a big crowd in front of a sign that says "community"
PHOTO: William White

Customer networks are going to be one of the biggest tools for driving business growth and success in the coming decade. Conventional sales and marketing approaches just won't cut it anymore. A well thought out engagement strategy through customer communities will make all the difference, particularly in the post COVID-19 world.

A conventional strategy typically includes a great product, a sound go-to-market strategy, an ever-eager pre-sales team that whips up prototypes for every business need, and a relentless sales team that converts every lead. That's a great start. But it's not great enough in a future that includes continued increases in customer acquisition costs, annual subscription models that don't lock-in customers for the long term, and the ever-expanding options for customers to choose from.

We see how technology has helped businesses with automation, precision and reach. It has provided customers with the information and knowledge to weigh pros and cons and choose wisely. Customers no longer rely on factors like advertisements or pricing. Instead, they rely on their own research, and on research and reviews by their peers. A Gartner study found B2B buyers spend only 17% of their time engaging with potential suppliers, but nearly 45% of their time conducting online and offline research and 22% of time engaging with peers. This, and the fact that 95% of consumers tend to rethink their buying decisions when they come across new information, are significant changes in buyer behavior and reason enough to consider moving past a conventional marketing and sales strategy.

Pursuing a customer-centric approach by setting up a close-knit user community around a product or brand will complement conventional marketing and sales strategies by focusing on continuous engagement and improved customer stickiness. Thriving customer communities lead to a steady uptick in revenue, improve customer retention, build brand loyalty, and most importantly, businesses spend a lot less on marketing while making it more effective. For the communities to thrive, it is important to strategically set up customer success and advocacy programs that focus on meaningful engagements and align to community building.

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It Begins With Customer Success

A well thought-out customer success program focuses on winning customers by onboarding and helping them with solution prototypes, implementation and continued customer support. This is critical for retaining early customers. The customer engagements here are transactional, highly individualized and one-on-one. It is a proactive strategy that anticipates what the customers need and helps the teams prepare solutions and alternatives. The knowledge gained in the process by the customer success team is built into reference repositories to be used by the other teams who will engage with the customers in the future. A seamless handshake is set up to transition the engagements to the larger user community where customers connect with their peers.

Related Article: Customer Success Should Begin Long Before the Contract Is Signed

Moves on to a Customer Community

Communities help foster a lasting relationship between a business and its customers, and between customers themselves. To build a thriving community that influences the peer group in making purchase decisions, a team of experts pick up the baton from the customer success team. They constantly endeavor to bring the users together online and offline, empower them with resources that help them learn and adapt the products to their business.

The nature of engagements here are non-transactional, dynamic and many-to-many. Customers are encouraged to extend peer-support and share knowledge with other members. Communities are great avenues for customers to build on their skills as well. Among other things, customer communities help retain the charm of a human element in business, making information more relatable and transparent.

Related Article: Apple Doesn't Hide Its Customer Community, So Why Do You?

The Final Destination: Customer Advocacy

With the right framework for customer success and community, customer advocacy is the next logical program to set up. Validation and endorsements from existing customers positively impact a brand's perception and reach. To roll out an effective customer advocacy program, businesses identify and nurture a select set of customers who are potential customer advocates. As part of nurturing, they are included in the rewards and recognition programs that identify them as brand experts or champions. Tailored initiatives train and certify these users as experts. Constant encouragement to engage with the peer community actively, building recognition as a leader and expert makes them effective advocates. The customer advocates become the brand representatives among other users.

Setting up customer networks are therefore central to building and sustaining engagements as it connects the rookies and pros. The presence of an active community reinforces trust among the new customers as they get to connect with other peers. It provides a framework for businesses to stay connected with their customers through meaningful engagements. The more engaged a community is with the brand, the easier it is to find and nurture brand advocates. An engaged community and the brand advocates determine the growth and success of a business. The businesses that adapt this strategic shift are well poised to win and retain customers for the long term, and also earn champions for their brand, particularly in the B2B world.