Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2008


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What if the your company is missing out on the highest quality, highest profitability deals?   No, this issue is not about lead generation (you won't see that topic for a loooooong while!), it's not about fancy SEO, SEM, Web 2.0, Social Networking, or Twitter techniques.  It's about profitable sales. 

Welcome to this month's excerpt from my upcoming Prentice Hall book on best practices.  I'm hoping that you'll find areas in this Report that I'm dead wrong about!  Please email me with feedback where you think I'm full of it.  Through vigorous debate, the ideas will get even stronger.  The best argument of the month wins a prize.

Back to Basics

It's been proven across industries and customer types that repeat business is easier to get and more profitable than acquiring new customers.  An upsell or an expansion into a new department is a shorter sales cycle, and involves near zero marketing cost.  There have been endless books telling us that relationships are more important than feature advantages, that commerce is a conversation, and that reputation is at the core of branding and market power.

But, like Mark Twain said, "everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it."  Time to change some of our behaviors, particularly in high tech.

So what if we focus on existing customers, rather than new ones?  In this case, lead generation isn't decisive.  What's critical is to grow your credibility within the customer base.  In this model, internal references are the hottest possible commodity because they enable , more departments to become prospects for upsells and expansions.  And what will be the source of those customer references?  Not marketing.  Not sales.  Ultimately, it's customer support and services.

Customer support, technical support, and consulting need to cultivate and mine customer reference information. These people are on the phone (or even on-site) with the customer base more than anybody else in your company.  Because customer support and services people aren't trying to sell anything and are viewed by as trying to help, customers are willing to share information with them.  Further, by delivering exceptional customer support they can directly impact customer satisfaction and their willingness to spread good words about your company and its products.  Support people are in contact with your company’s riskiest asset: upset customers.  Making a customer happy an hour sooner, or with one less error, spells profits. 

Your support people are moles, spies.   Get your marketing people working closely with them.  While your customer support people are helping the customer, they can ask subtle questions that can reveal interesting information about how your product is being used, the number of users, and factoids about the customer's business and how it has benefitted from using the product.  When done correctly, this data collection won’t feel like prying, yet it will gather at least one “gee whiz” story a week. 

Support personnel also have a good perspective on who are the mission-critical people in the customer, and who are noisy poseurs and wannabes. They can provide context and input on individuals' roles, product usage, referencability, and organizational dynamics.  Your on-site consultants (post-sale professional services people) can provide even deeper technical and political context about the customer. 

At the conclusion of any customer interaction -- successful or not -- support should survey  customers. Your SFA system should be configured to fire off an email-based survey engine, web-based survey, or phone-based set of questions to be answered.

You want to instrument as many customer contact situations as you can, involving customer-facing individuals in support, service, training, and consulting.  Putting the Support people on the SFA system pays for itself with dramatic reductions in cost and internal errors, measurable improvements in customer satisfaction, and increased renewal and re-up rates for customers. 

More Deeply Engaging the Customer

Looking forward, the number of people in customer support and service is destined to go down.  Ever try to get a person from Google AdWords or eBay on the phone?  That's where we're all headed.

The reason for this?  In most industries, a well-executed customer self-support portal can achieve higher customer satisfaction scores than “more people on the phone.”  Particularly in high tech, customers are very comfortable interacting with portals and can get the information they need into or out of the system much faster than they could through a phone person. A well-executed customer portal lowers your costs, gives customers 24x365 access to the information they need, and reduces the error rate of support information. 

So, it's safe to assume that, going forward, customer self-support will be the most frequent interaction your support function has with the customer.

The customer self-support portal should include as many of the following as make sense:

  • Customer profile:  name, address, phone, and account information
  • Order history, invoices, and shipment history
  • Warranty information and support entitlements
  • Licenses or serial numbers
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
  • Product documentation and manuals
  • Knowledge base with really good categorization and full search
  • IM-with-a-support-person
  • Case or problem submittal, tracking, and update
  • Renewal of Support or extension of Warranty
  • Accessories / parts / upgrades
  • Training / certification offers
  • SFDC’s Ideas application, which provides a great way to capture and prioritize customer suggestions
  • Survey / feedback center
  • User preferences including time zone, language, currency, email format, and newsletter selection.

As you design and evolve your customer self-support portal, think of subtle ways to engage the customer and measure what they are doing.  You'll be looking for patterns of interaction that indicate:

  • Dissatisfaction or complaints
  • Expansion or contraction of usage
  • Searching for information, help, and support
  • Investigation into ways to move away from your product
  • Confusion or inquiry about product features and capabilities

Each of these can translate into an opportunity for customer support or additional product sales.  And because they're customers you know more about them -- and how to win them over -- than you ever could with a new prospect.  Investing seriously here -- in the customer portal, the support function, and the measurement system that gives you visibility -- can rapidly pay for itself in improved support renewal rates, upsells, and expansions across customer departments.

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