Driving Growth in B2B Companies? Try This Playbook

December is a popular month to spend planning for the next year or reviewing current progress.  I find it is also a good month to reconnect with your corporate strategy and ask “what can marketing do to help create more predictable, profitable, and sustainable growth for my company?” Recently, I read The B2B Executive Playbook, written by my friend Sean Geehan of the Geehan Group. I think it offers a succinct summary of the factors that most affect the B2B business’s ability to thrive, with a unique perspective on one — why it’s important to focus on your current clients as a way to grow revenue. 

I first met Sean in 2009 at the Customer Reference Forum. We stayed in touch through my transition to Xerox and he invited me to speak at his Executive Summit on Business Transformation in February. He asked me to review an early draft of his book and sent me a final copy. (This is all the open disclosure stuff, folks.) I have heard him speak several times on the topic of this book.

The B2B Executive Playbook consolidates principles that apply specifically to companies that sell highly-considered products or services through a direct salesforce to other businesses. Some of the ideas here resemble others we have seen, but are good reminders. The “B2B relationship continuum” in chapter 2, for example, reminds me of research that my former director, Laurie Orlov, wrote on The Three Archetypes of IT. The “Market-Aligned Three-Circle Venn” in chapter 5 calls to mind Jim Collin’s hedgehog concept” popularized in Good to Great.

What Sean does really well, however, is put these concepts in the context of a vitally important B2B best practice — that of engaging with your customers to collaborate on your company’s strategy directions, refer you to other decision makers, advocate for you as a trusted supplier, and do more business with you.  A lot more. 

Case in point: HCL, a professional services firm located in Noida, India.  Paraphrasing the book, HCL lacked a systematic way to interact with key decision makers from their customers prior to 2008. HCL’s Americas President Shami Khorana decided to target their “top 80″ clients  in a formal program to exchange ideas and gain their collective feedback. And to demonstrate a sincere interest in keeping their business. Khorana credits this program, in part, with HCL’s rise from $1.4B in 2007 to over $3B in 2010, with an annual growth rate of more than 20% — even through the economic downturn of 2008/09.

Through other case studies like HCL, the B2B Executive Playbook gives practical advice on how to build and retain key decision maker relationships at the right level of your organization, and how to maintain a select group of the key executive customers in your market who will advise you willingly and buy from you consistently.

Recognizing that B2B companies win or lose based on the strength of relationships with a relatively few, very key customers is the essential insight that B2B executives and marketers can overlook. Consider your 2012 marketing plans, for example, and ask how much you intend to spend on customer acquisition versus retention, loyalty, and advocacy. Reflect on how much time your sales representatives spend with real decision makers versus influencers or users (who can’t sign a purchase order.) 

If you are like most B2B, large enterprises, then you will find a quick read through this book will help to reorient your thinking around those customers who matter most and hold the keys to your future success.

Take a look: I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Live From the Summit On Customer Engagement, 2011 Edition

This is my third time attending Bill Lee’s annual summit for customer reference professionals.  This event expanded beyond reference programs to include a variety of ways to engage with customers and help drive business. You can follow the Tweet Stream at #2011SCE for live reactions. This post describes the value I see this event deliver to the B2B marketing community that worries about what customers say on their company’s behalf.

Setting aside popular social media definitions for a second, this group truly embodies a cohesive, thriving community. Looking around, I recognize a many attendees from prior events. The key theme, using customer engagement to expand the value delivered to customers, remains current and persistent. Bill recalls a conversation with CIO of Cardinal, Patty Morrison, that defines why customers, particularly those in the C-suite, care about how they engage with vendors.  Unlike the common belief that customers references are difficult to acquire and maintain, Patty said that she wants to engage. But, in return, she wants value from that engagement.  As marketers, we achieve this by helping customers like Patty to:

1) Improve how you (as a vendor) deliver service to me (as a client).

2) Measure my participation and report on the value this activity delivers to your firm.

3) Engage me in developing best practices together.

4) Make it easy for me to partner with you and drive business together.

5) Give me new, simple, or different ways to engage in marketing with you.

6) Present new opportunities for me to engage with my peers.

Companies represented in this room, including Saleforce.com, Hitachi Data Systems, Infor, Citrix, Cisco, HP, Microsoft, SAP, Siemens, Intel, and many more, do this — with varying degrees of success — through formal reference programs, social media, online community destinations, events, advisory boards, user groups, customer media (case studies, videos, testimonials, etc.), and knowledge centers. This last approach is interesting because it begins to cross the line between customer engagement and customer support/service.

