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The Connected Enterprise

PODCAST

Physical Distancing, not Customer Distancing: How COVID-19 has Become a Catalyst for Change in B2B Marketing

Posted by Vision33 on May 27, 2020 12:00:00 PM

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Full Transcript

Carl Lewis:

Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Samantha Stone from the Marketing Advisory Network. Samantha, welcome to the podcast. Please tell us about yourself and your work at the Marketing Advisory Network.

Samantha Stone:

Thank you so much for having me. The Marketing Advisory Network is a strategic marketing consulting practice. We help organizations design a marketing strategy and, more importantly, execute it.

Samantha Stone:

Our practice has various components. It includes understanding buyers, research, messaging, message testing, enablement, content, go-to-market planning, and product launches. We're lucky to work with companies in different ways and different stages of their business. One thing we've been doing a lot of is helping companies adapt to this unusual healthcare crisis across the world.

Carl Lewis:

Absolutely. These are anxious times for many American businesses. As we navigate our way through the coronavirus, what do you suggest businesses do to assure their customers?

Samantha Stone:

One thing is transparency. Our customers have so much uncertainty in their lives we must be sensitive to: their jobs, family, health, things happening around them, etc. Transparency isn’t just a good thing to do – it’s the required thing to do. If there’s going to be a delay in shipping, something’s out of stock, we’ll be slower to respond to calls, etc., we must be upfront about it. Transparent communication is critical.

Samantha Stone:

Also, now is the time to practice what we've been preaching in sales and marketing: serve, not sell. We must recognize that nothing is business as usual for anyone, whether they're customers or prospects. And because of what's happening, their minds can currently only focus on short-term needs. So, what can we do to adapt our businesses to serve those short-term needs?

Carl Lewis:

What are the biggest challenges for business communications when you're facing this sort of situation?

Samantha Stone:

One thing that’s a challenge for us, as business leaders, is that we’ve become very dependent on automated communication mechanisms on workflows and other processes. That's usually a perfectly good way to communicate with customers, but research shows that, in the face of crisis and uncertainty, human interaction is the best way to communicate.

Samantha Stone:

No, we can’t talk to every single customer. But we can make sure the tone we use to communicate is human. We can make sure we're proactively communicating updates and, where possible, using technology, like phone and video conferencing, to show how much we care. Empathy must come through, whether it's an email or a phone call.

Carl Lewis:

That reminds me of the old Bruce Springsteen song, "The Human Touch." Everybody seems to be looking for that.

Samantha Stone:

I haven’t thought of that song in a long time, but yes. We're desperate for it. Because physically, most of us have no touch outside of our immediate households. We're forcing ourselves to do social distancing. But that doesn't mean we have to do customer distancing. We must make smart decisions focused on the long term. We might be taking a financial hit. We may see an opportunity to raise a price – but now is not the time. Now is the time to serve and create empathy and loyalty within the people we want as customers. Not just today, but for a long time.

Carl Lewis:

Absolutely. We want to be seen as somebody who went through it with them.

Samantha Stone:

Exactly.

Carl Lewis:

Businesses are making a lot of changes. Do you think the results will be permanent? Is there going to be a "corona effect" that's long-lasting?

Samantha Stone:

I hope so. We’re seeing good things. We're better at communicating, perhaps because we have to be transparent, and we’re more empathetic. Let's hope that carries through this crisis. We're becoming more effective at digital communication, and we're looking at creative ways to translate interactivity back and forth through digital means.

Samantha Stone:

Do I think physical events and meetings will bounce back? Yes. I think those will always be part of our repertoire, as they should be. But hopefully, digital interactions will be better. We're all very tuned in to buyers in our messaging, and being thoughtful about what, where, when, and how we say things. I hope that continues because it's an important piece of living our ideals.

Samantha Stone:

But these are times that test our integrity. They test our perseverance. Some things will continue, and some things won't. But goodness can come out of this.

Carl Lewis:

You talked about transparency and trustworthiness, but should businesses openly tell customers or anyone in their supply chain about the negative impact this is having on them? Or should they act like it's business as usual?

Samantha Stone:

I don't know if you should share everything. Some things, like personnel or employee challenges, are very personal and would just create unnecessary anxiety for customers. But it’s not business as usual, and we shouldn't treat it that way. We should err on the side of being upfront with customers about what we're going through, and how we can best serve them, and where we might disappoint them.

