Aligning Strategy with Changing Consumer Preferences (2/3)

New Methodology, the Consumerization of B2B and Customer Success

This article is the second of a 3-part series on growth as a function of customer centricity.

Build a useful product, an authentic brand, treat customers like friends and try shit until it works.

The generation-defining PLG/SLG companies built in the last recession catered to a different audience than B2B software companies built today. 15 years ago, Boomers and Gen X ran corporate America. Millennials were just starting their careers and Gen Z was 10 years old or younger. The companies that stand out above the rest do so for both their insane velocity, and deep understanding of customer pain points. People rave about these companies. From their product(s), to their ads to their entire customer experience. There’s one thing they have in common: they’re winning at organic.

It’s the Apple approach to brand building: they’re masters of not only sales and product, but marketing, comms, design and empathy. As we learned from the last generation of great B2B companies, sales and product are themselves incredible catalysts for growth. Essential to nail the bottom of funnel early, since a well-oiled marketing machine can’t touch revenue without someone (or a killer product) to close the deal.

Meltem Kuran Berkowitz (of Deel) said it best in a recent podcast appearance: “Build the skeleton before you put on the makeup”. Mastering the basics before trying to optimize every little thing sets companies up for long-term success. The next generation of great companies ship incredibly fast and scale without sacrificing customer centricity. When a product feels like it was built for you, there’s nothing better.

Product-Led Sales: let your sales team speak for the product where it cannot speak for itself

There are obvious limits to both product and sales-led strategies. For example, product-led growth is not suited for high-touch enterprise sales or complex products. Pure sales-led growth is lagging behind the times. I actually can’t imagine sitting on a sales call for every single product I sign up for — not every product warrants a walkthrough.

If a potential customer isn’t at the perfect point in the marketing/sales funnel, closing them is difficult. The Internship (2013 film) with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan actually does a great job demonstrating the benefits, drawbacks, and synergies of product-driven growth and the personal touch of an outstanding sales team.

Elena Verna defines product-led sales (PLS) as “sales teams deployed to monetize on top of self-serve usage”. Keeping certain demand gen variables constant enables a company to activate new demand by adopting elements of another framework. For example, a product-led company can implement new revenue capture efforts with an enterprise sales team and a sales-led company can infuse self-serve flows into their website or products to encourage potential customers to try it themselves.

Realistically, all modern software companies have evolved to employ some mix of PLG and SLG. At the end of the day, you’re selling to a person. Self-aware software businesses understand that users often prefer self-service but might need sales assistance for more specific use cases. For any growth strategy, effective distribution is a critical component. It’s not enough to have a valuable product or only a killer sales team; it needs to reach the right audience at the right time.

Growth (and product-led sales in this case) is a lifecycle play. Play the long game. Perhaps leads aren’t only qualified as marketing or sales qualified, but also as “product-qualified” — they’ve had a chance to try the platform on their own accord (or were referred), and now an AE can reach out to expand and double down on that relationship the lead has built with the software.

The Emerging “Consumerization” of B2B

There’s no doubt 10–15 years of perfectly-packaged consumer technology has blurred lines between B2B and B2C experiences, and further impacted buyer preferences. B2B buyers are accustomed to simple, intuitive and engaging products in their personal lives, so why should B2B technology be any different? At the end of the day, all products need to be designed for the humans who use them, removing all friction.

Learning from consumer brand efforts

Good design rules. There’s nothing like an aesthetically pleasing user experience whether you’re using a social app, marketing automation software or a website that sells cat food. This trend of building aesthetic products has already bled over to B2B. If you’ve ever used Salesforce, you know that making your product sexy doesn’t actually matter if it’s a good product. Beauty can sometimes be a red herring in the roadmap, as there are plenty of beautifully-designed products that fail for a myriad of other reasons. In B2B, good design isn’t essential, but a good user interface sure makes a product engaging (and viral). I’ve heard of Figma, Linear and Webflow die-hards, but never an Oracle, Atlassian or Salesforce design evangelist…

Beyond design, B2B companies can benefit from studying recent B2C digital marketing and sales playbooks for their ability to create personal experiences and cult-like followings behind their brands. I’ve always thought targeted ABM campaigns were the big brother of consumer audience segmentation and personalization anyways.

On relationship-building

The end user of business software is a consumer. A recent report from Sitecore said “70% of consumers want brands to connect with them on a more personal level”. As B2B becomes more influenced by consumer experiences, it’s a balance (and a tradeoff) between personal interactions and scale. Perhaps not every business consumer wants to have a personal connection with their neighborhood B2B SaaS, but that’s not the point. No matter how many times you interact with a prospect or how deep the connection is, providing value never goes unnoticed.

Consumer-business relationships: low-touch and transactional

Interactions are transactional by design. Consumers engage with a brand to fulfill a specific need or desire, whether it’s purchasing a product, a service, or information. Product and brand marketing efforts give the consumer lots of exposure, whether they have intent to buy or not, so that it sticks in their mind. Brands have to pick up the slack with loyalty programs, offers and consistent drip campaigns to nurture and continue to convert their audience. Consumers become product “evangelists” when they fall in love with a certain aspect of the brand, whether it be their product or their story, and want to share it with all their friends.