Why does an event like this attract over 180 participants, and about a dozen sponsors, during these times? By speaking to the key issues that business executives worry about.  Need proof? The IBM Global Survey of 1500 CEOs showed that “reinventing the customer relationship” is one of the top 3 issues concerning top executives.  CEOs know that social media gives buyers more control over the message and dialogue, and company leaders need more advocates to help spread the good word in burgeoning social channels where buyers turn.  CEOs also see great value when their teams involve customers in product development, marketing, and support functions to spur new levels of innovation and to get better intelligence on what the market wants and needs.

Here are the highlights of best practices shared today:

Tom Wong, VP of Customer Mojo, at Salesforce.com shared how the Dreamforce team created an app that engaged over 14K attendees and helped them to network by “matchmaking” their interests with other conference participants.

Asim Zaheer, VP WW Corporate and Product Marketing for Hitachi Data Systems showed how Hitachi blends new social channels, social monitoring, and virtual events into the myriad of traditional customer engagement programs they support. He summarized with advice that reference programs should focus on finding value for customers in participating, simplifying your messages, providing more flexibility for customers to participate in different ways, and moving the sales process along.

Surprise!  Bill collared me to join Leif Pedersen (VP Marketing, Siemens Industry Automation) and Salim Ali (Global VP, Marketing, SAP) on a panel discussion on what customer reference managers should do to become more engagement focused.

Jeanette Gibson, Director of Social Media Marketing at Cisco, shared the enormously rich set of social activities that Cisco uses to engage their customers around user events (physical and virtual), communities, and integrated media/PR.  Cisco enjoys a social-savvy audience, social corporate culture, and a few key executives who are social natives.

Karen Newman, Marketing Director, Global Customer Advocacy, Siemens shared real-life, tactical, practical experience around managing a reference program at a 500K employee company with over $100B in revenue. Challenges with getting sales and executives to support reference/engagement programs was the hot topic.

There’s more to come tomorrow, so I hope you will join in the conversation. #2011SCE

Geehan Group: B2B Executive Summit on Business Transformation

I had the distinct pleasure of attending an executive conference of about 40 people last week in Phoenix, AZ. I met Sean Geehan over 2 years ago at the Summit on Customer Engagement during a roundtable discussion Bill Lee hosted. We reconnected through ITSMA events and I have been impressed with his insights into how marketing and business executives can connect directly to strategic customer groups and use them to build/uncover market opportunities. He also has an upcoming book called “The B2B Executive Playbook” pending.

So I was doubly honored when he asked me to speak about the multiple transformations that Xerox has been through — and will continue to experience since acquiring ACS in Feburary of 2010. Here is the link to Slideshare with the few slides I shared.  Not surprisingly, the value of the conference came in the interaction and discussion, not as much in the material presented.  I learned more from the CEOs, executive marketers, authors, and other top-notch business executives who attended than I feel I gave them in return.  Quite a new experience for a former analyst!

Of all the useful and strategic information shared, David Thomson inspired me the most. David is the author of the book “Blueprint to a Billion: 7 Essentials to Achieve Exponential Growth (John Wiley & Sons) and is the founder and Chairman of The Blueprint Growth Institute, a specialized management-consulting firm focused on helping companies execute business development and growth strategies that achieve exceptional or exponential growth.

He has enormous passion — and energy — around the topics of innovation, business development strategies, and growth leadership. His research and expertise identifies the success patterns of America’s highest growth companies. Two of the most interesting patterns he shared were 1) how much the composition of a firm’s board of directors matters (and that it needs to be fairly diverse, including those with deep community and philanthropic ties) and 2) how important Marquee Customers are to securing key Big Brother Alliances with important partners.

This was a rare opportunity for me to step outside of day-to-day marketing activities and think strategically about what it takes to grow or transform a company. I encourage all B2B marketers to take one day out of the quarter to focus on strategy and outline the top 10 tasks you could take on to dramatically change your business

Customer Engagement: Deepen Relationships with Community Marketing

Last week, Forrester published my research about how to deepen engagement engagement with programs focused on your best, most active customers. I think social software and activity will play a huge role here in 2010.  Why?  Because engaging business customers requires contact. To date, these connections revolve around reference programs, advisory boards, executive meetings, and user conferences. As social activity between B2B buyers and sellers evolves, the need to transform online interactions from transactional to relational increases, particularly as marketers recognize that digital approaches can reinforce the intimacy and influence essential to building strong customer bonds. I see the shortest path to successful B2B community building starting with existing customers and focusing on community, not corporate, objectives.

To build upon this idea — and add some perspective on the research — I conducted an “email” interview with Bill Lee, President of the Customer Strategy Group.  Here is what we discussed:

Q. Forrester is showing increasing interest in community marketing, so let’s start with a definition: how do you define community marketing and how do you see the concept evolving?

