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Q&A: Customer Portals & Communities To Build Retention


Customer retention is often overlooked as a strategy to grow B2B business. Mary Ellen Ellar shares how one company built a customer retention strategy with a customer portal as the focus.

Cheryl Boehm, Director of Copywriting
September 28, 2021

To grow sales, B2B companies typically invest the majority of their marketing budget in lead generation. Filling the sales pipeline with quality leads that are easy for your salespeople to convert to customers is definitely one way to maintain steady growth.

But it’s not the only way.

Customer retention is an often overlooked strategy for B2B growth. To learn more, I caught up with Mary Ellen Ellar, the VP of Client Strategy at Tenlo. In her role, she often helps organizations build effective customer retention strategies, which include customer portals and customer communities.

Q) What is a customer retention strategy?

A) Basically, it’s a marketing plan that includes activities designed to build loyalty with your existing customers. If you create a strong enough relationship with these buyers, they’ll continue to purchase your product or service even if they’re offered different options.

Q) Why is customer retention important for B2B companies?

A) It costs around 5x more to acquire new customers than it does to retain them. Plus, the B2B sales cycle can be 12-18 months—or longer. So, focusing on keeping and growing your current customer base is a cost-efficient and time-efficient way to grow your business.


Related: Customer Retention As A Key Growth Strategy


Q) Customer portals and customer communities are both effective for customer retention. But what’s the difference?

A) A customer portal is a secure website. It has self-service functionality that allows customers to access important information, such as account information or downloadable files, without contacting the company or representative. A customer community is an online platform where customers, experts and others can engage with one another and the brand. There’s not always a clear divide between the two. In fact, we recently launched a website for a client that has elements of both a customer portal and a customer community.

Q) Can you tell me a little more about the project?

A) Absolutely! We created a secure and active online community for plumbing professionals. Our goal is to attract and retain the network of plumbers by providing the training and content they need to sell, install and service products.

Q) Why create a customer community and portal for plumbers?

A) There is a widening skills gap and shortage of plumbers. In an effort to close that gap, plumber owners, retailers and manufacturers have traditionally offered in-person training programs. But plumbers are always on the move, traveling from job to job. And then … the pandemic hit. This made face-to-face training even more challenging. As the trade’s needs shifted, there was an opportunity to fill that training gap online.


Related: Customer Portals: How To Design, Develop, Manage & Measure Success


Q) Why would a plumber want to join this community?

A) The key to any successful customer portal or community is providing value to your audience. That’s the only way they’ll want to join. So, we interviewed plumbing professionals active in the field. We asked them what would be of most value and built those features into the website. The primary benefit of the portal is online training for plumbers and rewards for completion. There are also product guides, project planners, installation videos and other resources. The entire experience is designed to help plumbers grow their skills, knowledge and business.

Q) Were there any surprises along the way? Or unexpected learnings?

A) As a whole, the trade community is undervalued. There are a lot of preconceived ideas and stereotypes about plumbers, and unfortunately, many of them are negative. During stakeholder interviews, we really got to know these men and women. We heard about what motivated them to choose this trade, their unmet needs while they’re in the field, personal stories about their livelihood and even discovered different segments within the plumbing community. The interviews were eye-opening and played a critical part influencing the community design.

Q) Why would a B2B company want to invest the time and money into building a community?

A) As I mentioned earlier customer retention is efficient in terms of time and money. A customer community builds brand loyalty, and ultimately, customer retention. For this particular project, plumbers will value connecting with training, resources and each other, and associate that value with the brand. It also gives plumbers more confidence in the products as well as success in selling and installing them. This increases brand loyalty, advocacy and customer lifetime value—all great reasons to invest in a community.


Related: Customer Portals: Common Challenges & Fixes


Q) Creating community has value, but doesn’t directly attribute to sales. So how could a marketer sell the idea into leadership?

A) First, it’s important to get the sales team involved. They have direct communication and insight into your customers. If they have a clear picture of how the program can indirectly lead to more sales and support it, you’ll have a much easier job selling the idea to leadership. Also, provide a clear breakdown and rationale behind the spend so leadership understands the overall investment. Then, demonstrate a measurement plan with clear KPIs to measure success. For example, on this project, we’re measuring traffic to the site, number of registered users, completed trainings, and more. Plus, we have goals in place for each. A clear measurement plan with projected outcomes gives leadership confidence in the program and more likely to say “yes.”

Q) If a marketer wants to build a customer community for their brand, where should they start?

A) Begin by understanding your audience. Who do you want to reach and engage? When and where do they spend their time online? What are their pain points that you can solve? These are just a few of the many questions to ask. Many brands make the mistake of pushing their products too hard. Instead, figure out how you can provide value to your customers—and deliver.


Do you have more questions about customer retention, customer portals or customer communities? We have the answers! To talk to Mary Ellen Ellar or another member of the Tenlo team, contact us.

With 20+ years of marketing experience, Cheryl strives to clearly understand client goals and user needs. She then helps plan, develop and deliver relevant, high-value content that brings the two together.

Cheryl Boehm, Director of Copywriting

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