Samantha Stone:

We’ll disappoint people right now, but because we’ve been setting expectations, people have been understanding. We've been trained by Amazon, for example – prime members have been trained to expect two-day delivery. Well, for good reasons, Amazon has reestablished what’s essential right now and prioritized that. They stopped accepting non-essential products into the warehouses. Some products you can't buy because they're meant for healthcare organizations or others on the front lines. It’s changed how quickly we get things, but they did it for the right reasons, and they've clearly communicated that to their customers – the information is on the site, in the cart when you’re placing the order, in the email confirming your order, etc. They've also done some media work.

Samantha Stone:

It's not business as usual, and we should talk about the hard things. But we should also talk about the good things because some companies are doing incredible things to help the community. And I want to hear those, not because they’re bragging or because they want a pat on the back, but because it inspires others to do similar things. It gives me confidence that I'm working with the companies I want to have my money.

Carl Lewis:

I always ask business leaders about their personal communication and how it’s changed over the years. Obviously, there's been a lot of change in the last few weeks. What's been your experience with suddenly doing everything virtually? Is it what you did before, or is it a new thing?

Samantha Stone:

I’ve always used video conferencing because we have clients all over the world. When we travel, we go to in-person meetings, but I regularly work from a home office. For me, using the technology hasn’t been a challenge. And most people I work with are used to it. Maybe not the video as much, but certainly the audio.

Samantha Stone:

However, we normally operate without the distractions of our children not going to school, spouses, pets, and worrying about loved ones who might get or be sick. There’s more personal stuff in meetings that used to be purely business-related. By nature, I care about what's happening in people’s lives, but I try not to pry unless we have a friendly relationship. Those barriers seem to be down. People – sometimes people I'm interacting with for the first time – ask me how my family is. And they legitimately care. It’s not perfunctory. They want to know, and they want to build a connection and trust. So even though the medium isn’t new for me, or most people I interact with, how we're using it has certainly been different.

Carl Lewis:

I agree with that. This morning, I saw a video where a young female newscaster was doing a story in her home, and her father walked in with his shirt off.

Samantha Stone:

My home office is attached to my house, and there's a door my guests don't use, but my family does. I purposely direct my body the other way, so if my husband comes home, or the kids come in, and they're not quite attired the way I want, nobody sees it but me. It may make me giggle, but that's it.

Samantha Stone:

There’s been one other big difference in my private life. I'm a host for a cable show about our town. We’ve been doing weekly episodes with state reps, the school superintendent, mayors, community leaders, and charities. We went from recording in a television studio to recording with Zoom and then projecting the interviews on TV. I'm impressed with the public media center for making that shift and thinking through how to translate it to TV because we have a significant community, mostly elderly, that’s viewing on a TV. They don’t use YouTube or Facebook. I'm grateful that’s happened, but it wasn't easy. It was a change for them.

Carl Lewis:

You work as an outside advisor/consultant for many companies. What do you think is the biggest challenge for companies working with third parties like yourself?

Samantha Stone:

I'm giving similar advice and doing the same things I did when I worked in-house. I've had a consulting practice for nine years, but before that, I worked directly in organizations. And while I’m saying/doing the same things, people listen better when I’m a consultant. There’s less resistance because it's an outside perspective.

Samantha Stone:

By the time someone hires us, they're mentally ready to get input and keep an open mind. But the hardest part is taking what we talked about and translating it into daily life when our engagement is done – whether it’s months later or just after a weekend workshop.

Samantha Stone:

We do a check-in one month after every workshop because it holds the entire team accountable to a timeframe. They know they have to get back with me and report on where they are. It's an accountability metric for people to get over the biggest challenge of, “We know what we want to do … but how do we implement it throughout the organization?"

Samantha Stone:

Part of our job is to hold ourselves and our clients accountable to putting the buyers’ and customers’ voices on. We say, "Our clients think this," or "Our clients want that." But when we ask how we know, we realize we don't. We're guessing. So that’s another challenge – having the discipline to take the time to talk to buyers outside the context of serving or selling them.

Carl Lewis:

I agree with that. I had a mentor who said, "You hire consultants because you think they're geniuses. Just don't ever hire one inside your organization, because they instantly become just like everybody else."

Samantha Stone:

I love that! But we’re rarely geniuses. What we are is objective. We had a client who wanted to build a CRM upgrade. They were a substantial organization, 20+ years old, with a complex business. Sales and marketing and marketing and tech had been working on this CRM upgrade for over a year, but they couldn't get out of their own way. Then they brought me in. It was an eight- or nine-week project, but after three weeks, I said, "Here's what I've learned: this, this, and this." And I'll never forget it – one person who’d been there for years said, "It took me two years to come to that conclusion. How did you do in three weeks?"

