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Moving From Customer Acquisiton To Customer Engagement

by David Brock on January 9th, 2009
For some strange reason, in the past few days, at least four different executives have called me to speak about changes they see with their customers markets and organizations. The conversations all began at different points, for differing reasons, but seemed to be converging on a central issue: The need for organizations, marketing, and sales to focus on Customer Engagement as critical to success and growth in the future.

I have to admit, I am still sorting out some of the issues and what they mean, but some of the things we see are:

1. Traditional means of acquiring customers is not working. Yesterday, I had a spirited discussion with a colleague in France around the topic: Cold Calling is Dead, How Do We Leverage Social Media for marketing! Sales people, don’t cheer to quickly, I don’t think cold calling is dead, but I do believe the nature of cold calling needs to change. As an example, every day, I have conversations with new people-prospects-potential clients. These are, for all intents, cold calls, but the nature of how we chose to engage in a conversation has changed. In our discussion, we talked about how our own work was changing and the role of new social networking tools was changing the types of conversations, who we engaged, and the means by which we carried on those conversations.

Yesterday, I participated in a review of one of my client’s demand generation programs. They have well defined and refined programs, well targeted lists, and a reasonable value proposition. Years ago, their programs would have been considered by many to represent best practices. Now, while the programs are producing results, they are far less than two years ago.

2. This morning the EVP of Sales for a major technology company called me to shoot the breeze about what’s happening in the markets. His view was the differentiator for many organizations was going to be customer acquisition. As he looked at his company, his competitors, his customers and the markets they participate in, he viewed that most of the companies were at parity in terms of costs, pricing, product offerings, quality, and other factors. He believed the critical success factor for his company would be the ability to acquire and support customers in a way that differed from any one else.

We started talking about what that meant—I saw were moving beyond the traditional view of customer acquisition to a different way of engaging customers and potential customers in conversations about their business.

3. No sooner had I hung up the phone, then another call from the VP of Strategic Accounts for another company called me. I felt like deja vu all over again! But the conversation also had a different twist. He was having a heated discussion with the CEO of his company that just because they had Salesforce working well for their company, they couldn’t stop their marketing activities. He was trying to convince the CEO (who was trying to cut people and money), that this tool was just a tool, but could not displace many of the programs they had for generating business. As we got into the discussion, it became clear that his CEO, was starting to read too many blogs, getting too many tweets, and had gotten a big dose of social media over the holidays and saw that as the salvation for business generation.

For some strange reason, I could go on with the stories, all they do is reinforce the fact that profound changes are afoot.

To some degree, I think the silver lining to the economic and financial challenges we all face is that thinking about how we do business is no longer a nice thing to do, it may mean survival. The current crises gives those of us who take the opportunity, the chance to profoundly change the way we build relationships with our customers, retain them and acquire them. I think those organizations that choose to engage customers in a different way will emerge the winners.

I’m still sorting a lot of this stuff out. I don’t know the answers, but have some suspicions about the changes.

1. I think the old ways are far from being dead. Cold calling is not dead, prospecting, advertising (traditional), trade shows, direct marketing, telemarketing, websites, SEO, “adwords.” and all the stuff we have grown up with and which consume much of our customer acquisition and retention time, money, and energy is here to stay—-but needs to be evolved and modified.

2. I’m still trying to figure out things like LinkedIn and Facebook and how they contribute to business development–at more than a personal level, but in helping enterprises do business differently. I’m convinced there is a role for these (other than advertising), but I (and others) are still learning. I’m starting to see some of my clients engage their customers and partners in very interesting ways, using of all things, You Tube. Their customers and partners are taking matters into their own hands and promoting my client’s products in very interesting ways. Fortunately, my client was smart enough to encourage it rather than try to stop it.

3. Likewise, I know that blogging has a role, but at an enterprise level, a lot of challenges remain. I recent newspaper article discussed the challenges of corporate blogs and their believability. I’m also sure that things like Twitter have a role to play (I’m almost embarrassed to say I just signed up yesterday and have yet to send my first tweet — I think that’s what they’re called).

In the coming years, rather than displacing anything, I think we will see creative intermingling of these tools and approaches, creating a richer dialog and experience with current and potential customers.

In the end, all of these things are just tools. It’s important that we not lose sight of what we are really talking about. Business growth, marketing, and selling in the coming years will require us to engage our customers differently.

I think we will start having conversations not presentations. I think customer acquisition will become less about marketing and selling, and more about collaboration and partnering.

I think the number, depth, and richness of the conversations will increase profoundly—the tools and technologies enable this—they also enable all this to happen in real time.

I think organizations, buyers and sellers, will be more selective about the number and quality of the relationships they establish. After all, this takes time, energy, commitment, and has a cost. No one can afford to have deep relationships with everyone.

I think fluid networks of “just in time” collaborations will become important to building business. If each organization can only afford to develop and nurture a limited number of deep relationships, a way to grow and expand is to begin to network those relationships in real time, when they produce value.

While things change, some stay the same. Relationships are important, the virtual world will complement, but not displace deep human relationship–face to face or voice to voice. The traditional tools we have used will still have a place, but have to be positioned with all the other tools to create richer customer experiences.

Sales will have to change. For the first, consultative or solution selling must become the fabric of the sales process, not just buzz words. Sales professionals will have to leverage and use the new tools to enrich their relationships with customers and influencers in the markets. They will have to move from pitching to listening to engaging the customer in a conversation.

Maybe I’m wordsmithing, but I think we are talking about something different than customer retention or acquisition. Those sound too one way or push oriented to me. I’m also not talking about the pull orientation in some of the new social media (or traditional consumer advertising).

Somehow the concept of Customer Engagement seems to be the closest to embracing all of what needs to be done to survive, grow and thrive.

Does this make sense or am I just playing with words?

  1. Beth permalink

    Good morning Dave,
    You're not wordsmithing. saying what some might want to not believe. What you said in my opinion is on target and the now & future of relationships with those who buy/use the products/services of any enterprise open for business. At it's core it is about control, who's in control of the relationship? the customer. We, businesses need to get clear & get real to engage customers in conversations that all benefit from. Here is a connection that I believe will be of interest to you. there are 2 specific connections the 2008 post Conference Ipods and a Customer Retention Quiz. I look forward to continuing our conversation. Keep wordsmithing!

  2. Dave Brock's Blog permalink

    Beth: Thanks for your comments and for the links. I will go look at them later today.

    Your comments on control struck a nerve. In the past, at least in selling, sales people are supposed to “control” the sales process. In marketing, there are other aspects of control that we speak of.

    In the world of “Customer Engagement,” we must focus on collaboration, which changes the whole notion of control.

    Thanks for these thoughts, they are worth writing more about. You want to do a guest post on this?

    Thanks again for taking time to comment.

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