Monday, April 7, 2014

Do You Even Know What Your Company Looks Like to Your Customers?
Do you even know what your company looks like to your customers?I spent some time working with a company that sells what is essentially a commoditized product, utilizing an indirect distribution channel of independent sales reps.

For a variety of reasons, the company wound up having a problem with the manufacturer of their product, one that impacted its availability, causing many of their end-user business customers to have to scramble to look elsewhere for a replacement product. And by not arranging in advance to have a replacement product readily available, the company negatively impacted both the end-user AND the independent distribution channel, which consists of sales reps who depend solely on commissions for their livelihood. The bigger problem, though, was that the company made a deliberate decision to NOT provide a heads-up to their distribution partners, even though there was ample time to do so. So the sales reps — AND their end-user customers — were blindsided. And by deliberately choosing to NOT get in front of the problem, the company alienated both their distribution partners AND the end-user customers (as well as more than a few front-line employees, who bore the brunt of the distribution channel's overall dissatisfaction).

Unhappy Customers Tend to Become Former Customers

The short-term result was as you'd expect: The company lost whatever anticipated revenue had been attributable to the product that was now no longer unavailable. But it was the mid- and longer-term result that really got the company's attention: Many of the affected distribution partners/sales reps decided to shift their business AWAY from the company, creating yet another hit on the company's bottom line.

Surprising? Hardly. In spite of countless recommendations to the company's leadership to reach-out to the affected sales reps and properly manage their expectations, senior management chose not to. The company's rationalization was was a combination of straight-up denial ("The ones who are complaining are just 'outliers,' who are always complaining about something"), and a naive presumption that the independent sales reps would continue to do business to the company, because… well, that's what they'd always done in the past.Business as usual. Of course, that's NOT what happened. And so the company experienced a significant —- and sustained — revenue shortfall.

Institutional Myopia Creates Blind Spots

Senior managers and owners are frequently guilty of institutional myopia. There's a tendency to deny that customer service problems exist, because to do otherwise is to acknowledge their own shortcomings as managers. And for those service-related complaints that do bubble-up through customer service channels, it seems easier to dismiss them than to see them as symptomatic of a larger, institutional problem.

Get the Facts

Whether it's accurate or not, when a customer says they're unhappy with you, they are right. Their perception of your organization really is all that matters. And the quickest way to get to the bottom of the issue is simply to ask them. And whether you use a simple phone call or online survey tools like SurveyMonkey or Constant Contact, the goal is the same: Finding out what your customers think about your organization, your product, and your service. And, more importantly, opening-up a communications channel that allows them to become a true partner with you in making necessary improvements.

Short and Sweet

Phone or online, keep your initial survey short and to the point. The fewer the questions, the more likely your customer or prospect is to participate. To be effective, you need a formalized process, with non-leading questions, and you need to tabulate and track responses. Questions can include:
  • Product questions. Does your product meet their needs? If not, what should be changed? Are there products that you don't currently offer that you should consider offering?
  • Service questions. Are they happy with your current service levels? If not, what should be changed?
  • Frequency and types of communications. Do they receive enough communication from you? Or too much? What's the ideal frequency?
  • Referencability questions. Would you recommend us to a friend or colleague?
Some questions can be "ranking" questions ("On a scale of 1 to 10" or "bad to good"), others might be multiple choice, but always allow for some open-ended questions where the respondant can use their own words to tell you exactly what they'd like to see improved. This helps to ensure that you don't miss any important feedback on something that you might not have even previously considered. And for "ranking" types of questions, always use an "even" number (i.e. 8 or 10). It forces respondents to make a conscious decision, one way or the other, instead of simply choosing a non-committal "average" (i.e. choosing '3' out of 1-to-5).

Make it a Habit

You should conduct formal surveys such as these on an annual basis... or even more frequently, if you feel the need. Survey not only your customer base, but also your prospect base. Obviously, for a prospect, you'd utilize a different set of questions that would be relevant, but the responses you receive can make all the difference in whether or not that prospect will ever become a customer. More importantly, the survey responses — as well as your analysis of them — must make their way to the appropriate levels of management, in order to initiate any appropriate corrective action. Otherwise, you've just wasted your time and that of your respondents.

