Companies that inspire customers to be advocates on their behalf — meaning that they’re open and willing to talk favorably about a company, informally and formally — enjoy free marketing their competitors don’t. And marketers are starting to catch on to this.
According to a new report from IDC research, only 10 percent of B2B companies in the study had customer advocacy programs in 2016. By 2017, that number had increased to 67 percent. These results shouldn’t surprise anyone. In an era of unprecedented transparency and access to information, customers are better informed than ever. However, while they’re often willing to advocate for their favorite brands, they may still need a little push to get started.
Take Trader Joe’s advocacy strategy as an example: Its employees all receive rigorous frontline training and enough autonomy to deliver the positive customer experience the company’s intimate, semi-exotic stores promise. Other companies, such as nonprofit-space software supplier Blackbaud, use one-on-one customer meetings to shorten sales cycles and close more deals, creating a process that’s more efficient and effective — one that doesn’t go unnoticed.
In a report, the customer experience consultant Walker predicted that personalization and customer service will be stronger competitive differentiators than price by 2020, In that context, companies need to prioritize the customer experience or risk losing business to their more consumer-centric competitors.
The evolution of advocacy
The long-standing belief has been that unhappy customers talk about their experiences more than happy customers. However, that might be changing.
Bain & Co. research indicated that companies with better customer experiences experience revenue growth up to 8 percent higher than the market average. The research attributed this effect to the lifetime value of happy customers. Whereas unhappy customers might tell several people about their negative experience one time, happy customers continue to purchase over longer periods, making recommendations all the while. Eventually, these advocates create up to 14 times more value than detractors do.
According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 62 percent of buyers trust their peers, 52 percent trust regular employees and almost no one trusts CEOs. Prospective customers want to hear the experiences of real people. Brands that harness the voices of customers to drive marketing messaging are better equipped to gain prospects’ trust and engage them in sales conversations.
Thanks to unlimited information access, buyers know their options have expanded and how much those options cost. To sift through the muck, then, they make decisions based not only on price, but also on which companies exceed their expectations of service. Thus, customers who are happier with a company’s experience and products tell others, and companies enjoy reduced acquisition costs and a competitive differentiation.
How to create more advocates
For entrepreneurs and startups in both the B2B and B2C sectors, gaining this differentiation poses an early challenge. Even though some startups try to overcome this challenge through satisfaction stats, customers respond more to high-quality stories told in unique ways than to volume.
To create such stories and foster advocates, you must work from the outside in, as opposed to the inside out. Follow these four tips for an effective advocacy program:
1. Gather and publicize usage data. When customers can access and understand the benefits of a product or service in a clear and tangible way, they are more likely to appreciate the solution and recommend it to others. EyesOnSales reports that B2B sales cycles often take more than 18 months to reach conversion, but you can shorten that cycle by using data to turn existing customers into empowered advocates.
So, get specific about how a product or service impacts your customers’ lives: How much time do they save each day? How much more money do they make and save? By citing sources and demonstrating specific results that arise from a client’s engagement with your company, you can translate real value into quantifiable terms that are easily understood and foster conversion.
2. Weaponize employee energy. Employees who have ample autonomy, great training and a clear focus deliver flawless customer experiences. If employees consistently deliver on that promise — as employees at Zappos do — the advocate effect becomes quite powerful.
Zappos, in fact, is known for its customer service, foregrounding a positive and unbounded experience at every stage of the journey, from its website to its purchasing processes. Its employees are groomed from day one on that pillar of the company because when customers have positive stories to tell about your frontline employees, other potential customers are more apt to further explore what makes your company different.
3. Use technology to scale advocacy. Don’t chase references and referrals. Consider prospects’ workflows, make it easy for them to sing the company’s praises, then collect these references along the way so that you can build assets to use in your sales automation tool.
According to research from Forrester, potential advocates in B2B industries spend most of their time working in email and CRM systems. Rather than forcing advocates to adopt a new platform, you should ease the burden and simplify the process by integrating advocate outreach into existing workflows. This will translate to not only more referrals, but also more positive ones.
4. Be yourself, because that’s who you are. Nielsen research discovered that 77 percent of customers surveyed were more likely to buy a product they’d been referred to by someone they know rather than a marketer. But customers won’t advocate for just any company — they want to advocate for authentic companies.
By delivering consistent, valuable experiences, you give customers a reason to advocate for your business. Evaluate how every process, employee, training session, product and customer touchpoint can make or break an advocate relationship, then improve those touchpoints by staying true to the company’s mission.
For instance, a U.K. bank covered in the Bain & Co. study discovered that positive fraud-prevention experiences created its strongest advocates; it used that insight to propel its fraud department’s redesign and to deepen customers’ relationships with the bank.
Overall, customers who become advocates drive word-of-mouth marketing that is cheaper, faster and more effective than almost any other form of advertising. By utilizing data, capitalizing on the employee-customer experience, adapting beneficial technology platforms and remaining authentic, you can create a program that inspires advocates to spread the word for your company.