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B2B companies have to behave more like B2C companies to satisfy their customers. PHOTO: Tookapic

When I first started working in Silicon Valley in 2003, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) was a relatively new model for delivering software.

WebEx (my then-employer) and Salesforce were the two big SaaS companies, and their arrival on the scene turned traditional B2B customer lifecycle management on its head. Until then, many companies viewed customer service primarily as an overhead item, and enterprise IT buyers were largely left to fend for themselves after the sale.

But SaaS introduced the new concept of “customer success,” which carried a mandate that your customers experience value continuously from day one of their relationship with you. Their ongoing success was now very directly tied to your bottom line because they could cancel their service at any time.

At WebEx, where I was charged with creating a customer success function, it took trial and error to get things right.

Our initial thought was to develop a team whose primary goal was to curb churn. In those days, churn management borrowed its philosophy and methods from the cellular world, and customers were held to their contracts with little thought to their best interests.

You can imagine how well that worked. We continued to experiment, and eventually began to closely measure customer feedback — in real time and across every interaction — so we could track exactly what worked and what didn't.

B2B Can Learn From B2C

What that revealed led us to an a-ha moment: To succeed in this new environment, B2B companies like ours would have to behave more like B2C companies.

Today's enterprise software users want the same things they want as technology consumers outside of work: better productivity and high satisfaction from the very first use of new technology. We needed to connect with — and win over — the end users.

In the years since, as I've gone on to lead the customer care function at other SaaS providers, this conviction has remained constant.

Win over end users and you'll be rewarded with high adoption and stickiness and a solid base for building more business.

If you’re one of the companies competing in the $620B enterprise software market, here are the top four actions that will help you do that.

Partner Early and Closely With Customer IT Departments

IT departments are the gatekeepers to successful deployment and adoption of new services because they control access to your end users. They are also notoriously understaffed and overworked.

Win their cooperation and trust early in the relationship by seeking to make their lives easier. You can do this by taking the lead in planning and design work, and starting these processes very early in the pre-implementation phase.

Keep the IT staff involved by regularly asking for their feedback on scheduling, training and other key issues. Structures like weekly check-ins with teams on the ground as well as the CIO drive alignment and transparent communication.

Silos kill customer satisfaction, so engage your professional services and customer success teams in the pre-sales process as early as possible. This will also build the IT staff’s confidence in your ability to support them and their user community throughout implementation and beyond.

Treat the First 90 Days as Your Success Deadline

At Davos this summer, SaaS visionary Mark Benioff asserted that "speed is the new currency of business," and there's certainly plentiful evidence of this truth.

The customers we work with these days need quick deployment and utilization of products so that their own clients can see the benefit quickly.

They’re no longer looking for how to improve performance this quarter; they want better results by the end of the month. Because the cadence of workflows has quickened so dramatically, rapid adoption is more crucial than ever.

Specifically, the first 90- day period of implementation is the window of opportunity for getting customers comfortable using your technology. Do everything possible to meet this goal because in my experience it will make or break your success with a customer.

Tie CX to Companywide Compensation and Recognition

Most every service-based company gives lip service to a culture of customer focus, but actually creating one requires that it enroll the entire organization, from the CEO to the administrative staff.

The most effective way to do this is to tie compensation to customer satisfaction and to reinforce customer-first behavior in ways beyond compensation.

One of the SaaS companies I worked for years back had a very visionary and determined CEO who drove a relentless focus on delighting customers.

Every employee — from executive staff to associate to receptionist — had a portion of his compensation tied to customer satisfaction and Net Promoter Scores. This sent a very clear message, both internally and externally, about where the company put its focus.

Customer satisfaction results were also an integral part of the quarterly results review meetings, where employees were publicly recognized and celebrated for their efforts and successes.

Keep Pushing the Envelope

You’ll know you’re making customers happier when your churn drops and your satisfaction metrics rise.

But for me the gold standard is also something else, and worth considering as you chart your own customer success goals: If you can provide your prospects your entire customer list and allow them to call any one of those customers as a reference, without any vetting, you’ve succeeded not just in creating the ultimate marketing tool, but a service experience customers love.

Figure out what your own stretch goal would be in terms of high customer satisfaction impact, then set out to make it happen.