Historically, b2b marketers have always tried to keep a shadowy, artificial distance from consumer marketing. But today that gap (if there ever was one) is closing. B2b marketers realize that, in the end, they are selling to human beings. And the need to understand, communicate with, and thrill their most enthusiastic customers is becoming not only very real, but every company’s way to market.
B2b relationships are usually built around three things, how to: save customers money, make them money, or strengthen their competitive ability. While those objectives have not altered, the context certainly has.
“The landscape of b2b has changed and continues to evolve,” says Keith Turco, president of Gyro New York, a b2b agency. “Social media is one of the reasons it’s changing, but human relevance has always been pertinent in the b2b space.”
Pertinent, but in the face of hard facts and features, the human factor historically has been unrecognized or misunderstood as soft marketing in the hard-nosed world of b2b.
In truth, the b2b audience is as influenced by peers and by human contact as consumer marketing. First-hand testimonials have always been a sought-after component of the b2b marketing mix: the eyes-forward-straight-into-the-lens testimonial—a b2b staple for decades, is no different than the consumer marketer’s ‘talking head’.
Trade shows and face-to-face meetings have also been desired connection points.
But what has truly changed in b2b is how the communications have flexed to match modern work styles.
“Your work life no longer a 9 to 5 role,” says Gyro’s Turco. “People take their work home: search the web for work on weekends, flip through b2b company pages on Facebook, we put b2b spots on the Discovery Channel, YouTube, blogs, hits, tweets. Social media is obviously playing a much larger role in the media mix.”
One of Gyro’s clients is Scotsman, a big ice machine company. Working on a client project, researchers randomly stumbled upon an enthusiastic Facebook community that loved to chew ice. In fact, they preferred to chew certain cubes from certain machines that—streak of coincidence—happened to be Scotsman machines.
Gyro built an event platform for Scotsman based around restaurant locations, based on client data on which restaurants had Scotsman machines. They created a branded ice truck and gave out samples. The event was so successful, they took it to Las Vegas food trade shows.
Gyro’s “Luv The Nug” campaign had personal relevance for customers and broke through the standard b2b clutter, beating sales forecasts by three or four times.
What is becoming dramatic in b2b is the growing understanding that business decisions are made by humans, for humans.
“For years we’ve talked to them as business decision makers and haven’t really spoken to the emotional side of who they are as people,” admits Turco. “It’s absolutely something that the work world will need to start embracing. The traditional way we speak to people has changed and continues to evolve.”
You may never have heard of Sabic (which stands for Saudia Arabian Basic Industries Corp.), a global manufacturer and supplier of material solutions, but the company is currently ranked as the 2nd largest diversified chemical company in the world.
The company has been around long enough to develop that iconic bubble visor on Neil Armstrong’s moonsuit. They also help create fertilizer for avocados, car parts for your Prius, and that touchscreen on your iPad? It’s from Sabic. The company has also been an environmentally conscious leader for over 30 years (yes, before sustainability became a buzz word).
The company started listening closely to what mattered most to their stakeholders, and just this year redefined its internal structure to renew its corporate-wide commitment to assisting in their customer’s success.
“We’ve listened closely to what matters most for our stakeholders,” says Samir Al-Abdrabbuh, Sabic’s vice president of corporate communications. “We understand and bring substance to our customers’ ambitions, putting their success at the heart of everything we do. The essence is the power of our relationships, our commitment, and our ingenuity. That is what makes us special.”
In other words, the conglomerate has flip-flopped their perspective to consider not what they sell but, instead, what their customers sell.
Case in point Land Rover. Sabic collaborated with Land Rover to create the latest Range Rover Evoque. Sabic entered the collaboration from the beginning, and worked side by side Land Rover designers, engineers, and production specialists to create material solutions that helped cut the new
Evoque’s weight by 35%. They also set new standards for fuel economy and CO2 emissions in the premium compact SUV segment. Additional materials improved the car’s impact and temperature resistance, wear characteristics, and an appealing designthat attracts the Evoque consumer.
- NEW YORK, NY – MAY 21: The Range Rover Evoque Live concert was held to kick off and introduce the Range Rover Evoque Kits that will be rolled out in 100 cities this summer and grants customers a personal experience with the newest Range Rover Evoque on May 21, 2011 at Winter Garden in New York. (Image credit: via @daylife)
“Our goal is to be our customer’s most valuable partner,” says Sabic’s global branding leader Kevin Howard. “Listening, understanding what our customers need, and responding to their challenges means we can solve problems and innovate together,” says Howard. “When they succeed, we do too. That’s the foundation for long term growth.”
