Last week we talked about how making the change in mindset to being your customer’s strategic partner will yield great value in your transformation. There was just so much to say, however, that we only touched on the topic of how customers can drive new business for you. This week, we’re going to go past those areas and look at the often ignored but equally valuable areas that touch on your core business.
- Implementation – For usage to occur properly, many purchases require some form of implementation assistance (also known to women as “instructions” though we will not call them that here because, as my brother and my Significant Other proved again this weekend when installing a new flat screen, you must speak in the language the target audience or they will not accept your content). Unfortunately, many organizations do not use the vast store of knowledge in their user base to find out what issues are most important to users and how they think of those issues. These customers can help you create frequently asked questions (FAQ) documents or even content for implementation guides or support staff training that is well-matched to what users need and want, greatly improving their likelihood of product/service satisfaction and becoming satisfied customers themselves.
- Usage Examples – Because of cloud-based computing, ensuring actual usage of products/services has become just as important as securing the initial contract to purchase. When I did marketing just to the installed base of users at a former employer, I quickly realized (through testing what got the most engagement in monthly newsletters, etc.) that my target market routinely valued seeing what other customers were doing above content from other sources (such as product marketing managers and even professional services and customer support).
Customers can give usage examples by participating in webinars or presenting at user conferences, where other users can ask live questions. Then, you can them, with permission, make derivative content from these live sessions so that, with no additional work on the part of the customer, the usage examples can be shared with an even larger circle of users. This increases the possibility that usage will increase once users are exposed to highly credible sources (other customers) showing actual usage.
- Support – One of the great benefits of having marketed leading-edge marketing software is the ability to work with leading-edge customers. More than one my former contacts actually used their customers to help address technical support questions via online support forums (even via Facebook, in one case). A side benefit of this activity was that that peer-to-peer interaction fostered an authentic sense of community. At another firm where there was already a huge groundswell of peer-to-peer communications, I was able to help motivated customers set up their own special interest groups (SIGs) related to our technology. They mostly brought best practices to share each other but the SIGs also allowed long-time users to run Question and Answer sessions to help new users or, occasionally, bring in experts on an emerging issue and have him/her answer questions.
- Beta Testers – One of the toughest things for vendors is often finding people willing to be guinea pigs for a new product/service. Because of the nature of testing, things are guaranteed to go wrong and, often, the advantage of knowing what’s coming or having input in making it better is not sufficiently motivating. At a previous employer with a large pool of customers who think you are looking out for their best interests, I found that requests from my product management team for beta testers was easy to fill, so much so that they would ask for specific kinds of customers in specific industries and even give me the number they wanted in each area. This was only possible because the entire organization really tried to map our needs to the client’s. Not every change request they made was possible because of cost/benefit ratios but they trusted us enough that they believed that product management would have done it if it was all at financially possible.
- Future Direction – Beyond getting feedback on specific existing products, customers with whom you have a trusted relationship will be willing to share their future strategic direction with a vendor. However, when they do this, it allows you to determine how your own organization can intersect those future plans. Some vendors and clients have gone so far as to physically team up to create new products/services together, an indicator of the highest level of strategic partnership between client and vendor.
- One truly underappreciated area where a strong relationship between customers and vendors can benefit the vendor is in hearing what is not working. This goes for everything from honestly sharing that the marketing department missed the real value proposition that the vendor represents to identifying ways to improve the customer experience across buying cycle for new buyers. Note that this is not the same as complaints from unhappy customers. This is making suggestions proactively and feeling certain that there will be no defensiveness on the part of the vendor, just positive improvement based on your valued comments. Just like the joint partnerships, only customers with a strong sense of being appreciated will undertake the effort to expose weaknesses and ways to correct them. But, without honest, knowledgeable external feedback like this, many organizations will never move beyond their own, introspective perspective.
Of course, you don’t want to risk burning out the few customers who are happy with too many of the “asks” listed above. To avoid this, one organization I worked with tracked all requests for advocacy (as well as support tickets) so as not to overstep the bounds of the relationship. However, if you put in the effort up front and make it a priority across the entire organization, you’ll have lots of customers who think you are a real value add to them.
Comments are welcome, especially examples of how strong, mutually beneficial relationships with customers provides more value than just immediate revenue.