For those of us responsible for institutional, or business-to-business (B2B) sales, a vital part of our marketing mix is the establishment and maintenance of relationships with key customers. This is because when it comes to making a decision on procuring a multimillion baht IT solution, slick advertising or cutting-edge social media will probably not weigh too heavily on the mind of the CEO or CIO. What I think is really important is how these executives perceive the vendor’s representative; do they trust them, do they respect them, do they believe that the vendor has their best interests at heart? It is at this point that relationships come into play.
While I’ve had client facing responsibility for many years, I do not think I can claim to be a true expert in relationship marketing, as different people and companies will have their own perspectives on the matter depending on their business models and client profiles. That said, I have developed a number of ideas regarding what I believe to be the key success factors for relationship marketing.
Interestingly, the people who are really good at this type of marketing are not necessarily the smoothest talkers or best-looking individuals – the classic stereotype of the sales person. When interacting with C-suite executives, it is more about what you know, than how you look. Of course, in Asia it is still very important to be able to establish a good personal relationship with customers and this is often based on shared interests and social contacts in order to build trust and open doors for further discussions.
A key to winning in relationship marketing is investing time in researching your client’s business. Before you talk to the client you should do your homework to really understand their objectives, challenges, their pain points. Based on this knowledge you can bring meaningful insights and solutions to the table that address the client’s real issues.
I think it is critical to have a passion for helping your client to be successful. Today this is called being client-centric, but really it is about creating a long-term relationship with the client based on personal affinity and mutual benefit.
Consulting skills like knowledge, communications and creativity are also important. Knowledge is gained from research combined with real-world experience. When the client recognises your knowledge, you begin to win their respect, which is a major part of establishing a positive and trust-based relationship. Of course, in order to demonstrate your knowledge you need to be able to communicate on a person-to-person level, both to articulate your own ideas as well as to actively listen to what the client says (and sometimes what they do not say) and use this information.
When I meet with my clients, I try and come armed with appropriate solutions that add both short-term and long-term value to their business. These solutions may leverage cross-industry learnings, or the experience of similar companies in different parts of the world, and demonstrate creative problem-solving that meets their unique needs. Additionally, my aim is to enhance the organization-to-organisation relationship between our companies, while positioning HP as one of their strategic IT partners.
In complex industries like ICT, it’s almost impossible for one person to have all the necessary knowledge and experience to meet a client’s needs. Thus, the relationship marketer also needs to be able to act as a conductor who can build a team that collaborates to develop the right solution for the client.
For companies that are doing relationship marketing, a major issue is to ensure a uniformly high level of performance, given that different client facing staff have different skills and experience. There are a range of approaches to address this matter. At HP, we have an online account planning system that provides the necessary templates and shares best practices across teams, while keeping client information confidential. This system helps guarantee that we maintain customer-centricity and focus on the long-term success of the relationship.
Of course, if we want our people to really embrace the relationship marketing approach, they need to be incentivised to do so. This involves factoring-in customer satisfaction and creatively structuring the commission base to account for the lifetime value of the customer relationship. It is also important to ensure that successful relationship marketers are recognised internally in order to reinforce the importance of this approach.
Finally, I try and make sure that the client relationship is not only based on personal relationships, but rather evolves into a company-to-company relationship with multiple touch points. If this fails to happen there is a risk that carefully built relations will be lost as a result of staff turnover – either on your side or on the client’s side.
So, for a company to reap the benefits of successful relationship marketing it needs to develop and reward its people to create lasting trust-based relationships with their clients. Then it must ensure that those relationships are converted into mutually beneficial long-term organisational relations from which sales are only one of the outcomes.
Dhanawat Suthumpun is managing director at Hewlett-Packard (Thailand).