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This week on my People&Digital podcast I welcomed my guest Aaron Pollet. Aaron specializes in CX and has been turning prospects to customers and customers into advocates since 2008.
In our conversation, we focused on retention in B2B, why retention is crucial and Aaron explained the four main CX best practices you should focus on.
Here is an overview of what we discussed, but you can hear our full conversation, here.
“If I look at what you’re doing in terms of customer journey, customer experience, I think that you’re really on the right track so I’m really very happy to be here today,” said Aaron, kicking off the episode on a positive note!
We then dived straight in and I asked him to explain what he likes to do concerning CX.
“I’m the owner of a B2B company called Nimium where we mainly focus on helping customers solve concrete business problems, namely the main part is acquisitions and the other is a large spectrum of retention. As you can imagine, the projects we run with customers are usually about ‘how do we communicate with customers?’ but also how do customers interact with our business? Which platforms do they use? Which processes do they use?
Throughout the acquisition, the retention programme or customer lifecycle, let’s say, how do we actually improve that or optimise it? We actually hand people a framework so they can build out a basic model and also give them a framework to iterate upon that model to continuously improve upon their interactions with customers.”
My first question was:
Is retention a myth?
Aaron says no. He explains: “I personally think that it isn’t a myth. I think that it’s not a priority; we’ve seen a lot of companies that have had trouble retaining their customers because they have never actually put a plan in place to retain them. So that is what I meant before – with our customers, when we walk into a new prospect, we see that 80% of those companies don’t have a plan for what happens after the initial sale. So, we actually design a methodology process to guide them through it and we see that everywhere we implement it, and where it’s successful, people are able to improve their retention rates by at least 10% or at least double what they have now.”
I noted that we see a lot of focus on acquisition and, whilst we can see why, the retention is always lagging behind a bit. So, what is the difference between acquisition and retention? It seems to me like it’s a real fight in companies, especially B2B, so I wanted to know,
Is acquisition or retention the most important to focus on?
Aaron felt that retention was the most important because of “the revolving door principle”.
He says this is, “when someone comes in and they leave on the back end just to come back in on the front again after a few months or after a few years – telecom providers, for example, are a good example of this principle.”
“For the majority of customers or the majority of B2B companies, they start off with a heavy acquisition focus, and at a certain point in time, the company reaches a certain level of maturity and sees that its people leave by the back door because its processes haven’t really grown with them- as you said, that’s where the customer experience part actually comes in – if we start optimising those tracks, we see that we improve the customer experience and we see that people are less likely to leave, and we can incentivise them to build models to keep them within the company.”
Aaron continued, “Mainly, the retention point of view is often when, in the larger B2B segment, this is only happening in those industries whose market has been disrupted by new players or even other products which fulfil the same function. We see there is a real shift towards that retention framework, not only in B2C like the telecoms example, but we see it for B2B players for whom it has become much more important because large volumes of their customers are now discovering and proactively finding other products or services, so we see that retention has become much more important than the acquisition part – though that’s not to say that the acquisition is not still important.”
Personally, I get the feeling some companies go for acquisition because it sounds easier…
“Yes,” says Aaron, “I’ll be very frank – I come from a marketing background – it is much easier to put up some landing pages and track some advertising, generate some leads then sit back and say let’s see what comes up. This is a classic acquisition process and then there is the business development framework next to that, that you see a lot of people are still doing cold outreach, cold emails.
It’s really you put X amount of effort in, you get X amounts of leads, X amounts of leads becomes X amounts of customers, and the problem for larger B2B companies is that that’s where they get stuck. Their focus is there but if you start bleeding customers out of the back end because you promised too much up front and you don’t even know how to manage everything that comes after – it’s a zero sum game. You don’t benefit as much and nor does the bottom line revenue you’re trying to generate – unless you have a much, much larger acquisition and retention team. It’s usually a case of, if you bleed it out, it’s not profitable.”