It Works. But Only if You Actually Do It.

If the organization in our opening paragraph had bothered to formally survey their customer base, they would have learned about their customer's pain points, and most likely would have been able to decrease the severity of their revenue loss. Equally important, they would have properly repositioned themselves for a "comeback" in the near future.

Remember, it's always less costly to retain an existing customer than it is to acquire a new one. And what better reference for a new customer, than one coming from an existing one who's happy to do business with you? 
B2B Marketers Taking a Lesson From B2C

Marketing Automation - Not just for Retailers Anymore.

Marketing automation has become THE hot topic for B2B marketers, as more and more adopt the technology. What's at stake? How about Improved productivity; More and better-qualified leads; Improved conversion rates. And, most importantly, real-time visibility into the effectiveness of your website and your web-based marketing initiatives.

B2B marketing automation systems have sophisticated functionalities that help with the acquisition, qualification and ongoing management of leads. For example, lead scoring applies a "score" to individual leads based on demographics (e.g. geography, industry, size) and behavior (e.g. website activity, responses to campaigns). The resulting scores help make it easier to send the sales department leads that are better qualified, and are closer to making an actual purchase. For leads that are not quite ready to buy, the system can help "manage" email campaigns, enabling marketers to nurture the relationship through "drip" or “stay in touch” campaigns. Marketing automation systems can automate workflows, manage collateral, track prospect behavior, and use the collected behavior information to qualify leads before they're passed on to your sales team.

Even if your company has a couple million dollars in the revenue pipeline, your customers don’t want to feel like a number in your customer relationship management software. Segmenting your email lists to ensure that your leads are receiving highly-targeted content isn’t just a nice gesture; it’s proven to be effective. Studies have found that segmentation and personalization can improve open rates — and, more importantly, click-through rates — by between 15% and 25%.

Scoring and Evaluating Leads

In the B2B world, lead scoring usually means tracking a single person across all marketing channels and scoring each action, with the goal of identifying those leads who are "sales-ready." This is specific to B2B, because marketing's goal is to provide their sales team with hot leads, so identifying when they are hot is a critical function of success. So, an individual lead's visits to a web page, participation in a webcast, combined with the downloading of collateral would all add up to a level of interest that is far more likely to be that of a buyer than, say, someone whose name just happened on a recently purchased mailing list. Lead scoring allows a marketer to identify the most active users across all marketing channels, and single these individuals out for special attention.

However, as mentioned elswehere in this newsletter, there are some challenges that are unique to the B2B marketer. With few exceptions, B2B purchase decisions typically involve more than one individual. For example, in a technology or enterprise solution purchase, there might be an end-user, the user's department head, someone from IT, a P&L owner, and maybe even the company president or CEO, all weighing-in on the purchase decision. As a consequence, decisions can take anywhere from weeks to months, and — depending on the cost of the solution — perhaps even more than a year. All of this means that you've got to be smart in how you engage (and remain engaged with) the user.

Nurturing Leads

B2B lead nurturing focuses on maintaining contact with — and educating — qualified leads who you have determined are not quite ready to buy. So, you need to stay in touch, but you need to be smart in how you do so. The key to successful lead nurturing is to deliver content that’s valuable enough to keep them engaged. If you do it right, lead nurturing can help you build a strong brand and establish your product as a preferred solution, long before they become actively engaged in a buying process. But this will only be possible if your lead nurturing delivers content that’smeaningful and valuable to your prospects with whom you’ve maintained permission to stay in contact.

