In today's nameless, faceless, self-service remote world, customer relationships are surely a thing of the past. Whether you offer a product or service, people want to be able to help themselves with minimal fuss and intervention from their service provider. Right?
Not at all. Before you think customer relations have gone the same way as VHS machines and personal relationships with your bank manager, consider this. I’d argue that customer relationships are more important than ever before. This is because word-of-mouth endorsements and referrals (the holy grail of marketing managers) have been given superpowers thanks to the same digitalisation forces that have enabled the rise of software-as-a-service, ecommerce and the help yourself-when-you-want-it expectation that I already mentioned.
Word of mouth in the digital age
Something that hasn’t changed, however, and isn’t likely to, is that we like to hear how other people who are similar to us, and in similar businesses, have experienced a product or service. But today we can go beyond our immediate network, or cherry-picked reviews a supplier posts on their website, to get recommendations or warnings.
Today we can find out the opinion of a wide range of people from far beyond our network before we commit to something. We’re all familiar with this in the B2C world – from movies to restaurants to hotels to cell phone plans. Tapping into what other people think has never been easier. Plus, we get the granularity provided by a wider pool of reviews, so we are more likely to find recommendations from people in similar situations to us: the requirements of someone travelling in their gap year are vastly different to someone planning a family holiday with three children under 10 years old.
B2B word of mouth
And the same increasingly applies in the B2B world. Certainly, customer referrals and testimonials remain the most powerful sales and marketing tools you have when winning new customers or growing existing business. There are now a plethora of review, comparison and referral sites that offer to mobilise customer goodwill and testimonials to drive referrals and sales. These sites are extremely useful in a world of increased choice, growing competition, and reduced time and attention span. But they do have a mix of pros that you should maximise and cons that you should be aware of, whether you're using them as a buying tool yourself or to promote a product or service.
Digital word-of-mouth pros
Pros include the perceived objectivity and level playing field – most sites publish their data collection methodology – and the ability to compare similar services to find out which one is better suited to you. And of course, the first-hand feedback from other companies like yours is invaluable.
Digital word-of-mouth cons
Monetisation - Cons include a pay-to-play monetisation system that could bump mediocre services above ones that are better suited to your business. As a baseline, the review services are typically free for service providers. But premium options offered mean that companies can pay to rise to the top, similar to how sponsored links display above organic links on Google search results pages. This can skew the objectivity of the sites.
Navigating review bias – There’s been a rise in business-to-business review and comparison sites all the time, each needing companies to supply customers to review, rate and comment on their services. On the one hand, this is very welcome: it allows you to tap into social endorsement and word of mouth to market your service, different sites have different flavours so you can highlight various aspects of your service, and you get a chance to engage with customers, hearing about their likes and dislikes on another channel.
But for smaller companies with fewer customers, this increase in review sites can lead to review fatigue and a bias on the sites. There are a limited number of times you can ask your customers to review your service or product on different sites, meaning that it is likely to be represented on fewer sites and have fewer reviews per site than the big multinationals, and ultimately receive less benefit.
Tapping into the power of online recommendations
To unlock those online recommendations in a nameless, faceless online world, companies need to be smart about how they nurture customer relationships today. Because customer relationships are key to these recommendations and testimonials even if the activities don't look like they once did. You might have replaced your monthly client meetings with ongoing asynchronous communication, but this generates increased goodwill because it shows your client you understand and accommodate how they prefer to work. The objectives remain the same, but today’s tools are different.
Baked in goodwill
All this is to say that word-of-mouth is alive and well in the digital age, and that means that customer relations are as important as ever – if not more so, given the reach and longevity of anything floating around the internet. And that means that even in a nameless, faceless, self-service world, customer goodwill needs to be nurtured and managed, whether that’s to drive organic and spontaneous recommendations or have your customers be amenable to reviewing your service on formal sites. And that starts with baking customer service and user experience into your product or service from the get-go. It needs to be part and parcel of your offering so that it’s apparent, even if your customers are helping themselves.
As published AccountingWeb - July 2023