In challenging times, small frustrations may result in harmful long-term negative sentiment. During this current pandemic crisis your approach to Customer Experience (CX) matters more than ever. Your business needs to protect relationship capital and see this as an opportunity to appeal to your next generation of loyal customers.
Recently I sold a few things on an auction website. The transactions were great and concluded quickly. But, the payment arm of this organization seems to have a bug in their tracking system related to USPS Registered Mail. Their status of the transaction displayed “shipped,” but when you pressed the “Tracking” button it was clear that the package had been delivered a few weeks earlier. Still, they were holding a significant amount of money and there was no clear release date.
While that was a little frustrating, what happened next changed how I feel about this company. I sent email to Support and received canned responses. I used their chat option and spoke to a couple of “people” who were either chatbots or who should be replaced by chatbots because no matter what information I provided the response was always the same, and it was not helpful at all. Interactions that are positive and consistent matter!
Now, think about tens, hundreds, or even thousands of customers or prospects having problems getting information about your products and services, getting assistance with questions or support for problems, and working with your company in general. In this time of increased stress and uncertainty it is important that the customer experience for each anticipated archetype be as ideal as possible in order to increase engagement and loyalty. BTW, those things lead to increases in lifetime customer value, repeat business, and overall business growth.
I’ve always told my teams that, “People buy easy” so as a group or organization our goal is to make conducting business with us as easy and frictionless as possible. By doing that, being fair, and acting with integrity we are rewarded with loyal customers that help our business grow.
Relationships develop over time, and each interaction helps determine the eventual outcome. Understanding what differentiates your company and products in the eyes of your customers and prospects can help you create more meaningful, consistent, and useful interactions. People appreciate a positive customer experience so those efforts may ultimately lead to the creation of Customers for Life.
Now is the time to evaluate your processes, procedures, guidelines, and interfaces. Be extremely critical as you ask yourself, “Is this how I would like to be treated as a customer?” By setting CX as a strategic priority, your business or organization will be focused on ways to eliminate friction and ensure that your customers are treated well. Moreover, by supporting the activities that comprise the customer’s journey you are building a more loyal install base.
Investments in CX today have the potential for an immediate payback as well as increased long-term growth.
It is interesting to see Sales and Marketing people still focusing on features, performance, cost, and even value without creating linkage to what that means to a company from a business perspective. Once you understand what your prospect is buying and why they need it, you can then connect with them in a meaningful way to increase your win rate.
A sales adage from the 1940s (source) asserts, “No one wants a drill. What they want is the hole.” Today, that basic understanding of why people and companies buy is still often lost in sales and marketing messages. Sales success is all about solving problems and satisfying needs.
Several years ago, my team and I were selling a new Analytics Database that was genuinely different. Still, our message was identical to every other database vendor – “70% – 100% faster than every other product.” It is nearly impossible to differentiate your product using a non-differentiated message. Don’t treat your product or service as a commodity if it is not one.
I flipped the messaging to focus on business needs. We created a weekly webinar focused on Why Fast Matters. Query response time is important, but responsiveness to customer needs and requests is essential. What if they did not need to wait a week or two to have new indexes created or a month to have a Star Schema updated? They could just run queries as-is, maybe wait a minute instead of a second or two, and have what they need then and there. That message resonated, and we sold the first 50% of that product globally. When the Australian team began using our messaging, their sales also increased. Funny how that works.
Effectiveness is all about results and intended outcomes. Efficiency is about achieving those results with the least amount of time and effort invested. It doesn’t mean that we are looking for a lazy approach to find a win. Instead, it is about identifying repeatable patterns of doing the right things that circumvent unnecessary activities, accelerate the sales cycle, and minimize related costs.
The way to help yourself understand what you are selling is to view things from your prospect’s perspective. What struggles are they likely facing? Where are the greatest opportunities to help their type of business? Are you analyzing data to attempt to assess their unmet needs? Your insight can become a huge differentiator, especially if you can teach them different and better ways to do something (ala the Challenger Sales Model).
