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5 Ways B2B Marketers Can Strengthen Customer Ties In Uncertain Times

For many organizations, the coronavirus has altered the way people work—with the most obvious change, of course, coming in the form of closed offices and people working remotely. B2B firms are no exception. However, in these days of social distancing, it’s especially important that companies remain connected with their employees and customers. 

Recent Voice of Customer (VoC) research conducted by my company, ERDM Corp., found the ability to keep customers loyal and engaged during uncertain times lies in the value, strength, depth, and integrity of these relationships.

“You’re going to turn to your trusted relationships where you know your partners and are confident that you can work together to get through this difficult time,” said Steve Baruch, executive vice president, chief strategy and marketing officer at MSC Industrial, an industrial equipment distributor based in New York.

Many organizations said they are taking a “back-to-basics” approach.

“We must focus on what customers really need right now, so the specialty projects and new bright, shiny things we have been working on get put aside to focus on delivering on the basics for the good of our customers,” said Jeanine Hurry, global digital programs leader for Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Safety and Construction.

In gathering VoC research, ERDM Corp. conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of B2B customers globally in a wide variety of industries. While keeping customer names anonymous, five Cs emerged—pieces of advice that can help B2B companies remain focused on their customers, fortify their relationships, and earn goodwill.

1. Connect

Amid many states in lockdown, in-person communication, long the hallmark of relationship-building, is not recommended. However, because the research shows that a personal connection is key to establishing a meaningful relationship with clients, B2B marketers should continue to pick up the phone, request a videoconference, or send a text message.

“Regular contact can maintain an adequate relationship, but you need a personal connection to build a strong relationship,” said one study participant.

And with the COVID-19 crisis fluctuating so quickly, the time frames necessary to keep customers updated regarding critical issues that affect them has accelerated. Reaching out to them on a consistent basis ensures everyone stays up to date.  

2. Communicate

To truly serve your customers, it is imperative that B2B marketers possess “a complete understanding of all the barriers [their customers] are facing,” said Mike Lucero, VP of product strategy at life sciences company 10x Genomics, in Pleasanton, Calif. “You have to know the industry, ask the right questions, and have the right follow-up to show that you know them. That’s what builds trust.”  

Based on my company's VoC research, customers will provide deep preference data in exchange for relevant, timely information delivered via their preferred channels and per their frequency expectations. It's what we call “reciprocity of value.” But one caution: “It’s a fine line between being a help or being a hindrance. Getting me the info I want, in the medium I want, in the time I want is a help,” a research participant said. “Getting me the info I want, in the medium I want, but filling up my inbox with too much stuff becomes a hindrance.”

3. Commiserate

Many companies have been hit hard and some face uncertain futures. Helping customers process their emotions surrounding this new reality can position B2B firms as key partners.

“We made personal phone calls to over 2,000 customers in just the past week,” said Paul Warburg, president and CEO of Xenon Arc, which works with brands in the materials industry. “The amount of venting, concern, and even fear has been palpable. So listening and lending a sympathetic and empathetic ear is absolutely critical. And once the steam has blown off, we have been there to help ease the pressure points.”

Also important: Think customer-first. “Companies must have much more of a ‘we’ outlook than a ‘me’ outlook,” a research participant noted.

4. Creatively Problem-Solve

B2B marketers are well-advised to take the time to think about the challenges their customers are facing, what their desired outcome is, and how they can help them outside of the usual solutions.

“You don’t know whether a company is flexible until there’s a problem. That’s when you see how flexible they actually are,” one study participant said.

For example, MSC has stopped taking on new customers for high-demand products so it can honor its obligations to longtime customers, Baruch said, rather than acting opportunistically and using critical inventory to get its foot in the door with prospects.   

At Dupont, the forward-thinking company turned to a playbook that was created to deal with a previous epidemic but was enhanced based on stakeholder feedback after the crisis. “Gathering, learning from, and implementing that feedback meant during this outbreak, we were able to address the situation and react faster to better meet the needs of customers,” Hurry said.

5.  Contribute

Now is the time to act in the best interests of your customers and community. “Stop selling and stop thinking about yourself,” Baruch said. “This is a global humanitarian crisis, and it is bigger than any one company.”

Or, as Warburg explained, “It is our fundamental belief that in times of uncertainty and crisis and stress, this is when true individual and institutional character emerges. We hope that we have demonstrated our positive qualities, but if not, this represents a real opportunity to demonstrate that we, as an organization, care about our partners, their well-being, and their long-term sustainability.”

Companies are also jumping in to help those fighting COVID-19. For example, labs across the U.S., Europe, and Asia are using 10x Genomics products in an effort to better understand the disease.

“Since our customer base is on the front lines of fighting this pandemic, we have been very proactive in trying to support them,” Lucero said. “We basically asked our entire company to brainstorm ideas regarding how we could help our customers help the rest of the world. While not all of their solutions worked out, our customers appreciated the fact that we were working hard to support them.”

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