The cost of acquiring a new customer in a business-to-business environment has always been exceptionally high when compared to consumer sales. Many times several in-person sales calls are needed to close an initial order. The total cost of acquiring new corporate customers can mount quickly when the cost of a sales call is more than $100. This makes it worthwhile to create customized web services for major accounts. Services that will help you build loyalty and keep customers.
A recent study by the Beta Consulting Group found that corporate customers are looking for customized customer-vendor partnerships. The concept of creating an extranet, or private portion of a company’s web site, to offer customized services to preferred customers has been around for several years. While most companies have at least a simple web site, another study (by Booz7Allen & Hamilton and the Economist Intelligence Unit) found that while 56 percent of companies are providing some customer service activities via the web, only 29 percent of companies have extranets.
There are a number of product purchasing benefits that corporations can receive when they encourage their purchasing department employees to use vendors with e-commerce capability, such as:
- Negotiated pricing on selected products
- Centralized billing and payment processing
- Controlled delivery locations
- Managed inventory across vendor and customer locations
- Recommended product usage based on application
Companies such as Insight Direct Worldwide and Dell offer to customize their e-commerce site so a customer’s employees have private access to product information and special ordering pages. It’s usually assumed that giving a customer’s employees access to these private sites is sufficient; however, many corporations want to implement a layer of management approval for certain products before passing orders on to a vendor’s extranet. While the optimum approach is to provide tightly integrated connections between the customer’s Internet and the vendor’s extranet, the scope and technical challenges can be overwhelming.
There are several things a vendor can do prior to the implementation of a full e-commerce extranet.
One of the easiest ways to encourage repeat purchases is to help a customer promote your products within his or her company. Once you achieve “preferred vendor” status, look for opportunities to be included in communications to the customer’s employees. If the company has an intranet, then check to see if the customer maintains a list of preferred vendors on his or her internal web site.
Many corporations send newsletters, both printed and email, to employees about ways to improve productivity and reduce costs. As a preferred vendor, it’s in the best interest of your customers to encourage employees to purchase from you.
In addition, there are a number of other features and benefits that can be added to a private extranet portal that don’t depend on e-commerce ordering. Probably the easiest to add is a news feed of headlines about the customer’s industry from sources such as Individual.com and iSyndicate.
Another valuable type of content that can be provided through the extranet is a personalized email newsletter. By relating individual interests and purchase-history profile data to story topics, each employee at a customer site can receive news that is most appropriate for his or her needs. In addition to the traditional “here are additional uses for our products” stories, the corporate audience is eager to learn how its fellow employees in other locations can improve productivity.
There is also a wide range of database-driven systems that a vendor can make available to customers that promote loyalty. The area of preventive maintenance is important to corporations to ensure that employees have working equipment and to minimize the total cost of ownership. Many times different models of equipment from a preferred vendor will be scattered over multiple locations, which makes it hard for the customer to keep track of maintenance schedules, repairs, and warranties. When a vendor provides a web-based database of this information and automatically sends reminder emails to the local contact person, maintenance is turned into a loyalty builder.
While the cost of acquiring corporate customers with special needs will continue to be high, the benefits of customizing product information and ordering can be tremendous. Providing an extranet for key customers is a great opportunity to move ahead of the competition in creating loyalty and ensuring long-term profits from those key customers.