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Welcome to the Age of Consumer By @CPrimault | @CloudExpo [#Cloud]

(Part 1 of 2) "No Opinion Matters More"

Your customers can process information faster every day, which makes them inherently more demanding. In fact, as B2B tech guru Ken Rutsgy says, probably, “Your customers know more about your solution than your sales guys.”

The B2B Software as a Service (SaaS) customer has evolved over the last five years. No longer are they questioning whether SaaS is safe. Customer expectations are raised well beyond that discussion. “Ten years ago you might have accepted a SaaS product that’s hard to use just to save money. Now they want their apps to look like Amazon, Google and LinkedIn,” said Joel York, founder of Chaotic Flow for SaaS business strategy.

Traditionally, only big enterprises had the internal resources to research and purchase business software. Now almost all B2B companies can afford one or more cloud-based tools, which makes the demand side of the SaaS industry extremely fragmented and competitive.

“Everything in B2B SaaS space is about having new customers and the relationship, or winning them, or keeping them happy,” said Steli Efti, co-founder of a SaaS sales training company and CRM Close.io. “All in all, the market is broadening because of pricing, access to technology, tech savviness of end users.”

He added that “Any business can afford buying even very specific and complex software.”

According to Forbes, in 2013, there were 28 million small businesses in the U.S.--defined as having fewer than 500 employees -- along with another 22 million self-employed. More than half of this total are home-based businesses. That’s a huge target customer base looking for flexible tools to optimize business from anywhere.

SMB Actionable Market Insights’ April 2014 survey to guide “Vendor Strategies to Bring Game-Changing Technology Trends to SMBs” found that the SMB purchase cycle is changing, in which small businesses are increasingly likely to begin their SaaS research by Googling, and then they use online networks to “vet and evaluate solutions before they contact a vendor.”

That’s a lot of people you are trying to reach without ever being able to make a personal connection with them, but these are the same people who have increasing expectations of personalized customer service once they test or sign up for a software.

The SaaS industry has seen a huge shift which only serves to benefit the consumer. The SaaS offering has grown exponentially, from about 200 main actors--including big names like SAP, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle--to more than 20,000. This broader range of selection ignites more competition which drives down prices.

However, this greater supply and access to quality for a reasonable price only makes it more difficult for companies to select a business software. More and more that decision all comes down to the perception or reality of customer service.

Customer service is the number one deciding factor

The consumer is driving the future of the SaaS business and, really, pretty much every sort of business. Last year, Zendesk, the leaders in help desk software, commissioned a survey of customer service. Here are some of the most interesting findings:

- 62 percent of B2B and 42 percent of B2C customers purchased more after a good customer service experience

- 66 percent of B2B and 52 percent of B2C customers stopped buying after a bad customer service interaction

- 88 percent have been influenced by an online customer service review when making a buying decision

- 69 percent attributed a good customer service experience with a fast resolution

- 95 percent share bad experiences with others, while only 87 percent will share good ones

There’s no doubt that customer service is what determines the difference between your future customer and your competition’s future customer.

“With the advent of social media and online forums, the voice of the customer has grown louder than ever. As a result, companies must engage more proactively and openly with customers,” said Zendesk's SVP of product Adrian McDermott, which is why they “recently acquired Singapore-based Zopim to bring world-class live chat into Zendesk at a time when proactive engagement and chat is an increasingly important channel.”

Three-quarters of all negative reviews on GetApp are regarding poor customer service. This is why customer support software is increasingly essential to automate as much of the support process as possible, but that’s just a start.

Reviews empower users, improve service providers

The research process for software buying “seems to now be more focused on the opinions of peers, colleagues, people in the same professional circles as you, whether you know them or not,” said Paul Griffiths, lead front-end engineer at GetApp. “I don’t think people now will read a review by some journalist or blogger and say ‘That’s the app for me.’ They want more voices, more opinions, and they want to read the good and the bad. That’s why TripAdvisor works.” That’s also why GetApp chose to allow user reviews via LinkedIn login, which puts the industry and job role of the reviewer into context.

Besides helping the end user make an informed purchase, harsh and plentiful user reviews guarantee better service.

“They say that sunlight is a great disinfectant. A world in which GetApp and GlassDoor and the Funded are great disinfectants is a world filled with pervasive reviews, a better world because there are better products and services for us to buy,” said Mark Organ, founder of the Eloqua marketing automation app acquired by Oracle in 2012 and current founder of the Influitive brand ambassador solution.

“What buyers want has not changed: authenticity, transparency, we want to know we are buying the right things. High quality,” said Organ. “What has been changing is the technology and the ability to achieve this level of honesty, transparency. Reviews are a great way to have quite impartial evidence of the quality and suitability of products.”

He continued that “Twenty years ago, it would not have been possible to have reviews done by ordinary people to this level of quality.” Instead, we relied on restaurant and technology reviewers. “Now it’s so easy for people to write reviews and consume reviews.”

TripAdvisor has revolutionized how we choose hotels. “In technology--AppExchange, GetApp, iTunes--crowd-sourced reviews are in fact superior to professional reviews,” Organ said. “As a buyer, I can select a subset of groups who have the same needs as me.”

But just because the conversation exists, does not mean that you are curating that conversation.

“Your customers can find each other, and your prospects will find your customers, and they will have a candid conversation about you, whether you permit that or not. You can be a participant in that conversation or even a gracious host, but you do not get to control that conversation,” said Peter Coffee, vice president of strategic research at Salesforce.

This also means that you can no longer delete negative reviews and social media posts, but instead should publicly address any issues and then try to invigorate your brand advocates to join that conversation.

“If you have the SaaS product, the certification and the community in your category, you win

elevating their champions with training and certification that are beyond the product,” Organ said. He continued that, at Eloqua, referrals closed so much faster at a higher order size, so much faster than other leads.

Check back next week for the second part of this series, “On-Board Must Be First in Age of the Consumer,” as we talk about how the first minutes with a customer are the most important, how to make the most of them, and the tools you can use to ease it along.

More Stories By Christophe Primault

Christophe Primault is the co-founder of GetApp, the #1 Cloud based Apps Marketplace. His aim is to provide tips and advice on how businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, can benefit from cloud-based apps and improve their bottom line. In my spare time he enjoys mountaineering, water sports and long distance triathlons. He's a proud IronMan finisher. You can follow him on Twitter @GetApp

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