The Soft Bulletin: When it Comes to Soft Benefits, B2B Marketers Sing a Familiar Tune

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Perhaps the most underdeveloped aspect of business-to-business (B2B) loyalty marketing initiatives is the soft benefit side of the equation—the special perks, pricing, access and treatment that turn impersonal small-business accounts into living, breathing loyal customers. In their consumer lives, small-business owners are used to the royal treatment: Business-class upgrades from their preferred airlines, concierge services from their credit card issuers and personal shopper services from their favorite retailers. But when it comes time to interact with their business’s suppliers, their only interactions are often limited to monthly invoices. Even when a B2B vendor operates a loyalty or some other type of customer recognition program, the soft benefit side of the value equation is often undeserved or ignored completely.

For those companies who do offer B2B soft benefits, what form do those benefits take? To answer this question, COLLOQUY analyzed 59 B2B loyalty programs in the Financial Services, Retail and Travel sectors that offered soft benefits and isolated 225 separate program benefits in order to make some broad categorizations of soft-benefit components. Here are 11 illustrative examples of the emerging recognition benefits found in the COLLOQUY investigation:

Lead generation: Small-business owners often lack the time, resources or the expertise to market their businesses effectively. This expertise gap presents an opportunity for B2B suppliers to step up with advice, tools and even funding to help their SMB customers generate leads. Hastings, Michigan-based Barry County Lumber’s Preferred Contractor program offers co-op advertising opportunities for its “Cherry” members who spend at least $45,000 annually. Irrigation equipment manufacturer Rain Bird offers graphic design services to irrigation contractors who join the Rain Bird Rewards program. With such benefits, these companies have demonstrated their willingness to be business partners with their best customers.

Billing consolidation and tools: Adding convenience for the harried small-business owner is a valued benefit. Many credit card issuers with a card geared to small-business owners are offering some combination of expense tracking, online account management and reporting tools to their cardholders. Sophisticated players such as American Express and Citi, both profiled in our cover story, are using these reporting tools to learn more about what information is most valuable to their cardholders and turning that insight into additional small-business related products and services.

Events: Nothing puts emotion into a cold account relationship like an offer to attend an exclusive networking event in a destination city. Sophisticated B2B marketers give their best small-business customers a plethora of opportunities: trips to NASCAR events and the Super Bowl, sweepstakes entries for trips, exclusive online seminars and VIP conference invitations. Canada’s Rodd Hotels and Resorts, for example, invites members of their business-oriented Rodd Equity Club to golf tournaments and an annual Christmas party. Verizon’s Business Link Rewards program pioneered the Gemini approach to event rewards with their popular Customer Night Out and Take a Customer to Lunch rewards.

Financial assistance: A B2B marketer can take a personal stake in the success of their small-business customers with business-sized lines of credit, financing tools, advice and equity accrual accounts designed to create a sense of partnership. A recent innovator in this category is American Express, which recently launched the Plum Card to offer trade terms to their cardholders—you can pay your balance in full within 10 days and get a 2 percent discount, or pay at least 10 percent of the balance and defer payment for up to 2 months, interest-free. That’s the kind of flexibility that small-business owners love.

Information access: In the previous decade, providing helpful information resources for your small-business customers meant throwing up hundreds of static web pages with evergreen content. Today, small-business owners are hungry to learn not just from you, but also from their peers—which means today’s small-business resources are all leveraging Web 2.0 social-networking platforms. Computer and software manufacturer Hewlett-Packard was an early pioneer in B2B networking with their Customer Connection web portal, which allowed HP’s enterprise software end-users a channel to network with each other as well as HP’s own software engineers. It’s the power of the network in action.

In-kind upgrades: Priority check-in, VIP lounge access, free companion upgrades—travel marketers have long excelled at offering upgrades to their frequent business travelers. Generally, these rewards have become the cost of doing business in the travel industry. Customers love them; they convey a sense of status and fully exploit the Gemini effect—it’s a lot easier to unwind after a business trip if you can enjoy the free booze in the airport lounge.

Partner discounts: In our cover story, we talk about the importance of OPM (Other Peoples’ Money), and B2B marketers have certainly taken this advice to heart. Amex’s OPEN offers a plethora of partner business services at discount prices. Through its Business Toolbox portal, Home Depot offers its contractor clients access to partner savings from Dell, Sprint/Nextel and FedEx Kinko’s, to name a few.

Partner program memberships: Plenty of B2B loyalty programs also offer cross-partnerships in complementary programs. Continental Airlines’ RewardOne members, for example, enjoy automatic enrollment in Avis’s Preferred program. It’s a simple way to cross-pollinate program memberships and create additional perceived value.

Protections and guarantees: De rigueur in the credit card industry, these fine-print perks include travel and accident insurance, baggage protection, fraud prevention, emergency roadside assistance and other safety-net benefits. At this stage, such benefits are hardly differentiating—they’re notable only when they’re absent.

Rewards customization: A more recent trend following from high-end consumer reward programs allows small-business customers in essence to design their own rewards. Concierge services are becoming more prevalent in this space, led once again by credit card issuers. The B2B pioneer in customized rewards is Air France, which allows companies enrolled in its Voyageur Rewards program to design their own redemption programs and to create employee incentive programs with discounted trips, upgrades and free flights.

Streamlined service: Dedicated customer service lines, express check-in services, priority seating and other such get-me-through-the-line-faster perks are essential elements of any B2B loyalty program. While these can become valued member benefits, flawless execution by your front-line staff is critical to conveying the appropriate sense of status to your B2B customers.

Despite the plethora of soft benefits as I’ve outlined them above, recognition rewards are a powerful but sorely underused lever in B2B loyalty strategies. Effective marketing changes behavior; your small-business clients are still, at heart, consumers who achieve fulfillment through the classic hierarchy of needs. When cultivating loyalty with your SMB clients, don’t eliminate emotion from the equation. Make your brand promise tangible through your value proposition – even in the bottom-line world of B2B marketing.

Kelly Hlavinka
COLLOQUY
A partner of COLLOQUY, owned by LoyaltyOne, Kelly Hlavinka directs all publishing, education and research projects at COLLOQUY, where she draws on her broad experience as a loyalty strategy practitioner in developing articles, white papers and educational initiatives.

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