No one can truly understand your customers or genuinely share their interests unless she is a customer herself. Everyone else is a layer removed, which makes it exceedingly hard for them to relate to actual buyers and respond to their needs.
Increasingly, companies are figuring out that they do have a resource that does come from the buyer’s world, and that this resource is key to creating robust, organic growth. Your most powerful growth engine is your existing customer.
That’s right. If you can harness the knowledge, natural enthusiasm, and peer influence of your very best customers—I call them “Rock Star” customers—they’ll market, sell, and help develop breakthrough products for your firm better than your internal resources can do, and often at a fraction of the cost. In short, they provide a natural, organic, and deeply reliable way to grow a business.
Consider the superb results companies are getting from this new way of thinking about customers:
• Customer salespeople achieved, in effect, 80 percent close rates for Salesforce.com, which was key in growing their business in the face of much bigger, better-funded competitors.
• SAS Canada “customer champions” helped the firm restore declining customer retention rates—which had fallen as low as the mid-80s percent—back to the firm’s traditional high retention rates of 97-98 percent.
• Local MVP (most valuable professional) customers are critical in helping Microsoft penetrate foreign markets affordably and effectively, providing the firm its most effective marketing communications and saving it hundreds of millions of dollars in support costs.
• Customer content and engagement built rapid growth in the success of Intel’s social media and Web-based marketing efforts, increasing “customer contacts” by a factor of tenfold and overall page views by 100x.
• When 3M brought “lead users” into its innovation process, they improved revenues by a factor of eight times over innovations from internal product developers.
These are just a few of the powerful, growth-fostering impacts “Rock Star” customers are creating for a variety of companies. And engaging customers in such ways is generally much less expensive than hiring costly employees or agencies. But it does require some new thinking.
Read on for a few insights about finding and leveraging Rock Star customers:
“Rock Stars” are not who you think they are. Often companies think their Rock Star customers are the biggest spenders, or the most loyal customers, or perhaps the marquee names or brands. Not necessarily. Loyal customers don’t always promote you, big spending customers may not even be profitable, and marquee names or brands often have policies against advocating for the companies they buy for.
So who are your potential high-value Rock Star customers? In my new book, I describe a hypothetical Rock Star named “Catie” who is a composite of the sorts of customer advocates used by Salesforce.com, SAS Canada, and others. She might be a “promoter” of your firm in Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys, a member of several associations that interest you, and an avid social media networker.
First, your own “Caties” are loyal. They have a good story to tell about how your product or service helped them succeed. Second, they’re eager to tell it. Third, they have access—and want to gain more access—to influential networks that contain more buyers like them. And fourth, they want to build their reputation and influence in such networks.
They won’t grow your business on their own. Even customers who identify themselves as “promoters” in customer surveys aren’t actually doing so. Two studies have shown that only about 10 percent of promoters actually refer profitable new customers. You have to make it easy for them to do so.
Some of the most creative technology coming out of Silicon Valley is designed to do exactly that. Firms such as IBM, GE, Intuit, VMware, SAP, Dell, Infor, and others are using these new technologies to:
• Automatically turn customer surveys into customer success stories.
• Find and engage customer advocates using a gamification platform that makes it interesting and enjoyable to advocate.
• Allow customers who identify themselves as promoters on surveys to immediately provide a recommendation on the spot.
Rock Stars want professional growth benefits, not bribes. I urge companies to avoid giving rewards and prizes and other quid pro quo inducements. What does work and is ethical is helping them build their social capital.
That means helping your Rock Stars build their peer or professional networks, grow their reputations, and gain access to valuable knowledge. The beauty of this approach is that you’re helping your advocates build social capital by helping them tell the story of how successful they’ve been, due—in part—to your product or service.
Traditional approaches to marketing and sales will only screw up customer advocacy. Intel realized this when its initial forays into web-based and social media marketing were going nowhere. Traditional corporate messaging—such as information about the company, its products and services lineups, their features and functionality and the like—wasn’t going to cut it in such an interactive medium.
Once it became clear this “all about us” approach wasn’t working, Rhett Livengood, who runs the firm’s global customer engagement programs, took an approach of intelligent experimentation that kept in mind social media’s unique requirements (don’t try to control the conversation) and its opportunities.
At first, Livengood and his team tried traditional pdf customer success stories on the corporate website. That provided relevant content from Intel’s most credible sources, which resulted in more engagement and downloads, but the results were still uninspiring. Then Intel began placing customer content on social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as other firms’ websites where its buyers were active. Finally, it began experimenting with content delivery, and was among the first firms to exploit the power of video to tell customer stories. Short, well-told customer story videos proved most powerful, exponentially increasing engagement and lead generation for Intel.
Community marketing is the best way to leverage Rock Star customers. Most potential buyers aren’t likely to seek out a salesperson to talk to, or collect company brochures. Rather, they’ll talk to their friends, neighbors, colleagues at work, or other peers to find out what or whom they’re using.
Microsoft finds local “MVP” customers who are well connected in their local communities, and who want to increase their status, and help them do so by providing access to early releases and “insider knowledge.” Getting known through established locals is faster—as well as more affordable—than trying to get locals to know you through advertising, PR, big splash events, and other traditional marketing approaches.
It’s better to be a thought leader than to depend on the kindness of strangers. (Rock Star advocates can help.) A good company providing exceptional solutions to a market has two things that no outside influencer can match. You have actual customers who are happy, plus you have internal subject matter experts who work with these customers on a regular basis. That alone gives you far more valuable knowledge than the usual outside “influencer.”
For example, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) develops excellent technology in the data storage and knowledge management space, led by visionary Chief Technology Officer Hu Yoshida, and has won passionate customers in the process. But HDS was having trouble getting noticed against a much bigger, better-funded rival. So the firm unleashed those two assets: a brilliant internal expert, along with those passionate customers, to take a position of thought leadership in its space.
The firm started putting on live seminars around the world, attended by many of those passionate customers, and unleashed Yoshida with his own blog. HDS expected to get perhaps 150 or so attendees at the seminars, but they wound up attracting double that, and generating millions of dollars in new business.
The best thing about Rock Star customers is that they already exist. Your own “Caties” are already out there, quietly thriving under the radar, waiting for you to discover them and put them to work.
A “Catie” can drive organic growth that “sticks” and bring in new customers who could benefit immensely from the value you provide. Your ﬁrm could be engaging with her to build a remarkable new exchange of exceptional value, in which you work with her to make her an increasingly powerful evangelist for your ﬁrm while helping her build her network, her reputation, and her business. Firms that miss this opportunity—or undermine it by offering poorly disguised bribes to get their customers to advocate for them—are leaving a lot of value, and a lot of profits, on the table.
About the Author:
Bill Lee is author of The Hidden Wealth of Customers: Realizing the Untapped Value of Your Most Important Asset (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). The CEO of educational organization Customer Reference Forum, Bill has spent the last eight years building vibrant communities of customer engagement professionals. His conferences have attracted many of the world’s leading global ﬁrms, such as Microsoft, Apple, Wells Fargo, McKesson, Salesforce.com and others.
Bill is also the author of Mavericks in the Workplace: Harnessing the Genius of American Workers (Oxford University Press) and has written for or been interviewed by a number of publications, including the Wall Street Journal.
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