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The Real Truth About Partnering with Customers

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Everyone likes the notion of partnering with their customers. Being on the same team, having jointly shared goals and working together are ideas and values that most companies welcome. Unfortunately, for most companies, there is a considerable gap between this goal or platitude and actual experience. Even today, with active, online customer communities replacing or augmenting user groups, customers are generally on one side, in their own world, and the vendor company on another. What is it to partner with a customer? What does it require and what does it produce? These are increasingly vital questions to ask and answer in today’s complex world and business environment.

Pandemic aside, today’s business world is characterized by fast change or even upheaval, and business success and competitiveness is often predicated on keen visibility, insight and agility. Companies are spending considerable sums on data analytics and increasingly looking toward AI to make predictions to keep them ahead. Increasingly, companies strive for every aspect of their business to be driven by metrics for continual improvement. They want to “see around corners” and understand sudden change that brings a threat or opportunity. CRMs are being data-mined to understand the most successful sales actions to apply for higher and faster win rates. Financial systems are analyzed for more precise control of spend and better forecasting. Procurement systems use data to optimize purchasing. Departments from marketing to IT are all looking for insight and data-driven improvement.

Most of the added improvements and precision are focused on internal operations. The most essential operation, however, is the direct serving of customers. This is an area where many companies have not yet increased in their maturity. Even fewer mine customer relationships for data, insights, and indicators of change. To partner with a customer is to have an open dialogue; listen to their needs, concerns, and desires; and help them define and success in their own terms. As a natural outcome of this process, companies will not only better serve, retain, and expand customers, but they will get some of the most valuable data the company could possess.

To get to this point requires two milestones. First, companies must have their customer success practices wholly focused on success as defined by customers. Customer success helps actualize the notion that the customer is the responsibility of everyone in the company. Some group needs to be free from operational demands to be able to actively listen to customers and advocate for their success. This does not mean that the full responsibility of the customer, or customer success for that matter, is with the customer success team. The team is more of a conduit and a front line for the company. Other organizations within the company must snap into action to meet the needs surfaced by customer success. It takes a village, but it has to start with the customer success team—individuals that are independent and empowered to ascertain success and help customers achieve it.

Serving customers and helping them reach success creates the best, most productive customers. It also opens up a unique opportunity to understand customer thinking and experience and even test various ideas or potential changes on customers. Partnering with customers involves all of these things, blurring the line in typical “us and them” scenarios. True, at the end of the day, customers are the ones you sell to, but the more symbiotic the relationship, the better for both the customer and the vendor.

The second major shift involves the capture, dissemination, and utilization of customer intelligence, bringing partnering to an entirely new level. A close, listening relationship with customers, where their specific definition of success is achieved, results in a unique opportunity to gain insight about nearly every aspect of the company—from support and sales to marketing, product development, accounting, and more. Attaining such potentially strategic capability requires four main components. First, a trusted and earned level of dialogue with customers. Second, a way to capture the information and potentially distill and organize it. Third, a way to disseminate the information to the relevant individuals and organizations inside the company in such a way that it will be seen and considered. Sometimes these individuals or organizations can be directly involved in with the customer to get the information firsthand and to be able to drive any necessary clarification and deeper discussion. Fourth, the ability to turn information into action. This may involve a combination of agility and culture—the willingness to change and the ability to make it happen.

Such close partnering with customers is rare. Those that can achieve it will be the new market leaders or the ones best positioned to survive change and thrive in potentially uncertain and mutable times.

Shreesha Ramdas is senior vice president and general manager at Medallia. Ramdas has a track record of launching and growing products in competitive markets.  Previously, Ramdas was the CEO of Strikedeck, a leader in customer success automation, which was acquired by Medallia. Ramdas also was the cofounder of LeadFormix, a marketing automation platform that was acquired by Callidus/SAP. Ramdas is an active investor/adviser in several growth companies.

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