Insights based on our work
Are we demonstrating our loyalty to our clients during this crisis?
By Lisa LaPlant and Geert Van der Elst
(this insight is sort of a transcript of a podcast we recently did)
COVID-19: Your company’s survival is critical, so is your customer’s
The global pandemic is a challenge unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime. Some companies woke up to find that demand had taken a sudden nose dive. For others, demand shot through the roof but there were now gaping holes in their supply chain.
Most companies have first looked out for their employees, ensuring that they are safe and have what they need to care for themselves and their families. They’ve scrambled to get people set up working from home and to put new protocols in place. Leaders have had to make tough decisions around how many people they can keep on the payroll, which means laying off or letting go of talented and dedicated people.
Marketing and sales have naturally rushed to ‘retain’ customers because you don’t want to lose sight of this even under normal circumstances. To retain is to continue to have (something). In a crisis, it’s a good time to show your customer just what you have – and that is that you have a relationship which means that you have their back.
Customers help with our own resilience
As consumers, we are seeing brands and companies reach out to us who we haven’t heard from for some time. It’s helpful to know, for example, that the company is still shipping or that there will be delays. It's good to see that companies are doing something on customer engagement. It’s a bit more fundamental than that, but it’s a start.
For B2B companies, most of our revenues come from current customers, and so does most of our profit. In this data-driven age, we know our customers better than before because we have data and can see their behaviour. These are not one-way relationships. Many companies are co-creating solutions with their customers to serve their customers’ customers. Our customers may help us to sell or promote our business; we may do the same for them. If we have a variety of customers, they help our own resilience. So focusing on customer retention is just the right thing to do not only in times of crisis, but also in general.
Putting your one-to-one approach to work
There is much that is out of our control right now, yet much that can be done to make the situation better for our customers. And the vast majority of these things aren’t costly.
1. Put yourself in your client’s shoes
As a first thing to do, get your team together. I say ‘team’ because in the B2B sphere there are most likely several people on your team who are interacting with your client from the buying to delivery phases. As a team, try and put yourself into the shoes of your customer looking at their situation from different aspects such as finance, logistics, supply, sales, even HR. Try to see what the world looks like from their point of view. And then, what role your company can play – based on what you do well, perhaps with modifications – to help them during the crisis. This is about doing a substantial think about what a particular client needs for their business that you can help them with or adapt to help through this crisis situation given their circumstances. Once you’ve done that idea generation, go proactively to that client.
Financing Example: One of our clients became aware that their customer was running into working capital issues where they needed to stock up so that they could supply the growing demand. What our client did is put some product on consignment, which they were able to do so they did it. It's something that their customer will remember for a long time.
Sales Example: Another client was brought over by their customer for a review before renewing their contract. Our client had sent over a scientist for the review who ended up spending that time helping the customer sell to one of their customers. So that sort of action – collaborating on a sale – is the kind of thing that that you can think of right now.
2. Address the elephant in the room
I’m an investor in Crowdcube, the British crowdfunding platform, and also invest in some of their companies. They send a regular communication to all investors, clients and stakeholders. Their most recent communication went through the typical topics, but the very first topic was ‘are we still going to be around?’. They addressed head on what Crowdcube is doing to make sure that they are an ongoing entity, which helps their clients who are looking for investors.
What are you doing right now to communicate to your clients? Don’t hesitate to be frank on things like that you’ve have to reduce costs elsewhere but are committed to keeping customer service in place to support them even if it is operating at reduced capacity.
In essence, you are helping your clients to plan for their business through communication, and that includes customer service.
In the Crowdcube communication, they went on to explain what the global pandemic meant from an investor perspective, for people like me. They included in detail what the government measures meant for the company. So they covered what all of their stakeholders needed to know in a direct and very comprehensive way which enabled their clients and their clients’ investors to plan and react appropriately.
3. Think differently to ensure customer service
In a B2B situation, your clients are other businesses. The first priority is to make sure that your clients can service their clients. If you've been doing some service for companies or suppling a product, they've been buying from you because it helps them in some way – either direct or indirect – to service their customers.
