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"Research is a process where you can spend a lot of money and come up with zero. Isurus guides me quickly through the key decisions, helps me avoid the pitfalls, and makes sure I walk away with high-value implications."
-Vice President of Marketing, Enterprise Content Management System Provider
Six reasons customers churn in B2B markets
When B2B vendors see an uptick in churn, stakeholders generate multiple, sometimes conflicting, hypotheses about the causes: It’s because of a recent price increase. New competitors entered the market. Competitors offer a service or functionality that we don’t. Customers don’t recognize the value the company provides. While it is important to take fast action to stop the bleeding, you don’t want to invest time and resources in a perceived problem only to see little change in customer attrition.
Product failures and price increases are the most common drivers of churn. Absent obvious causes, companies struggle to respond to increased customer attrition. Isurus’ research in B2B markets shows that outside of product failures and price increases, the market dynamics behind customer churn generally fall into six broad categories.
- Competing Priorities
- Convenience Seeking
- Latent Value
- Management Change
- Mainstream Convergence
This list provides a framework for B2B marketers and product managers to systematically analyze the dynamics behind customer churn. Armed with a clear sense of churn causes, the company can invest time and resources efficiently to address the problem.
1. Competing Priorities
It’s not you, it’s me. No one wants to hear this break-up line, but it happens even in B2B markets. A customer is satisfied yet forced to end a relationship because of across-the-board budget cuts. Their budget pressure may stem from functional level needs or broad corporate initiatives. It may simply be that costs increased dramatically, but budgets stayed flat.
Budgets are spread thin by an increasing number of activities, service providers, and line items. For example, the number of traditional and digital marketing channels has exploded. The marketing team may have to rob Peter to pay Paul to cover all relevant channels. In some industries regulations lead to higher compliance costs and cause cost-cutting in other areas.
Vendors that serve mission-critical needs are less impacted in this scenario. The vendors that offer the “nice to haves” often absorb budget cuts. For example, as real estate and construction costs increase, commercial contractors may look for alternative business insurance carriers, even though they are happy with their existing carriers and coverage. Hospitals’ costs for labor, insurance, technology, and infrastructure typically outpaces revenues: The budget squeeze flows down to medical supply wholesalers who feel the pressure from the purchasing department.
In the above examples, the customer didn’t value their marketing firm, insurance carrier, or wholesaler any less. It’s the relative value that changed: They faced budget pressures, and other areas of the business had priority from a funding perspective. When forced to switch from a vendor they are happy with, most customers recognize they will have to live with a solution that is good enough.
2. Convenience Seeking
Customers will leave a vendor they are happy with to gain efficiencies or make their lives easier. The clearest example of this is when customers streamline their vendor portfolio. They move to suppliers that provide multiple products, better geographic coverage, or work with a preferred channel partner.
Sometimes this is a conscious effort. Other times it just happens. As Microsoft adds features to Office 365, the software firms that provide project management, collaboration, and other supplemental functionality feel the crunch. The individual tools in Office 365 may not be as robust as stand-alone solutions, but they come bundled with O365 which makes it easy to use them. Here again, most customers recognize that they give up something by switching vendors but believe it is worth the gains in convenience or streamlined operations.
3. Latent Value
Customers lose sight of the full value a vendor or product can provide. Organizations often pigeon-hole vendors into the need for which they use it most often. As their needs evolve, customers don’t always consider if an existing vendor can address the need. Instead, they look for a new solution. Another scenario is that a new solution enters the organization in response to an external event: A stakeholder saw a product at a trade show or heard a sales pitch. This external event can ultimately lead to budgets being split between solutions or in some cases a migration to a new vendor.
In another example of lost value, after an accounting firm cleans up the books and tax accounts, the client reverts to managing its accounting with internal resources. Or, after a rebranding exercise, a customer cut ties with their advertising agency believing they have the road map in place and just need to follow the plan. In both cases the problem isn’t that the customer doesn’t value what the vendor provides, it’s that they aren’t aware of the additional value the firms can provide moving forward.
