April 2019
Text by Andrea L. Ames

Image: © melpomen/123rf.com

Andrea L. Ames is a sought-after keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, consultant, and coach. Her company, Idyll Point™ Group, helps businesses make their customers successful by teaching content teams to operate like a business, developing content leaders, and providing customer-retention coaching for entrepreneurs. Andrea is an STC Fellow and past President, host of the After the Sale podcast, Executive Editor of STC's Intercom magazine, and Program Chair for UCSC’s technical writing certificate.


andrea[at]idyllpointllc.com


www.IdyllPointGroup.com


 

"Everybody sells" – it’s not just a slogan anymore

A great opportunity awaits post-sales content professionals who choose to embrace the idea that "everybody sells." With the value our content provides to customers, we can directly contribute to customer acquisition and retention.

In July 2017, I left corporate employment and started a business. The most interesting and rewarding part of this process was putting many of my working principles to the test in a larger and more varied marketplace.

If you know me, read me, or have seen me speak during the past 15-20 years, you know that one of those principles is that appropriate, high-value, post-sales content fuels a business as much as – or perhaps more than – pre-sales content. There is comparable opportunity for business to be gained or lost in either post-sales or pre-sales content.

I’m thrilled to say that this principle has held up – validated not only by my consulting and coaching engagements but also by my own business and my observation of entrepreneurial colleagues and friends.

 

How does this work?

Traditionally, pre-sales content was content created or curated and used primarily by marketing and sales departments to

 

  • generate potential sales leads by gaining awareness in the marketplace for a company, its brand, and its product and service offers
  • inform a prospective customer, or prospect, to intelligently consider an offer’s features and benefits, and thus its fit for their needs versus other offers 
  • support the sales team as the prospect decides whether to purchase an offer

Post-sales content, on the other hand, was created and intended to be used by customers after they purchased the product to

 

  • Learn how to use an offer – most commonly, a product
  • Do the tasks that they need to accomplish with the product
  • Resolve issues as they arise during the use of the product

For the most part, post-sales content has always been very product-focused, describing how the product functions. In the least helpful cases, that is all it describes. In more valuable content, product functions are described in the context of tasks that users recognize and deem important.

As it turns out, pre-sales content has been very product-focused as well. Many companies are now embracing content marketing, which has changed some of the direction and positioning of that content. In too many cases, however, this content continues to highlight the product as the center of attention.

Enter the digital business

Businesses are becoming more and more digital every day. During this transformation, they’re taking their relationships with their customers along for the ride. Customers are now experiencing their interactions with companies primarily through content versus people – both before and after the sale.

In research that I conducted together with content strategy colleagues at IBM a few years ago, we confirmed that content plays a huge role in the digital business relationship and conversation with prospects and customers. [1] Across the high-tech industry, more than 50 percent of viable sales leads were, at that time, generated through content, and more than 55 percent of the time that prospects spent in the sales cycle was spent interacting with content, compared with only 21 percent spent with sales professionals.

These numbers show an increase in the impact of content in the customer experience every year. In his workshop, "How to Create a Documented Content Marketing Strategy" at Content Marketing World 2018, Michael Brenner states, "The buyer journey has changed. Buyers now are completely in control." According to Brenner, 90 percent of the journey is "customer" and 10 percent is "sales rep." [2] The customers are interacting with content and driving their own journey.

This phenomenon extends beyond what we think of as traditional marketing content. Now “pre-sales” and “post-sales” are not accurate descriptions. Any content can be used anywhere and everywhere – regardless of its intended purpose. The lines are blurring more and more every year.

My IBM colleagues and I discovered that using technical content – what most would classify as "post-sales," at least with regard to its intended use – was the second most important pre-sales activity for technology buyers. [1] A sampling of IBM’s web statistics and exit-survey data from a few years ago prove this point:

 

  • More than 47 percent of ibm.com page views were technical content pages
  • 44 percent of returning visitors to ibm.com were looking for technical content
  • 32 percent of new visitors to ibm.com were looking for technical content

Content in the customer experience

As content becomes a bigger and bigger part of customer experiences, businesses with a content strategy that addresses all of the customer’s content touchpoints are likely to create a neutral or even pleasant experience. More commonly, when companies have little or no strategy, or a siloed strategy, the customer experience is typically unpleasant.

