In B2C engagements, this is entirely unremarkable. Most B2C organisations have long since been convinced of the need to understand what their customers are feeling and thinking, how and why they’re behaving as they are, and how they might behave in the future. Moreover, they’re happy to entrust third parties with the responsibility of discovering this for them.
But, when it’s comes to this phase of a project with a B2B customer, it’s often a much harder sell. “It’s the wrong time to talk to them”, “We’re in the middle of some delicate negotiations”, “There’s been a change of personnel”, “We had a tricky time with them on the last project’, … There’s always a reason why it’s not quite the right time to talk.
This is huge shame and a real missed opportunity. And, behind all these apparent reasons for it not being quite the right time, there are really just two: Control and Fear.
The B2B customer relationship is very different to those enjoyed by B2C businesses. For a start, it’s a real relationship between real people who actually know one another. Or at least, know something about one another. It’s personal and the owners of these relationships guard them vigilantly. Like political Spin Doctors, they carefully manage the messages that reach their clients and the easiest way to do this is to ensure that nobody else talks to them.
No one wants their bosses to hear that their clients don’t think that much of them or that they’re unhappy about something. Despite assurances of anonymity and confidentiality, B2B relationship managers often tend not to be prepared to take the risk that a message might come back that shows them up.
Both of these are very human and very understandable reasons. The problem is, if you’re not talking to your customers, your competitors could well be. You could also be missing opportunities for qrowth.
B2B relationships are a little like marriages, constant communication is vital. A lack of communication is the number one reason couples get divorced. Just as neutral, objective and dispassionate Marriage Guidance Councillors can often play an important role in bringing marriages back around, so can third parties access vital B2B customer insight that their clients just can’t.
The agency position of neutrality is enormously powerful. Neutrality doesn’t mean uninformed, it means that we address the issues and not the personalities. It means that we can discuss issues and opportunities with our customers’ clients that would otherwise remain clouded by the day to day and the personal.
The priorities of relationship owners are often guided by their short-term business targets. These inevitably shape their behaviours and actions – and not always to the benefit of their customers. It may also mean that longer term opportunities and threats are ignored or even buried.
The breadth of customers and stakeholders we talk to inevitably means that we work across business silos and outside the narrow scope of business relationship managers. This width allows us to join dots that may not be immediately visible to those with their noses set hard against the grindstone. An issue that one customer has, or an opportunity they present might not actually be the one off occurrence their relationship manager thinks it is.
We’re also able to draw on and apply learning and insight from other sectors. Whilst industries like to believe that their dynamics are unique; they’re usually less unique than they think they are. We’re able to bring lessons from one and apply them directly to another. This can often offer huge cut-throughs in both time and effort.
Clearing the air
Although not an immediate priority, clients’ customers often welcome the chance to talk to a third party. Some feel able to use us as a conduit to relay messages back to a client that they feel couldn’t be transmitted through any other route, whilst others simply appreciate the fact that their suppliers want to engage more with them and value their opinions.
So don’t be afraid to let third parties talk to your customers. There may be a little pain involved for some but it’s not pain invented by the third parties; it’s pain that already exists and could well lead to long term damage if not brought out in to the open and addressed.
Your customers are a huge potential source of insight, opinion and opportunity. Harness it and use it to your benefit before someone else does.
Finally, whilst communication actively strengthens relationships, a lack of communication actively degrades them. People like to talk and if you’re not talking to them, the chances are that someone else is. Break the code of silence.