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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
If the response rates to your B2B customer surveys have dropped the past couple of years you aren’t alone. The trend spans verticals, product types, decision makers and end-users. Multiple factors contribute to the decline in responses: Spam filters have gotten stricter; DIY survey tools and the near ubiquitous NPS programs overload customers with surveys; and, poorly designed surveys create a poor experience for customers.
So what can you do?
While the overall drop in response rates is inevitable, you can take steps to slow the decline in response rate in your own customer surveys.
Manage the Number of Surveys
Limit the number of survey requests to individual customers to 2-4 per year. This requires controls over survey distribution similar to the management of marketing emails. If different departments have access to DIY surveys tools, customers can receive surveys from customer service, marketing, product management, etc.
Customers need a reason to select your survey over the competing invitations in their inbox – they aren’t going to give their time to everyone that wants their feedback. Third party research firms provide financial incentives to encourage participation. What can you provide? Can you offer a summary of the findings, a drawing for a new iPad, a discount, a Starbuck’s gift card? If you ask for a customer’s time, offer something in return.
At a higher level, customers are more likely to respond when they see their feedback makes a difference. If you routinely ask customers to take surveys, provide customers with updates on the actions you’ve taken based on their feedback. Have you changed a policy? Introduced a new feature or a new product?
Manage Survey Length
B2B surveys will always be longer than consumer surveys. The mobile 10 questions surveys used in consumer markets have limited practical value in B2B markets. Still it is important to keep B2B surveys as short as possible.
- Triage your questions into need-to-have vs. nice-to-have and only ask the need-to-have questions.
- Don’t ask customers to provide descriptive data (sector, size, etc.) that already exists in your internal system. Append the data from your internal systems to the survey data.
- Be honest about the time it will take a customer to complete the survey. A good rule of thumb is 4 closed-ended questions requires 1 minute to complete. A typical 40 question survey will take 10 minutes to complete. And remember grid questions count as individual questions. If you ask how important is the following and then list 10 attributes, you should consider each attribute its own question.
- We recommend keeping your surveys to less than 12 minutes.
- Include a progress bar so customers know where they are in the survey.
Limit Open-Ended Questions
Only ask customers to complete open-ended questions if the data are absolutely necessary. Open-ended questions require effort to complete. Most customers provide short generic answers, that don’t add to what’s already covered in the closed-ended questions. This adds work for the customer without providing meaningful value to the analysis. If you do use open-ends make them as specific as you can – “What can we do better?” is unlikely to provide many insights.
Copy Edit your Survey
As with books, articles and blogs, surveys that are well written are easier to for customer to read, and feel shorter to take. Pick up the classic handbook on writing The Elements of Style by Strunk & White and follow the basic rules: Use simple concise language, use the active voice, eliminate needless words, etc.
Make sure that your answer categories are clear and match the questions being asked. As team members make changes to survey questions, its easy to overlook the subsequent changes required in the answer categories.
A clean, clear survey not only makes the experience better for the respondent—which makes them more likely to take another survey from you—but provides better data by reducing ambiguity.
While there’s no perfect day to send out invitations, Tuesday – Thursday mornings work a little better for B2B surveys.
Send out a reminder 1 week after the initial invitation to customers that haven’t responded. Make sure you don’t send a reminder to customers that already completed the survey.
A 2nd email reminder two weeks after the initial invitation is OK, but we caution against any additional reminders. The additional gain in response is small, and doesn’t justify adding another message to the customer’s inbox.
Once you have the data, compare the respondents to your customer database to see if any customer groups are over or under represented. If so, weight the data before sharing the results with a broader audience.
Look for any biases in the data. For example, are the responses to your surveys coming from the same group of customers. If so you may want to consider holding them out from future surveys.
Regardless of what you do, remember that all data sets require a degree of judgement on the interpretation and use of the results. Survey data is just one data point in any decision.
In the end…
In the end there are no silver bullet solutions to increase response rates to customers surveys, or to gather the best data possible. But there are many incremental actions you can take to get the most out of what you have when you have it.
These actions also acknowledge that a customer survey is a brand touch point. The entire survey experience (the number of invitations, the content of the invitation and the survey, how you use the data) shape perceptions of your product and brand.
B2B Customers Are Not Logos
People don’t want to be a number. B2B customers don’t want to be a logo.
