The Business of Relationships Online

I met my wife, Elana, on about four years ago. I was reluctant to share this until more recently, mostly from my unease with online dating stigmas, like a sense that going online indicates failure at traditional methods and even a willingness to accept less (a.k.a., desperation!). An ironic interpretation for a digital marketing leader at a Fortune 50 company. I think that many B2B marketing, sales and support professionals still find themselves in a similar position today. Even though many are online, they’ve yet to embrace and champion the Internet as a powerful way to establish and grow relationships. Hey, I’ve been there. Here are three quick perspectives to help upgrade your thinking:

1. Win the Numbers Game – No disrespect to fate, but new customer growth, like dating, is a numbers game. You have to do the most that you can with limited time and resources. Sites like use algorithms based on nearly 20 years of data in order to model and predict relationship success. No surprise, the most important factor is that interests align. Modern ERP systems can provide end-to-end visibility to supply, and market analytics are increasingly available down to the company and even project level. Software that can decode a company from IP addresses online and can track behavior down to the click can help make interest matching automatic. The calculations are growing in sophistication to incorporate the rapid increase of unstructured social data. So when it comes to achieving business growth, broadcast marketing and cold calling from a business directory is akin to searching for your soulmate at the local bar.

2. Care Enough to Monitor – The best relationships require effective communication: Listening, discussing, understanding, and acting in ways that value each other. Elana and I have now been using the Couple app on our Android phones since Valentine’s Day — sort of a one-to-one chat, audio and pic share, moment capture, and love note engine. I’ll admit, we haven’t made out with the “thumbkiss” feature very often, but the app does help keep us in touch and gives us priority access to each other on the in-betweens. Email, texting, Facebook and Instagram are increasingly important for keeping up with the rest of the family. In B2B, the situation requires far more sophistication: Using the above-mentioned supply and demand marketing and social tools in tandem with transactional and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) processes and software to assemble a complete view of the customer across multiple business touch points and convert this understanding into synchronized action. And this action will increasingly include communication via online channels right down to targeted emails, text message alerts, and always-on access to information and transactions. Your revenue growth will feel almost as good as a thumbkiss!

3. Business Is Personal – A continual refrain in digital marketing circles is that B2B is three to five years behind B2C. As I attend various marketing forums, retail companies are typically heralded as having made the transition from bricks to clicks, using the latest online tools to engage consumers. They have been first with marketing websites, online commerce, search and email marketing, mobile and social commerce, big data, and so on. Altogether, these tools have allowed retailers to establish an unprecedented degree of customer understanding and loyalty. Companies like Amazon, Zappos, and USAA have assimilated the “personal tools,” to win at the relationship game online. Ironically, B2B companies (who often sit together and commiserate at aforementioned forums) frequently claim to be “relationship businesses.” And they can make a strong case, as their salespeople often have one-to-one relationships with customer buyers and influencers in their local communities. The rub is that these same customers receive second-class treatment online. About 80% of the population now uses the Internet to help find a partner… both for romance and for tractors. B2B marketers would do well to accelerate their efforts to gain ground on their B2C counterparts to begin cashing in on the tools of lifetime commitment.

It’s time to let go of our digital stigmas. The web is revolutionizing relationships, both personal and professional. Those of us reaching customers in a relationship business need to get down to the business of relationships, using the latest and best tools to serve customers and grow!

6 thoughts on “The Business of Relationships Online

  1. I think you are a very talented story teller Jeff, this post is both relevant and highly memorable because you made it so personal. Thank for you sharing :)

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Sharon! And thank goodness things have worked out so well with Elana or it could have been a very different post. ;)

  2. Great stuff Jeff, thanks for sharing. Your ability to communicate and connect is impressive! Your wife sounds like a great gal….how cool is it that you found each other.

  3. Hi Jeff, just caught this post (a month late), and had to comment. I think there’s a tremendous lesson to be learned here, from the Caterpillar level down to the Cat dealer level. I’ve seen marked improvement in your first two points, in the investment in “winning the numbers game” (marketing automation comes to mind) and “caring enough to monitor” (the age of customer experience as we say), but I do believe there is room for improvement in “making business personal.” I’m confident from a corporate perspective we are making strides, but those strides mean little if the our biggest competitive advantage, our dealer network, remains 3 to 5 years behind. Granted, some dealers are ahead of the curve (leading even Caterpillar in this space), but many are not. How do we get our dealers to let go of their digital stigmas?

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Great question, Daniel. I think one very important way we need to do this is through more strategic use of social media. Today, many dealers, and certainly OEMs, continue to use social as a promotions tool. But this is really a great opportunity to get “P2P” with customers. Something simple like a sales rep connecting with all of their customer account contacts on LinkedIn (or even Facebook!) and then using it as a way of regularly listening, learning and communicating. It is a matter of time before this ongoing connection and the improved customer understanding it brings leads to better business relationships and then business results. And this will make it very personal for dealer sales reps and sales managers, both the customer and financial connection. And I think it might take something this personal to rapidly shift the paradigm. Social Media has changed the global communications landscape so quickly that I have to believe it can work for companies like ours too. Anyhow, I’m all ears for ways you think we can accelerate this change… we won’t succeed until we can deliver everything Cat can offer to a segment of one!

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