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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
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.
You’ve analyzed your brand strengths and weaknesses, conducted research to understand your brand equity relative to key competitors, identified open market positions, developed your brand strategy, and set tactical marketing plans into motion.
But what have you done to help the sales team embrace and operationalize your brand strategy? Have you helped them understand how it will make them more successful? Put more bluntly, have you told them what’s in it for them?
As many B2B marketers can attest to, the sales team doesn’t always embrace the marketing team’s brand strategy. One barrier is a degree of mistrust between sales and marketing. But much of the resistance stems from differences in the two teams’ motivations and KPIs. Marketing has the responsibility—and luxury—to think in terms of long-term strategies. Sales must meet its numbers today. The inherent tension between these two sets of objectives can send sales and marketing down different paths, weakening both.
Improving alignment on brand strategy across sales and marketing benefits any B2B firm but is especially valuable for organizations that have modest marketing operations, but extensive sales teams. In practical terms the sales reps are often the primary channel for a company’s brand strategy.
One way to improve the alignment and encourage the sales team to take ownership of your brand strategy is to treat them as your customer and sell them on the strategy. Effective brand strategies are built on understanding the needs of the end-customers and articulating, and positioning why:
- Your solution meets their needs better than their current vendor;
- It’s worth the pain-and-suffering of switching to your product/service;
- And, how your solution will improve their desired business outcomes
As a B2B marketer, if you can address these same questions for your sales team about your brand strategy you gain a much higher chance that Sales acts on the strategy – they will buy it.
Answering these questions requires more than just presenting the brand strategy in a slimmed-down strategy deck. It requires understanding how the sales team operates, their pain points, etc. To do this we recommend conducting internal research with three levels of your company’s sales organization: Sales leadership, sales managers and frontline sales reps.
Sales Leadership: Your sales leadership sets the tone and broad strategies for the sales force. This includes the type of sales approach used (Challenger, Sandler, etc.) which sets the framework for how sales reps interact with customers and prospects – how they identify prospects, the questions they ask, how they present your product’s benefits, etc. It is also important to understand how your sales leaders view the market, competitors and your competitive differentiation. If your brand strategy varies too much from how sales leaders view the world, they will struggle to trust your recommendations.
Sales Managers: Your sales managers can help you understand the specifics of your company’s sales process: What’s presented in the first call, how much does the prospect usually know about your product/service, when is collateral provided, at what point are different stakeholders involved in the conversation, how much interaction do reps have with clients (literally number of calls, length of calls, number of emails), etc.
Frontline Sales Reps: If you want frontline sales reps to embrace the brand strategy you need to understand their needs, fears and challenges. Their income and job security depend on their ability to sell. Being human, this makes it hard for them to switch from an approach they feel is working, even if a new approach is better in theory.
Once you understand your sales team’s perspectives, processes, needs and challenges you will be in a better position to articulate how your brand strategy plays a role in every stage of the sales process from identifying the prospects mostly likely to buy to upselling customers. In addition, you will better understand how to incorporate the brand strategy into the sales process in a way that minimizes the amount of disruption to the sales team.
The outcomes of the process are typically shared with the sales team in multiple formats, including an overall strategic plan for the sales leadership that demonstrates how the brand strategy fits with their sales protocols and process, refinements to sales playbooks and training documents, and workshops and training sessions with sales managers and frontline reps. The more open and collaborative these sessions are, the more likely the sales reps are to embrace and own the brand strategy.
Isurus partners with onPurpose Growth to help B2B marketers work through this process and build the linkage between brand strategy and on the ground sales. While, we bring expertise, experience and resources to the process, B2B marketers can handle the process internally by following the steps outlined above and improve the chances that their sales function buys what marketing is selling.
“The best thing about doing this is that I got to have coffee with my Dad in the barn every morning until he passed. Now I have that cup of coffee with my son and will as long as he stays involved.”
This statement paints a clear and vibrant picture of a small business owner’s emotional drivers. It surfaced in a series of qualitative in-depth interviews and encapsulates an emotional theme that ran through the interviews. It speaks to one of this audience’s core values and influences even their most rational decisions. B2B marketers hunger for these types of insights as they look for ways to bring a human element to their messaging and positioning.
The resonance of the theme and its usefulness for developing customer personas and journeys stems from the methodology that uncovered it – qualitative in-depth interviews. B2B marketers and their agency partners often face resistance from internal stakeholders who doubt the value of insights that aren’t expressed as a statistical projection of the market. But in-depth interviews provide the time and format that enable an individual to make the journey from superficial reactions to overly rational answers, and finally to what it means to them personally. As a full disclosure, it’s not always as clear or powerful as connecting with a father who has passed on but relative to surveys, big data and social listening – it gets you closer to the human side of the B2B buyer.
This is not a criticism of surveys, VOC programs, and other more quantitative methodologies. We routinely use those approaches because they provide robust insights needed for branding, market sizing, pricing, and bundling strategies. But when you want to understand the human side of a B2B buyer, qualitative in-depth interviews are one of the best tools in the research tool box.
