Four steps to strengthening B2B customer connections

IBM's hot-off-the-press 2010 CEO Study confirms again what solutions marketers already know: getting closer to customers is a strategic priority. An overwhelming 88% of large enterprise CEOs told IBM that getting closer to customers is a top business strategy for the next five years, placing it at the top of the list. An even higher number of the best performing CEOs, 95%, stressed the point.

Is this really news? Isn't this just Marketing 101?

Well, sort of. The idea is basic, but making it happen, especially in large organizations, is not so easy.

The CEO imperative makes sense. Big company CEOs are struggling mightily, as the IBM report notes, with "the complexity of operating in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world."

In this context, and especially from a B2B perspective, close customer connections are essential to:

  • Gain deep insight into customer wants and needs
  • Gather input and advice on potential new offerings
  • Uncover new opportunities and co-create solutions
  • Obtain references, testimonials, and proof of value delivered

Creating and sustaining those trusted connections is extremely difficult, though, when our customers are overwhelmed with their own professional demands and tune out most of our marketing.

Social media brings promise of new and potentially more effective ways to build and maintain vibrant customer connections, both individual and communal -- but understanding how to turn that promise into reality is far from clear.

Meanwhile, face-to-face connections remain essential for key customers, especially at the executive level where so many of us need to be working. But our sales people have less time for relationship building and often little credibility in the executive suite. Beyond sales, it is difficult to know which face-to-face programs are worth funding.

A final challenge, especially for large organizations, is simply managing, coordinating, and building synergies across the wide range of programs and activities designed to strengthen customer connections.

Knowing this is a CEO priority, however, should make it at least a bit easier for marketing leaders to push forward with efforts to do what we all know is so important.

Here are four steps to consider:

  1. Do an assessment. It's hard to even keep track of all the ways we're already connecting with customers. Research, sales, services, and delivery are obvious, but we also have thought leadership programs, social media and networks, executive relationship programs, reference management, key account management, customer councils, collaborative solutions development, and probably many more. Take stock of all these initiatives. Look at funding and staffing. Review effectiveness in terms of customer insight and relationship growth. Benchmark the competition. We need a baseline to identify gaps and next steps and to help build a vision of where we need to go.
  2. Put someone in charge and build a cross-organizational team. We're already doing this with social media (hopefully!), but customer connections is an even bigger deal. We need someone with the big picture in mind and organizational partners and resources available to improve coordination, integration, and information sharing. We're not building relationships for their own sake, and we're not doing it just for sales either. If no one has accountability to ensure efficiency and effectiveness across the range of relationship-oriented programs, it won't happen.
  3. Build executive commitment. The CEO wants to get closer to customers but is the rest of the leadership group on board? Are they setting the right examples and the right tone for their teams? Operationalizing the commitment to customer connections requires real investment and, as important, TIME. We need to push and prod and support senior executives to make the time to work on key relationships, participate in customer councils, and send the message that these initiatives are indeed a top priority.
  4. Provide incentives. Companies that take customer satisfaction seriously put serious incentives in place to support the right behavior. Improving customer satisfaction is not the same thing as strengthening customer connections and relationships, but the principle certainly applies (as it usually does with any strategic initiative). Set specific goals, measure results, and then reward the folks in marketing, sales, service, and delivery teams for hitting their relationship growth targets.

What would you add to the list? What's working for you?

Photo credit: Marc_Smith

Comments (1)

by
Preethi Narayan

I would just want to add to the steps mentioned above. Apart from the strengthening part, I think it is also important to re-inforce the relationship. What I mean by that is the existing relationship should become so very indispensible to the customer and the solution we provide, so very unique that they are bound to accept our upselling ideas, and also help us make our way into cross selling. This would ensure organic growth which is very important when goals and targets make us forget build a strong foundation.