For manufacturers, creation remains the core of the industry. But, while most companies focus on the products made, allowing retailers and dealer networks to man the sales process, many manufacturers are beginning to recognize that, through emerging channels, they now have the opportunity to create and cultivate customer relationships throughout a customer's buying cycle. Manufacturers understand that the consumer purchase process no longer operates on a linear path, meaning they too must alter their sales initiatives in order to remain relevant in today's competitive market.
Ten years ago, outbound phone calls were the leading way to generate interest, as knowledge primarily came directly from the manufacturer, according to Jonathan Gray, vice president of marketing at Revana. However, now, more than half of brand and product research conducted by customers happens before ever engaging in a conversation with the company in question. The power now lies in the hands of the consumers, as they have constant access to product information and reviews at any time on the device of their choosing.
"The consumer path to purchase has fundamentally changed," says Mark Osborn, global lead, consumer products industry marketing at SAP. "In this environment, manufacturers must anticipate where and how consumers will inquire, research, and engage with the company brands. Regardless of whether the interactions happen through traditional channels or new channels, the company often does not have any control or influence on them."
Today, engaging consumers via emerging technologies and online channels offers the most significant opportunity for manufacturers. Though they may not be able to control each bit of sentiment that exists, these brands have the ability to monitor consumer actions and opinions, not only gleaning insight into what customers want, but also where they are in the buying process. Using such data, manufacturers can then target consumers with relevant offers and build off their current mindset, thus generating leads at strategic moments during the purchase process. Gray emphasizes that companies must be present and indentify customers who are expressing curiosity and interest as they seek to gain information about products, allowing their sales organizations to cultivate and nurture potential customers for direct conversation.
Social media has become an exceptionally vital channel when it comes to generating leads and developing consumer relationships across industries. Because the average consumer no longer travels from point A to point B during the research and purchase process, manufacturers must now be present wherever consumers are. Both Gray and Florian Vollmer, senior vice president of design at InReality, highlight that LinkedIn has come to play an important role in lead generation for the B2B set, as this social network allows brands to comfortably prospect and cultivate intimate relationships. Vollmer also notes that Pinterest enhances incremental innovation, as manufacturers can come to understand what is currently popular in their industry and use that knowledge to fuel improvements and demand quickly and cheaply.
For electronics manufacturers in particular, lead generation tactics that build upon warranty and service agreements have the potential to drive differentiation. Because technology continues to evolve rapidly, consumers are eager to integrate their various gadgets and devices, meaning electronics manufacturers must begin to look outside their own product lines and base their service offerings on the environment in which these goods will be used.
"It used to be enough to say: 'Buy our product and we'll fix or replace it if it breaks within a year or two,' but that doesn't fly anymore," says Paul Weichselbaum, executive vice president of PlumChoice. "Customer service is still a differentiator, but consumer electronics manufacturers have to look beyond tier one, break-fix support if they want their services to resonate with consumers and ultimately drive positive experiences, sales, and lifetime value."
Through this process, electronics manufacturers have the opportunity to create an added layer of technology services that proactively elevate the customer experience and maximize product efficacy and efficiency over time. Such service costs may even open the door to an additional revenue stream, as many consumers would be willing to pay for this premium service, thus recreating value throughout the product lifecycle, while also building brand affinity and loyalty.
Consumer Insight Generates Leads and Loyalty
To better understand and target customers with relevant offers, Panasonic Solutions Company, a division of Panasonic Corporation of North America, implemented a comprehensive, cloud-based service contract management platform that allows the brand to bring together all the information about products and services sold to customers through its distributor network. Panasonic's primary goal was to empower customers with more information about their product and service purchases, thereby allowing the company to better care for every customer's maintenance service needs. Shayne Skaff, president of MaintenanceNet, highlights that this solution now allows Panasonic to streamline and automate the delivery of entitlement certificates, while also tracking expiring service contracts so they can send out proactive notifications for those who may want to renew.
Because Panasonic primarily operates through authorized distribution partners, the company was in need of complete visibility into the service contract inventory across its dealer networks. The Panasonic Service Portal, now being rolled out across the country, integrates all registration, warranty, and service contract information and allows partners free access to help drive sales efficiency. This portal also acts as both a sales lead generator by indicating when the consumer may be ready for a device upgrade, and a centralized online location where sales agents can gain easy access to warranty data and take action when service renewal and product refresh opportunities arise. Though the initiative was just launched in February 2013, Panasonic has already seen an uptick in back-end productivity, as many of the once manual processes are now automated, allowing agents and employees to focus on customer service.
For Deere & Company, commonly known as John Deere, its "Deep Customer Understanding" initiative sparked the brand's desire to learn from customers and understand their needs in order to improve the customer experience and satisfy long-term needs. Led by Bryan Dorsey, manager, research technology and information management, Deere & Company set out to know its customers intimately and focus on developing innovative products and solutions for the evolving agriculture industry, moving from a product-based company, to one that's more customer oriented.
Partnering with Vision Critical in 2006, Deere & Company implemented the first in its series of regional Online Panel Research communities to field surveys pertaining to local and global market research topics. From customers and dealers, to internal employees, these surveys facilitate dialogue across the Deere & Company community without incentivizing these participants to provide their feedback. Instead, those who offer insight do so because of their genuine affinity for the brand. For instance, when droughts hit particular areas of the country, Deere & Company takes to the panel to learn about how the weather is impacting customers and what the brand can do to aid the agriculture business in times of struggle. Not only do these surveys provide market insight into what consumers want and what will keep them coming back, but they also cultivate customer relationships by connecting with them personally. Overall, Deere & Company expects to see a 5 percent growth in equipment sales during the 2013 fiscal year. By reaching out to customers and discussing hot button issues, Deere & Company not only generates new leads, but also maintains the loyalty and advocacy of those who trust the brand to do what's in their best interest.