An increasing number of companies refer to existing and potential customers as logos, e.g. Our goal is to add 20 more logos this year. It’s gone so far that a search on LinkedIn will produce individuals with titles like VP of New Logo Acquisition. We think referring to customers this way is a mistake. Beyond being jargon, it sends the wrong message to employees. Customers and prospects are better terms. A customer is a person or organization your company has a relationship with. A logo is a stamp.
This may seem like an exercise in semantics. But Language matters. How you describe customers and prospects in internal documents and conversations sends a message to employees. It subtly turns customers into a score, rather than a relationship.
Many organizations are sensitive to this issue when referring to employees. Employees are partners, associates, leaders, representatives, etc. These labels elevate the relationship the employee has with the organization. Even firms that don’t use aspirational terms for employees don’t call them cogs, underlings or wage-workers.
The use of the term “logos” to refer to customers appears to have originated in the financial services sector where banks and private equity firms display the companies the invest in using PowerPoint presentations. In this situation a logo represents an abstract connection. An investment.
But customers don’t want to be logos. They are organizations full of people with goals and challenges. Customers want to believe that their vendors have their best interests in mind and want to help them succeed. Your employees will be more motivated to help a customer or a person that your organization views as a relationship, then they will to help a logo that is keeping score in a PowerPoint deck. At least we think so.
Who you are: What you say
Over the past two decades we’ve help many B2B vendors refresh their brand platform. We notice that some B2B vendors struggle to differentiate the themes and characteristics that can be the pillars of their brand platform from those that may be critical to the market, but do not represent sustainable and/or unique brand positioning.
To help clients identify the difference between the two we use a simple construct that distills things down to the core distinction.
Although almost a cliché at this point, IBM still stands out as an example of effective brand management and continues to illustrate the difference between brand development and market messaging.
We all know the story of how IBM moved from type writers, to mainframes, to desktops, to the internet, etc., etc. We know that the core of its brand platform is using technology to improve business productivity and that what drives productivity evolved over time. After all it’s International Business Machines – not International Business Typewriters.
But did you know that in 2015 IBM bought The Weather Channel’s analytics and modeling technology (it rents it back to The Weather Channel)? IBM recognized that short and long term weather patterns have the potential to disrupt supply chains, manufacturing, deliveries, even purchases. The Weather Channel’s technology enables IBM to incorporate predictions about weather and climate condition into their forecasting models it builds for its clients. These insights in turn help clients plan for disruptions and improve overall productivity.
IBM can talk about this new capability and how it helps businesses adapt to the challenges brought on by client change. Doing so takes advantage of the general awareness, increasing urgency, and broad media coverage of the implications of a changing climate.
However, while IBM may take advantage of the current visibility of, and interest in, adapting to a changing climate, IBM will never incorporate predicting the weather into it’s brand platform. Weather analytics are just a tool that IBM uses. Yesterday it was typewriters. Today its predictive analytics that forecast the impact of climate change on business operations. Five years from now there will be other issues and new tools to talk about. IBM will talk about those new tools. But their brand will be the same – they will help clients be more productive.
Unfortunately, examples like this give a false sense of how easy it is to determine what makes sense as a brand platform theme and what should be used as a point in time messaging theme. In sectors closer to the commodity end of the continuum there is often less distinction between the vendor and the product. This makes defining a brand platform more challenging, but no less important. There are also some themes that have the potential to be a brand platform for one businesses but not another. Sustainability provides a good example of this duality.
The simple Who you are—What you say construct provides a starting point for evaluating what category potential brand characteristics fall into. The following provides a brief example.
Hospitals factor HIPAA compliance considerations into almost every decision they make. As a result, companies that sell technology solutions to hospitals might consider making helping hospitals stay in compliance a part of their brand platform.
Using the construct, they would ask: Is helping hospitals stay HIPAA compliant…
- A characteristic that would continue to be true even if we change our offerings?
- Is HIPAA compliance core to what we do, or a byproduct of it?
- Would it still have value if staying HIPPA compliant became less challenging?
- Will there be less challenges with being HIPAA compliant ten years from now?
The answers to these questions will vary by individual vendor and circumstance. However, for most technology vendors, HIPAA compliance is important to deliver and message to, but not something that represents a part of a brand platform.
