Five ways to harness customer advocates to build your business
Struggling to differentiate your organisation? Unsure where customer decision-making starts and ends, let alone how and when to start engaging with customers and prospects? During the last 10 years the customer decision-making process has been turned on its head.
Gone are the days of fixed customer planning and budgetary cycles where the customer had little choice but to come to you. Buying has gone from a static process to a dynamic rollercoaster of decision-making. The web and social media now offer a rich seam of intelligence for customers to do their own research on vendors, putting them firmly in control like never before. According to Forrester, 90% of the buying process is undertaken before a prospect directly contacts an organisation.
So what you can do about it? The answer is: all routes lead back to the customer. Nurturing your customers as advocates or champions helps you build credibility and attention with prospects at every stage of the buying process. Also, customer advocates represent a vital means of articulating and evolving your customer experience. All we need to do is listen more to our customers.
So what is a ‘customer advocate’? A customer advocate is a customer who buys multiple products and services and has a variety of contacts within your organisation. Most importantly, a customer advocate has an emotional attachment to your brand where they are willing to ‘act’ on your behalf. This contrasts with what we see as the ‘customer positive’. The ‘customer positive’ category may have bought several products and services but they have a passive relationship with the organisation and all too often, are mistaken for an advocate.
What’s in it for the customer? With the disruption in buying behaviour as a result of the web and social media, there is an ever greater need for authentic, customer-led content. There has been a shift too with ‘You are who Google says who you are.’ Customers realise the need for a social presence to make themselves stand out. So if your organisation can facilitate their profile-building with genuine storytelling (and not ‘story-selling’ i.e. overt selling), many customers now see the benefits of being a customer advocate. This includes developing their personal brand as well as building their organisation’s brand. These drivers can help get their next job and bigger budgets.
As a result, the nascent practice of ‘customer advocacy’ has evolved to serve these changing market dynamics. What’s interesting is how organisations are now using customer advocacy to articulate and differentiate the customer experience. Here are my top five tips on working with customer advocates to build your business and listen to them to create a better customer experience too.
- Map customer advocates to your business plan: I know you can’t be totally prescriptive in deciding who your customer advocates are. At the end of the day that comes down to their emotional attachment to your brand. However, you can identify a shortlist of customer advocates for your target growth areas. So if the legal, retail or financial services sectors are key, or a horizontal product offering is where the bulk of your business plan is focussed - look to nurture customer advocates in those areas.
- Build a community of customer advocates and make them feel special Customer advocates are passionate and proactive, so harness them. Create a community of customer advocates on and offline based on their needs as well as yours. You need to carefully plan the structure of the community that gives value to both customers and to your organisation, but once created and nurtured, such communities open up a dialogue to strengthen customer experience.
- Let your customers do the talking customer advocates add credibility, gravitas and authenticity so work with them to do the talking so they shout about you from the rooftops. Plan this via multiple channels to reach your target decision-makers. This should be online as well as offline, such as face-to-face contact between customer advocates and strategic prospects for business development. Your customers telling your story when integrated into marketing and sales can drive over 40% of leads. We work with clients where they warm the sales process by working with customer advocates and track activity in CRM systems to prove a demonstrable ROI from working with customer advocates.
- Work with customer advocates to be an ‘extended salesforce’: Customer-centricity is an over-used term however, with decisive action from the top down, it can become reality with commitment and hard work. Build customer advocates into the DNA of your organisation. Integrate them into your processes to communicate their advocacy stories and experiences. Platforms for customer advocacy can range from internal communication and sales as well as externally via the press and social media. Examples of great customer experiences will then percolate at all levels of the organisation so that everyone understands how they can play their part on the mission to continually improve customer experience.
- Continuous customer experience improvement & business growth If you’re doing all of the above, over time, you’ll have a customer-centric organisation with the processes in place for continuous customer experience improvement. Customer advocates want to be listened to and so are an invaluable source of intelligence about the customer experience you offer as well as on developments in the wider market. A customer advocacy community on and offline is a great platform to tap into. You need to channel this feedback, as well as work with customer advocates as a sounding board on new product development and improvements to the customer experience. Ideally, for larger organisations, you should integrate this feedback into a Voice of the Customer system such as Oracle’s RightNow and Confirmit. This is an open door to creating that all important competitive advantage.
In a nutshell, the lines between decision-makers have blurred where there are far more decision-makers in the mix. Also, the delineation between them is far less distinct due to a more fluid and dynamic decision-making process. This represents a sizeable opportunity to work in partnership with customer advocates. Their authentic conversation on and offline is a powerful weapon to guide prospects along the customer journey. Ultimately, customer advocacy is a catalyst for more customer-centric organisations. It can make a measurable difference to the bottom line with an improved customer experience to make you stand out from the crowd – not to mention more profitable business and growth.
Daniel Bausor is managing director of Famous4 Communications, a business-to-business (B2B) strategic marketing consultancy specialising in customer advocacy.