4. Management Change
A change in management often results in a change of vendors. A new CXO may place different value on the products vendors provide. For example, the previous leadership valued a component manufacturer for thought leadership and ideas it brought to the customer. The new regime believes innovation should come from within and feels low-cost, commodity suppliers are good enough. Even if they value the product, new leadership can still prompt a change in vendors. A new VP of Sales may bring in the CRM/SFA they are most comfortable with, or the VP of Strategy may bring in the consultants they worked with at their previous firm.
5. Mainstream Convergence
Higher churn rates in fractured technology markets can indicate mainstream convergence on a platform or approach. For example, online backup drove churn rates among tape-backup solution providers before it became a significant competitive threat. Once online backup gained acceptance, there was no going back, and churn among tape-backup solutions increased. In other instances, as technologies and applications become mainstream, the larger technology vendors (Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Salesforce, Etc.) begin to offer comparable solutions. They are often not as robust or user friendly as the vendor solutions that created the marketplace. But they can be good enough and convenient for customers to use.
Fast growing customers bring an additional set of churn dynamics. As a customer grows, the vendors they started with may not be robust enough to meet their expanding needs. Growth also exacerbates the churn dynamics previously outlined: They need suppliers that provide more products and wider geographic coverage. New senior managers come on board and start to consolidate vendors.
Churn in your market may be driven by a combination of these factors or something different altogether. The first step is to objectively determine the specific reasons churn is rising. Gather input from internal stakeholders and directly from lost/lapsed customers.
Some churn drivers are unique to specific accounts or small segments of accounts. Other drivers occur systematically and typically have deeper implications for your product or market.
If customers leave to divert budget to competing priorities, adding new features to your product is unlikely to reduce churn. A Good-Better-Best product bundle may be the best response. If customers need to streamline their vendor portfolio, demonstrate why it’s worth the extra effort to use your solution. In emerging technology markets churn can indicate the direction the market is moving away from your approach and have major implications for future strategy.
When faced with increased churn, use a systematic framework to take the wider view of possible market dynamics to ensure you focus on the right problem.
Customer experience, by definition, incorporates all aspects of a company’s offering and cuts across organizational boundaries. Yet, B2B vendors continue to focus on the product as the main driver of customer satisfaction and value. Research by Isurus and other leading consultants shows how a more inclusive analysis of customer experience reveals more accurate and actionable results.
Follow the breadcrumbs
Take this example from a recent Isurus study. The product team at a manufacturer of industrial generators was shocked when it received lower than expected product quality scores on its voice-of-the-customer survey. The ratings didn’t fit with their understanding of their competitive differentiation. The company is generally considered a leader in its category, and objectively, its equipment is in the top tier of vendors. A commitment to delivering quality products impelled the team to act on the findings. But how?
Fortunately, in addition to exploring product attributes, the customer survey evaluated a broader set of company characteristics such as customer service, warranty, channel delivery, and installation. This data allowed Isurus to evaluate the full range of factors that influenced perceptions of product quality. The analysis revealed a key insight: when service techs returned after the initial installation to make adjustments to the equipment, the product quality score was lower. The customers assumed something was wrong with the product.
After a little more digging, the company found that two groups of contractors made more post-installation visits than average – newer contractor partners, and contractors with less commitment to the channel-partner relationship. With this knowledge, the company could tackle the right problem. The product didn’t need fixing; the company needed to reduce errors in the installation process. The company focused on improvements to training and customer support and increased engagement with its channel partner program and its contractor resources.
Beyond functional value
Bain & Company’s recent study of the Elements of B2B Value provides further evidence that non-product attributes drive satisfaction.
In this research, commercial insurance buyers rated 36 different elements of value ranging from threshold conditions such as cost, to aspirational elements such as helping the customer achieve its corporate vision. Cost and Availability received the highest ratings overall. Taken at face value this result suggests that insurance companies and brokers could differentiate by providing a wide set of low-cost policies. However, a regression analysis showed that Responsiveness and Knowing the Customer’s Business are the strongest drivers of loyalty – two elements steps away from the core product attributes. While Cost and Availability are the most important factors in their buying decisions, they are expected by the market and do not differentiate vendors – customers do not use vendors that they cannot afford or do not have the products they need. Isurus sees this dynamic so frequently in our research that we counsel clients to minimize the threshold factors they include in their customer surveys.