While prospects and customers are blurring the lines between pre- and post-sales content outside of enterprise walls, inside we are slow to follow their lead. For the most part, we still create:

 

  • "Pre-sales" content in "marketing" departments with the intent of "generating leads."
  • "Documentation," in "documentation" departments with the intent of helping customers to "do."
  • "Product training" in "education" departments to help customers "learn."
  • "Support" content in "technical support" departments to help customers "resolve issues."

In our prospects’ and customers’ experience, this is just "content" – various touchpoints in the relationship and conversation with the company. In our reality, the silos are winning, and the effect on our audiences – whether they are prospects, customers, clients, or users – is deadening.

Transactions versus relationships

When we maintain our silos and perpetuate goals around internal-focused concepts like lead generation and explaining features and functions, we end up focused on customers as transactions. Prospects become aware of us; they consider us; they buy our products. At that point, marketing and sales are "done" with them. Now they are "users" – consuming products and information to "do" something. This transactional view means that the sale is the end of the road for a large portion of the team, perpetuating a lack of communication and collaboration across the organization from pre- to post-sales departments.

If instead, we view the customer as a relationship – one that requires care and nurturing before and after the sale – then we look at the content we provide to support that relationship in a different way. We ask how we are serving our customers, enabling them to achieve their business goals. Instead of asking whether we should provide help, for example, we ask what questions they need answered, and based on those questions and answers, we determine the best delivery method, timing, and placement of the resulting content. Instead of telling them what the product does, we help them understand their own business context better and show them how our product can be applied in that context to bring value.

In a relationship-based world, we care as much, or more, for our customer after the sale. We do it because it makes business sense. First, of course, the better you treat your customers, the happier they will be. When they are happy, they are more likely to refer others to you, speak well of your company and products, serve as references and case studies, and provide testimonials.

A pretty well-known statistic in sales states that it costs five to ten times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. But did you also know that: [3]

 

  • Increasing customer retention by five percent increases profits by 25-95 percent.
  • The probability of selling to an existing customer is 60-70 percent, while the probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20 percent.
  • Existing customers are 50 percent more likely to try new products, and spend 31 percent more, versus new customers.

If we ignore the happiness factor, which is arguably hard to measure, these numbers speak volumes about the tangible business benefits of retaining customers. Why, then, do a mere 18 percent of companies focus on customer retention versus acquisition (44 percent)?

Leveraging the opportunity

Like everything that requires change, moving from an acquisition focus to a retention focus is challenging. But in every challenge lies opportunity! It’s time for action. (Some would say it’s past time.) Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to leverage this opportunity.

With digital business creating customer relationships supported primarily by content, and the experience blurred across content intended specifically for pre- or post-sales uses, we have a unique opportunity to directly contribute to customer acquisition and retention!

The big question, of course, is what that leverage and contribution look like. Here are my top three strategies for leveraging this opportunity, starting with you, your content, and your team.

You: It starts here; step up and lead

As they say when you take a trip with a commercial airline: "Put on your oxygen mask first, and then help others." Before you begin to list all of the reasons why you can’t leverage this opportunity – due to your company, its culture, the company leadership, your executives and managers, your product team, your peers in other teams, your marketing folks, and so on – stop and think about what, if anything, you have done to take some ownership for the problem in the context of your circle of control. [4] Then consider your circle of influence and your circle of concern.

To begin evaluating how much you are currently leading within your circle of control, ask yourself:

 

  • Do I know everything I need to know about my audience (customer, client, or user; reader, viewer, or listener) and what they are trying to accomplish in their life or business – not just the tasks they need to accomplish with the product to achieve a successful functional outcome?
  • If not, who can I ask for this information? Can I go out and get it myself?
  • After I get the information, am I using it to ensure that all of the content I create is addressing accomplishment and success for my audience? 
  • If I’m told I must create content that I know is not right for my audience’s needs, am I appropriately advocating for my audience to get the correct outcome in my content?