Marketing automation tools enable you to track qualified leads and automate the delivery of content through various B2B marketing channels. Your lead nurturing program should accomplish three things:
  1. Gain — and maintain — permission to stay in touch with the prospect: This is by far the single most important goal of lead nurturing, because without it, it's impossible to achieve the other goals. If a prospect loses interest in your company or your messages, they’ll disengage by unsubscribing; mark your messages as spam; or "emotionally unsubscribe," basically ignoring or deleting each of your messages as they come in. Don't set yourself up for a reputation as a spammer.
  2. Educate the prospect on key ideas and points of comparison between your offering and those of your competitors. A prospect whom you are nurturing might not enter the buying process for a long, long time. During the lead nurturing phase, you have an exceptional opportunity to educate them, and can even steer the way they think about both the market in general, and their specific requirements. In doing so, you can better position your company and your offerings in their mind, so that when they are ready to move forward, a lot of the "heavy lifting" of messaging and differentiation will have already been accomplished.
  3. Track "progress" throughout the buying cycle: While you nurture your potential buyers, you'll be able to evaluate their engagement so that you can get a feel for exactly where they are in their buying process. And as they progress through the process, they’ll reach a point during which your lead scoring metrics tell you that they’re finally ready to be engaged by a member of your sales team.


A big selling feature of virtually all marketing automation solutions is reporting. Most have canned reports with which you can measure the effectiveness of your marketing initiatives, making it easy to track the key performance indicators that are most important to you. Reports can typically be set to run at set intervals or exported as CSV files for offline analysis. Reports can be used to link campaigns to prospects, enabling you to credit leads to their original sources and judge each campaign's contribution to ROI. This means that you’ll be able to tell where all of your best (and worst) leads are coming from, providing you with the insight you need to prioritize the initiatives and channels that will have the biggest impact on your bottom line.

Start Small

For those of you who are just beginning with marketing automation, the very first thing you should do is clean up your database. One of the strengths of marketing automation is in the ability to personalize both your message and your content, but if you don't have accurate data in your database, you can't take advantage of it. So get rid of those dupes, typos, previous unsubscribes, and dormant (or dead) contacts before you start. There's nothing to be gained by running out the door half-dressed, and trying to launch a marketing automation initiative before you're ready will produce nothing but aggravation, for both your marketing team and your prospects and customers, as well. It's also a quick way to pile on the unsubscribes or, worse, to get blacklisted as a spammer.

But Don't Expect Miracles

Don't think that automation is a panacea for all of your company's other problems, because it ain't. If you've got products — or service — that don't meet the needs of your market, guess what? Sending more e-mails won't help. To the contrary, you'll just end up with even more prospects — and existing customers — who won't want to do business with you. Here's where you can use the advanced segmentation and personalization of an automation solution to your advantage: to learn what your customers and prospects think can be improved with your company. And then take steps to make those improvements.

Marketing automation has many moving parts, but offers significant benefits to today's B2B marketer. And with solutions at a variety of price points — from HubSpot to to InfusionSoft to Salesforce's Pardot to Marketo to Oracle's Eloqua —there's an opportunity for virtually any size organization to take advantage of this rapidly-evolving technology. And take advantage you should... because your competition is most likely already doing so!


Everybody knows something useful about something. And, usually, sharing that knowledge can be incredibly valuable, in most any context, be it business or personal.

The problem comes when that "sharing" of knowledge becomes a mandate: "I only want you to to it this way, because this way is the way that I know how to do it." Not necessarily the worst case scenario, especially if the mandate is actually based in real-world experience.

But what do you do when someone who doesn't really know what they're talking about issues a similar mandate? You know, "I only want you to to it this way, because this way is the way that I heard it should be done."

Ever run in to one of those folks? Of course you have!

Working with a micro-manager can be a real challenge. Usually, a calm and deliberate campaign of "teaching" exercises can be very helpful... using trusted, verifiable sources to advance your case.  Sometimes, however, you just can't make your case, no matter how much data you bring to the party. In situations like that, what do you do? Do you hold your ground? Do you back down? I've done both, depending on the specific situation.

There doesn't appear to be a universally "correct" answer, but I'll say this: For me, at least, life's way too short to work with a micro-manager!
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