A framework to treat product myopia
It was only possible to uncover the insights outlined in the above examples because the customer surveys included a wide range of attributes related to the customer experience. Vendors and product teams live and breathe their solutions. They invest millions of dollars in the development, enhancement, and expansion of their offerings. When you’re this close to your solution, it’s easy to lose sight that factors outside of the product can be significant drivers of business value and satisfaction.
To mitigate this myopia, Isurus uses a framework of three categories of attributes: Capabilities, Company Traits, and Tactical Outcomes. We recommend that VOC programs incorporate attributes from across three categories.
- Capabilities: The features and qualifications most directly tied to the product such as features and functionality, quality, delivery, ease of use, cost, etc.
- Company Traits: The behaviors, values, and traits that relate to the higher-level value a company provides, which remain true even if the specific product/service offering changes. The type of attributes in this category includes responsiveness, partnership orientation, innovation, integrity, etc.
- Tactical Outcomes: The outcomes the customer expects the solution to accomplish – the job to be done. Examples include reducing the steps in a process, providing sales reps with real time information, reducing waste, etc.
The degree to which each of these categories are explored varies by market. For example, it’s more important for a commodity provider to understand the company traits that provide value – they cannot differentiate themselves on product. Conversely for vendors in an emerging technology market, it is important for them to understand the outcomes the customer is trying to achieve – additional features and functionality don’t make a difference if they don’t align with the customer’s business processes and goals.
The benefit of using a framework to guide the VOC program design is to ensure non-product attributes are measured and evaluated as potential drivers of customer satisfaction and value. A framework provides a reference and brings structure to the metrics selection process. Data that represents the full customer experience is much more likely to identify the true drivers of satisfaction and provide insights that lead to competitive advantage.
PE firms and corporate investors compete intensely for investments to expand their portfolio or augment their existing solutions. In the due diligence process, decision makers face the dual pressures of accuracy in a high-stakes decision, and the need to work very quickly. Unfortunately, the time-pressure of makes these decisions vulnerable to the cognitive biases.
The steady drumbeat of behavioral economics research in recent years highlights the prevalence of biased decisions, even among the professions we liken to Dr. Spock –the statisticians, economists, physicians, and computer programmers of the world. M&A decision makers — Corporate Development and Private Equity investors – are also at risk. The pressure and tight timelines for M&A due diligence exacerbate the potential for biased decisions.
Investment teams use experience and sector knowledge to evaluate acquisition targets and expedite the decision process. Experience and sector knowledge are generally assets; however, they also become liabilities. Research shows that a high degree of experience may lead to:
- Overconfidence bias: Experience causes the investment team to rely too much on what they think they already know, rather than carefully examining new data or the unique aspects of a particular deal.
- Confirmation bias: Rich knowledge of a sector leads decision-makers to pay more attention to data that confirms their pre-existing view of the world, and overlook data that doesn’t support it.
- Affect bias: Investors apply their experience to make an initial assessment of a prospective investment. If that initial assessment is positive – “I like this company”—new data is evaluated through that lens. When evaluating something we like, we minimize its risks/costs and exaggerate its benefits. When we dislike something, we do the opposite.
What can be done to mitigate against these and other decision biases in due diligence?
One answer is look to external partners: In addition to the requisite legal, technical, or analytical expertise, external partners provide an independent perspective. External partners are less vested in the decision and bring a different set of experiences than the core investment team. While external partners aren’t immune to bias, their bias will likely be different and leads to a more robust analysis.
How do external providers improve decision quality? Through Isurus’ work to support B2B software M&A due diligence, we’ve seen benefits from the following approaches in the context of primary market research:
1) Work from a pre-defined framework or analytical plan
The framework provides a checklist. It reduces the likelihood that important data are omitted from the analysis, and guards against too much weight placed on a particular element. Without a pre-defined framework, stakeholders may struggle to agree on which data are needed, or brainstorm an excessive set of questions that stray from the main objective. The framework can be modified for a particular market or scenario, when there is a strong rationale for doing so.
2) Listen to external partners’ point of view
Investment teams are skilled analysts. They dig into data, eager to form conclusions. In the case of primary market research results, the investment team should elicit more from their partner than just the data: Request their interpretation, conclusions and recommendations. External market research partners are less likely than the internal team to overlook data that contradicts a pre-existing opinion, or to weigh one piece of information too heavily in the analysis.
