June 3, 2014, 1:10 PM

Tips for winning and retaining B2B customers

Acquiring online B2B customers can be more difficult than acquiring online retail customers, but once acquired the former can be easier to develop into loyal customers. Here are tips on how to do that.

I’m frequently asked about the differences in retention strategies between B2B and B2C e-commerce companies. What I’ve learned over the years is that, while the differences lie in the needs and attitudes of the audiences, the similarities are often more notable than the distinctions.

It should be noted that quality products and companies also share an advantage in customer acquisition, which is the prerequisite to any retention effort.  In my experience, the value of testimonials, recommendations, and word-of-mouth advertising cannot be overstated.  When trusted friends or business associates point consumers or companies in your direction, your sales efforts receive an inestimable boost. Nevertheless, if you want to build a long-term relationship with a first-time customer or client, you must constantly ensure that your product or service will deliver on the promises that these unpaid allies (and your marketing and sales teams) are making.

The differences between B2B and B2C e-commerce companies are primarily found in the acquisition process, specifically in how the two audiences approach their purchase decisions. Generally speaking, consumers shop online for products or services that will improve their lives in some way, and can sample numerous options without any sense of urgency. If a specific item doesn’t meet their expectations, they’ll simply try other versions of that item until they’re satisfied. If given a choice of items within a similar price range, their purchases are often driven by tastes, perceptions, emotions, or even ease of transaction rather than a strictly rational decision-making process.

Companies, on the other hand, have to make purchase decisions based on cold, hard facts. An ill-considered e-commerce technology platform purchase, for instance, can do significant damage to a business’s bottom line—and to the employment prospects of the people who made that decision. Before closing a sale, a B2B company must therefore give a potential client credible proof, often in the form of measurable data, that the product or service will achieve the client’s stated goals.

B2C marketers can play to the personal interests of their individual customers, while B2B companies must appeal to the professional needs of their clients, on a company-wide scale and sometimes at the individual employee level. As a result, it’s often easier to close a first sale with consumers than it is with businesses.

But developing a loyal business client can be easier than developing a loyal consumer.

In good part, that’s because consumers can be fickle. We may know what we like, but among those things we like are the newest, coolest products. If indulging that cutting-edge urge sometimes means tossing aside a long-time staple, so be it. Beyond that, most B2C companies can’t afford to contact every potential customer face to face to adapt their messaging to each individual desire, so the vast majority of their marketing efforts are of the mass-advertising variety.

 

Business relationships, however, tend to be more personal, at least once a company identifies a strong prospect. As a B2B company, you rely on direct, ongoing communications to close a deal.  Before a contract is signed, you might meet with a prospect a half-dozen times or more, allowing both sides to build a foundation of mutual trust. After a deal has been reached, you have an open avenue to engage your client in continual, productive conversations—providing updates, analyzing results, seeking feedback, discussing next steps, and nurturing the relationship both professionally and personally.

In spite of the divergent approaches to acquisition, B2B and B2C companies can succeed in their retention efforts by employing similar tactics, such as:

  • Rewarding your best customers.  Just as an online B2C firm might offer loyal customers a points program to encourage repeat purchases, you can offer exclusive pricing discounts, fully staffed, specialized, dedicated service teams, and other perks to clients whose contracts and/or expected lifetime values merit such treatment.
  • Providing customized content.  Retail web sites send out daily deals, product updates, and additional information via e-mails and text messages to those customers who choose to receive them. Similarly, you can offer expert advice and commentary on topics of particular interest to your business clients via e-newsletters, blogs, and other online vehicles. More important, you can provide clients with the tools, training, and guidance they need to succeed, including 24/7 access to live help, manuals tailored to their specific business plans, and periodic workshops to ensure that their employees stay up-to-date on best practices concerning your product.
  • Using data to deliver personalized services that meet your customers’ needs.  In much the same way that Amazon.com tracks its customers’ behavior to deliver product suggestions while they browse, you can use your knowledge to deliver useful and/or necessary service extras to your business clients. You already have detailed information about their goals and desired outcomes from records of their online purchasing behavior and your communications with them, which, together with any additional market data you can gather on the growth of their industry, will help you determine their key performance indicators like industry benchmarked growth rates. From there, you can create a dashboard that offers them immediate access to critical KPI—revenue growth in total and by product category, customer satisfaction, repeat purchase rates tied to particular products, and more—and allows them to track the success of the program according to the metrics that matter to them.

By providing business clients with best-in-class products and services through e-commerce in a way that helps them meet their goals, B2B companies will give their customers little reason to shop elsewhere.

Tom Caporaso is the CEO of Clarus Marketing Group Inc., a provider of customer loyalty programs, subscription programs and other marketing services. Follow him and Clarus on Twitter at @ClarusMGroup.

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