I was honored to be interviewed for B2BVoices – an excellent blog dedicated to “a meaningful conversation among PR pros, marketers and social media thought leaders in the B2B space.” It was a fun conversation. Let me know what you think – I’ve re-posted the interview in its entirety here.
Listening & Responding to Customers: Industries That Have Struggled Are Making Strides
A Q&A With Jeannie Walters, Founder, 360Connext
Jeannie Walters’s Chicago-based consulting firm specializes in the cornerstones of customer experience, including customer engagement, employee engagement and connections like social media. Before starting 360Connext, she spent 12 years at Vox, a customer experience consulting firm, eventually as President and Partner. Walters specializes in helping companies achieve more loyalty from employees, customers and prospects through improved experiences at every level.
Jeannie Walters, Founder, 360Connext
I spent some time last week talking with her about the profound impact improved customer engagement can have in B2B, both in terms of strengthening existing business relationships and in unleashing those customers as word-of-mouth advocates for your brand.
Aaron: Talk a little about what you learned at Vox that reflects your priorities now at 360Connext.
Jeannie: A main focus for me has been around the customer experience, and typically no one person owns that function so it touches a lot of areas. Employee engagement is one of the easiest ways you can influence customer experience so that’s a big focus for me right now. For example there are a lot of companies right now that have laid off employees and you need to keep those remaining employees focused on the mission. The other area that’s really coming to life is social media to connect directly with customers, and that goes to both content and communication. But most customer initiatives don’t typically work, because it has to become a part of the organization’s culture.
Aaron: Changing culture is a very long-term process, right?
Jeannie: It is, but one step people can take is to really understand what your customer experience is right now. I’ve worked with large companies like Allstate and AIG and that’s a daunting effort. So you need to take it one piece at a time. For instance, look just at your social media strategy. Or just look at conversion rates online. Then take those learnings and apply them to the next piece and the next piece. Don’t expect a CRM system to be a magic bullet to [fully understand the customer experience].
Now my focus is more on midsized companies because in a lot of ways, you can move things a lot quicker, make changes easier. Oftentimes, midsized companies are still run by the original leader. They are often more passionate about the customer experience too.
Aaron: How do you engage employees in customer experience initiatives? It’s not just about the marketing and sales people, right?
Jeannie: The problem is we often focus on the salesperson relationship but often after the deal those people move on. So companies need to focus on retention as much as acquisition. All the money and resources go to acquisition or selling – making the sale. …
A lot of the [employee engagement problem] relates to hiring the right people and making sure they’re the type of people that solve problems and are service-oriented. Because if you get feedback from customers, you need people who are really prepared to respond.
Aaron: So what are some of the best practices in being responsive to customers?
Jeannie: Be very public about feedback and use it. There are some SaaS [Software as a Service] companies that do a great job of that. They say, “Customers, we heard from you and so we’re doing x, y and z” with our software. The other thing is kind of empowering employees to solve problems. Call centers are often incentivized to spend less time on the phone and that’s terrible.
Aaron: I’ve actually heard of call center workers purposely faking connection problems to rack up a bunch of short calls.
Jeannie: Yes it’s better for them if they hang up.
Aaron: Of course, it can be hard to find the resources for solving that caller’s problem right then and there, especially with complex products.
Jeannie: So you need to be realistic, about whether we can call you back for instance. At the end of the day, humans are reasonable. The rub comes in when the expectation comes a certain way and is not delivered. Cell phone companies are finally figuring out that service is what they do and getting much better at call center service.
Aaron: Talk about customer events. Do people use them well?
Jeannie: Social media has done a lot to promote events better and to help companies understand what customers are looking for. People want substance, and especially with complicated products, they want to understand how to make this work better for me, and another customer can help them understand that best. SaaS companies have also done a great job here by bringing together their power users to help [these other customers] and that’s had a lot more influence on the experience.
Aaron: It’s interesting that you keep bringing up SaaS companies – these are companies that realize they are service companies, not software companies, so it seems natural that they would really be focused on listening to and responding to the customer, true?
Jeannie: Absolutely true. Also, look at banks and how they used to be known for abusing small business clients. They took your business for granted and then realized people have more choices. Some banks have been struggling with family-run businesses because the clientele is dying off and they didn’t reach out to the next generation. I had a client who found their business customers had a relationship with their banker. So if the banker moved on, so did the business. In response, the bank started creating small business-focused events – forums for small business customers. AmEx Open Forum is an example of that. If you are an AmEx business customer and carry an Open card, you get access to other entrepreneurs like yourself. The part of the pendulum swing that we’re in is exclusive memberships. I predict we’ll see more of that. People want to find the right people a little easier.