A couple weekends ago, after many hours of online shopping and discussion, my wife and I were ready to buy a new family sofa.  We embarked on furniture store visits starting at IKEA, where we and our two boys sprawled out on a sectional sofa for some “real world” testing.

As we sat there, another shopper looked over and asked if we were thinking about buying the sofa.  She told us she’d had one for years and loved it, and pointed to her two teenage boys as evidence of its durability.  A quick mom-to-mom conversation followed and the deal was done.  Sold!

There was no sales representative involved in our buying decision.  It was a fellow customer who closed the deal.  It got me thinking about how many thousands of IKEA’s customers likely help them make sales each year, on zero commission.  It’s a marketer’s dream.

Word-of-mouth may work in B2C, but does it apply to B2B?

Sofas are one thing, but do customer recommendations really influence multi-thousand or million-dollar B2B sales and repeat business?  The short answer is yes.  While B2B purchase processes do differ from B2C – they’re usually slower, more formal and complex – word of mouth still matters.

Generally, the more important the decision, the more likely both consumers and businesses are to seek out customer recommendations to help them make their choice.   And when you look past the cosmetic differences, customer input is used in B2B and B2C buying for very similar purposes: Who are the best suppliers?  Can I believe their marketing claims?  Will they do what they say they’ll do?  What are the hidden landmines I should know about?

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Customer recommendations are arguably more important in B2B sales

Poor B2C purchasing decisions may cost you time, money, or headaches, but they typically won’t impact your livelihood.  Buying a bad pair of speakers for the living room is no fun, but it’s fixable.

The stakes are often higher in a business.  If you’re responsible for selecting a key supplier for your organization, a poor decision can be hard to unwind and have career limiting consequences.  When I make critical business purchase decisions, I speak with customers of the suppliers I’m considering, and not just those on the supplier’s reference list.

And they happen all the time

B2B customer recommendations aren’t limited to formal processes, such as reference checks during an RFP.  They happen all the time, often spontaneously, at conferences and coffee shops, neighborhood parties and kids’ soccer sidelines.  For example, as I prepared to write this blog post today I bought a coffee at a bakery near our office and ran into a friend.  She asked me what platform The Daniel Group uses for our website.  We swapped notes and I recommended she take a look at a competitor of the service we currently use.

Are your customers selling for you, or against you?

This brings us to an important question: if your customers are always talking and hence influencing the buying decisions of other customers and prospects, do you know they think of you and what they’re telling others?

In this case, I did not recommend my current web provider to my friend and instead recommended a competing, easier-to-use solution.  Am I an outlier, or are other customers doing the same thing?  While we often look at word-of-mouth marketing as an upside opportunity, in this case, it worked against my supplier.  My provider can’t stop its customers from voicing their opinion, so it makes sense to find out what’s being said out there, positive or negative.

If you haven’t already, start asking them

As intimidating as it is to ask for feedback, it’s better to know what your customers think about you than to guess.  Because what your customers think about you turns into recommendations, and recommendations turn into sales and repeat business… either for you, or your competitors.  And you can tip the balance in your favor by listening to what you hear and acting on it.

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While that’s easy to say, it’s difficult to do.  It takes constant effort.  But we know it works and the payoff is worth it.  So, if you haven’t done so already, get out there and start asking your customers if they’d recommend you to others.  You may be surprised at how many already do, and you’ll learn from those who don’t.  Good luck!


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