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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 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.
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.