Business-business relationships: high-touch and interpersonal

Businesses typically require more complex solutions or services, which necessitate deeper engagement and support. Building credibility with an audience involves deeply tailored solutions and ongoing education, directly or through content marketing. Looking at non-software legacy B2B industries like steel, you’ll find lifers who’ve built relationships and expertise in an area for 40+ years. Trust and expertise still outweigh a nice UI any day of the week.

not that these aren’t important, but it’s not that deep
not that these aren’t important, but it’s not that deep

B2B and B2C sales and marketing motions look different because the steps to purchase are functionally different for their audiences. Selling to consumers is traditionally a high-volume, low-touch game while B2B SaaS is low-volume, high-touch. Modern tech companies must maximize positive interactions through a sort of medium-volume and high-touch approach, without being spammy or feeling disingenuous.

An interaction will feel personal if it’s helpful, engaging, or entertaining. Third-party data aggregators and a sea of bots make trust-building more essential today than ever before. Everything leads back to the relationship — before and beyond initial sale, each touchpoint with a customer leaves an impression.

Customer success is a secret weapon

As lines between B2C and B2B blur, marketers have looked in the mirror and recognized that the strategies that worked 5–10 years don’t quite work anymore. Trends come and go, but one thing that never fails across any transactional relationship: a deep understanding of customer wants and needs, and staying up to date as that changes, is far better than trying to guess or assume.

“Customer success” is a role (or a company value) to keep a finger on the pulse of what customers really want. They engage directly, act quickly and speak for customers internally. Many companies have created independent customer success teams to address these, while some choose to embed the function into externally-facing teams. Underinvesting in customer success = high churn, or can lead to “out of touch” marketing efforts. It’s one of those things that you can never truly automate. Investing in the customer is like planting the seed of an apple tree. It may be a long-term effort, but eventually the apples that grow are golden: product insights, customers feel heard, and bottom line improves.

A new marketing campaign can have perfect messaging or goals and still produce the cringiest corporate ad anyone’s ever seen (like Apple’s mother nature ad). Or something so out of touch with your audience that it tanks your stock 20%

This campaign was a fiasco for AB and Bud Light — mass marketing is not easy
This campaign was a fiasco for AB and Bud Light — mass marketing is not easy

Marketing is infamously the “easy” business trade, however in practice it’s becoming more difficult to actually align a campaign with customer preferences, en masse. Not to mention that a marketing fiasco today might prove to be a success at some point in the future, or vice versa. Just as timing in closing a prospect is much of the battle, so is timing in marketing. Growth teams exist to stay nimble, “keep a finger on the pulse” and affect change through the whole funnel to create trust.

There’s a big focus in consumer on user-generated content (UGC) and influencer marketing as a means of increasing awareness and credibility. Anecdotally, I learned that e-commerce enablement software thrives (or dies) on word of mouth. UGC is modern word of mouth. If companies in the space are using a product and talking about it, you better believe they’re going to be brutally honest. And their entire audience is going to hear about it. One of the first things people rave about is good or bad CX. As UGC makes its way over to B2B (different form, but functionally the same), investing in long-term customer success is a far more valuable proposition to encourage the audience to become brand advocates and UGC “creators” (even if it’s just a tweet).

Why should you care?

Consumer (and “business consumer”) preferences change constantly. Not everyone in your audience will have the same set of preferences, but they do use the product for a reason. Customer-first teams hone in on what a customer segment loves about using the product and use it as leverage in retention and expansion efforts. Acquisition without concerted retention efforts is a recipe for unsustainable growth and poor cash flow.

In the last post with Threads, we saw retention isn’t a given, even with massive advantages in distribution as a sector veteran (Facebook is THE giant in consumer social). Some initial questions to ask are: What does the customer find most valuable about the product or service? What brings them back? How are they using it? What problems do they solve with it?

Marketing faux pas aren’t limited to consumer companies trying to be hip. Digital-age consumers can see right through bullshit. When a brand only cares about selling, artificial authenticity alienates their audience and prevents brand evangelism. Winning over consumers (whether “business” or “consumer” consumers) takes self-awareness and effort beyond a quick internal audit of company values. Just like the customers they serve, a brand’s identity and messaging are a reflection of the brand itself. As a younger generation takes an increasing role in purchasing decisions, it won’t be long before this is a common thread across industries (if it isn’t already).

True customer success is empowering the success of the customer. As Elena Verna illustrates with PLS, it’s really about giving potential customers the power to use the product and helping them along where there are gaps. Applicable and useful upsells and cross-sells won’t turn people off. A flawless customer experience turns your audience into your greatest allies. A product, especially one at the enterprise scale, never serves just one use case. Building high-quality relationships (or ones that feel that way) transcend the cold, corporate feeling of a one-time transaction.

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