Are Your Customers Hinting at a Deeper Relationship?

CRM and marketing systems are all geared toward getting people to buy. After all, the whole point of investing in these tools is to increase top-line revenue. At least, that’s the argument we make to our bosses when we seek to implement them.

Those tools are getting better all the time, and one area where the new tools excel is in helping speeds down the sales pipeline. Many marketing systems flag activities taken by potential customers as signals that people are increasingly ready to buy. They feed that system into lead scoring systems, and when they reach predetermined thresholds, they send that information to sales to initiate selling activity. Some activities are so distinctive of a ready-to-buy lead that they leapfrog the nurturing pile and go straight to sales.

Force Multipliers

This is an extremely useful tool for salespeople, who need to strike while the iron is hot. But CRM is not only about lead handling, lead scoring and lead nurturing. It’s also about loyalty and building relationships with customers. Those relationships can go beyond pure sales; customers you have relationships with can influence other buyers. In military terms, loyal customer advocates are a force multiplier — they amplify your reach to other potential customers without that much of an investment on your part.

We have the technology to detect critical activities on the part of customers for sales’ sake. Are there any signals customers send to suggest that they might be ready to deepen their relationships with you, thus triggering new marketing activities? I think there are some — although they might be more difficult to spot than what marketing looks for today, and they might require everyone in your organization to be on the lookout for them.

Some things are fairly easy and map directly to what’s going on in automated lead management. If you can track users’ behavior on your website (which products like Demandbase allow you to do), you can see what pages they’re visiting. A visitor who’s looking at a large number of technical pages might be a likely customer — but he is also clearly a person who’s very interested in your industry and how you operate in it. Even if he doesn’t buy from you, it would be profitable to establish a two-way relationship with him; he may have peers he could influence with a positive view of your company.

Look Closer

That’s an easy one, but others are more difficult, since you should look for the exceptional responses or inputs from customers. Automated systems aren’t that good at separating positive responses from wildly positive responses, so you’ll have to make sure your employees keep their eyes open for them.For example, if you run a restaurant and a regular customer frequently asks about how things are cooked or where you find your ingredients, you should recognize this as exceptional input. The customer is not only expressing his positive view of your restaurant; he’s asking about things that he’ll talk to his foodie friends about.

Or this one: Customer service gets a call from a user of your product about a use that you’d never thought of yourself. He’s not calling to complain — he’s calling to make sure your company knows about it.

If you want a social media example, think about the customer who goes on a community site and expresses an unsolicited positive view of your company or an interaction he’s had with you.

How about this obvious one: In a B2B scenario, a new customer comes to you out of nowhere, and when you ask how he heard about you (and you should be doing this, if you’re not already), he mentions a referral from a long-standing customer who may have never expressed any kind of extraneous interest outside of his purchases.

Seizing the Opportunity

In a lot of companies, the reaction to these exceptional responses is to say, “well, that was cool!” and to shrug and then move on. This is an absolute failure to seize an opportunity. These people are trying to sign up to be part of your army of advocates, and you’re turning them away.

What can you do to harness them? Make them feel included, but do it in a way that is attuned to your business and your customers. Maybe it’s an invitation to an insider’s community, or a special newsletter for advocates only. Maybe it’s a first-alert email on a new product, or free consulting time, or even exclusive products or services. Remember: You aren’t trying to make these customers feel special; they already are special. You need to acknowledge that and make sure they value the relationship they have with you.

Not only is this a great way to keep them as customers, but it’s the best way to keep them talking about you in a good light to potential future customers. CRM is not just about converting your leads into sales — it’s also about converting your customers into advocates. Doing that is like multiplying your marketing efforts — and it’ll pay dividends in sales in the future.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he’s not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he’s wearing his airplane geek hat; he’s written two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

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