Refreshing a brand, or creating a new one, requires much more rigorous an analysis than the simple questions in this brand construct model. However, a brand refresh can also put individuals and teams in a state of analysis paralysis. The simple construct questions can help teams get unstuck when they feel overwhelmed and provide a guiding principle to help keep everything in perspective.
Are you hard to work with? It matters.
Do your internal processes pull customers and prospects closer to you or do they push them away?
Research shows that companies and individuals that find a vendor easy to work with demonstrate higher levels of loyalty and likelihood to recommend. They use the vendor more fully, e.g. buy more products, use more features. They will even use technically inferior products and services when a vendor makes their lives easier.
This point sounds obvious. But as vendors develop internal processes to improve efficiency and management effectiveness they can accidentally lose sight of how these processes impact customer experience, loyalty and even their brand image. For example: A sales process designed to provide consistency across a diverse sales team may force prospects through a protocol that makes them feel that the sales rep isn’t listening to their needs; or an invoicing protocol that is ideal for a vendor’s internal accounting needs may be confusing or maddening to customers.
So how do you identify the unintended consequences of your processes on the customer experience? You have several options. Start with a common-sense review of your processes. A more systematic approach is to create a customer journey map for each process. And, if you want to be cutting edge, apply neuroscience to see what’s going on in your customer’s brain.
1 Common-sense, Self-examination
An easy first step is to engage in a bit of common-sense, self-examination of any given process (sales protocol, ordering, internal hand-offs, etc.). First outline the process’ broad steps and parameters; and then ask yourself two questions:
- Who receives the primary benefit from how the process is structured and executed?
- If you personally had to go through the same process with one of your vendors how would you feel?
If the benefits of the process primarily accrue to your organization or if you would personally find annoying or troublesome, chances are it has a negative impact on prospect/customer experience and perceptions.
This basic evaluation can highlight easy fixes. It can also help your department/organization start to think in terms of customer experience, rather than internal operations. A critical aspect of this is to consider is the emotional component a customer’s experience. Negative emotions like frustration, mistrust, or anger stick with a customer much longer than the specific details of the experience. These emotions become embedded in the brand’s perception, and are difficult to dislodge.
A simple way to formalize the investigation is to add a question to your customer experience surveys: How easy was it for you to… (place an order, get an answer to your question, etc.)? Alternatively, combing through the open-ended responses in your NPS survey may identify trouble spots.
2 Customer Journey Mapping
Customer journey mapping systematically captures the broad steps customers go through in their overall relationship with your firm. The technique can also drill down on the steps associated with a specific process (e.g. sales interactions, customer support). Simply defining each of the steps a customer/prospect must go through can identify trouble spots that hide in plain sight. Perhaps there is a lack of official transition from being a new customer to an established customer. Perhaps in-person training is only available in major metro areas. Etc.
Defining the steps in a process may identify intuitive problems such as those above. However, it will not necessarily identify all of the areas customers find confusing or hard to deal with – something that seems obvious and simple to you may feel complicated and opaque to customers. Primary research with customers and prospects can bring the market’s perspective into your customer journey maps and ensure they reflect how the market feels, not what you think.
Advances in neuroscience now enable you to literally see what is going on in your customer’s brain. Tasks and activities that are hard to navigate put a greater cognitive load on the customer’s brain. Neuroscience applications measure cognitive load in real-time to identify the specific points in a process where individuals struggle most. As promising as this technology is, the field is new; the viable applications of the approach are limited; and, the tools available are mixed. Buyer Brain’s Effort Assessment Score© is a good one to investigate to get a better understanding of how neuroscience is being used today.
Regardless of how sophisticated your approach, it’s worth putting some efforts toward evaluating how easy it is for your customers to do business with you. All of their experiences with you—not just your product/service—influence their perceptions of your brand, their loyalty and likelihood to recommend you to others.
Many B2B purchases are delayed or abandoned due to the uncertain outcome of the decision. Prospects compare the certainty of the status quo (good or bad) to the potential (but uncertain) benefits of a new solution and opt for the “devil they know”. The implication: B2B Marketing and Sales can help prospects reach a purchase decision by reducing uncertainty for the new solution, and increasing uncertainty of the status quo.
