Special Circumstances Include the New Norm - Customer Relationship Management

What is undeniable is that someone somewhere wants to figure out how to sell to empowered customers in special circumstances. That could be a B2B environment or during an economic downturn. The question that generally applies is pretty much the same. Does customer behavior change and thus how you sell to customers change in different environments? The answer is yes and no. That helps, I’m sure.

What About Business-to-Business (B2B), Buddy Boy?
The only way I know how to start this is by telling you what I tell every audience member who raises this issue. At the end of B2B is a C.An end customer.

Is that vague enough for you? That means that while you, salesperson, represent a B2B organization, they may be a B2C organization, and no matter how many B2B2B2B2B transactions and interactions there are, ultimately it rests with a C.

Let me give you an example. In 2005, I spoke in beautiful Zagreb, Croatia, at their first ever CRM conference. After I did my bit, there was a panel discussion. On that panel was the nation’s largest retail grocer, who also had some wholesale food distribution business, and the largest national wholesaler which did food wholesaling in part. These were two companies that epitomized the idea of coopetition competitors cooperating. What they decided to do was that when it came to food, they would share forecasts, distribution, channels, and other pertinent data because they both agreed that their job was to ultimately please the person shopping at the retail grocer’s store when it came to food. Transparency became critical to delight the customer so they did it. Not easy for two competitive institutions. But they got it when they realized that the individual consumer was the ultimate customer.

By the way, visit Croatia. The food and wine are great, the people wonderful, the land beautiful. Don’t miss it.

That said, there is no doubt that the B2B selling cycle is longer and more complex than a pure consumer-driven purchase. More often than not, the sales organization could do with a more complete knowledge of the organization they are selling to. That means broad knowledge such as how this publicly traded or privately held company is doing when it comes to its stockholders. How are they being affected by market conditions either generally, or things specifically that might affect them?

But it also means intimate knowledge of who’s who in the organization. Because of the way corporations are impacted by the cultural transformations going on everywhere, it’s now no longer enough to know who the decision makers are. It’s almost imperative to know who influences those decision makers, both formally, meaning in the organizational chain of command, and informally, meaning their buds at the workplace.

As we’ll see in both the discussion on social media monitoring and on Oracle Social CRM, the tools are out there to help figure out these intricacies.

What About the Recession Then?
We humans tend to be wholesalers in our approach to life or at least I am and thus, I project it onto everyone. What I mean by that is if something is and there is a change, then there is a new “is” and what “was” isn’t any longer. In practical terms, that means, with Social CRM for example, there is a constant chattering going on about how the social strategies and tools replace the operational and transactional strategies and tools. That’s not true. The social tools and strategies extend traditional CRM.

I’ve heard similar blabbering about the recession. “Oh, now that we’re in an economic downturn, the social customer reverts to the same customer he or she was back in 2001 when price and utility ruled the roost as much or more than experience.” Right? Once again, the operant principle is wholesale replacement.

Except that’s not what happens. The recession doesn’t erase the social customer, it solidifies the resolve of that customer. They still want what they wanted back in first Chapters through 3, but they want even more than that. In addition to the experience, tools, products, and services to specification, they want a great price or a big old valueadd even more than they did prior to the recession.

What makes this almost unreasonable demand dangerous for businesses is that they have to consider ways of giving it to them. Why? Because the customer’s opportunity to buy what they need elsewhere is greater than ever before; plus the tools to make that buying experience simple, short, and sweet are also easily available to the customer either consumer or organization.

Additionally, the inclination to spend is down considerably during depressed economic periods. It’s not only that people will not spend, but if they finally decide to make a purchase, they are interested in spending cheaper.Here are a few items from April 30, 2009 from multiple sources:

  • Procter and Gamble reported a drop in quarterly profit almost 4 percent the first time in eight years. They forecast a drop in full-year sales with sales down already 8 percent.

  • Kellogg said sales were down for the quarter 3 percent.