What is the difference between your prospect company and its main competition? This analysis requires a general understanding of the problem space and a more specific understanding of the prospect company, its history, and 2-3 of its main competitors. It also requires an honest account of how your company and products compare to the competition so that you can play up your strengths and limit your investment in areas where the fit is not as good.
The next item to focus on is messaging. Below are a few examples from my career –
- Analytics & Big Data – The focus here is often on data volume, the currency of the data, speed of queries, cost, maintenance, and downtime. Those things become essential later in the sales discussion, but initially, companies want to know what problems your product or solution will solve.
- Some of my fastest deals sold because I demonstrated ways to make better decisions faster and/or identify minor problems before they were had the chance to become major problems. Avoiding problems and unplanned outages were critical elemants of the messaging.
- In one case, I closed a significant deal in less than three months by focusing on how a company could provide five years of transactional data for their customers. Those customers could use the data to make better purchasing decisions in less time than it took the current system to analyze six months of data. Their sales increased after implementing this modernized system. Helping their customers make better buying decisions faster was the winning message.
- Embedded Products – While many companies focus on APIs, features, or cost per unit, I would focus on how the product I was selling made things better and easier to manage for improved Customer Support and Customer Satisfaction.
- I closed a $1.1 million deal in less than two months to a medical device company by focusing on the life cycle of those devices (often 10-15 years) and how their customers needed consistency from machine to machine. Consistency over time was the winning message here.
- After being approached by a Defense Contractor for a relational database product for a new Flight Simulator system, I changed the discussion to the complexity of flight control systems, the need to correlate 30+ operational systems in real-time, and the importance of taking a verbal command and translating it to specific commands for each related system. That led to the sale of a NoSQL product that was ideally suited for this complex environment. The idea of letting our software handle the highly complex workload helped win this deal.
- Consulting Services – These were not contracting or body shop services (commodities), but actual Business and Technical Consulting services with high visibility and high impact. In these cases, expertise, experience, and having a track record of success in different but demanding scenarios provided confidence. These were often multi-phase engagements to prove our value before making a significant commitment.
- In a bid against two well-established competitors, we won a deal with a large Petroleum company worth nearly $500K. The proposal included information that we uncovered about the system and use case and later verified with the prospect, a section on our people and some past projects, and a high-level project plan with firm-fixed pricing. We won the bid, and I later found out that our cost was $50K higher than the largest competitor and more than $100K more than the other competitor. The customer told me, “Your proposal demonstrated the understanding of who we are and what we need, and that confidence provided the justification to select your company and pay a premium to have the job done right the first time.”
- My first million-dollar deal was with a company where we demonstrated our ability to solve problems. They knew they needed assistance but were not exactly sure where. I created a “Pool of Days” concept that provided flexibility in the work performed (task, deliverables, and scheduling) but had minimum monthly burn rates and an expiration date to protect my company. The winning messaging this time was that flexibility and the ability to accommodate changing needs without introducing significant risk, or additional cost were better ways to buy consulting services. This approach led to many other deals of a similar nature with other companies.
The common theme is helping companies solve their specific business problems from these examples. Even when technology was central to the message, focusing on better outcomes for that prospect and their customers was essential. Value matters, but positive results and better outcomes matter even more for most purchasing decisions.
Nobody wants to be responsible for taking a chance on a new vendor and be responsible for a high-profile failure. Helping instill confidence early on makes a huge difference, and following through to successful implementation results in happy customers who become loyal customers that provide references and referrals.
Success starts with selling what you know you can do from a business perspective for your Prospects. You are solving their problems with solutions they need and avoid getting lost in the noise of the unfocused messaging coming from most of your competition.
This should be the goal for any business, regardless of the products you sell or the services you provide. The idea is to create a mutually beneficial relationship that motivates people to want to continue working with you, despite the availability of competitive products and/or the possible concerns or objections of others (e.g., those pushing for a “Corporate Standard” involving another product.)
