While it's no surprise that the balance of marketing power has shifted, and customers are now firmly in the driver's seat, b-to-b marketers continue to grapple with the need to understand what those customers want so they can market to them accordingly.
Some marketers are making strides, with recent advances centered on predictive modeling, a basic tactic database marketers use to mathematically score the likelihood of outcome events in order to target relevant customers with the right product at the right time.
"We've been using predictive models for a number of years, but, in the past year in particular, we've been using predictive models more," said Tamra Schoech, database marketing manager, small-business retail markets at BellSouth Telecommunications, part of BellSouth Corp. She said she has become better at using predictive models in BellSouth's telemarketing channel.
Tom Gaither, leader, enterprise segment-global marketing team at b-to-b data giant D& B, agreed that predictive modeling's popularity has increased. "There's more interest in predictive marketing-what's going to happen-as opposed to reactive marketing," he said.
"We've been using [predictive models] to identify sales opportunities with our product lines in a way that will be `actionable' and understandable for the salesperson," Schoech said.
BellSouth has implemented that across most of its product lines. "The more information from our marketing database that we can get to that customer interaction point, the more effective our sales and marketing activities will be."
That process has been refined significantly over time. Marketers have become savvier about data collection and analysis, so that information provided to the salesperson is enough to be useful without overwhelming them. "We identify the select, few pieces of information to arm the salesperson," Schoech said.
Ann McGlinchey, VP-relationship and database marketing at CA (formerly Computer Associates), said using data to drive sales and marketing opportunities is an ongoing challenge. "The financial services industry has this nailed," she said. Other industries have only more recently felt the need to do so.
"Technology companies weren't necessarily focused on this because it was so easy to sell technology for a long time. They were not as focused on analyzing the data," she said, but now "it's becoming more critical." She said that is because technology products have been commoditized and business is more competitive. "There's not only more competition, we're all chasing fewer dollars," she said. "We need to be more specific about who we're marketing to."
CA is in the process of deploying an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system with a CRM component. That information will be married to the company's marketing database, McGlinchey said.
Gaither said he sees many companies continuing to adopt "CRM-type systems," particularly midsize companies. "A lot of that is driven by technology and hosted applications like salesforce.com," he said.
Customers call the shots
Whom to market to and how to do so are important because customers are increasingly calling the shots.
"Marketers need to change the way they do business to accommodate their customer today," said Kathy Calta, corporate officer and senior-VP at Harte-Hanks, a database marketing services company. "Database marketing is the only way to control the customer experience," she said.
Many database marketing executives said the only way to do that effectively is to centralize the data, a mantra they have repeated for years.
"I don't know how you have relevant conversations or present relevant products without the information behind it," Calta said. "In the b-to-b space, marketers are recognizing the need to bring together that information and optimize it." She added that most marketers are just "starting to lay the framework" to do so.
Gaither said it still represents "a huge database marketing challenge" for most companies, because of siloed data residing in too many places.
"Everyone wants a centralized database and a better database," said Patricia Seybold, CEO, Patricia Seybold Group, a customer experience and business process consultancy. She agreed that many marketers struggle with "how to connect the dots."
"Databases are usually quite fragmented," she said. "Somewhere in your service organization, you have information on warranties. Then you've got a marketing database. Then you also have e-commerce and Web stuff that isn't connected. That's the typical state of most companies I walk into." She said as a result, often "it's easier to buy external data than it is to mine their own stuff."
Getting the data portion right has many benefits. "The data inform the planning process-the campaigns and strategies we'll undertake-and the data also govern the individual interaction with each customer," Schoech said.
It also helps marketers get one step closer to integrated marketing. "We use the data to try to integrate the touches with the customer," Schoech said. "It seems obvious, but it can be hard to do. If you are sending direct mail to a customer, let's see if we can leverage that contact through a telephone call," she said. "It gets to be a juggling act and a coordination exercise to make sure the salesperson knows what direct mail is going to which customer. It also supports the relationship marketing activities that we implement within our call centers."
Single customer view
Seybold said demand for a single view of the customer has been driven by customers themselves. "Business customers are increasingly insisting that particularly through the online channel, when they come to your Web site, they expect to see up-to-date information about their accounts," she said. "They can do it with Amazon and with their banks, so why can't they do it with GE and Staples?"
With the evolution of technology and the growth in online communities, it may become easier for b-to-b marketers to deliver on that promise by letting customers do some of the work.
"New portal technology makes it easier for a company to create multiple portals for lots of different accounts more cost-effectively," Seybold said. "If b-to-b marketers do it right, they can hook that into the back-end applications but also into their customer database. We've been talking about customer portals and how to use them for the past three years, but we're now seeing an uptick in the number of companies doing them."
She said Symantec is about to launch customer portals that will be linked to the customer database. "They haven't solved it, but they're working towards that goal," she said. "They are rolling out their first customer portals this spring and working on the evolution of the customer database over time."
Similarly, CA is looking at creating online customer communities. "Some of the things we've been thinking about doing but haven't been able to deploy are creating communities of customers," McGlinchey said. "We haven't really moved on it just yet. We want to make sure we're offering value."