Many of us who actively conduct research in, write about, and consult our clients on how to optimize drivers of customer advocacy behavior believe that creating a personal and emotional connection with customers is essential. It certainly is a subject of continuing discussion, and even debate; but its importance can no longer be denied or dismissed. As a 2011 Peppers & Rogers customer advocacy white paper stated so well: “Advocates work on a company’s behalf to promote the brand, enhance its reputation, and in some cases, drive new business. They are also valuable customers themselves, buying more and being less price conscious than other customers. And, most important, they connect with the company on a deep emotional level, which in itself is the best differentiator there is.”
The most valuable customers appreciate and want more personalization, a relationship, and an emotional connection. It’s up to organizations to a) identify the strongest emotional drivers and b) effectively leverage them. Successful organizations have either morphed, or have begun, by placing customers’ interests ahead of the enterprise’s. They build a ‘bank account’ of trust; and high trust, and the positive reptutation and image it breeds, is an enduring strategic advantage, a definite competitive differentiator.
In every business sector, customers call the shots on what they want, and don’t want, in a relationship journey. In the banking industry, for example, most studies show that competitive fees, product availability, staff service, and branch hours are all pretty much basic value deliverables. Transparency in communication and dealings, and personalized proaction, however, are in much shorter supply; and these characteristics are markers for banks which create high customer advocacy levels.
Traditionally more product-centric than customer-centric, B2B companies have more slowly come to an understanding of how customers ‘own’ the relationship compared to their B2C counterparts. But, they have increasingly become aware that customer relationships must become more human, more personal, and produce greater relevancy. In short, B2B comapnies have to communicate and represent what their customers are interested in – at that moment. Personalization is the way to get there.
Extensive research into numerous B2B sectors has repeatedly shown that even with the tighter decision parameters such as pricing, and regulations and vendor qualification that may exist in business-to business products and services, much of what drives initial and ongoing supplier choice is built around brand impression and peer-to-peer informal communication.
What creates and sustains top-end loyalty and continued relationship is, of course, excellent performance on “table stakes” tangible, basic value elements. Delivering at promised levels on pricing, completeness, accuracy, timeliness, reliability, and consistency are minimum standards for building a foundation level of trust and helping to build the supplier-customer relationship. Proactive, personalized service that exceeds expectations, two-way communication, and engagement help bond the customer to the supplier. This is true throughout the customer life cycle, from initial supplier selection and purchase through cross-sell, up-sell, and advocacy behavior.
Customer advocacy is very much alive and well in business-to-business products and services. Multiple studies, and successful application, demonstrate that word-of-mouth and brand reputation are essential decision-making levers. If anything, due to the more critical nature of touch points, performance, brand perception, and relationships in B2B, advocacy may well be considerably more important in this arena than in the business-to-consumer world.