  • Colgate Palmolive saw a 6 percent revenue drop.

  • Grocer Safeway, Inc. saw revenue drop 8 percent.

  • A 2009 American Heart Association survey found that 29 percent of their respondents had cut back on fresh fruit, vegetables, and other essentials due to financial considerations.

What makes this particularly significant is that these companies sell staples like soap and food. Yet, regardless of the need for these items, people are buying less and cheaper because of their uncertainty about their economic future. A lot of customers are taking the “wait and see” approach, letting inertia rule. Where in the past they might have made that impulse buy, now the impulse is more “Nah, I’ll wait.”

For salespeople, this reluctance is piled on top of the increased competition for attention and competition from smaller companies than those that could have competed in the past. Add the demands of the customer created prior to the downturn such as participation in the process, and real-time communication and you have a difficult, highly competitive, increasingly angst-producing situation for many companies.

Fearing fear is not exactly the way out either. Concerns are solved by doing what was just as important before the downturn listening to the customers, providing them with what they need if you can do it according to your own business plan, and then differentiating yourself through an experience that involves those customers in your activity.

To do that, of course, you have to find those customers and, once you do, maintain a relationship with them, but they are reluctant to act or become visible. So how do you generate leads and successfully manage opportunities to conclusion in a tough environment? Or a good one, for that matter?

Not Your Predecessor’s Lead Generation
If you were to look at a definition of lead generation, it’s typically placed in the context of marketing, which for the most part is a fair characterization. For example, here’s the general Wikipedia definition:

Lead generation (commonly abbreviated as lead-gen) is a marketing term that refers to the creation or generation of prospective consumer interest or inquiry into a business’s products or services.

The definition goes on to distinguish between marketing leads and sales leads, but both are generated from a marketing effort. However, there is no rule that says salespeople can’t generate leads through both traditional lead generation methods and more contemporary approaches.

What makes this a unique time for salespeople, recession or not, is that we have vast digital properties available on the Web that are locations for their prospects depending on what their company produces or sells. That means that there is, to some degree, a process of selfqualification of a lead going on in a community of interest or practice.

Additionally, it’s entirely possible to build a community to draw those potential leads to you by having the right location, the right mix of tools, and the right content to attract the right folks.

But I need to be clear on something. Social media doesn’t close business. There is no way that anything but consistent follow-up and good human interplay, plus of course a viable proposal, will close the deal. What social media can do, as we’ll see, is to generate a richer relationship with your existing contacts and give you the opportunity to spawn leads.

Being Practical About Lead Generation
Traditional lead generation was facilitated by such marketing techniques and methods as broadcast advertising, or direct mail, event marketing, content provision (e.g., white papers) through registration, e-mail marketing, and a dozen other approaches. Traditional approaches can work and will continue to. But due to the cost-effective nature of social media there are a remarkable number of available tools that will, for free or a very reasonable price, support lead generation for salespeople.

Here are some things you can do with some of the protocols for the specific environments/channels.

  • Participate in expert discussions within communities that are in the realm of the solutions or products you sell. But do it as a discussion participant, rather than a sales guy pushing product. You will be flamed if you try the latter. They’re looking to see you as “someone like them” and the more like them you actually are (not pretend to be) the more likely they will come to you when they need what you have.

  • Participate in threaded discussion forums where you use your expertise to answer questions that you can. They can be questions about your product or questions about something in the field that your product or service is part of.

  • Use tools, such as social media monitoring tools, to scope possible leads. The best social media monitoring tools, such as Radian6, which you’ll hear about in the marketing section here, are not only monitoring the more traditional sources like Reuters or Hoovers, or online newspapers and journals, but follow the blogosphere, social networks, and threaded forums in other words, the conversations, not just the formal content. This is a rich source of locations for leads and, if the monitoring is sophisticated enough, it will identify the influencers of the conversation who might be your leads.

  • Comment on blogs when appropriate, again, without being too salesy.

