Opinions expressed by The entrepreneur contributors are their own.
We live in a consumer culture. On the one hand, the creation of goods has always been the raison d’être of capitalism, and the concern about commodification is as old as the market itself. But under advanced capitalism, we have seen commodification take a new form. Today, almost anything can become a commodity – from knowledge and experiences to culture and (if you’re Paris Hilton) even yourself. This shift also means that “market talk” is being applied to some of the most fundamental aspects of business, including customer relations.
Looking for evidence? Consider that companies have increasingly moved customer success and education to a dedicated team of reps. According to a 2021 LinkedIn analysis of more than 15,000 job titles, business development and sales roles (eg sales consultant, sales operations specialist and strategic advisor) experienced one of the highest growth rates of employment from year to year by 45%. By flattening the customer-business relationship in this way, companies are sending a message: Customer education is a box to check.
This is a very short-sighted approach to driving business growth. Instead, I recommend a coaching model of relationship building. By nature, coaching is collaborative. It’s about working with clients to become trusted advisors. And if you’re interested in creating and sustaining a coaching-oriented customer education model, implement these practices today.
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1. Play the long game
I’ve made a career out of giving away the farm, so to speak. What I mean is that I’m not stingy with free advice, because I know that sharing my expertise will pay off, even if it doesn’t turn a profit right away.
For example, I recently had lunch with a business owner who was interested in our app consulting services but couldn’t afford to partner with us yet. Some business owners would have you believe that meeting with people who don’t pay you is a waste of time, but I knew it was an opportunity to showcase my worth and build trust, which could lead to future business. After all, PwC found that nearly 50% of consumers cite trust as the reason they started patronizing a business.
So I sat down with this person and talked about their business as if I had an equity stake. We covered everything from current industry forces to the unique ways we work with our clients. And at the end of the meeting, this individual thanked me profusely. I left confident that I would have forged a new relationship rooted in trust and respect.
Getting food? Be gracious with your time and talent. First, it creates a sense of reciprocity: Most people will remember your generosity and look for ways to work with you in the future. But even if they don’t, a positive trust-based experience will help increase your brand exposure, strengthen customer trust, and even increase loyalty.
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2. Curate an educational library
In sales, there is an inherent power imbalance: Salespeople have expertise that customers do not. This is what is called information asymmetry, and customers must trust that the seller will use that power responsibly. But when companies value deals won over relationships built, they encourage salespeople to abuse this information asymmetry—unwittingly or not. This manifests as salespeople hiding essential information or misrepresenting the company’s capabilities in order to close the sale.
This type of practice is the opposite of a coaching mentality. Instead, pave the way for valuable, long-term relationships by empowering employees to lead customer education, provide feedback, and provide ongoing strategic guidance. To help them in this endeavor, build training materials and content for customers to explain not only your product or service, but also your business philosophy. For example, we create and publish on-site content clearly geared toward customer education. Salespeople and account managers can use this collateral to reset customer expectations.
Don’t overlook the value of general education. We’ve found that potential customers use our blog to learn about broader topics like software development. Similarly, Progressive’s commercial division publishes blogs aimed at helping business leaders navigate challenges ranging from data loss to HR gaffes. Building this library takes time, but it’s worth the effort when you consider that Demand Metrics found that 80% of people prefer to learn about a company through personalized content.
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3. Integrate exercise into everything you do
We create a coaching mindset in everything we do: our ceremonies, demonstrations, processes, results, etc. Doing so reinforces the idea that customer education does not come down to the beginning of the relationship. Rather, it is a line. Ideally, you should be teaching your customers something new every few months. This is the difference between a vendor and a partner: Partners constantly add value; vendors provide a one-time service.
Continuing education also helps you manage customer expectations and course-correct when things go wrong. This is especially important in my industry because our customers rarely understand all aspects of working with software: Why do I have to pay to fix defects? Isn’t that your job? Why did this thing break even though we tested it? These are very common questions in my line of work, so education is vital to maintaining trust – which, according to PwC, 73% of business leaders agree promotes better customer loyalty.
At this point, it’s almost easier to point out what hasn’t been commodified than what has. But only because we can goods something does not mean that we should. Transactional customer relationships give rise to short-term, transactional engagements. Instead, business leaders can set themselves up for lasting success by designing and maintaining a coaching culture.
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