Mastering the fuzzy front end of customer relationships means hard listening, cooperative effort, relationship building, and turning the corner to the path of trusted advisor. That status comes in b2b comes the same way it does in consumer marketing—by listening to your enthusiasts.
But it doesn’t pay if you’re not hearing what they’re saying.
“As we look at what’s going on in the world of business, and the dynamic landscape of the different ways people are working–more than ever it’s the strength of the relationship that makes people feel good about working with people,” says Tom Cates, president of The Brookeside Group, a consulting firm with offices in Massachusetts and Europe.
What The Brookeside Group has discovered is the soft underbelly of business relationships. As they look across industries, they have learned that the human factors of how you feel, the way you trust others, the way you handle business, is key to defending relationships that have been built up over years.
“What’s fascinating is that when you look at the gap between what you thought people [with good relationships] were going to say, and what they’re really saying, you’re off 20-30%. When the relationship is going off the rails, they’re off 80%.” We’re just not good at foreseeing things going off the rails.
Many companies use management tools to gauge the loyalty of a firm’s customer relationships, whether customers recommend them to others, and so forth.
“But in today’s world, we need cooler tools,” says Cates. “Standards that try to give you an average just don’t work anymore because, on average, everyone does well. Problem is, no one has average clients. Today we have to figure out what each individual wants.”
As Brookeside points out, there can be a gap between the person you think you are, the person others think you are, and the person you think others think you are. (Read twice.) To help counter this, Brookeside has developed methodology that not only helps assess your relationship—but uses one-on-one feedback that also provides specific actions—things you can do to help improve the relationship, creating a more accurate predictor of relationship loyalty and customer enthusiasm.
And here’s a watch-out. An early warning sign that an account is at risk, counsels Brookeside, includes when the client suggests that the relationship is “fine”.
In one of their case studies, Brookeside circled back with a client’s most profitable customer and determined the relationship was anything but “fine”. In fact, the customer disclosed that an RFP had been circulated and they were already searching for a replacement. Brookeside quickly developed things they could do to resolve immediate problems, help improve the day-to-day relationship and create more positive customer interactions.
“Every relationship takes two parties,” says Brian Shepherd of The Brookeside Group/Europe. “You are invested, but is the other side investing in the relationship? Where are you being invited into the value chain as a provider? Are you brought in during the first call—Hey, I have a problem, what do you think? Are they bringing other people into meetings? Are you comfortable just calling them and talking with them? Are they open about sharing price?”
The objective is to play way on the front end of the value stream. Understand the client’s business well enough to go beyond price/value and well enough so that you can solve the problem.
What holds true in the B2B space, is that to create and sustain enthusiasm it behooves us to find out what that customer wants—and then give it to them.
“In high value complex relationships, you better know how they want to interact, and what information is important to them,” says Shepherd. The firm recommends specific actions relevant only for that individual that the sales rep can do—and the ability to up-sell and cross-sell. All of those things ultimate convert to a company’s P/L.
“The more you can be at that trusted advisor end,” says Shepherd, “the healthier your relationship will be.”
These enthusiasts are not simply brand ambassadors, as some suggest. More important than ambassadors, these zealots are brand mentors. Think of this. How many times have you seen someone lean over and show another how to use an iPhone app? Or heard someone share how to navigate the Starbucks menu board, or share the thrill of downstreaming Netflix, or the brilliant joy of ordering shoes from Zappos? In the b2b world, they pass your contact information on to your next amazing customer.
Banks uniquely provide services b2b and b2c. A recent report by Jai Gill and David Helvadjian of the Gallup Group points out how at least one bank in the commoditized world of banking is stepping up its marketing workout with enthusiasts. A recent bank study in New Zealand reveals that only seven percent of customers believe that one bank in the industry is the best bank (44% declared all banks and financial institutions to be about the same—and 27% were completely disengaged).
“That 7% is a particularly valuable customer segment,” say Gill and Helvadjian, as those brand zealots are almost twice as likely to recommend the bank (which goes unnamed) to friends and family. “So it pays, literally, to give customers a reason to think your bank is the best,” they report.
“Every bank believes they’re different,” Jai Gill reports in an interview. “But customers think they’re all the same.”
So how do you get people to think your bank is better? Behaviors trump communications when it comes to differentiating a brand.