  • Write a blog covering sales expertise that you have perhaps on sales optimization, the use of sales intelligence, the way to build relationships, handling sales data. Whatever topic floats your boat works here. Make sure that you create an RSS feed so it can be subscribed to and that you open up posts for comments. Stay free of sales pitches, though it can be okay to talk about your products in an informal way. Let your sales prospects or your account contacts write guest posts. Encourage them to comment and participate in discussions. Link back to the appropriate on-topic blogs of your customers or prospects.

  • Create videos and podcasts to highlight your expertise and then provide them for free via your own website or upload them to YouTube or Vimeo or other key video sites. Show your personality and, if you’re up for it, your humor in audio or video casts. The more you show your personality, the more you appear as “someone like me.” They can be and if possible should be informative, fun, and humanizing. Plus, salesperson, you are who you are, aren’t you?

  • Create a couple of Twitter accounts, one personal you as an individual and one corporate. The personal one should be just that a Twitter stream that integrates your outlook with your company activity, including what you’re doing and saying about whatever is interesting to you. The corporate one can be a notification of a discount or an event work with marketing on this. But don’t go overboard on pushing the sales information.

  • Upload your most public presentations to the Slideshare.net community, a site with millions of PowerPoints. (I call it You- Tube for Old People.) Just put them out there to be watched, used, and embedded. They are in the public domain, so be careful about which ones you release. Great for thought-leadership and generating interest in what you do. Make sure that the topics are educational not product pitches, though you certainly can mention your company. Salesforce.com, Oracle, and many others use the site to also show their presentations from events, which do have a more product-focused purpose. Be sparing.

  • Create a social network or community of interest or practice. Bring in experts to enhance the content and value of the community. Find the advocates in the community who can operate as a personal sales support team selling your products for and with you for compensation if the sale isn’t complex.

If you combine these suggestions with traditional approaches, it should improve your ability to generate qualified leads. Keep in mind, by going to the sites that are specific to your expertise and company’s solutions, you’re entering a somewhat self-qualified location. There can’t be much better than that by the pound or for the dollar for that matter.

Case Study:Social Before It Was Called That
In 1993, I worked for a company that required me to do the business development and the staff recruitment for the projects I landed. The projects were highly complex Lotus Notes projects that were for major companies that we were doing partnered with Lotus Consulting.

I could have taken the ordinary route and gone to recruiting firms and asked for résumés or, using what passed for job boards, put up the requirements for the developers or administrators I needed. But I took a different approach. I went to Usenet. For those of you who don’t remember this, shame on you for reminding me of my age. Usenet was a community of user groups around particular interests and practices that used their online presence to carry out discussions. I went to the Lotus Notes user groups and monitored the questions being asked by various parties. I read each and every answer that was freely given by the members of the group. I also made my presence known in the group. Then, based on the answers I read, I contacted the providers of the answers so that I could start the recruitment of those people. As a result, I was able to hire some of the best Notes people in the world. This approach, which was based on the idea that those providing answers were generally passionate enough about the subject to do so, and that the best answers were the sign of a highly experienced or highly innovative individual, led to an actual ROI that was measurable. Our developers and administrators were so prized by Lotus Consulting that they did more business with our little company than any of their other 17, 500 partners in the world. In 1994, we did 14 percent of the global partner business with Lotus Consulting, twice the second place 7 percent which was Software Spectrum.

This is the exact same process that a salesperson can use to generate leads, which is what I was effectively doing. Think of the steps in the process.

  1. I found the forums that were of specific interest to my business concerns.

  2. I monitored the conversations going on among those I was interested in possibly having a conversation with.

  3. I stayed visible in the forums myself, adding to the content value of the user group where I felt I could.

  4. I then contacted (via e-mail, not the user group) the individuals it made sense for me to contact. This was the hardest part since their e-mails weren’t readily available. But I managed.

These steps are as applicable today as they were in 1993.

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