A.  We see community marketing as the next frontier for B2B marketers to cross as we move from marketing practices focused mainly on broadcast messaging – a practice founded on years of outbound advertising and promotional activity — to a blend of traditional and digital, individual and group, prospect and customer marketing approaches.  Community marketing is about using marketing to engage prospects, current customers, industry insiders, and partners in dialog that transparently and collectively improves the probability of creating effective solutions to the most pressing business problems. It’s about bringing technology and services suppliers into customers’ adoption activities in support of better business outcomes. It’s how Web 2.0 technologies enable new ways to innovate, collaborate, and partner that create more productive business operations.

Q. What role do you see reference programs playing in Community Marketing efforts?

A. Customer references validate product claims and streamline the sales process, both vital activities in B2B marketing.  Reference programs play a vital role in Community Marketing because the community of a supplier’s current customers – not individual accounts — becomes the focal point for revenue generation activity.  In the near future, the customer community helps to attract, engage, persuade, support, and retain future buyers of a supplier’s products and services.  As business buyers embrace the social Web, reference management can play a breakout role in the transition from collecting testimony to building community adoption.

Q. Can reference programs add to the value that businesses must provide to attract customers into their community marketing efforts? If so, how?

A. Customer reference programs can play a vital role in executing a community-centered marketing strategy that not only attracts new customers, but also turns your best customers into advocates within the community. These programs transition from sales support to community build in 3 important ways:

1) Reference customers make community activity intimate and influential, not just interactive.  Involving references in online, social activities — like peer discussions, rating and voting on products, content contribution, and so on —helps create positive product experiences and increases the likelihood that buyers will, in turn, advocate to others.

2) Social referencing involves your best customers in community building. Tapping reference customers predisposed to sharing experiences and speaking on your firm’s behalf is the best way to attract a community following. In B2B marketing, social media value will come from using Web 2.0 tools  to deepen customer relationships after deals close and implementation challenges begin.

3) References deliver content that creates conversation — and value for — buyers. Success stories and insight are the currency needed to sustain ongoing community activity. Because they participate readily, reference customers double their value when they energize community activity and discuss best practices.

Q. You’ve attended a couple of our conferences. What do you see customer reference programs doing that is exciting? What can or should they do to get better, and play a more important role in their businesses?

A. Today, I think the most exciting achievements happen when marketers give back real value to reference customers. The biggest benefit of advocating on behalf of a vendor should be membership in an exclusive community of like-minded participants where interacting with each other, as well as prospects and the public, is part of the draw and reward.  To play a bigger role in business, customer reference managers need to take advantage of emerging social business behavior more. They need to move beyond the physical, group setting and let references engage outside the boundaries of the formal program. Less than 30% of respondents to our earlier survey of customer reference professionals enabled their references to build profile pages, guest blog, rate community-contributed content, or author wikis, activities that permit customers to strut their stuff in the online, virtual world and create broader connections without having to trip through the legal, communications, or approval cycles that plague the production of more formal testimonial or case studies.

More Live From Summit on Customer Engagement 2009

The Summit on Customer Engagement continues Tuesday, October 21.  From yesterday’s session, here are my takeaways from the panel discussion where Jeff Tinker, SVP Wholesale Product and Market Strategy, Wells Fargo, Asim Zaheer, VP Global Product and Competitive Marketing, Hitachi Data Systems and John Pasquarette, VP of Product Marketing for Software, National Instruments talked about their current, direct experience with customer programs. Bill Lee moderated and took questions from the audience.

What do your customer programs look like and what are the best practices that you see work?

Wells Fargo started by focusing customer engagement programs at the B2B user level, but has shifted more dollars and attention on the decision maker level .  They have built online community destinations that successfully attract users (of small business banking products, for example), but now face the challenge of involving large business decision makers and creating deeper relationships with them online. Right now, customer engagement with decision makers happen offline.  To ensure maximum value for participants, they interview advisory board members before each meeting, synthesize what members want to hear from bank and each other, and facilitate this discussion.

Wells launched user community 2 years ago as a separate site with separate registration.  Flat growth in community membership resulted. Recently, they integrated the community into the main Wells Fargo portal to make the community more accessible.  The Wachovia acquisition, and increased interest in industry-specific topics, led to a doubling in their advisory board numbers. To meet this increased demand, Wells is looking at how to do customer advisory meetings virtually.

Jeff sees written case studies get less interest than in the past; current clients want to interact and ask questions of each other — whether about Wells products, how the merger is going, or a host of other topics.

National Instruments —  which John describes as “the Home Depot for engineers” – produces tools that engineers use to develop and test products. Like Wells, customer engagement with end users is going very well.  Unlike Wells, NI needs to help their salesforce, who are all degreed engineers, to have higher-valued, business-level discussion. NI sees community tools and technology as a way to help resolve this.

