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Seeing the Forest and the Trees
Your real customers are the individual decision-makers within an organization.
Posted Dec 11, 2010
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CRM in the B2B world is like managing a forest one tree at a time. The goal is not to build a relationship with a company, per se, but rather with the individual employees and stakeholders that make up that company. Collectively these individuals compose an organization, much like a forest is a collection of individual trees. Does your B2B CRM program give you power to see the forest and the trees?

Let's start by differentiating between companies and clients. With large accounts, the "customer" in customer relationship management is not really the organization. The customers (plural) are the individual decision-makers within the company—each with divergent and sometimes competing interests—with whom you must build meaningful relationships. Your true clients—the ones with individual agendas, personal biases, needs and expectations—all reside within the company.

An effective CRM program aimed at one corporate account actually hinges on your ability to manage multiple relationships with numerous stakeholders, from the C-level through procurement, right down to the end user. To effectively manage relationships with those interdependent, and frequently siloed, stakeholders, we must understand the corporate decision-making process that weaves these individuals together.

To create the kind of 360-degree view that serves as the foundation for an effective, revenue-generating CRM program, we consider each stakeholder’s perspective:

  • His needs and expectations: Procurement may care about cost and availability, but the end user cares more about functionality and ease of use.
  • The language he uses: Does your stakeholder speak “c-suite strategy” or “end-user technical?”
  • His role within the organization: Where does your stakeholder sit? At the head of the decision-making table, or in the bleachers? Does he have the power to serve as an internal champion?

Consider the complexity and disconnectedness that make up the back story of every vendor relationship: The person using the product probably has never had a conversation with the procurement individual, who has never had a conversation with the CEO, who goes to church with the guy who sells the widgets.

None of these relationships can be managed in the same way or using the same language because needs, expectations, and roles do differ so much. But effectively managing each individual relationship requires a broad and detailed understanding of the context, culture, and interconnectedness that make up the organization.

Since CRM is about two-way conversation, effective CRM in a B2B environment cannot be limited to considering only the client organization. Look around you. You’ll discover you live in a forest of your own. The end-user client I mentioned above? He is probably talking to your customer support department.

The procurement client talks to your accounting department or your sales staff. And the CEO, well, maybe she serves on the same board as your CFO. One thing is virtually certain: Your CEO, your sales exec and your customer service rep are probably not sharing insights. The complex forest that you see when you look at your client’s organization is probably mirrored by your own equally dense and mysterious woods.

What hope is there for a bunch of sales and marketing folks lost in this forest? We cannot begin to understand and effectively manage the customer relationship until we understand the how and why of the decision to buy and to continue buying.

If your salespeople are selling to only one “buyer” and your marketers are talking to only one segment of individuals at a target company, they may inadvertently ignore the most important stakeholders. Who offers initial recommendations of vendors? Who governs the budget to be used? Who must give approvals along the way? Who ultimately needs the product or uses the service? Especially in cases with a long sales cycle or multiple decision-makers, marketers are challenged to identify all of the stakeholders and influencers at a target company.

The best approach to understanding organizational decision-making is derived from multiple stakeholder insights and yields a 360-degree, panoramic view of all the internal and external variables. This approach, sometimes referred to as a “case study,” can reveal surprising insights into how critical decisions are made—and which individuals within an organization need to be convinced to initiate and maintain a relationship. Only then can we see the forest and the trees.


About the Author

Hannah Baker Hitzhusen (hbaker@cmiresearch.com) is the vice president of qualitative research in the marketing research and consulting firm CMI. CMI’s Qualitative and Quantitative teams help companies drive their business forward by informing their decisions with input from business decision-makers at financial services, pharmaceutical, utility, and healthcare companies, in addition to consumer perspectives.


Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors

You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" below.

If you would like to submit a Viewpoint for consideration on a topic related to customer relationship management, please email viewpoints@destinationCRM.com.

For the rest of the October 2010 issue of CRM magazine, please click here.

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