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Why B2B Companies Need Private Online Customer Communities [Example]

I love the marketing software that I use! I like their approach, the company’s culture, and the solution itself.

However, like all products and services, my marketing software and its provider are not perfect. A recent attempt at sharing a new feature with customers turned into a less than positive exchange.

Why B2B Companies Need Private Online Customer Communities [Example] image Why B2B Companies Need Private Online Customer Communities1

Negative public comments from existing customers can be harmful to a company. They have the opposite effect of the customer advocates B2B businesses work so hard to develop.

We live in an age where people look for products with five out of five ratings on Amazon and glowing Yelp reviews. For three and four star ratings, buyers decipher the comments and reviews to see if the reason for the downgrade is something that they can live with.

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Often times, buyers comb through reviews, blog comments, and discussions on social networks not to find out which product they should buy, but to look for reasons not to buy a specific product or flaws that they may have overlooked.

The Story of Customer Communication Gone Bad

Big product announcement! My marketing software provider posted on their product blog that they have added really cool A/B testing to the built-in email functionality. But wait! This seemingly basic marketing functionality is only available in the most expensive of their three packages. Socious pays for the middle tier marketing software package.

I, along with several other customers, chimed in with our discontent. Customer feedback ranged from questioning the decision to add A/B testing to only their top tier offering to seeking alternative email marketing software that integrated with this company’s other features.

The Good News: Their customers are engaged.

The Bad News: Their customers were not happy.

The Even Worse News: Their customers were documenting their unhappiness in a public forum.

The discussion occurring in the comments of this blog post did not get better for this company when they tried to explain their stance. The lesson here – if you customers, who understand your products well enough to ask questions on product-related blog posts, think that your company made a poor decision, clarifying your position has the potential to make the situation worst.

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In the end, the representative from the software provider said that their customers should contact their account manager to get the software they need for their marketing strategy. Even if the company took this feedback and made the decision to include A/B testing in their middle tier package, this discussion still happened and these comments are still out there for prospective customers evaluating their solution, the media, and competitors to see.

How Online Customer Community Software Could Have Helped

You start out with an exciting product announcement meant to delight your bigger customers. You end up with less than thrilled customers and an ugly conversation on your product blog.

This is where online customer communities come in. These private social platforms are used by an increasing number of B2B companies to bring customers, employees, and partners together for the success and satisfaction of their customers.

Companies not only use the data from their social crm strategy to close sales faster, capitalize on upsell opportunities, and increase customer advocacy, they also use them to address customer concerns in a secure environment before those concerns go public.

Here are three ways that my marketing software provider could have benefited from an online customer community in this situation:

In the Privacy of Their Own “Home”

Though I understand that businesses write public product blogs for the SEO, news, and industry leadership value, the engagement that can be stirred up by this kind of one-size-fits-all customer communication approach can be a double-edged sword. Customers will sing your praises when you get it right and customers will tear you down when you disappoint them.

Engaging your customers in your private online customer community enables both you and your customers to have two-way conversations without the world watching. If customers are unsettled by a decision you make, representatives from your organization can have that conversation with your customer community without worrying about creating negative perceptions among prospective customers and others in the public sphere.

Segmentation Equates to Better Relationships

A critical part of customer communication is segmentation. Online customer communities allow companies to provide more relevant information to specific customer groups based on demographics (who they are), transactional data (the products and services they use), and social behavior (what they have done in the community).

There are better ways to get middle-tier customers to upgrade and new customers to come on board. The interaction described above would have gone differently for the company if they were able to send the announcement to only the customers using the product that to which announcement pertained.  They could have still made the announcement on their public blog for SEO and positioning reasons. They could have also included a mention of the update to their middle and lower tier customers inside their customer community to better entice this audience to upgrade.

The difference is that an online customer community would have allowed this software vendor to create different messages and expose them to different audiences. Rather than one blanket announcement, they could have made bigger strides with each of their target audiences – resulting in better awareness in the market, happier mid-tier customers, and ecstatic enterprise-level customers.

Instead, they have pleased their top-tier customers and left a trail of less than thrilled middle-tier customers for all to see.

Proactive Account Management

In the situation above, the conversation slowed when the company representative told customers that the account management team said to “tell you and others really interested in this update to give your account manager a call.” From a public relations perspective, this was their attempt to end debate on the blog and get the conversation out of the public light as soon as possible.

Rather than telling frustrated customers to call someone else in the company and maybe they can help, businesses that use online customer communities give account managers access to their customer’s activity in the community. They can see when a customer is happy, struggling with a question, or voicing their discontent. They can then reach out to those customers that have serious concerns individually using their existing relationships with them.

Private online communities provide the opportunity to be proactive about customer problems and negative feedback before it snowballs into a customer mutiny.

Private Online Customer Community Takeaway

This post takes on the following questions:

Do B2B companies run the risk of public brand damage if they primarily communicate with customers on blogs available to the public and search engines?

It is not always going to end badly for businesses. In fact, most businesses (including my marketing software provider) will receive a very high percentage of conflict-free, positive comments on the public product blogs.

However, since this will not always be the case, there is a better way to keep customers engaged, communicate company or product news, and get into product-related discussions.

Business-to-business companies have to work with different realities than consumer companies, including:

  • B2B companies are not always to going to make the right decisions for all customers.
  • B2B businesses often have complex products that can frustrate customers at times.
  • B2B businesses rely on long term relationships with customers.
  • B2B customers need positive and negative feedback to continue to add market-driven innovation to their solutions.

All of these things go on and will continue to go on. As they do, online customer communities help B2B companies avoid the turbulent discussions that come with having engaged customers from occurring in public where prospective customers, the media, and competitors can see them.

Companies use customer community platforms to help them create a more attractive customer experience by encouraging in-depth product discussions, providing more relevant information to specific customer segments, and helping support professionals be more proactive.

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