John says NI executives, marketing, product managers, etc. spend a lot of time with their key customers. For example, an NI team just spent 2 days onsite with Harris learning how Harris uses their tools to reduce cycle  and test time.  Adoption is critical – once engineers move onto the NI platform, they don’t move off. So references — and demonstrating a vibrant community of like-minded engineers to new prospects —  is key to getting them to become customers in the first place. Customer references and case studies help to build that community identity and following. 

Hitachi Data Systems sells storage solutions to large enterprises, deals topping hundreds of thousands of dollars on average. Asim is accelerating their customer engagement activities to learn about – and adapt to — what customers face in this changing economy. HDS customer advisory boards are high-touch, but now HDS needs to move this activity down stream and engage the midmarket. They are working with TechValidate to see how automation can help them to reach into the midmarket further.

So far, HDS has created about ½ a dozen communities on LinkedIn and is currently montioring how prospects and customers use this social network to share successes and horror stories on a community-by-community basis. Community members know HDS sponsors the LinkedIn groups, but HDS actsl simply as an observer and moderator; they do not actively “participate” on these community pages. Currently, the LinkedIn experiment is not connected to customer reference activity.  Beyond this, HDS hosts gated, online communities. Keys to success with these private communities are: 1) Give the participants something of value that they can’t get elsewhere, 2) keep participation volume high– get more than 2-3 folks talking, and 3) make the feedback mechanism direct to HDS short and uncomplicated. HDS finds good customer references actively come from this community.

What do you do about customers/prospects who complain or make disparaging comments in communities?

Jeff talked about how the principles of good customer support/relationship building applies in the online world just as well as the offline.  You have to talk to the people with complaints or gripes; you can’t ignore them.  Don’t defend, but don’t justify either.  Jeff says, “If we are wrong, we admit it. We respond within 24 hours.” At first Wells’ legal department put together 7 pages of guidelines about how to interact in the community – but the executive sponsor stepped in and said “I want simple terms and conditions; we don’t want to stifle dialog”.

John says NI welcomes disparaging comments. Many times a customer, not an NI employee, jumps in to respond.  NI has changed a policy – or said why they can’t – when the customers bring up issues on the community. We regularly survey our customers on satisfaction, which is the final scoreboard for this activity.  John said, “The community provides one avenue of input to our strategy and direction, but we don’t knee-jerk react to all of it.”

Asim advises “don’t get into arguments with them.” Listen, address the issue, admit mistakes when you make them, and let other customers chime in.

How do you concisely explain the ROI of this activity to your executives and board? Especially when putting forth a budget?

Asim explained that justification is not that big a problem at HDS because HDS executives on down all agree they need and want to talk to customers. Customers are HDS’s biggest asset and customer engagment programs help them grow this investment.  But they do look at both hard-dollar and soft-impacts. For example, when some customers had trouble traveling to executive briefing centers to spend time with HDS engineers and execs, HDS looked at the numbers and found they could afford to take the program on the road.  Visiting a dozen cities for in-depth customer meetings is not cheap, but HDS track deal flow and revenue impacted by these events and has seen a very positive impact.  So much so that they plan to expand the executive briefing center roadshow to more cities in 2010.

Jeff said that Wells definitely increased its level of investment and involvement in customer engagement in 2009. To demonstrate the payoff, they highlight the role customers play in the development of products and how much customer interaction help them reduce time to market for new products. Customers cut the guesswork out of the development process.

Following this panel, Bill Lee hosted a “fireside chat” with Dan Crain, former CTO, Brocade and Tim Thorsteinson, Harris Broadcasting, on the topic of “What do Decision Makers Want from the B2B Relationship?”

Bottomline: Decision makers want trustworthy relationships and relevant discussion about industry topics.  They don’t want to engage in customer programs that are product or transactional in focus.

Dan Crain has bought a lot of IT equipment in his career, and gets invited to customer programs all the time. If sales sponsors them, he’s not interested. If the program is run by product marketing or the technical people, he finds much more value.  The most attractive programs center on discussion around industry-level issues.

Regarding social activity
Dan: “Social media is not good for putting out managed information or messages about your company. It’s more about getting closer to customers.”  Communities are not a new thing: the techn industry has had bulletin boards and forums for a long time.  They are a great way for users to interact, although it is debateable whether the new host of social software tools really enhances this.  Microsoft is a great example of how to use forums to interact with users well. In contrast, Dell putting out coupon codes for refurbished equipment on Twitter is not about getting closer to customers. But listening to customer suggestions and request on Dell IdeaStorm is.

Tim said Harris has used social media to automate getting feedback on products or specific ideas.  He feels it social media is better used for automating a focus group than blasting out messages to the community on social channels.

Tim and Dan agree: Buyers who select a vendor to work with want that vendor to be successful. So executives and decision makers will take time to provide references or to participate in customer advisory.

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