One of the first questions that your clients are going to have is, in what sort of way are you affected? If your customer services are overloaded, did you put a self-service in place using technology or AI so that if customers can’t reach one of your representatives they can still get help? This is something that we are seeing companies doing to provide a stopgap, which they would have never considered in normal circumstances.
4. There is no better time to create magic moments
I recently had a panicked call from a client about their content management system that we host and manage. The client is very sophisticated but that morning this manager had done something wrong and in her mind had just destroyed a whole lot of work. For us, the crisis was an opportunity because we could ease her mind by letting her know that we take backups every four hours, so although she’d lose her work from that morning we could go back and take the backup from 8 am that morning. It’s a small example, but rather impactful to the client. And in a time of crisis, there are plenty of opportunities to do this.
5. Learning from customer behaviour data
Companies are asking how to better use data to understand customers in a crisis, but the real question is are you doing enough of this normally e.g. do you know what churn you have. If you are in a B2B situation you tend to have smaller numbers of clients, depending on what part of B2B you are in, so you might actually think that you know fully your client behaviour and client retention. But actually, the reality is we don't know it that well in most cases, and this goes beyond KPIs. Some of the things to look at now in a crisis are: what is my customer buying, why are they buying it, what frequency are they buying it, and has this changed.
In other words, you do have data even if it's only in your accounting system, those data can be used as input to understand what is happening at your customer and what is relevant for them right now. If you do that type of analysis and measure it, there is an opportunity to make sure that you help your client to buy only the relevant products or services from you in this time. You’ll gain credibility by suggesting that they might need less of something. Or you may be surprised that the client opens up to you and orders more of something else because it’s more relevant to them in their current situation.
Right now, when you measure and look at what customers buy from your company, is this still relevant, and does it still add value to their operation? If you do something proactive like asking if they still need what they’ve ordered or if they are locked into a contract how you can change the terms, you are helping your customers run their business as a business. If you do these types of things, based on what you’ve seen in your measurements, customers are going to remember this over the long term.
Business between companies is business between people
I know that we're talking about B2B situations and many readers might think that B2B is between companies, so very professional and somewhat removed. As with most situations, people are still people and emotions are very important.
In doing proactive things towards your clients – whether it’s communication with the client or addressing customer service – how do all of these things leave the client feeling about you? This is that you will notice: long after a crisis people may not recall exactly what you did or how it unfolded. What the will remember, however, is that your company or one of your people was really helpful towards them while they were in the middle of chaos. Whatever it was, it made them feel a certain way. And that’s what they’ll remember.
Be conscious of that. My company gets close to B2B commercial situations with our clients and their clients. There isn't one situation where I can say that emotion does not play a role. Even in deals that range all the way up the hundreds of millions.
Do unto your employees as you do unto your clients
Your employees are in contact with your clients daily for logistics, customer service, finance etc. You have to make sure that you treat your employees the same way that you want them to treat your clients.
If your employees feel that they have good leadership from you and that they can look to you and you will help them, they will help your clients. But it would be very difficult for them to exhibit that sort of helpful behaviour towards clients if they don't experience that themselves from inside their own company.
3 key points to help retain your clients
Overall with existing clients you want to maintain the relationship, that really is core and you can act now by:
1. Putting yourself in your client’s shoes and instead of doing, for example, regular account planning, do account empathy planning. Because it's a crisis for them as well as for you. So how do you help. Do everything service, sales, etc. If you can delight them and surprise them perhaps by helping them with customers, maybe even co-create some solutions or that sort of thing.
2. Be transparent and clear about your own situation. If some things are difficult, tell them so that they can plan and actually integrate that information. They'll appreciate its delivery. Effectively help them to see you as a reliable supplier, it will grow your credibility.
3. Think of your employees as your representative in front of the client and treat them as such. And if you do, it'll show. People ultimately buy from people.