I agree with Aaron on this; it’s a leaking pipe.
Often, acquisition sounds easy, so I wanted to know what Aaron’s advice would be to start betting on and investing in retention. He offered to give some takeaways from what his process actually looks like.
Aaron’s four key points of focus for B2B CX success:
1. Fix the customer journey
“If you look into a customer, we start out primarily by analyzing the customer journey. That’s why we take in the scope and like to analyze the acquisition and retention, because if you want to devise a retention or customer lifecycle program, and you want to exceed customer expectations time and time again, that doesn’t start once they become a customer. It starts when they first come upon the company.
What does your marketing look like? What does your brand look like? How do you approach customers? What are the discussions you have with them? These are all very important.
So we look at the suboptimal processes, the suboptimal interfaces etc, we design a larger plan to improve different projects, iterate on them; also involve customers, gather their input and have them design or co-create the ideal customer journey for them. Make sure that, if we build an interface, people understand what they are meant to be doing there to make it as easy and as frictionless as possible.”
2. Be transparent with your customer
“Now… once you have a plan you like, it’s all about being transparent with your customer.
I really like companies that say, “we may have made a mistake but at least we’re trying to optimise stuff, improve the experience for you, dear customer” – and it’s something you should certainly add.
So, talking with your customer – the co-creation part; if you can involve your customer in part of the process, that’s even better. For all your existing customers, communicate. ‘OK, we know it’s not always been great and our processes haven’t always worked…” – I think a lot of bigger companies with a customer service department, for example, run into this problem, and if you just say, “hey, we know it’s not always been ideal, because of A, B and C, but we are going to be rolling out [a new CRM system or whatever] – we’re going to be improving on that’, that adds value to them and you can get a bit of goodwill back.
I think that goodwill and bond improves the intimacy you have with the customer, and that actually results in a better retention rate.”
3. Take care of your customer onboarding
“This is actually very easy: the second that someone becomes your customer, have a program in place.
It’s not only about which processes they will interact with – think, what is the ideal end goal for this customer? Why are they buying my product? What key objectives are they trying to realise with my product and perhaps there are other products – like my own products or partner products – that could actually fill that same need… So keep adding that, keep adding value, make sure that you have a value train in place to keep driving value towards that customer.”
4. Develop intimacy in your customer relations
“In the very last phase… the second you start co-creating not only your interfaces, but also your product or service offerings, and you tweak them and base them on customer feedback, that’s when you’re starting to become a customer-centric company.
That is the ultimate end goal in larger retention schemes – to get that intimacy and have them work with you so you become a part of your customers’ lives.”
This all sounds great, right? Very ambitious, especially when you’re starting from scratch, and perhaps overwhelming, but dreamy!
But how do you start?
I asked Aaron, what the first step would be to convince other departments, or maybe management? His advice was as follows…
“The thing with retention and the customer journey design that goes with it, is that it comes mostly from the management, so if someone is noticing,”hey, our churn has spiked from eg. .2 to .4 – which is a significant difference in the comparison to the other months”, we need to do something.
I’m actually running a project with a company right now and we’ve designed a custom predictive model to define which customers are more likely to churn on our contracts and what we did was we defined the model, we had some basic data and now we’re testing. So, you don’t just want to test how well the model predicts, you also want to see how well the algorithm works in terms of mitigating that risk.
So… if you see there’s a problem, try to see overall where the problem is coming from. Why are people leaving? That’s easily done through exit interviews: what are the main three things that you disliked about our service? Or even ask about competitors.
A lot of B2B companies’ main problems are not just that they have legacy systems, legacy interfaces and such like, it’s also that their pricing has never been adjusted… If your only variable as to why people are leaving is the price, it means you need to add more value because it means your product is transactional, so you need to drive a value system that elevates your product beyond just the product itself.”
I wanted to ask a question about the product/market fit as I hear that people are struggling with the pricing.
