom. There is no start and stop; rather, it’s an ongoing conversation where you need to bring relevant, compelling dialogue to the customer regularly.

In this new market landscape, 91 percent of buyers say that their expectations of vendors is much higher than they were just two years ago. Two-thirds are more risk-averse and write more risk-sharing language into their contracts. Successful cloud-based businesses have developed a way to guide customers along a circular pathway to ensure subscription renewals and a deeper involvement in solving the customer’s problems. If you don’t, you can be sure that someone else will.

There are two halves to the circular customer lifecycle: new customers and existing customers. Each group needs different levels of engagement. Here are the key points for each in terms of what needs to be done at every stage and how to adapt your approach according to customer actions:

Participate in the stealth sale

The buyer’s journey used to be a time when sales and marketing reached out to the customer and gave them the information they needed to make a decision. Now customers are clearly in control. B2B research shows that 68 percent of buyers prefer to handle the initial vendor research themselves. Their preferred channels for finding vendor information are:

  • Web search – 75 percent
  • Vendor websites – 73 percent
  • Events/seminars/conferences/peer recommendations – 54 percent
  • Online associations – 42 percent
  • Analysts/Influencers – 38 percent

As a result, eight out of 10 know exactly what they need before they ever try to contact a vendor. “Aggressive salespeople” is their number-one frustration, according to buyers surveyed. How do businesses find new customers in this environment?

The first step is to keep a steady production of fresh, accurate, and compelling marketing content. Your content should be easy to find on your company website, on social media, on peer review sites, and in blogs by industry influencers. Make it easy for buyers to find you where they are spending their time online. Make it easy for them to freely explore your solutions along many channels and educate themselves on what you do best.

Next, identify buyers whose needs match your offerings and have shown an interest within any of those channels. Offer content that helps them evaluate their options and provide tailored, customized content that lays out exactly what your solution can do for them. Even after the buyer is sold on your solution, it is up to you to win over the other key stakeholders within that organization, such as finance and IT. Strengthen the buyer’s hand to collapse the sales cycle and move them into the existing customer phase.

Cater to those temperamental existing customers

Never assume happy customers are going to stay happy. Seventy-nine percent of buyers say that the ROI of their purchases are under tighter scrutiny. Just over half (52 percent) of buyers say that “wasting company resources” is one of their primary concerns. In fact, 13 percent are afraid of losing their jobs over a bad purchase. It’s up to you to facilitate the rollout, make it a success, and prove the value proposition that sold the deal.

After implementation, stay engaged and look for ways to optimize the service to make sure the customer continues to succeed. Only 30 percent of buyers rate the entire experience, from first contact to implementation, as “excellent.” Join that minority of market leaders by expanding your relationship with the customer.

One of the best ways to do that is to anticipate and preemptively solve customer problems. Forty-six percent of buyers said that vendors could enhance the experience by anticipating and suggesting what other services would benefit individual buyers based on their prior behavior. It’s most effective when you step up efforts like these in the months before contract renewal. This will open the door to upsells and referrals. If everything goes right, your existing customer should renew their contract and also return back into the new customer phase for a different but related service.

Active beats passive any day

It’s a beautiful partnership when you put the customer at the center of all you do. No one gets forgotten or neglected, churn is reduced, and customers accumulate, increasing your profits. Looking at the customer relationship dynamically keeps the relationship going and ensures continuous value. The result: happy customers and advocates who stick with you not because they are forced to, but because they want to.

For more customer loyalty strategies that boost the bottom line, see How Evolved Are Your Customer Relationships?

About Jennifer Schulze

Jennifer Schulze is Vice President of marketing for SAP. In her role, she manages customer marketing as part of the office of the COO. She has over 15 years of technology marketing and management experience and is a small business owner in the San Francisco Bay area.