Nurturing Customer Loyalty in the B2B World

Know and Nurture Your Internal Advocates

May 26, 2005

We spend a lot of our time these days working with the customer advocacy and customer experience teams at large software and systems companies, as well as at companies with other technical or complex products—manufacturers, financial services firms, B2B publishers, and so on.

We spend a lot of our time these days working with the customer advocacy and customer experi-ence teams at large software and systems companies, as well as at companies with other technical or complex products—manufacturers, financial services firms, B2B publishers, and so on. We see a lot of room for improvement in the programs and processes that many companies put in place to improve customer loyalty where it matters the most—not with the “C-level” executives (CEO, CIO, COO) or with the final end users of the products—but with the internal, often highly technical or specialist folks who are the people who select your products and services, integrate them, tailor them for the organization, develop new applications with them, and deploy and maintain them.

The bar has been raised! Customer loyalty leaders in the B2B space know where their proverbial bread is buttered. They have processes and programs in place to identify, support, and nurture their internal advocates.

Unfortunately, the majority of the companies we work with do not even know who these internal advocates/recommenders/influencers are. With a few exceptions, these internal advocates are not found in companies’ CRM applications, or, if they’re there, the information is hopelessly out of date. The account team that is “working” an account probably knows a handful of these people. But it’s highly unusual that they would know all of them. Most companies don’t have good processes and programs in place to nurture their internal advocates in the B2B world.

WHAT’S THE NORM? The common practice is to survey these folks once or twice a year in order to calibrate their level of satisfaction and loyalty. Companies often supplement the calibration surveys with transactional surveys. They survey customers after a tech support incident, after a new installation, or after a contract has been renewed. They provide self-service technical support information on their Web sites targeted for these end users. They host annual and regional user group meetings. That’s not enough—not by a long shot.

WHAT ARE THE BEST PRACTICES? Here are some best practices that come to the top of my mind when I think about building loyalty in the B2B space.

Microsoft was one of the first software companies to build account-specific extranets/portals for its enterprise accounts. These “portals” pulled together all the information that Microsoft knew about each account—installed software; current configurations; and who were the key internal architects, developers, and tech support folks. It brought together all account support information in one handy location, including tech support/incident tracking, bug fixes relevant to the account’s installed base, and so on. Customers used these portals to access their account-specific tech support information, road maps, presentations, and ongoing interactions with their account teams. Top systems integrators, like Accenture, had visibility into relevant parts of the portal as well, in order to monitor their projects and to give the Microsoft team important context and visibility. Microsoft’s top execs who sponsored these large accounts could access these account-specific portals and quickly see what was up with each account. It was a shared workspace for all of Microsoft’s and the client-side teams’ joint projects. This was back in 1997! (Whatever happened to those enterprise portals at Microsoft—do any of you have them?)

National Semiconductor has invested years of effort in developing online tools and simulations that its technical influencers use to do their jobs. Because the tools are so good and the scenarios so well designed to support the jobs these people do, National Semiconductor knows more about the projects that its customers are contemplating than any of its competitors. National Semiconductor’s sales and dealer partners now know hundreds of people in the accounts they service, not a just handful. And they know what projects these folks are working on!

Cisco Systems was the first technical company to leverage its technical end-user community as part of its formal tech support processes. Cisco’s customers help each other solve their thorny technical problems. Customers’ tips and work-arounds become part of the company’s knowledgebase.

BEA, Borland, Sun, and Macromedia (as well as Microsoft) all invest heavily in supporting their developer communities. They recognize that the health of their developer communities (both company-internal and commercial developers) is vital to the viability of their respective businesses. Each of these companies has full-time champions whose jobs are to cater to these key influencers.

Tetra Pak (a packaging equipment manufacturer), GE Plastics, and many divisions of St. Gobain (specialty ceramics, plastics, and other non-commodity products) cater to the people who design end products in which these companies’ products will be used. They identify these influencers/designers, they provide online tools to help them do their jobs (spec’ing in their products), they support collaborative design environments, and, most of all, they keep track of these key designers/end users and build long-lasting relationships with them.


Pamper Your Key Internal Technical Advocates. For those of you in the software business, you should be identifying the architects, designers, developers, and deployers in your enterprise accounts who use your software to develop applications, to integrate applications, and/or to deploy applications to thousands of end users. They have their fingers on the pulse of the technical and organizational issues that will make or break internal deployment. You should identify these key influencers in each enterprise account and nurture relationships with them. Every enterprise account probably has dozens, if not hundreds, of these full-time experts. You should know who all of these people are, and they should be part of your CRM account profile. Most importantly, these are the folks you want to treat really well when they do call for support. Because they are experts, they should have their own support queues with fast paths to your most senior support folks. These internal experts have invested in learning your products. You should reward them by treating them with the respect they deserve. You should acknowledge their expertise. You should encourage them to “strut their stuff.” The more knowledgeable they are about the ins and outs of your products, the more loyal they will be.

Nurture their Information-Sharing. You should have proactive programs in place to spawn more expertise-sharing among these internal advocates both within and across accounts. Each loyal internal advocate will ensure that your company gains more traction in her company. If she changes companies, she’ll take her loyalty and seed it at the new account. Often, we are brought into large accounts to help our clients “take the pulse” of how they’re doing. Instead of surveys, we use group interviews to bring together all of the folks across the organization who work with our clients’ products. Invariably, these people tell us: “This is the first time anyone has actually asked for our opinions,” and “The most valuable part of this meeting was finding out who else is doing what across our organization with these products. I had no idea. We need to keep up these internal meetings.”

Have High-Level Advocates Who Take These Experts’ Priorities Seriously. You should have highly placed advocates for each of these core influencer groups within your R&D and product development groups, to ensure that these users’ needs are being correctly prioritized and met.

Build a Community of Usability and Training Advocates. To ensure end-user adoption, you also need to find and nurture another set of internal experts: the trainers, the first-line support personnel, and the internal usability experts who set internal standards for applications, portals, and Web site design and deployment for internal and external Web-based applications.

Create and Deploy Enterprise Portals. Today’s enterprise accounts expect and demand their own portals/extranets for managing their relationships with their vendors. They expect to be able to access information about their own contracts and licenses, to quickly access the latest technical information that is specific to the products they have deployed, and to manage and track incidents from the same portal. They expect your support organization and your account team (and sponsoring execs) to have their own views into a shared portal environment so that everyone who is involved with the account (including business partners) has all the information at their fingertips to understand what is happening. These enterprise portals should be easy for the customer to tailor and customize and for the account teams to access and to add value to. If you link the creation of enterprise portals with tools and programs for fostering community among the technical experts within each account, it is more likely that an enterprise customer will be willing to make your portal part of its tech support intranet.


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