A recent study by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business shows that individuals favor certainty of outcome over potential benefits – they choose a certain loss of $100 over a chance to flip a coin with the chance to pay $0 or $200. Complexity exacerbates the problem. With more moving parts in the equation, people find it increasingly difficult to envision how the future will play out.
It turns out it’s not Go with the devil you know. It’s Go with the devil you know over anything else – unless you are absolutely sure about the other option.
Companies and B2B markets tend to follow the same pattern: The more conservative the company or market, the more dramatic the effect. The preference for the known plays itself out daily across markets and organizations.
- As prospects go through their evaluation process they ask for more information, details, case studies, etc. in an effort to bring certainty in their decision. In a recent post Make it easy for prospects to buy we explored how providing all the information prospects request doesn’t help get prospects over the hump and to the buy decision – it bogs them down further.
- Flip through a B2B trade publication and you’ll see that many of the ads look the same and don’t change much over time. Behind the scenes, B2B marketers ask their creative agencies to help their brand stand out in the marketplace. However, most B2B brands stick with the original creative strategy because its performance is more certain.
- Research reports that present the data as %’s often get more attention than qualitative insights because a number feels more certain than a description – whether it is or not.
- It took almost a decade for most markets to become comfortable with cloud software solutions. They knew the cloud offered significant benefits over their on-premise solutions, but most companies didn’t want to move until they saw that the cloud was here to stay and that everyone else was doing it too.
Pain points trump benefits
Perhaps the most basic, yet important, manifestation of this trend is that solving pain-points represents a more effective sales and marketing strategy than selling benefits. Here’s why…
- Pains are certain. Concrete. They are something specific the prospect knows it needs to address. Once a pain gets significant enough the desire to find a solution outweighs the uncertainties that come with new approaches and vendors.
- Benefits are hypothetical. If a prospect does x, y, and z, they should receive the benefits. Benefits raise questions: What if a key assumption turns out to be false. Benefits come with more professional risks. Unrealized benefits lack the certainty of the status quo.
The insights from Pfeffer’s research and the day-to-day experience of B2B sales and marketers leads to one conclusion: B2B sales reps and marketers need to change the uncertainty equation.
- Increase the certainty of new solutions
- Decrease the certainty of the status quo
Increase the certainty of new solutions
Recognize and acknowledge the uncertainty
Left to their own devices individuals and businesses can easily overestimate the things that can go wrong with a new approach or soluiton. By acknowledging the risks that exist, vendors can set the parameters of what the risks and uncertainties actually are. This can include letting prospects know where other individuals/companies run into trouble, what needs to be in place for the solution to be a success, etc. Acknowledging uncertainty not only frames the issue, it increases the knowns associated with the new solution.
Create specific certainties
Reducing the number of unknowns (even minor ones) makes options look more appealing. This phenomenon is known as zero risk bias which is the tendency to prefer options that completely eliminates some risk factors in a decision but leaves other untouched, over options that may produce a greater overall reduction in risk, but do not eliminate any individual risk factor. The preference for options that completely eliminate some risks likely stems from the reduction in complexity – it reduces the factors that have to be considered in the decision.
Examples of certainties that B2B vendors can create include:
- Concrete implementation processes and milestones
- Metrics of how other customers use the solution, e.g. 75% of customers select this approach
- Definitive outcomes, e.g. the ads will stand out from competitors (which is different than saying they will be effective)
- Customer satisfaction scores
- Guarantees / Shared risk models
Raise the uncertainty of the status quo
While the status quo feels stable to individuals and organizations, it’s not. Sales and B2B marketers can point out this false sense of security by asking questions or providing data that highlight the actual uncertainty associated with prospects sticking with the status quo: Your market appears to be changing in this way, how will that effect you? These new entrants have entered the marketplace, what does it mean for your market? etc. etc.
There is no single approach or silver bullet for changing the certainty equation. Prospect perceptions of, and preference for security are rooted deep. We suggest a few starting points:
- Examine the customer journey to ensure you understand their status quo and pain points.
- Identify the benefits of your solution that are most believable to the market, and therefore have greater certainty.
- Analyze the Marketing and Sales Process. To what extent does your approach (advertising, collateral, sales process, etc.) reduce or increase certainty for the buyer?
These steps will help sales reps and B2B marketers look more certain in an uncertain world.