There I was, standing in Chicago’s Midway Airport, about to start a vacation from my job at Digitas. I had just updated my out-of-office voice-mail message (making sure not to have a boarding announcement in the background) when my phone rang. 

It was the managing director of the Digitas Chicago office, who normally didn’t call my cell phone. After an exchange of pleasantries, she cut to the chase. She had heard from Best Buy, our client for four years. After a long decision period, the company had finally decided which agency to move forward with. It wasn’t Digitas.

A minute before, I had been excited to start my vacation, but this news was a huge buzzkill. It would have been a six-figure deal that supported a team of fifteen. The news was hard to process. Why did Best Buy go with someone else? What could we have done to retain the account?

In my daze, I noticed a woman in an airport convenience store looking for a snack to take on the plane. First, she picked up a bag of pretzels, and then she put it back on the shelf and picked up a bag of trail mix. Yep, that’s the one she wanted. Without hesitating, she paid at the register, put the trail mix in her purse, and headed to her gate.

I compared the two decision-making situations: To make their decision, our client had taken a year and involved 100 people. The woman had made a decision in fourteen seconds. I smiled in appreciation of the stark difference.

Why am I mentioning trail mix woman? It's an example that brings to life how businesses make decisions. On one hand, she considered the options and made a decision by herself in 14 seconds. Her thought process probably went something like, “I know they won’t feed us on the plane, and I’m hungry. Oh look, peanuts, raisins, M&Ms, pretzels . . . trail mix!”

Although I’ll never know exactly what the Best Buy team’s process was before arriving at its decision, no doubt it involved gathering and weighing much more information than the trail-mix woman did. After all, it was a much weightier decision, with more money and the fate of many more people at stake.

As marketers, we need to understand as well as possible how people make decisions and what we can do to encourage customers to decide to stay with our companies.

I like to apply to decision making a model based on the premise that all change is filtered through three lenses: political, rational, and emotional. Regardless of how little or big the decision is, the decision maker’s brain always uses one or more of those lenses when considering the various factors that will determine the decision. 

For example, say you’re on a team that’s deciding which marketing firm your company will contract with: 

  • You are likely to consider the following political factors: Does anyone at my company have a personal relationship with the agency? Which agency will make me look better internally? How much control will I have over the agency relationship? What will my CMO or CEO think of this decision?
  • Looking at the decision through the rational lens is likely to raise factors such as: How much will using the agency cost? Does the agency have enough relevant experience? Which agency has better technology? Which agency can do the work faster? Where is the agency located? Is it financially stable? What are its payment terms? Will it be easy to work with? Do we even want to invest the time required to train a new agency?
  • The more emotional factors might include: How do I feel about this decision? Which agency is the best cultural fit? Do I like the people at this agency? Will working with this agency make my life easier or more stressful?

When it comes to figuring out how to increase customer retention in the B2B world, the good news is that time is usually on your side. The length of decision-making cycles depends on many factors, but, in general, decisions are made within six-month, one-year, or two-year windows. Five-year contracts aren’t rare, however, and some might lock in a company relationship for as long as five to ten years. 

If you want to raise your company’s customer retention rate, you need to be aware of what customers consider when deciding whether to continue to work with your company. Among the most common dynamics that determine customer retention are:

  • The number of people involved in the customer’s decision
  • The customer’s satisfaction with the current product or service he or she is receiving
  • Value based on the price being paid
  • Changes in the marketplace (new technology, competitor offerings, etc.)
  • Changes the customer is undergoing (cultural, structural, technological, etc.)

With all these factors in play, how can you know what’s really happening, so that you can make the appropriate changes that will make customers less likely to leave?

Generally speaking, here’s how you can build out a content-marketing plan with the goal of retaining more customers. The key is not to start with content at all. Gather insights first.

Step 1. Put content into trackable formats.

A customer-retention plan starts with intelligence. Some information will come from good old-fashioned account and sales management, via those teams’ ongoing conversations with the decision makers and influencers of customer organizations. This is the most effective way to glean insights into your customers.

But don’t rely on human intelligence alone. Combine it with digital intelligence—that is, the insights you can gain from how the customer engages with your content. 

Take two scenarios. First, let’s say you’re sending information about a new product to a customer in a PDF. You write an email, attach the file, and hit send. And then you wait. And wait. And wait. The customer might have opened the PDF attachment, perhaps she even read its content, but because the customer’s responses can’t be tracked, you won’t know unless she takes the initiative to tell you.

In the other scenario, instead of sending a PDF, you put the new-product info on a website and send the customer a link to it. Or perhaps you put the PDF on a platform like Pointe Drive. Now you can see the customer’s engagement activity. Did she go to the web page? Did she open the posted PDF? How much time did she spend on each web page? Did she even get to the pricing page? Because the customer’s activity is trackable, many valuable pieces of information can be collected that will reveal how engaged the customer is.