The best part is that this concept applies to all companies and all Product Life Cycle stages. Whether your company is on a rapid growth trajectory towards ‘Unicorn status,’ your offerings are mature and may be viewed as ‘less exciting,’ or your products are on the decline and you are seeking the ‘longest tail’ possible – this will help. At each phase, there are credible threats from competitors that seek to grow through the erosion of your business.
Several years ago I was responsible for two product lines in two major geographic regions (Americas and APAC/Japan). Our attrition rate (“churn”) had traditionally been slightly below the industry average. We began seeing an increase in churn and a corresponding slight decrease in organic growth. Both were indicators that something needed to change.
After discussions about tactical approaches to address this, our small leadership team agreed that this was a strategic issue that we needed to address. The result was an understanding that we needed to create ‘Customers for Life.’ Everyone agreed with the concept, but due to a variety of differences (culture, who our customer was – end customer vs. channel partner, buying patterns, etc.), we agreed to try what was best for our own businesses and share the results and lessons learned.
My approach was to focus on developing strong relationships that fostered collaboration and ultimately led to growth and success for both parties. The basic premise was simple:
- People tend to buy from people they like, respect, and trust. Become one of those people for your customers.
- Helping companies achieve better outcomes leads to greater success for both our customers and us.
How did we do it? It was a systematic process that included the following:
- Develop simple profiles for each customer (e.g., products used, date of first purchase, size of footprint, usage and payment trends, industry).
- A minimum size – based on either the size of the product footprint, annual amount spent with us, or size of the company, was used to prioritize companies and organizations having the greatest potential impact.
- Make contact multiple times each year, and not just when you wanted money.
- These “out of cycle” contacts turned became very important.
- Ask questions about key initiatives, milestones, and concerns.
- The responses were documented, and that helped seed following conversations and demonstrate an interest in what they were doing.
- Request meetings to understand how they are using our products and get a brief update on what our company has been doing.
- Meeting people face-to-face is always good.
- Learning more about their business, systems, goals and challenges created opportunities to really add value.
- Look at what they were doing with our products and offer suggestions to do more, do something better or more efficiently, call out potential problems and offer suggestions and discuss best practices. Often, I would have a technical expert follow-up and provide an hour or two of free assistance relating to those findings.
- Look for opportunities to congratulate them.
- It demonstrates that they are important enough that you are paying attention.
- Google Alerts made this easy.
- Regularly ask our customers if there is anything that we could do to help them.
- They would often reciprocate, which led to an increase in references and referrals.
- Continuous Improvement – Analyze the results and refine the process as needed.
As I met with our Customers and Channel Partners I would explain what ‘Customer for Life’ meant to us, and the potential benefits to them. Prior to the meeting, I would check to see if we had (or they wanted) an NDA in-place so that they could speak freely without having concern that this information would be shared with potential competitors. It was a good step towards developing trust and helping them feel comfortable in disclosing information that would help us understand their situation.
Prior to the meeting, I would spend an hour or two researching the company, their history, major events for that company and within their industry, and identify their top 2-3 competitors. This is where my consulting background really came in handy. Showing interest and understanding created credibility and ask relevant questions, which allowed conversations to progress to substantive issues in much less time. From there I could focus on specific points that would add the most value to that specific customer.
Over the course of two years, my team and I helped our customers innovate by providing different perspectives and ideas, modernize (e.g., move to spatial analytics to get a more granular understanding of their own business, or cloud-enable their systems to increase responsiveness to their business and control costs), improve their systems and grow their businesses. We also received feedback that helped us improve our products and a variety of processes – something that benefits all customers. Collaboration and success created strong relationships with many of those customers.
From a business perspective our customer churn decreased by 50% over the same period, and organic growth increased slightly more than 20%. We had achieved our objectives and improved our bottom line. The concepts behind Strategic Account Management, Voice of Customer, Customer Loyalty and Customer Success had blended into a practical approach that was not burdensome and provided a great ROI.
One of my biggest lessons learned was that adopting this mindset and creating a repeatable process is something that can be done anytime, and really should be done sooner than later.
Every day that you are not creating your own ‘Customers for life’ there is a good chance that your competition is.