By Johann Wrede
Senior director, product marketing for customer line of business (CRM) solutions, SAP
Information is power. An old saying, but never more appropriate than now, in an age when informed customers have changed how they evaluate, buy, and use the goods and services they purchase. This change in itself isn’t a problem; rules change all the time and people adapt. The problem occurs when companies lag behind the change and customers don’t feel understood and engaged. And companies are definitely lagging behind right now.
Customers have accelerated their pace of change, adopting new technologies and interaction channels with unprecedented speed. Unfortunately, most companies cannot move with the same unprecedented speed. This isn’t for lack of want. Rather, it’s a function of their having invested heavily in people, processes, and technologies designed to support an engagement model that had been in place for years. A model where they, the as sellers, controlled the sales process because they controlled the information. A model in which the buyer moved through a fairly linear process through awareness, interest, desire, and action.
A model that is effectively obsolete.
How did this happen? Instant access – anywhere, anytime – to information about products and services has created a far more complicated customer journey that’s not only non-linear but that essentially leaves many companies largely marginalized until the last stages of a purchase. Customers are tracking down information via Google, looking at what other consumers have to say about products and services on Amazon and Facebook, and researching what other business buyers are saying on LinkedIn. They are gathering information from other sources that present themselves as objective – news outlets, professional reviews, or analyst firms. Furthermore, they are coming to your digital properties expecting to get information that is rich in detail, packaged conveniently, and personalized with their needs in mind.
All of this suggests that you need to engage and influence consumers through very different channels than in the past. You need to influence broader conversations to create awareness – in some cases of a need that the customer may not even have known they had. Apple has done a brilliant job of this by talking up Apple Pay. Did you even know you needed a payment app on your phone before the company’s announcement? Even if you don’t follow Apple directly, you’ve probably seen something about the new payments system in the news or from a source other than Apple.
And that other than Apple attribution is important. The news outlet through which you might have heard about this is amplifying the story and creating awareness that goes beyond whatever was said in the initial announcement. What you need to do is to find ways to amplify your brand in the early stages of the customer’s journey – long before they are even close to making that short list of vendors from which they might consider buying a product or service.
Your existing customers are a good place to start. You’re already engaged with them and have the opportunity to change the conversation. Find ways to encourage them to talk to their friends and colleagues about their satisfaction with your products – by word of mouth, to be sure, but even more importantly on social media. And you are monitoring the chatter on social media, right? Even if yours is a B2B organization, it’s critical that you follow social media – not just to advertise but to participate in the conversation. Your audience may not yet be interested in hearing what you have to say, but they are definitely listening to what is said by friends, peers, and even strangers who appear to have similar needs and ideas.
To engage your existing customers, you have to remain connected to them during the latter stages of their journey. Many companies make the mistake of letting their engagement efforts lapse after the purchase occurs. Others stay engaged and focus on building loyalty and earning repeat business. While gaining repeat business is always good, gaining advocates is even better. Advocates are naturally loyal customers, but more importantly they can attract new customers, who in turn may become advocates themselves and create a virtuous cycle.
So if a buyer’s ready access to information is the power that has altered the buying process, engagement is the power that the modern business can use to influence that customer. It’s not an instant fix. You need to identify the right channels, create more responsive and personalized processes, and find the budget to implement new systems that can facilitate this kind of engagement. However, companies are doing it. They are leveraging the innate understanding that Millennials entering the workforce have of this empowered journey and using their help to re-imagine how to engage with customers. The cloud, with less expensive subscription-based services that evolve much faster and more flexibly than traditional software, is also helping. Companies can now adopt technology as quickly as their customers—which makes it much easier to keep up with evolving customer demands. It’s time to take a look at your people, processes, and technology and ask yourself, “Am I engaging my customers?”