But having a tool in your tool box isn’t enough. You need to use the tool correctly. The most common mistake B2B marketers make when using qualitative in-depth interviews is to treat it like a survey and create a list of 50 specific questions. You also cannot simply ask, “How does xyz make you feel? How does it connect to you as a person?”.
So, what should you ask?
Qualitative research structured on the following guidelines are more likely to yield insights about the personal and emotional drivers in business decisions.
Limit the number of topics and questions: Three to four topic areas with a few broad questions within each is a good place to start. This gives the interviewer flexibility and time to probe, follow-up on unexpected insights that arise, and gives the respondent time to linger over their answers.
Focus on their needs and challenges: B2B marketers, or their stakeholders, often want to focus the questions on their product and service – “How do you abc? What challenges do you encounter when doing this specific task?” This doesn’t mean you cannot ask specific questions; just be careful not to turn your conversation into a survey.
Change the question frame: Ask questions that make them take an outside view of themselves: How they think their colleagues view them, what they hope their colleagues will say about them after they retire.
Use projective exercises: Picture sorts, word associations, and other exercises help respondents articulate emotional or personal dynamics that shape their business decisions. And remember, the insight is not which picture they select, but why they selected the picture they did.
Let them talk: Some of the best insights come at the end of a section when the respondent says, “One more thing.” It might be the last thing they say, but often the best articulation of what they’d been circling around in their previous responses. If you force-march the respondent to get through a long list of questions, these insights don’t have a chance to surface.
These guidelines can be scary for those unfamiliar with qualitative research. For some B2B marketers and stakeholders it can be easier to justify the investment in research (time and dollars) if they see a long list of discrete questions they will get answers to. And in truth, not every human-focused in-depth interview provides grand insights. But you must be willing to take the duds to get the gems.
This highlights the importance of gaining consensus on the overall objective of the research and what its outputs and uses will be. In some cases, the best approach will be to explore specific needs and challenges around a list of product attributes. But if you want to want to understand the human side of a B2B audience, let them talk.
Set it and forget it is the attitude in many low involvement categories – data security, business insurance, telecommunications, etc. Inertia keeps businesses from proactively evaluating alternative solutions or vendors. If the product or service is good-enough businesses don’t have the motivation to evaluate their options.
The purchase journey for these products and services consists of long stretches of inertia, interspersed with periodic spikes in interest in alternatives. During the inertia phase businesses pay little attention to the category: They don’t think about how things could be better or keep tabs on vendors or trends in the category. They remain happy with the status quo.
Product/service failures and significant price increases jolt business out of their comfort zone. They reach out to peers and advisors, conduct online searches, read online reviews, reach out to vendors, take sales calls, etc. Once they make their decision to switch vendors, or maintain the status quo, their inertia returns. They stop paying attention to the category and their awareness of vendors and options rapidly dissipates.
This buying journey cycle is a significant challenge for vendors that operate in these categories. If your product or service is a low-involvement one, convincing prospects that it’s worth their time to look around outside of their sporadic spikes in interest may require more sales and marketing resources than you have available.
It might make more sense to take steps to ensure you can take advantage of the opportunities when they do arise.
Be where they look
Although their need may be urgent, most prospects look into only a handful of vendors: Those they’ve used before, are familiar with, find in a simple online search, know their peers use or are recommended by their trusted advisors. To improve your likelihood of being in this initial consideration set:
- Keep track of, and contact with, individual customers and prospects when they move to new employers
- Attend industry events as a sponsor or attendee
- Identify the trusted advisor channels you can feasibly influence
- Invest in optimizing search results
- Advertise to maintain brand awareness (this varies in importance by market)
Understand the Failures
The purchase trigger in low-involvement categories tends to be a failure, or cost increase, rather than a proactive desire to improve the status quo. Prospects will be interested in the potential benefits of a new solution, but their first priority is to ensure they don’t get burned again.
When you understand the what, where, why, who and how of the typical failures that motivate prospects to switch vendors, your sales and marketing processes and communications can speak directly to these concerns. Convincing a prospect that the failures they experienced will not happen with you will be as compelling as the additional benefits your company provides. If a prospect feels at risk of the same type of failure with a new vendor, they have little motivation to switch.
Recognize the Price Shoppers
Some switching in low-involvement categories is merely price shopping. If you are the low-cost vendor in your category this works to your advantage. If you aren’t, don’t count on these customers for the long-term if you happen to win them. While some may come to understand the value your product/services provide, many will eventually leave for a better price.
Learn from new customers and recent losses
Your new customers are a great place to start to understand the types of failures that prompted them to switch, and how your company made it into their consideration set. Losses can provide similar insights – they may not have selected you, but something motivated them to evaluate options.
We recommend conducting interviews with the customers and losses themselves, rather than relying solely on the opinion of the sales team. Sales reps tend to focus on the benefits of your product/service that resonated with the prospect, not the failures that got them motivated them to evaluate their options in the first place.