Getting the front line to act out brand values is not easy. In their study, Gallup interviewed front-line employees across four Asian-Pacific banks and discovered that although employees knew about themes like customer-centricity, they could not articulate how to bring that to life in specific actions on the bank floor. From the customer’s point of the view, this is a fail.
“Customers respond to actions that prove the bank does what it says it will do,” say Gill and Helvadjian. “This is why front-line employees must be authentic representatives of the brand.”
The key to success is getting employees to behave the brand. If you say you’re friendly in television commercials, be friendly on the floor.
Bank A (the bank with the golden 7%) figured out how to institutionalize brand behavior.
This is how. First, formulate a brand identity, next align organization goals to those brand values, then clearly define specific actions that help employees bring brand values to life.
First, Bank A branded itself as a community bank. Next, its touted organizational goal is to promote a sense of engagement in customers. Accordingly, all its print and billboard advertisements feature photos of local places. Third, it sponsors and supports local schools’ athletic teams, and it funds community organizations that, in turn, prominently display Bank A’s logo in their materials. On game days, employees are permitted to wear T-shirts featuring local schools and colleges. Employees are encouraged, and sometimes paid, to assist at community events. And the bank always sets up booths at street fairs, car shows, and the like. Its mortgage specialists keep photos on their desks of houses owned by people who have originated loans with that officer (with the customers’ permission, of course).
None of this is brain science, or costly—smiles are precious and fall outside budgets. Saying “thank you” is equally priceless. As Gill and Helvadjian wink, “the behaviors require more cleverness than money.”
But here’s the watchout. “If the whole organization isn’t focused on living the brand through behavior—if everyone isn’t on the same journey, it’s going to fall down at some point,” reports David Helvadjian. “It can’t just come from the marketing department.”
Another key to creating b2b enthusiasts is simply to listen.
A recent Sloan Management Review interview with Mark Yolton, senior vice president of SAP communities and social media, yields innovative ways the company keeps its ear to the ground.
In addition to the over 4000 posts in their community network every day, SAP has an online forum called Idea Place that delivers outside-in market insights.
“Our customers can suggest new features and functionality around one of our products or solutions,” says Yolton. “Other customers see those suggestions and can add on to them, building to create a better and more robust idea. And then people vote those ideas up or down. As a result, our product managers get a prioritized list of customer-driven feature requests.”
This gives SAP specific product insights direct from customer enthusiasts—and provides key information on how to deliver improved features and functionality into future product versions.
Highlight. Your best enthusiasts are right inside your own company. You need enthusiasts at the top, in order to get funding. You need enthusiasts in production, to help solve engineering, logistics, supply chain challenges. You need enthusiasts in Design and communications. You need enthusiasts in sales, distribution, customer support, training, relationship management, and on the sales floor. You have to build teams and encourage others to support you.
Brand passion comes from the inside out, and keeping internal teams enthused can be a big job in slumpish economic times.
Trendmaster Robyn Waters author of The Hummer And The Mini recalls when she led Target’s energetic trend and design teams. “Sometimes it’s not simply budget cuts that are the challenge,” she writes in an email. “Sometime it can be growing teams outpacing budgets, and having to stretch allotments.”
While some Target managers and designers were allowed juicy trips to destinations like Milan, Paris, and other fashion design centers, the home team stayed behind. So Waters organized field trips to ‘the backyard’, where everyone could participate.
“One trip was to the big antiques fair in Minnesota,” recalls Waters. “I gave every team member $10 to spend at the flea market/fair. Everyone had to buy something that could be used as inspiration for a product.
“The following Monday, everyone shared their purchase. Textile designers bought old tea towels and vintage aprons—the patterns became concepts for our melamine plates and cups for summer entertaining. One of the home decor designers found a cut metal tube that came from the top of a tractor—it became a very cool hurricane candle. Some groups pooled their $10 and bought a bigger item together. The results were great. It was great team building, it inspired creativity, and $10 purchases ultimately were inspiration for product development for $1M categories.”
B2B marketers make the mistake of looking at enthusiasts, then clicking the “Like” button and moving on. This can be a mistake, because enthusiasts are the core of your P/L. They are the people predisposed to buzz about you to others, recommend you on the phone and in the store aisle, and stick by when you get stuck with bad press or other negativity. They are your fans, short for fanatics. Passion comes from the inside out, so it is in your best interest to understand who these brand zealots are at their core, and truly listening to their needs and responding to them—and understanding how to continue exciting them, is the surest way to stiff arm your competition.