“The product/market fit at the companies I used to work for, they have a proven product so it’s put in place, it runs very well for years, but then, at a certain point in time, someone comes along and… let’s imagine all the accountants,” Aaron says. “If someone came along tomorrow and came up with a completely automatic accounting or bookkeeping system that just scans your stuff and does all the calculations for the bank and files your VAT returns, that would be amazing, right? Not having to pay someone to do all that paperwork…. So, basically, we’re 90% there, but what will the added value of an accountant be, the second that it arrives?
…The product is validated, but the second your industry, your market or your customer base gets disrupted, then people start scurrying about trying to think of new ideas, when they should have been thinking about this all along.”
I understand that, after working on the customer journey for a long time, over and over, people may feel stuck in the details and overwhelmed by a super heavy legacy. It’s not interesting for them anymore. So, in these situations, do these same initial takeaway points, that you start with the customer journey, still stand?
Aaron’s point of view is, “If we run into companies where that is the case, we usually find that the change they have been driving – you do some exit interviews where someone says “I don’t really like it, it looks really old as if it was made in 1995 or something”. So people are rejecting that kind of model… they say, ‘we’ll make a new version’ and start working on it, but they never involve the customers.
…Can you believe that there might be another interface that might be unrelated to what they have today, but that you can just put as a storefront, as a simple form for example?! And – click, click, click, click! – I send it to the backend and we can fix it in the backend.”
This is what Aaron calls “innovation fatigue” and he has a simple solution for it…
Beware of the “Innovation fatigue”
“If you are co-creating stuff with your customers, it never becomes boring because you have to check and measure and implement, and do so many different things, like the UX part of the optimisation… I don’t think it becomes boring – it stays the main priority.
Again, he demonstrates the importance of having a good understanding of the customer as well as how important it is to develop an intimacy with the customer to increase client engagement, customer intelligence, customer loyalty and develop the best customer experience.
“Intimacy, for me, means educating customers, it means informing them, it means driving value for them, so always incrementally, looking for the next best step for your customer towards ‘what does the ideal customer image look like?’,” Aaron notes.
“If I take a look from my historical background, so a marketing background, I think a lot can be done in terms of content, that’s why we also – when people ask us, like operationally, what does this mean? Well we’re fixing the customer journey, so that’s usually a few teams, but on the other hand you want to work on building that intimacy – how do you do it? Well, we believe in educating and driving value, as I said, so you have the customer acquisition point of view – your buyer before they buy and after they buy, they’re the same – so that the only thing that is fixed, perhaps partially, by your product a certain need has been alleviated.”
“Imagine that you are an HR professional and you are trying to optimise salary packages, for example. Let’s say I was working at X… Even as a small business owner, or as a solopreneur, or a larger business owner in HR within such an organisation, you are trying to look for a specific value point, so if someone attracts your interest to a white paper on the acquisition front, saying “Hey, we have made a study about what the ideal package looks like, what is most requested within the market which is young applicants and such-and-such, from an acquisitions point of view, it’s very easy to build out a funnel and to actually say, well you downloaded, you’re looking to optimise, here’s a good suggestion, buy our product, here’s a discount code”, etc…
But on the other hand, if you do that same study and it’s not only just “Hey, download this and we’ll nurture you into buying our product”, but it’s also very interesting and very complete, so you can turn this into a value-driving product, you can translate this into a webinar, you can distribute it to your existing customers, and those are actually models where you can use content both for the acquisition and for the retention part, as a whole to actually drive down the cost of generating content in respect to both parts, and still deliver a lot of value. You set that tone of “hey, you got something from us and you become a customer, etc” and that way you just can continue driving value, solving new problems…
We just spoke about accountants, inviting in accountants,”‘ok, what can you do to further optimise your package?” Get, say, an hour of talk time with an accountant for the cost of X, for example, to improve on what you’re currently doing. So there are other ways to actually drive that value and to make sure that your customer becomes much more intimate, because, eg, I can buy my lunch vouchers at a number of places, but if there’s one that is continuously adding value to what I’m doing, then – even if they’re perhaps a little bit more expensive – the value is high enough that I won’t change. So that just goes to prove that the retention part is very much alive inside the overall customer strategy.”
