A wide range of B2B firms are considering the need for creating and operating their own online customer communities. In the B2B information technology sector, customer support, knowledge-sharing and product enhancement communities are common. For example, nearly two-thirds (65%) of 207 firms surveyed in 2010 by the research firm ITSMA said they participated in private online communities hosted by the companies which sell them computer hardware, software and related services. However, a broader 2011 study by B2BMagazine found that only 22% of surveyed B2B firms had online customer care communities.
While the prospect of launching and running an online community for customers or partners makes good business sense, B2B firms are often daunted by the disparity between the attention garnered by popular consumer sites and the less-exciting reality that a B2B online community will never generate the traffic volume of a B2C community. But that's as it should be. B2B customer communities are not destinations for chit-chat, sharing cat video links or collecting "likes" for a dancing competition contestant. They're not that kind of place.
Online communities & customer satisfaction
B2B online communities serve their host organizations by offering key business constituencies - customers, partners, suppliers ... even other firms in the same industry -- a private, gated virtual space where business information can be safely shared with other decision-makers. Most business-to-business companies depend on building relationships with their customers to create sustainable returns and a foundation for long-term growth. Customer satisfaction is essential to generating repeat business, and online communities help B2B companies learn about and respond to current and future customer needs - the key to customer satisfaction.
How does a B2B online community do this? Consider these examples:
· Distributed customer support. Customers get more value from their product and service purchases through collaborative problem-solving, shared insights and expertise from outside experts - other customers - as well as from inside sources.
· Thought leadership and guidance. Listening to and discussing shared concerns with customers engages them in the ongoing process of building trust and sustaining the firm's reputation. Online communities do this on a 7x24 basis across the globe - no need to wait until the next trade show or customer summit.
· Customer-influenced product and service development. Many a B2B company has identified a promising market opportunity by listening carefully and understanding what customers are saying among themselves about what's missing from existing products or services. Communities offer an excellent source of data to inform new product concepts and speed the research and development phase for in-house innovations and product development. Beta testing, preliminary market responses ... the list goes on.
For all these reasons and more, B2B companies often start to explore if an online community is right for them. But the truth is, despite their value, not every firm is ready to start, build and maintain a successful B2B online community.
Here's a ten-question checklist any B2B firm should consider before embarking on an online customer community initiative.
About your customers or partners:
- Are they willing to share information with other customers because they do not compete directly with each other?
- Are you and your customers in a fast-moving industry, where access to up-to-date information is a burden or challenge?
- Do they use a "platform" or enabling product or service, and need to communicate with other users about how best to capitalize on it?
- Are they willing to participate in off-line user groups or in-person customer summits?
About your customer's business problem and how your product or service helps solve it:
- Are the customer's business issues critical, ongoing and ever-changing?
- Does the knowledge for solving the business problems become obsolete quickly?
- Do they gain major value by learning from the experiences of other customers and/or have an urgent need to share their experiences?
About your products & services
- Do customers use your firm's offering as a platform or a key part of a solution to bigger problems?
- Do your customers need suppliers to make continual enhancements to your product?
- Are product or service upgrades a key revenue generator for your organization?
If you said "Yes!" to nine or all ten ... what are you waiting for? Get that B2B online community launched, pronto. Four to eight positive responses suggests there's some "there" there. Under four positives may mean your current customer types and product mix does not require much - if any - customer relationship management. Perhaps you should ask them about this?