 

 

Your content: Provide value

I wish this went without saying, but I’ve seen too much content as a content consumer, in my corporate role, and with my clients that is of little or no value. I’ve also seen what I call "utility" content, but frankly, not a lot of truly valuable content. As content creators, we need to "walk the talk," create the right content, measure its effectiveness, and be prepared to demonstrate in real, tangible terms the value of our content to those who are funding us.

To determine the value of the content you are creating, ask yourself:

 

  • Is my content directly supporting my audience’s goals – is it high-value content? In other words, am I focused on helping them achieve those goals even when the information they need is not directly related to my product? And when it is related to my product, is that content focused on helping my audience apply the product in their context to achieve the goal?
  • Is my content supporting that high-value content? Is it the utility content that has medium value, because it is absolutely necessary (like installation or initial configuration) but is not directly enabling an audience goal?
  • Is my content describing the product and how it functions? Is it low- or no-value content that describes user-interface controls and how to manipulate them, but not when or why you should? Is my content redundant, such as guidance (for example, help or manuals) in addition to information that’s already clear in the user interface?
  • Do I have a way to measure the value, impact, and results of my content, both qualitatively and quantitatively? Am I obtaining some of that data directly from my audience?

 

 

Your team: Treat content like a business

Clearly, you won’t achieve your goals of customer results and delight by standing alone as the only content creator on your team delivering high-value content. And as a team, you have much more potential to make changes than you might think – just by operating like an effective business.

To determine whether you might be operating like a business, ask yourself and your team:

 

  • Do we have the right organizational structure? Do I have the right people, with the right skills, in the right roles? Is my team reporting to the right part of the company?
  • Do we have the right incentives in place: career path, rewards, evaluation methods?
  • Do we have a way to measure the effectiveness of the team and our deliverables
  • Have we created a culture for delivering, growth, learning, and longevity?
  • Do we have a vision and strategy for delivering products and services to our customers – both internal and external – that we are all aligned with?
  • Do we have a clear plan with appropriate priorities that are aligned with our customers’ needs?
  • Are we efficient, leveraging documented processes and standards to deliver high-quality, consistent products and services?
  • Do we have a financial model that ensures the right balance between investment, cost, and revenue?
  • Do we have marketing and sales initiatives – aimed toward our internal customers – in place, and are they effective?
  • Does everyone on the team understand our value proposition, marketing positioning, latest quarterly results and impact? If they met our CEO in the elevator after work and had a chance to stroll with her across the parking lot, would they be able to express some aspect of the team’s value in that conversation – not activities, but results?
  • Do we know who our key stakeholders are – above, below, and beside us? Do they trust us?
  • Do we have a communication model that enables us to build and maintain relationships of trust with our stakeholders – both within our larger organization and across silos and teams?

 

 

Closing the loop

Let’s revisit the key themes of customer retention versus customer acquisition.

First, everything your company does after the sale is an opportunity to deepen the customer relationship and increase customer lifetime value or a lost opportunity – creating confusion, mistrust, frustration, and anger.

Second, content is most of today’s digital conversation and relationship with our audiences. Thus, everything you do has a direct impact on that conversation and relationship and the customer experience. The way that you show up in your role, the way that your team operates, and the value of your products and services will determine whether your impact is driving revenue, building relationships, and increasing customer lifetime value, or whether you are driving customers away, building frustration, confusion, and anger, and increasing mistrust.

We all know which side of that equation we want to be on, so what are you doing to get there?

 

Resources

(1)  Riley, Alyson, Andrea L. Ames, and Eileen Jones. "Telling the Right Story: Proving the Business Value of Content." Intercom, May 2013.

(2)  Brenner, Michael. "How to Create a Documented Content Marketing Strategy." Content Marketing World. Cleveland, OH USA. September 2018.

(3)  Saleh, Khalid. "Customer Acquisition Vs. Retention Costs – Statistics and Trends." Invesp blog: http://bit.ly/2Q7F4Xi

(4)  Covey, Stephen. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.