Adapting your B2B Loyalty Program in an Uncertain Market
The headlines in January 2020 promised a stable and predictable future.
- The US employment rate stood at 3.6%, a historic low.
- The Consumer Confidence Index was courting a historic high sitting at 131.6.
- The US economy was projected to grow a modest, yet respectable, 2.3% this year.
How quickly things have been upended.
- During a six-week period starting in mid-March, over 30 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits.
- 7.5 million small businesses are in danger of closing forever due to the pandemic.
- The US government has already poured over $3 trillion into stimulus funding and that could just be the tip of the iceberg.
By: Ric Neeley
When the world changes this dramatically, your customers’ priorities are completely reshuffled. Companies who were looking to you for solutions to expand their operations earlier this year suddenly find themselves in survival mode. Channel partners once looking to add new lines and categories now face chaotic supply chains. All at once, cash flow trumps profitability as the key corporate metric.
If your B2B loyalty program is on autopilot and still operating as though nothing has changed, you are flirting with disaster. Programs, especially B2B programs, must adapt quickly to changing markets. This demonstrates both an understanding of the customer’s needs and the value the sponsor brings. Those who ignore market conditions are proving just how unaware, or worse, how unsympathetic they are to the needs of their loyal customers.
So, how do you adapt to this bizarre market and redefine your value?
People facing uncertainty aren’t looking for someone to market them a new widget. They’re looking for a friend who’s heard and understands their problems and brings something to the table. Offering thoughtful and targeted solutions helps anxious and worried customers see your value. Your loyalty program with its direct and constant link to customers can become an established tool for two-way communications and to reinforce your values.
Here are four steps to redefine your value and communicate it to your participants.
Everyone should listen to their customers, but during uncertain times, listening strategies are critical. B2B loyalty programs offer the ability to reach out directly to some of your best customers and get their input quickly and efficiently. Because these customers are part of your program, they are more likely to respond to you. Rewards, like bonus points, can be also used to encourage timely input.
Speed will be important as market conditions shift rapidly, but you’ll also want to get true and actionable insights. Consider this approach:
- Virtual focus groups with your own sales reps first and then with customers to identify their top concerns and needs in this environment and gain insights on their perceived solutions.
- Electronically survey a portion of your loyalty members later to ensure the needs and solutions identified by your virtual focus groups are reflected in the wider population.
Your program offers a ready-made group of B2B customers to quickly identify concerns and needs. The fact is, though, you will not be able to solve all their problems. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t acknowledge issues you can’t resolve. Think about the many times you have discussed problems or worries with friends. You never really expected them to solve the problem; you just needed a sympathetic ear.
Now, a customer’s expectations of a valued partner are a little different than a friend. They expect you to understand the industry you’re serving, and acknowledging a current concern demonstrates industry knowledge. In short, comprehension earns you credibility.
Identifying a customer’s problems and empathizing with them is certainly appreciated. Being innovative enough to do something about it is a called a competitive edge.
If fully utilized, a B2B program is a strategic advantage. It can be used to diagnose customer pain points, guide your team to solutions and even beta test new concepts with your most loyal followers. B2B programs always need fresh enrollees, active participation, and an engaging rewards portfolio. But when your focus is almost exclusively on rewards, it becomes an arms race with competing programs continually upping the odds.
Strategic programs are much more difficult to duplicate. It’s one thing to source a new merchandise award or gift card. It’s quite another to begin a dialogue with your participants, mobilize resources to react to your learnings, and create products and services valuable to customers. A strategic program requires executive support as it demands interdepartmental cooperation. An executive champion can act as a both the voice of the company to your program participants while at the same time prioritizing the program learnings to become a competitive advantage for the organization.
Innovation is not limited to creating new products or services. Streamlining processes can be a tremendously valuable innovation for both customers and the organization’s bottom line. A strategic program with a strong executive sponsor can have an enormous impact on policies and procedures affecting customers. Imagine inspiring operations personnel to innovate by simplifying procedures. Think of the creativity unleashed when back-office people better understand the customer’s needs more fully. This is the power of a strategic B2B program.
Remember, your organization alone cannot solve all customer problems. Some issues you uncover simply are not in your wheelhouse. B2B customers are always looking for expertise. When you identify a sweeping concern, solicit input from experts in the field. Your program can be the conduit for connecting participants to the expert advice they need.
You can have experts supply blog content or facilitate webinars on topics of interest to your customers with the content produced by an expert in the field. Content advising them on ways to address challenges outside of your own offerings can be a valuable engagement tool.
But some words of caution: Make sure the content you are providing has been properly vetted and is highly credible. Leveraging your relationship to introduce the expert or solution is like referring a friend to a vendor. Your friend, or in this case, your loyal customer is trusting you. If you are bringing an expert you are unfamiliar with to the table, make sure to do your homework.
The marketplace today is nothing like it was just a couple of months ago. Reacting quickly to gauge the market and addressing concerns could make a difference in just surviving or thriving in this new world order. Now’s the time to redefine your values according to what your best customers want and need. Now’s the time to make B2B loyalty a competitive advantage.
Ric Neeley is a Director of Marketing for Hinda Loyalty Group, a US-based loyalty solutions provider that helps engage, inspire, and reward the people most important to your business.