Many companies are experiencing real benefits of managing customer and partner relationships through online customer communities.
Active communities provide valuable insight into your customers' challenges and motives, which in turn helps your company to create even better products and services. Providing an always-on network of peer-to-peer support can also lower customer service costs by taking some of the burden away from call centers and other support personnel.
All of these benefits are frequently discussed and regularly touted as the reasons why customer communities are a top priority for marketing and customer support executives. Yet, there's one sizable and seldom talked about benefit that could go toe-to-toe with product innovation and cost savings; customer communities offer the ability to increase sales close rates.
Can Online Customer Communities Really Increase Lead Close Rates?
Now, you might be wondering: how does a community built for customers help convert prospects who aren't yet customers? Well, businesses that are succeeding with this approach open up sections of their secure online customer communities to leads or qualified prospects on a limited basis.
While prospects don't have access to the full community, such as the customer or employee areas, they can benefit from content, tools, and social discussions geared toward their stage of the buyer's journey. For instance, after a lead downloads a marketing content offer, like an ebook, on your website, they would receive an invitation to join your community to get additional resources and connect with others in their industry who are using your products and services.
4 Ways to Close More Sales Using Your Online Customer Community
So, how exactly does your customer community platform help convert your leads to customers? Here are four examples that outline how a private social network of customers, partners, and employees can be used in the sales process:
#1) Your Online Customer Community Offers Social Proof
No one likes to feel like they're taking a gamble when making a purchase. Demonstrating to your prospects that you have an established community around your product(s) serves to vouch for their success on the market.
Inviting your prospects to join certain aspects of your customer community can add assurance about your company and ease the feeling that they might be taking a risk by making an investment in your solution or service.
#2) Your Online Customer Community Showcases Your Support Network
In addition to the credibility that comes with social proof, allowing prospects to view parts of your online customer community also gives them tangible evidence of the potential network available to them if and when they make the transition from prospect to customer. Proactively giving customers visibility into your company's online community assures them they aren't alone when they have questions or problems.
You might consider providing access to a specific prospect-oriented blog, an "Ask a Current Customer" discussion board, or relevant documents and videos in the resource libraries. The more information and opportunities for engagement you can provide upfront, the more supported your prospect will feel in making their purchase decision.
#3) Your Online Customer Community Connects Prospective Customers With Happy Customers
In the age of online shopping where nearly every product comes with an accompanying star rating and collection of customer reviews, people are doing more and more research before becoming purchasers. Your happy customers are some of your best resources for closing more sales because prospects want to hear from people who were once in their position. Prospective customers know satisfied customers don't have a stake in the sale, so they're more likely to trust their opinion and the information that they offer up.
TIP: So, how do you go about connecting your prospects with happy customers? Find customer advocates who agree to be part of an online extension of your customer reference program and grant them access to your prospect sub-community. Train them to answer questions on the discussion boards or reach out to prospects that have specific concerns. However, keep in mind that your busy customer advocates might not be keeping a close eye on your sales prospect community, so you might need to monitor that area of your customer community closely and nudge your advocate corp toward an engagement opportunity when it arises.
#4) Your Online Customer Community Provides Transparency
During the evaluation and selection phases of the buying process, potential buyers don't like to feel like they're dealing with a company that has something to hide. When you grant them access to parts of your online customer community, you build trust by giving prospective customers insight into how your organization works.
Obviously the level of transparency a company chooses to display to prospective customers in their online customer communities will vary based on your community structure and content plan, but here are a couple of ways to show transparency:
- Access to executives. Often, some of the higher level positions in your company will blog regularly in your private customer community. Prospects will appreciate having access to those posts and insights. You might even consider including an "Ask an Executive" discussion board in your prospect community.
- Access to the social product enhancement process. Though your prospects wouldn't be able to participate in your crowdsourced feedback, being able to see the process and recognize the fact that user feedback is being taken into consideration for product improvement demonstrates your company's commitment to customers.
The Proof is in the Sales Numbers
Don't just take our word for it though - a 2012 study from the University of Michigan took a closer look at the sales difference for a company who made the choice to build their own online community, rather than rely on existing public social networks, like Facebook and LinkedIn. What they found is a phenomenon they're referring to as "social dollars," which amounted to a 19% average increase in customer expenditures after joining the online community. What would this type of revenue increase mean for your company?
Online Customer Community Takeaway
By welcoming your prospects into your private online customer community, you can help take some of the stress and risk out of the purchasing process. The support network, transparency, and ability to make human connections can all serve to establish trust and confidence, which in turn makes your prospect more likely to invest in your product or service.