This is an interesting take and should improve customer experience, increase the customer lifetime value and ROI. It can also inspire loyalty program benefits, digital marketing ideas and actionable multi-channel user experience products through careful relationship management where customer feedback and user-experience reports are given proper importance.
Is there CX alternative for starters?
Starting the CX journey in a company sounds like a very, very big project, so I asked Aaron, “Do you recommend starting with a new strategy, or maybe is there a way to start with a proof of concept? Start something with a little group of people, so it doesn’t sound like we are shifting everything or changing all the habits, it’s less scary?”
He explained that, “with a lot of organizations, change is pushed from the top down, so I heavily believe that if we do a project, especially around retention, we go into a company and we try to talk to everyone.
We talk to the customer service department, we talk to sales… we talk to the product team, we talk to whomever, and actually we ask them “what are the problems that you are facing? Not just in your day-to-day but what are the processes that fail that don’t work, that actually deliver a disservice to the end customer?” So, trying to keep the importance of customer perspective but also the internal perspective in mind.
You see that, if you do that, you do workshops with them and you involve people within the change, even build like a change core team around it, and from out of the core team you get like a list of initiatives that not only fix part of the customer journey but fix the internal processes, and also deliver as a form to launch new initiatives out of.
And you actually generate buy-in from the entire company; they feel involved, engaged, they feel listened to… so innovation it kind of bubbles upwards – it’s not like this change that is being pushed down – and that’s a very important perspective.
I think that once you achieve that base level of innovation and the culture changes a little bit, it happens automatically. You don’t even have to do anything for it, you just have to involve people and people get that drive as they see, ‘hey, the company is evolving, I’m evolving with the company’ – it just works that much better.”
This is great advice to help people with their customer experience strategy, customer advocacy and to understand the competitive advantage customer satisfaction can have when looking to grow your business.
I wondered, are there any resources for CX and customer journey, that Aaron would recommend to managers? Perhaps books or podcasts that are inspiring regarding CX?
“Well, I would say this podcast of course!” Aaron said, of People&Digital 🙂 before adding, “Actually, I think that, to be honest, if you look at what customer experience actually is, mostly about putting your customer first, and I think that I could barely recommend you one book around CX and it’s probably on user interface design and stuff like that, but a best practice that I have usually seen is pretending that your customer is among you in the boardroom. With you in the meeting room, or even having someone there who constantly asks, ‘how does this impact the customer?’ really putting the customer as the focal point of everything, and then I think CX flows naturally from that idea.”
I agreed but added, “You know, I don’t have a bookshelf of CX expertise, or stuff like this so when I find books very interesting regarding CX and what I build, it’s about people, so it would be The Power of Habit, or it would be Nudge, so it’s the kind of book that talks about people and how they behave and how they think, and it starts to make sense in bolder frameworks and the best practice you can find, and if you know more about people, then it makes sense and you get creative, you get better ideas and better questions to ask your customer as well.”
To sum up
So, thank you to Aaron for that valuable input. Just to recap the four main points of focus for B2B customer experience management:
- First, fix your customer journey.
- Then, be transparent in your customer relationship management – with both new customers and existing clients.
- Take care of the onboarding. Onboard your customer properly after the first purchase – this is very important
- Then, develop the intimacy program with them. Listen to the voice of the customer.
And so you build the whole process with them and get closer and closer to success!
I hope you enjoyed this discussion, which you can listen to in full, here, and I’d love to know how you get on if you use any of these tips. Just get in touch with any feedback or queries – I’d love to hear from you on any aspect of your digital transformation.
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