Your best salespeople aren't on your payroll. They aren't down the hall. In fact, they may not even be in the same building as you.

It sounds crazy, but the reality is that the people best equipped to sell your product might be... the people who have already purchased your product. And your ability to turn them into effective advocates for your brand comes down to the customer engagement strategies you adopt.

Thanks to the increased presence of peer research and online reviews, your existing customers' power to influence prospects' buying decisions has skyrocketed. However, the possibilities don't end there. Discovering, nurturing, and mobilizing your customers as brand advocates creates unbridled potential for generating revenue.

So why are most organizations focusing the bulk of their time and resources on winning new business?

Maybe they don't know how to start engaging customers properly and turning them into advocates. Maybe their teams aren't properly aligned to focus on customer engagement. Or maybe, they haven't figured out who their true customers are yet.

To explore why so many businesses miss the mark on engaging past customers - and why these customers are the key to unlocking your company's true revenue potential - I sat down with the co-author of this article, Jill Rowley, to figure out what companies can do to fix it.

How Customers Drive Revenue

Organizations are often marketing-led or sales-led, but how often are they customer-led? The truth is, each department has multiple touch points with the customer, and each leaves a lasting impression. According to Liz Pedro, Director of Customer Advocacy at Five9: "Company culture is important. Being customer led is more than just a tagline."

In our experience, customers impact revenue in two ways: they're both necessary to maintaining existing revenue, and the key to unlocking future revenue.

In terms of how customers help maintain existing revenue, the answer is obvious: churn drastically reduces your bottom line. You need loyal, satisfied customers if you're going maintain (let alone increase) revenue. Forrester reports that most B2B marketers can tie revenue results directly to advocacy programs. Among those interviewed, roughly 50% of participants said they saw higher conversion rates, more qualified leads, and greater sales efficiency when they involved advocates in their campaigns.

Various changes in business models and trends have ultimately shifted power from the seller to the buyer. In general, less commitment is required on the part of the customer: it's easier and cheaper than ever to leave and seek alternate solutions if value isn't being delivered. Because of this, great customer experience can become a prominent competitive differentiator.

"Customers have a voice and a choice," says Michael Fallon, Director of Customer Success at PTC. They have the power to remain or take their business elsewhere, and to tell others about why they decided to do so.

But happy customers are also an underutilized asset when it comes to driving acquisition. When the right systems for nurturing and mobilizing customer advocates are in place, they can drive new and positive word-of-mouth - which is necessary for today's well-educated buyers.

Customer advocates can help your brand by writing online reviews, referring prospects, acting as references, driving event registration, giving product feedback, writing testimonials , increasing social shares and engagement with your content, and even creating content. The possibilities are endless, and depend largely on company needs and strategies.

That said, both Jill and I agree it's important to remember that advocacy is a proactive process. Relationships must be formed and nurtured before customers can be mobilized as spokespersons for your brand. According to Irene Lefton, CS Expert and Thought Leader, "A major shift within an organization to become customer-centric is necessary before you will be able to leverage them into sustainable lifetime value and future revenue."

Who Owns the Customer Experience?

So, it's clear that customer experience is important. Now, how do you build out the process in a way that supports both current and future customers?

For starters, I've found that it's important to ask yourself who owns customer experience and engagement. Is it sales, marketing or customer success? In reality, it needs to be all of them. According to the 2016 B2B Customer Experience Benchmark Report, 85% of B2B marketers agree that consistency across content, teams, and channels is the backbone of an effective customer experience.

"In most organizations, the first issue is ownership - who owns the account, who owns the customer experience?" explains Rob Heerdegen, VP of Account Management at Old Street Labs. Without defined responsibilities for each department, it's ultimately the customer who suffers - and, by extension, your bottom line.

Ultimately, you need cross-departmental alignment and executive buy-in to create organization-wide collaboration on customer engagement. You can alleviate the confusion surrounding ownership of the customer experience by outlining specific action items for each department at each stage of the customer journey. "Customer engagement, like quality and innovation, must exist at each stage of the customer experience," explains Fallon.

Sales mindsets are also commonly misplaced. They're more focused on winning a deal than empowering future advocates. "What is post sales vs. pre sales? It must become continuous selling," says Heerdegen, suggesting that salespeople need to have continued investment in an account after a deal is closed to ensure promises are kept, that the customer experience is seamless and that customer expectations are realistic.