Samantha Stone:

I did it in three weeks because I’m objective. I don’t have any company baggage. So, part of our value is bringing new ideas, but mostly it's unlocking or developing the knowledge and ideas already in the organization. Helping them get to where we can do something. Identifying the gaps, closing them, and getting them off and running.

Samantha Stone:

And that applies in our normal work and in a crisis situation like this where we're trying to hold everything together and move forward so we can get to the other side as a business while also making our clients, employees, and other people we serve feel safe and protected.

Carl Lewis:

There have been many conversations over the last several years about businesses improving the customer experience. Do you see the coronavirus as a catalyst that's gotten people to do it, not just talk about it?

Samantha Stone:

It’s certainly made many companies try, and many have failed. I think we've all experienced failures, which is unfortunate. In a situation like this, though, it’s difficult for something to be an overall catalyst. The coronavirus has surfaced gaps and things to be addressed, but in crisis mode, no one’s thinking, "How do we apply this to our customer experience going forward?" When people get to the other side, they’ll know what they did well and where they lacked in their systems and processes. I hope they’ll know how people feel about them and use that to improve their processes and touchpoints and get better at creating thoughtful experiences.

Carl Lewis:

Everyone in business is talking about digital transformation. Next year it will probably have another name, but this year it's digital transformation. It seems to have the same purpose of creating a closer relationship with our customers, giving them a better experience, and personalizing what we used to see as "business as usual." And that “business as usual” had a coldness about it. Like, "You buy things from me, I sell things to you, but it's not a relationship of great value beyond the revenue perspective." Are many companies getting on this digital transformation bandwagon, trying to make their messaging better as they move forward?

Samantha Stone:

First, let me say that digital transformation has two components to it. One is the component you're talking about, the customer-facing orientation. Digital transformation is also happening on the backend, where customers don’t see – with the efficiency of operations, knowledge transfer, and other things related to managing and operating businesses.

Samantha Stone:

Some companies do a great job of focusing on the customer experience piece, and because they do, it’s now an expectation. Here’s an example. I ordered cookies from a local bakery. Their stuff is fabulous. I had the cookies shipped to the local post office because the postal workers are working hard, and they’re my lifeblood for supplies and things I need for my house. I wanted to thank them, and since I'm Italian and cooked food is love, I sent cookies. I couldn’t send home-baked cookies because of the virus, so I ordered them from this bakery I love.

Samantha Stone:

I placed the order online. I got an order confirmation. No problem. But I didn't get anything to tell me it had been shipped or delivered. I know it was because I know the owner, and I love them, but I have an expectation now that I’ll get something that tells me my order was shipped and delivered. I didn’t, so I had to call and ask. The owner said, "Of course it sent. You know I would never ... " And I said, “I know, but ...”

Samantha Stone:

The reality is, other companies are setting expectations about how we need to communicate with our customers. Uber did it for the taxi industry. Netflix did it for video streaming services. We can come up with millions of examples. If you’re not thinking about this and working through it, it’s time to start. It's the only way you’ll be able to thrive.

Samantha Stone:

How we do it will vary. If I'm a small bakery with a couple of employees, I’ll do digital transformation differently than if I'm a multibillion-dollar automobile manufacturer. For the small bakery, maybe I spend 15 minutes a day on a manual email or text message. It's not truly digital transformation, but it feels like it to the person on the other side.

Carl Lewis:

That's a good observation, that it feels like it.

Samantha Stone:

Right.

Carl Lewis:

Because we get used to stuff. It's like, "Where's my tracking number?"

Samantha Stone:

Yes.

Carl Lewis:

And it's not enough just to say it's shipped. I want the tracking number; I want to watch it along the way.

Samantha Stone:

I’m getting groceries right now. They're texting me, so I know exactly when they're leaving, and when they’ll get to my house. I like this under normal circumstances, but right now, it’s super meaningful because I don't want to answer the door or the doorbell. They won’t even ring the doorbell. They’ll just drop everything off and the only way I’ll know my food is sitting on my porch is if my Instacart app signals they're nearby or my Ring doorbell sends me a notification that someone is on my porch. We've become very used to these mechanisms. And it doesn't have to be automated; it just has to feel like the expectation that a customer is getting the level of service they’ve grown to expect.

Carl Lewis:

Absolutely true. Well, Samantha, thank you for joining me today. This was fun, and it was nice to meet you and hear what your world is experiencing and how business is going. But, like I always say, these podcasts are supposed to be 20 to 30 minutes so people can listen during their commute – when we start commuting again, that is. So, until we see each other again, everyone please stay connected.

Samantha Stone:

Thank you so much for having me.

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