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Decoding B2B Customer Loyalty

graphic of a heart appearing in binary code to illustrate customer loyalty

“You see that?!” She spat the words, jabbing her finger towards the wall behind me. “That’s the kind of relationship I USED to have with your company.”

This customer interview was getting intense.

I sat across the desk from a hospital executive, one of our most vocal customers. A colleague and I had traveled to her office for an in-depth interview about her customer service experience. But she had other ideas about the conversation.

We slowly turned around to look where she was pointing.

Hanging there, on her office wall behind us, was a framed article she had co-authored with our company and published in a prominent trade journal. The article demonstrated her thought leadership to her industry peers, explaining how she’d used our product to improve performance.

That’s the kind of relationship she used to have with us. This customer didn’t see herself as a purchaser of software, but as a collaborator. She valued partnership, a mutual boosting of each other’s industry reputation and esteem.

She had just given us a key to cracking the loyalty code.

B2B Loyalty is Individual Loyalty

In the B2B relationship, a customer is not an organization, a hospital, an account, a logo, or a company. None of those things have feelings or make decisions.

Rather, the customer is each individual person at that company – the human beings making the emotional decisions about your brand.

These customers fall into three tiers:

  1. Buyers: The buyer has the authority to make the purchase decision. This person has the budget and the business need for your product or service, although they may never use it personally.
  2. Influencers: An influencer has input into the purchasing decision but is not the ultimate decision-maker. Influencers may be functional leaders who manage users or cross-functional partners from organizations like Finance and Information Technology.
  3. Users: A user is a person who actually uses the product or service the organization has purchased.

Among these tiers, information flows bi-directionally. As buyers, influencers, and users interact with your company, they share their experiences with each other.

For example, enough users complaining about system errors will alter the perception of an influencer or buyer about the stability of a software product.

Likewise, a buyer’s enthusiasm for a new product will set the tone for how users approach learning new tools and processes.

Each person forms unique opinions of your company, products, and services based on their own experiences and the words of their colleagues. B2B loyalty is ultimately personal, and must be earned at all three tiers.

Outcomes Build Customer Loyalty

Outcomes are the non-negotiable foundation of customer loyalty.

You earn loyalty at all tiers when the product or service delivers its promised results, functions effortlessly, and triggers positive emotions.

Outcomes start with usage and adoption. Are the users consuming the product or service and adopting it into their processes? Is the business seeing the promised Return on Investment (ROI)?

Monitoring usage, adoption, and ROI as customer health signals will help you intervene when something goes amiss. These interventions are typically the domain of the Customer Success (CS) team. CS can help customers improve their efficiency with the product or get back on track when usage declines.

The XM Institute’s ROI of Customer Experience 2020 report revealed that, while success and effort were important drivers of customer loyalty, emotion had the greatest impact. Customer Experience (CX) teams should monitor the entire customer journey and identify “moments of truth” where emotions impact loyalty.

Although this work is usually performed at the user and influencer levels, you should schedule regular meetings to review performance and ROI with the buyer. Ultimately, the buyer is on the line to meet operational and financial goals that justify the expense of your product or service. Outcomes establish the foundation of buyer loyalty.

Personal Value Amplifies Customer Loyalty

But the hospital executive I interviewed that day didn’t want to talk about outcomes or the business value we were providing her employer.

She wanted to talk about our relationship.

This was a customer interview goldmine, because customers don’t usually admit their needs for personal value. For example, luxury car buyers talk about style, comfort, and performance – not the unspoken need to impress their coworkers, friends, or neighbors.

B2B buyers don’t shed their implicit needs when they walk into the office. They are just as emotionally motivated when buying enterprise software as they are buying luxury automobiles. They are delighted when you deliver personal value, even when it doesn’t directly benefit their employer.

A 2021 study by Merkle B2B identified customer experience “superpowers” in both business and personal value dimensions. Customers were more likely to be loyal to brands who could enrich their lives or boost their esteem.

“These are the brands we are proud to buy from, whose reflected glory we bask in, whose stardust rubs off on our professional reputations.”

Most companies, the study found, have a large opportunity to create personal value for their buyers and influencers.

Of course, not every customer wants to write articles for a trade journal. It’s up to you to understand each unique individual and create experiences that provide personal value.

Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Host a regional user forum, and ask customers to present learning tracks to their peers.
  • Invite customers to an exclusive networking event to interact with other customers.
  • Host a leadership forum and invite customers to hear from an inspirational leadership expert.
  • Interview customers live at your annual sales meeting.
  • Partner with customers to develop cases studies

Create personal value for your customers and you will win their hearts – and their loyalty.

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