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The Role of Online Communities and Customer Portals in Sales Enablement

Written by Mark Lowry on February 23, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Customer portals and communities play six key roles in enabling sales.

Sales professionals are some of the smartest, most people-savvy individuals you’ll ever meet. They can read your tone of voice, body language, and dig into your deepest needs to find the best product or service to meet them.

In the past, salespeople did all this either in person or over the phone. It’s certainly easier to read body language when you can see someone. But today, sales professionals don’t always need to meet prospects for lunch or call them to get the ball rolling. Now they can jumpstart the sales process – dare we say turbocharge it – by using online tools.

An increasingly popular way to do this is with an online community or customer portal. While communities may be better known as customer support or discussion channels, they can also be incredibly effective for sales enablement because they help with prospecting, engagement, and advocacy.

What is Sales Enablement?

Sales enablement is giving your sales team everything they need to talk to prospects and close deals. A complete sales enablement program may include training, tools like sales automation software, and content such as messaging and product documentation that sales can pass on to prospects. Anything your company does that helps sales do its job is sales enablement.

Today, most sales enablement programs focus on traditional sales training and materials that explain your product or show off its advantages. Many leave out important aspects like research, prospect and customer engagement, and advocacy.

Perhaps even more importantly, many of today’s sales enablement programs don’t provide a one-stop shop where prospects can go to learn and ask questions online - something that’s becoming more and more of a necessity as people turn to the internet for information.

What Role Do Customer Portals and Communities Play?

Customer communities and portals provide the digital home your prospects are looking for. They also help your sales team close more deals by identifying the best prospects, then engaging them and moving them through the sales funnel. Communities can even increase customer lifetime value by encouraging upsells and add-on purchases after prospects become customers.

Here are six roles customer communities and portals can play in sales enablement.

Role #1) Creating Better Products

In the New York Times Bestseller, The Purple Cow, Seth Godin argues that easy-to-sell products are remarkable. They meet customers’ needs by solving problems and providing great experiences. Often, they’re also unique, like a purple cow would be. Those purple cow products are the ones that make it easy for your sales team to close deals.

The key to creating a purple cow product? Don’t create the product you want. Ask your customers what they want, then give it to them.

Your customer community is the perfect place to talk to customers about what they want. You can start discussions on the top product improvements people are waiting for, as well as accept suggestions via blogs, emails, or polls on the community homepage. You could even launch a contest to see who can come up with the best new product idea and have community members vote on their favorite submissions.

Act on the ideas you receive, creating better products that people love. Every time your customers come up with an innovative idea that improves your offers, you’ll make it easier for your sales team to do what they do best – sell.

Role #2) Bringing in More Qualified Prospects

Active customer communities create user-generated content that consumers trust and search engines love.

Search engines positively rank customer content for several reasons, including its recency and the fact that it’s often written in the same way searchers type their queries – in full question format. When you allow some of your customer-created content to be indexed by Google, it becomes a magnet for attracting qualified leads that sales can contact.

User-generated content in ads also gets four times the click-through rate of traditional ads, bringing in even more leads for your sales team.

Pro Tip: Customer-created content shouldn’t stand alone. Use your customer community to publish branded content like product tips, announcements, and information on your services. The more helpful your content, the easier it will be for prospects to learn about your solutions.

Role #3) Increasing Purchase Likelihood Through Ongoing Engagement

Think about the last time you were at a farmer’s market. You probably breezed right by some booths, while you stopped at others to look through vegetable bins and chat with vendors. Who were you more likely to buy from?

For most of us, the answer is from vendors we speak to. Once people connect and have a conversation, they’re more engaged and more likely to make a purchase. They’ve bonded with you, learning about your business and products at the same time. That increases your chances of making a sale - so don’t just provide a static website that people breeze past. Give them opportunities to connect with you.

Online communities are a great way to do that. They help your prospects bond with you by engaging in discussions, reading articles, and reviewing product documentation - all of which also educates prospects. As engagement increases, your relationship grows stronger, and so do your chances of making a sale.

Engagement can even help you sell more after the first purchase. Research shows that engaged customers are more loyal to businesses. They also spend up to 40% more than other customers and are more likely to accept an upsell or purchase an add-on product. That’s a huge opportunity for your sales team to increase revenue.

Role #4) Providing a Shortcut to Prospect Research

As prospects engage with your customer community resources, they’ll generate data on the pages they’ve visited, the files they’ve downloaded, and the discussions they’ve participated in. Sales can use that data to get a clearer picture of your prospects’ priorities and problems, as well as the solutions they’re interested in.

Use your prospect research to identify when people are ready to make a purchase so sales can reach out at the best time. For example, if prospects have visited your pricing page several times, that’s a good indicator they may be ready to buy. Similar information can help you tailor sales pitches so they provide more value and are more likely to solve your prospect’s problem.

Pro Tip: Data from customer portals and communities doesn’t just work for prospects, it also works for current customers. Use the data you collect from your portal to identify top sales opportunities.

Role #5) Connecting Prospects with Your Best Salespeople

According to an infographic from leading marketing agency, The Shelf, 92% of customers trust recommendations from other people, even people they don’t know, over corporate content. That means your customer advocates are trusted more than your business.

More and more, people are relying on word-of-mouth, testimonials, and other advocacy content to make their purchasing decisions. Your online community makes it easy for prospects to find this type of content and even connect with advocates personally. For instance, if a prospect has a detailed question, they can send a private email to a brand advocate using your online community software.

By giving your prospects an easy way to connect with your advocates, you help them get the information they need on your products and services. When these prospects make it to your sales team, they’ll be better prepared to make a purchase that meets their needs.

Role #6) Develop Long-Term Relationships

Companies like Netflix essentially re-sell their product every month, building long-term relationships with customers to generate a steady, predictable stream of revenue. That revenue is so sustainable (and so popular) in today’s market, that it has given rise a new term: the membership economy.

The membership economy is a critical business shift that we’re all in the middle of right now – the change from one-off purchases to relationships. Instead of buying one item one time, individuals and businesses want to start a partnership. They want to buy a product and stick with it because they trust your company to meet their needs not just right now, but in the future as well.

How do you enter the membership economy? By consistently providing value to your current customers. Netflix does that by giving subscribers access to new TV shows and movies every month. Think about how popular their exclusive Netflix Original shows have become.

Your company can use a customer portal or community to do the same thing. Keep providing value through helpful community content so customers feel comfortable getting into a long-term relationship with you. You can even provide exclusive content that helps customers get more value from your products (similar to Netflix Originals) as well as connect one-on-one through emails and discussions. As you build stronger relationships, your sales team will increase their recurring revenue.

Build Relationships to Help Customers and Make Sales

Helping sales be more effective is a primary goal of many customer communities and portals. The community’s content, especially customer-created content, is naturally persuasive for prospects and can help search engines point back to your business. You’ll also get a nice relationship-building boost from continued engagement.

To make your community’s sales enablement even more effective, prioritize nurturing prospects and customer advocates using the community. Then, empower sales and marketing to work together to reach out to the right people at the right time.

Original research explains the impact online communities have on businesses.

Topics: Community Management

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