Think You Understand Your B2B Customers’ Needs? Think Again.

If you’re in a business-to- business market, how well do you understand your customers’ needs?  How would you say those needs have evolved in the last twelve months?

If you’re only using market research and feedback from your salesforce to understand how your customers are changing, you are probably missing a big piece of the picture.  With the right approach,  you can understand your B2B customers’ needs even better than they themselves do.

Let me give you an example.

I once knew a technology firm—let’s call it TechCo—whose biggest customer was a top-ten bank.

TechCo was deeply invested in providing great service to the bank. In fact, it had dedicated an entire team of sales people to making sure the bank’s needs were met.

So you can imagine how TechCo’s sales team felt when one of the bank’s top executives pulled TechCo’s CEO aside at a trade show and threatened to defect to a competitor if service did not improve.

Losing the account would have a material impact on revenues for years to come. TechCo would lose the confidence of its shareholders. Other banks would take notice of the defection, and might follow suit.

The thing is, the bank executive didn’t know exactly what was wrong with TechCo’s service.

She did know that a competitor had offered a price that was fifteen percent lower than TechCo’s.

And she did know that none of the bank’s employees were coming to TechCo’s defense, advocating to retain it as a supplier.

Neither TechCo’s team, nor top management at the bank, really understood what was wrong with the relationship.

My firm got involved, ultimately interviewing and observing more than 20 bank employees, spread across many functions and levels of the bank. Over the course of these conversations, a picture emerged of how the bank’s needs had changed, and what TechCo could do to get the relationship back on track.

When you’re in a B2B market, this kind of indepth observation and discussion—across many different parts of your customer’s organization—is often required to fully understand the customer’s evolving needs.

Consider the following approaches, taking into account your specific situation.

  • Examine the entire process. Observe the customers’ employees in their workplaces. Follow your product through as the customer receives and uses it. Watch how the different players in the customer’s business experience your service. What is changing in their process or needs? What new problems and opportunities do these changes create?
  • Observe how people use your competitor’s products and services.Watch the customer using both, and note how the experience varies. Does your product solve a different problem than your competitor’s does? Does it solve the same problem in a different way? Have you made the most of any advantage you have—and communicated these differences to customers?
  • Watch what happens beforeduring, and after the time that your product or service is employed. Do problems occur upstream or downstream that your product or service could help to solve? What triggers the need for your product? Could you solve the customer’s problem earlier, or prevent it altogether?
  • Witness the customer process during both their busy and their slow times. Is there anything that could be optimized to make your offering more useful, easier to consume, or more effective during peak times? Is there a way to take cost out of your offering during slow times, without reducing value to the customer?
  • Look at the tools, processes, and outside services your customer uses in addition to those you provide. Have any changes occurred in the tools, processes, and services your customer uses other than those you provide? How do these affect the customer problem you are solving? Are there opportunities to make your product work better with other products? Could you partner with other service providers to offer a bundled package that is more efficient or easier to use than buying the services separately? How can you help make the other tools and processes that your customer uses more effective?

Taking this type of comprehensive and in depth look at the multiple parts and layers of your customers’ organization will allow you to understand their needs much better than they themselves can articulate. You may even find you know the customer better than they know themselves.

I’d love to hear about techniques you’ve used to understand your customers better, and what you learned – I’ll be interested in your comments!

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