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Customer Insights

How to Get Extraordinary Customer Insights

What is good insight from a B2B customer and how do you get it?

Voice of Customer (VOC) surveys are everywhere. Even the Department of Motor Vehicles, where it once seemed that wasting time and boorish staff behavior were core competencies, now asks, “How are we doing?” And they seem to care about the answer. Since consumers who provide feedback are more likely to have experienced some lapse, their comments need to be placed in that context, but weeding out bad practices and bad performance are worthy goals and we can only applaud this effort.

Business-to-business (B2B) markets are different, however. Supplier relationships can be large, intimate, and involve small numbers of customers. VOC was slower to be embraced, with the thinking that the already frequent communication is a substitute, but it has now become very popular as well. As with consumer markets, getting customer insights is very useful, especially for highlighting those practices and behaviors that can potentially damage a relationship, such as not forewarning of delays in critical shipments, how product quality issues are reported and addressed, and difficulties in getting service.

That’s good insight. Yet, we urge there to be more, going beyond report card-like questions, where the goal is to get good grades, to more strategic questions, where the goal is guiding better decisions. Since B2B relationships are often strategic for both parties, it’s essential.

In our experience with asking those questions, there are two key elements:

  1. Ask the right questions
  2. Have the right person ask the right questions in the right context
Ask the Right Questions

The right questions should be ones that don’t beg for a good grade. To get past the natural tendency to be generous and supportive to the efforts of a long-standing business partner, the questions should be both direct and unexpected.

One of our favorite questions is, “What are we doing that isn’t creating value for you?” With this question, it reverses the focus of “How are we doing?” by making the common positive and supportive answer one that recommends change.

One dramatic example out of many important answers to that question was from a key strategic account of a company offering solutions vital to the customer’s operation:

“Now that you ask, I wish they didn’t come out with a new version of their offering every two years. Since we know they are going to focus their support on the new one, we are almost forced to transition to it. But every time I see the email announcing “new and exciting,” I have the same thought: This transition is going to be a pain and costly in training and the adaptation we will need to make. I’m sure that a new customer might be attracted by the new features, but there is never anything so valuable to me that I am pleased to get that email.”

This was a startling comment from an apparently delighted customer which the supplier thought of as a strategic partner. Because of their major investments in R&D, this innovative and highly-valued supplier was making an important customer jump through hoops to use new generations without adding much value to them. As a result of this insight, it completely changed the mindset of a partner dedicated to excellence overnight.

Have the Right Person Ask the Right Questions in the Right Context

Valuable insight gleaned from discussions like this might not be achieved between business partners who have been working together for years because of the natural tendency to be generous and supportive. Therefore, a direct and unexpected question is best posed by an individual from outside of the relationship. That individual can be either an unrelated party or an outside supplier executive. This individual can dismiss all notions of report card-like questions by talking to all major customers and promising anonymity.

In addition to having the right person ask the right questions, the questions must be asked within a live conversation—not in the form of a survey—because direct comments, like the one above, need to be explained and discussed in the context of the overall relationship. It is best done as an extended conversation. The insight we received was honest and most encouraging:

“Nothing I just said should be interpreted as implying that they are not a great partner. They are far and away our most critical business relationship and we would never dream of raising any question of how much we value them. But they do waste some time and energy as far as we are concerned, and I felt I ought to say it even though we are very happy overall.”

Getting strategically-valuable insight requires investment but can pay off. As in our example, the payoff might be in avoiding costs that do not match value, or it might be in better-directed investments. Regardless, it’s a very different, more valuable level of payoff than that of a good report card.

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