3) Encourage discussion of different interpretations of the data
When Isurus presents research findings, it is not uncommon that members within the investment team draw different conclusions from the same data point. Juxtaposing different interpretations often reveals useful nuances about market dynamics, growth potential, or considerations for the post-acquisition transition period. Research read-out sessions are particularly useful when the meeting is structured to encourage Q&A and discussion amongst the team.
For further reading on this topic, read “How Cognitive Bias Undermines Value Creation in Life Sciences M&A”
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow that “Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.” When confidence in a decision is abundant, it pays to confirm that data are at the root rather than emotion or bias.
The February 2019 issue, focused on B2B market research topics, includes our article “Overcoming Inertia: How to understand sporadic customer journeys in low involvement B2B categories” .
The Isurus team is honored that Quirk’s selected our article for the B2B issue in 2019, and made it the featured cover story. Quirk’s is an industry-leading publication, and provide valuable thought-leadership for insights professionals, as well as product marketers and marketing professionals seeking research expertise.
No solution is perfect. Even highly satisfied customers make compromises to use your product or service. Budget is the most obvious trade-off: your product competes against other priorities and needs for budget. Less obvious compromises include the work-arounds customers implement in order to use your product or achieve their desired outcome. For example, a customer uses an add-on reporting solution to compensate for inadequate analytics in its HR software. Or, they use a secondary distributor to acquire the product. Many customers accept—and may not even notice—these compromises until it’s brought to their attention by a competitor, new leadership, or another change in the business. At that point, the previously acceptable compromise can contribute to the loss of a seemingly “satisfied” customer.
Customer compromises can be challenging to spot. Customers themselves become blind to them. After years of using the same product or approach it feels easy, or the customer simply starts to accept the limitations of the product or service. A good example is an enterprise software solution with a cumbersome user interface. Power users know the system so well, they don’t notice that it takes four steps to do something that should take two steps. Only when an alternative comes to their attention, or a change in management spawns a review of existing processes and tools, do they start to think there might be a better way.
To be clear, work-arounds and compromises are rarely the primary drivers of switching and purchase behavior. If your product and service provide enough value, customers make the trade-offs necessary to use your solution. However, when customers see less differentiation between vendors, factors outside of core functionality influence their decisions. If they believe the same outcome can be achieved with less effort, competing solutions become appealing.
So how do you determine what types of compromises your customers make to use your product? The specifics will vary based on sector and product/service category, but examples of the types of questions worth asking include:
- Do customers have to take extra steps to use your product or service? Do they have to order more than they need? Do they have to manually integrate or migrate data?
- Do customers have to accept a poor user interface, customer portal, ordering process, billing process, etc.?
- Are customers giving up secondary features or services they could get from a competitor?
- If you serve multiple functional areas, would individual functional needs be better met by an alternative solution?
- Do customers have to use another vendor to meet their needs across regions? Product specifications? Product mix?
- Do competitors provide access to resources, categories of expertise, an ecosystem, etc. that would be useful to customers?
You may not have a significant problem in any of these areas today; however, an analysis of the trade-offs your customers make will help you identify blind spots and potential weaknesses that a competitor may be able to exploit. It’s better that you see the weaknesses before they do. The analysis can also provide a holistic view of customer needs: customer satisfaction and VOC initiatives typically focus more narrowly on the specifics of the product or service.
Some of these questions are best explored with your customer advisory panel. Customers may not realize the extra steps or trade-offs they take, but you can recognize them as they describe or demonstrate their processes. Other questions may require a review of competitor products and services. Some questions may require more formal, structured market research with customers or prospects.
If you do find that customers make meaningful trade-offs, you can look for ways to address them directly or indirectly, e.g., if you don’t provide a service or product, you can explore partnerships or ways to provide the same benefit. This analysis can also be used to evaluate competitors and identify potential weaknesses to exploit. Can you address the work-arounds that your competitors’ customers make today?
The exploration and analysis of customer compromises can range from internal discussions, to exploring these topics in your VOC or NPS programs, to asking customers directly about them in a stand-alone research engagement. Regardless of the formality of the exercise, it will help to look at your customers’ needs, and how well you meet them, in a new light.