A Fortune 500 company I worked for gathered intelligence this way. The company periodically sent emails with links to the content published on its website. Over time, the marketing people could see how each customer responded to each message. They could even track what the customer did after reading the content. For example, after viewing the content, did the customer click on a link to information about a product related to the content topic?

All of the data was compiled into an engagement index for each customer. The company then knew not only each customer’s level of engagement but also the content formats and topics that the customer engaged with. 

Why is this important? Because once a company knows the type of information a customer cares about, it can adjust its sales or marketing strategy to better connect with that customer. 

Step 2. Examine the data.

Here’s the really cool part. The Fortune 500 company mentioned in step one looked at all the collected engagement data and correlated it to customer retention. Customers who were highly engaged with our content were more likely to renew their contract with the company. This was huge, because now the company could predict which customers were more likely to leave. Months before the customer made its decision, his or her low content engagement would raise a red flag, so that we could create and put in place a plan aimed specifically at retaining that customer. This demonstrates the power of having the right content tools and content in place.

Here’s another example of how to use engagement data to predict retention. When I was in charge of global digital marketing at Aon, we asked three agencies for proposals for a website redesign. One of the agencies built a microsite for the pitch team and posted documents on it. When the agency published new content, such as a relevant article they had created, we received an alert via email. Not only did this help the agency stay at the top of our minds as we decided among the agencies, but it also told the agency how many people on our team were engaged. 

Contrast this approach with what the other two agencies did, which was standard outreach to us via emails and phone calls. They had no way of seeing how engaged we were. 

Always put your content in a trackable format. 

Step 3. Deploy surveys to gather further insights.

An additional step you can take to increase retention is to send a survey to your customers to find out how things are going. Conducting surveys isn’t new, of course, but a specific type of survey for this situation has been the standard for a while. 

In 2003, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled “One Number You Need to Grow.” The title refers to a metric called Net Promoter Score (NPS). NPS has evolved since then, so that organizations all over the world now use it for measuring customer experience and as a leading indicator of business growth. The scores reflect customers’ answers to a core question: On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend [Brand X/Company Y] to a friend or colleague?

Why is using a survey approach like NPS, rather than a typical customer satisfaction survey, important? Because the NPS is a better predictor of the likelihood of a customer’s renewing. 

You may be wondering what NPS has to do with content marketing. A lot, actually. You can segment customers according to their scores and create a custom content marketing plan for each segment. After all, the message to customers who are enthusiastic about your company should be different from that to customers who are more likely to pull their business in the near future.

Setting up an official NPS survey can be complex. If you don’t have the time or money to work with, I recommend creating your own survey and scoring methodology. It can be a short survey you send out using a simple tool like Survey Monkey. 

Alternatively (and more simply), you can spend ten to fifteen minutes talking to each customer. Granted, this approach won’t win you any research methodology awards, since the execution of your phone survey would be biased (see the example of the feedback-seeking chef in Chapter 17, “How Do I Change the Perceptions of Others?”). Nevertheless, you’ll obtain some feedback that will help you understand where the customer’s relationship with your company stands.

Step 4. Build a content marketing plan.

Now you know how technology can help to develop insights into the engagement of your customers, and you know that survey answers can help to predict retention. What do you do with all this information? Use it to build out a content marketing plan.

To do this, use a timeline approach. On the left is your starting point, where you are today. On the right is a point that is a couple months after the customer has made their decision to either continue or stop receiving your company’s products or services. 

Now plot future events on the timeline. Start with the key meetings that will take place. For example, will there be a formal pitch meeting? Will there be an account review meeting during which you receive feedback on how your company is doing?

After that, think about all the different content you can put on that timeline. It's also a good idea to ask the client what would be most helpful. Think about what the customer’s company is currently going through. What type of information do the company’s leaders and others who influence buying decisions need to help solve their problems? 

 When the timeline is full, you’ll have a big-picture view of the content that must be created for you to carry out the plan. Hopefully, some of the content will already exist. But if not, you’ll need to consider the best way to create this content. We’ll get into that in Chapter 24, “Different Ways to Create Content.”

As you consider the content you will need, don’t fall into the trap of publishing “one-way” content. What can you say, and in what format can you say it, so that your content engages your customer and demonstrates that you’ve listened to them? For example, sending out a survey is a great way to raise customer engagement

Step 5. Monitor engagement and optimize the plan.

Great content marketers know that they aren’t done after the content has been published; they know that the fun really starts when they get a look at what happened after publication. Does it look as if the content was interesting enough? How much time did recipients spend looking at it? Did they forward it to others in their company, or did they not even open the email? These are the things you need to monitor. 

If a customer isn’t engaging the way you thought he or she would, go back to the plan and timeline you built and think about other ways to connect with the customer. Do you need to change the topics the content covers? Do you need to reword the email? Do you need to change the content’s format or channel? Should you provide the customer printouts of what you send via digital channels, to make sure they have seen it? These are all things to explore along the way.

Now that you know more about increasing customer retention, want to know how you can solve a perception problem? Read this post on how B2B companies can change perception.

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