Fostering continuous selling means incentivizing your sales team to stay involved by basing part of their compensation on the amount of advocacy customers provide, as measured by references, referrals, case studies, testimonials, etc. It can also be helpful to have sales in renewal calls, as well as other touch points along the customer journey. Finally, build processes to help them leverage advocates to close new business in the future.

Similarly, mindsets surrounding customer success also need to shift: identifying and nurturing advocacy must become just as much of a priority as upselling and renewing. "Customers represent something very real you could lose," says David Sill, SVP of Customer Success at DiscoverOrg. "They've used your product and formed an opinion."

By going above and beyond to delight customers, sharing customer feedback on products, sharing success stories, surrounding customers with social proof, and creating educational content, customer success paves the way for advocacy.

If you have systems in place for identifying and growing advocacy, uncovering potential cross-sells, upsells and expansions, using these internal advocates will help your customer success teams reach their revenue goals.

You Don't Really Know Your Customers

Confusion surrounding ownership is a recipe for customer neglect, especially as you begin to add marketing automation and other technology tools to the mix. CRMs and other martech platforms are important - even necessary - to scale most sales and marketing programs. But often, they act as a barrier to personalized communication.

"Digital self-service creates an emotional barrier, but emotions are still key in both selling and fostering existing customer relationships," says Josh Feast, CEO of Cogito. "An increase in NPS by 1 point leads to a 12% increase in revenue."

So how do you prevent technology from removing the humanity from your engagement programs? In our experience, it's critical that you make sure you're using it to foster real relationships between your employees and customers. A few possible ways to use technology to drive engagement include:

  • Personalized messages through emails, videos, social and other mediums
  • Collecting more personal customer data
  • Creating relevant nurture campaigns based off customer interests/product usages
  • Community-building and networking

Remember to foster interpersonal relationships with the actual people involved in an account, both at the admin level and the executive level. It's easy to forget, but business dealings are always about connecting at a personal level.

"We make a real effort to fully understand the various personas that make up our customers; customers are human beings, not just an entity buying software," says Goldberg. Remember to demonstrate not just how you can help the organization, but also the individual. This means giving them opportunities to be recognized for an achievement amongst their peers and with your brand.

Also, remember that customers make purchases in order to solve a problem. The value your solution offers will be unique to each account, making it integral that you understand individual needs. Fallon predicts that, "Tomorrow's leaders in customer engagement will be the ones who truly lead with knowing the customer and their outcomes at a very detailed level."

So what's the best way to develop an understanding of your customer's needs? It's simple: ask them. "We tend to hire people with an accounting background; the people who know our customers best are those who will have been in their shoes," says Mike Whitmire, CEO of FloQast. "As a result, our customers see themselves all throughout the company." Continually engaging users on a personal level helps you keep up with changing values and needs of accounts.

But that leads to another question: how do you scale building close-knit customer relationships when you have so many users?

Scaling Customer Engagement and Advocacy

More and more companies today are engaging their customers and leveraging them for advocacy. However, most use the same small group of loyal customers whenever a reference, speaking opportunity, PR request or case study is required.

Going to this same group repeatedly can cause burnout, limiting the variety of tasks you can ask them to do and the reach of your messages to their networks. An even bigger loss, Jill and I have found, comes from the potential of customer advocates who aren't uncovered and nurtured because you're constantly relying on the same handful of people.

And honestly, I get it. Most companies haven't developed the kinds of strategies that'll allow them to scale, create and measure true customer engagement - and, by extension, increase acts of advocacy. But you've got to figure them out, whether that means aligning technology you already use, combining certain programs under one umbrella or technology, or using customer engagement and advocacy software to scale your campaigns.

You also need to think about a new series of metrics when tracking and monitoring customer engagement (as well as its potential ROI). "It is important to balance hard and soft metrics in order to truly assess the success of customer engagement," states Lefton.

Some of the new metrics you might want to track include:

  • Cost to keep a customer
  • Time to value
  • Customer lifetime value
  • Total active users
  • Total engaged users
  • Revenue from customer-centric sources, such as referrals, references, conversions from customer-generated content, cross-sells, upsells
  • Minimized churn and retention rates among those involved in engagement programs

Ultimately, no one will argue that having better customer relationships won't help drive greater revenue in some way. The issue is not knowing where to start.

Use the suggestions above to start engaging customers, scaling your engagements, expanding your efforts beyond your handful of "go-to" advocates and measuring your campaign's success. You'll need commitment from your higher-ups, a centralized strategy and alignment among all involved departments to get it done, but the effort should be well worth your time in terms of your ability to maintain and expand your revenue.