Make it matter

Alan Hale is president of Consight Marketing Group, Chicago. He can be reached at

I have spent 40 years in marketing consulting and research for business-to-business (B2B) across a wide variety of products and industries. I have seen some excellent voice-of-the-customer (VOC) practices and some that were not so excellent. Based on my experience, I have outlined a process for identifying and acting on B2B VOC research insights.

This article will address several areas, including: how B2B research is different from business-to-consumer (B2C) research; the importance of having and creating raving fans; how to use VOC research to identify insights; Net Promoter Score; and what to do after the research process.

B2B is not B2C

Every now and then, I will see people express the view that B2B marketing and marketing research are similar to their B2C counterparts. After all, this thinking goes, both are human-to-human, person-to-person.


Let’s define B2B. B2B is not selling to consumers. It is selling to businesses, contractors, OEMs or to distributors, wholesalers and other channels who sell to the end-user market.

There are multiple stakeholders in the B2B buying decision. An example could be engineering, purchasing and marketing for a bottle manufacturer. It is a long selection process heavily influenced by a range of financial criteria. The sales process can last months or even years. Pricing can be very high, even in the millions of dollars.

There are the concepts of risk, credibility and trust that must be managed. If you buy the wrong toothpaste, no big deal. If you buy the wrong car, your spouse could get mad. But if you buy the wrong solution in business, you could be fired.

An existing vendor has the implicit trust because they have proven themselves; they have a track record. It is very difficult to replace a current vendor. Switching to a new one always carries the risk of failure due to unforeseen circumstances.

And then there’s the 80/20 rule. In B2C a product like bleach, a consumer will usually buy one bottle at a time. But in B2B, 20% of your customers account for 80% of your sales. If you have 200 active accounts, you have 40 that are truly valuable and drive the profitability of your firm. Spend your resources here by trying to prevent churn and to make these golden accounts into raving fans. 

Raving fans

Let’s talk about raving fans and why they are so important. The term “raving fans” was coined by Ken Blanchard in his book of the same name. They have the following characteristics:

  • They love your company, brand and products.
  • They are much less likely to defect/churn.
  • They give you a higher share-of-wallet.
  • They are generally, although not always, less price-sensitive.
  • They are more likely to buy future products, services and solutions from you and may even serve as beta testers.
  • They are potential candidates to serve on customer advisory boards.
  • They become brand evangelists rather than brand assassins.
  • They may refer you to other customers.

Structuring the customer research

Spend the majority of your research dollars and effort understanding your major customers. Do not try to treat all customers equally; it will destroy your business. You can love everyone but these key accounts deserve special care and handling.

Identify key stakeholders at these accounts – at corporate, the branch and the division. For example, they could be in purchasing, engineering or marketing or be a user/operator.

Identify accounts who have churned or drastically reduced their purchases with you and determine if you are doing anything to systematically drive these accounts away.

Executing the research

Remember: you need to talk to customers, not your salesforce. VOC is voice of the customer, not the voice of the rep. Why would you want filtered and biased input? Sales reps are not trained to conduct research. They are trained to sell.

In B2C, continuing with the example from above, you have millions of people who buy bleach. It is important to do quantitative research to first tease out opportunities and then follow up with qualitative methods like focus groups or ethnography, etc. In B2B, it is the opposite. You start with qualitative discovery and then use quantitative to make the data more robust as well as sampling into smaller customers.

In B2C, you are looking for statistical significance. In B2B, you are looking for major insights as you are interviewing 80% of your sales. You can add prospects, who might grow into a large account, as well as sampling accounts who churned to make sure you learn what not to do. This is a hard concept to understand for B2C research practitioners and they have difficulty shifting their paradigms. Concentrate your research dollars on your key accounts and identifying factors that could make them raving fans.

Research methodologies

There are a variety of methodologies. Here are some frequently used methods that are not optimal for gaining insights in B2B. 

Web surveys are cheap to administer. You get results quickly. It is estimated that about 60% or more of marketers use this method. The problem is that it does not drive insights. Respondents in many cases do not answer the qualitative questions. If they answer these qualitative questions, they will write two or three words. We need to have more discussions and engagements and less survey-slapping. Not getting the whys, the context for the scores and ratings, is really marketing malpractice in my view. Unfortunately, it is now the default.

Focus groups are fine but they present issues of coordinating logistics and relatively high costs. You have 90 minutes to get the group talking, which means probably six to eight questions. And even with great moderators, some respondents will try to dominate, others will be quieter. And group dynamics can be hampered if the respondents are market competitors. Lastly, the cost can be high due to travel, honoraria, recruiting fees, food, videotaping, generating transcripts. (We do like focus groups for reactions to new products and new websites and feedback on new logos, taglines, communication messaging.)

Our favorite methods are face-to-face executive interviews and qualitative phone discussions.

For the executive interviews, with 15 to 20 key customers, both the CEO and the marketing person should go out initially. Over time, other functions like engineering can join. The CEO gets to hear directly from clients without filtering from sales reps, for example, what the customers want and how the company should improve. Once this input is delivered it helps embed insight into the DNA of the organization, something I’ve seen firsthand.

For the in-depth phone interviews, we convince customers to spend about 30 minutes on the phone with a professional interviewer, typically an outside third party who brings no agenda or bias. There are cases where the internal research and insights group is strong enough to pull off the interviewing but this is the exception.

Remember: Perfection is the enemy of excellence. While some of you may not have done customer interviews before and might not know where to begin, the main thing is to begin; you will get better over time. Try starting with a smaller account or two to practice. Role-play with others. Get trained by professionals. Again, just start.

Here are open-ended questions are great to start a conversation and dialogue. Some of my favorites are listed below:

  • How were we to deal with in the last 12 to 18 months?
  • What do you like about dealing with us?
  • Where do we need to improve?
  • How do we compare to our competitors?
  • How can we help you solve points of pain?
  • What else should we be doing?
  • If you were sitting down with the CEO, what is the one thing you would tell him or her that we should do to make us better or make your life easier?
  • What are some trends in the industry?

Talk to accounts who have churned so you can learn what drove them away. Your reps will likely say price but usually that’s not it. Was it poor product fit? Was it the way the account was serviced? 

Distribute transcripts for each customer discussion to socialize the learnings into your company. Give to the sales reps to review.

Once the qualitative research is done, you might decide to do quantitative research to make the data more robust and to survey other accounts who are not your key accounts. This can be used to tap into other non-key accounts as well as prospects.

Remember: Perfection is the enemy of excellence. While some of you may not have done customer interviews before and might not know where to begin, the main thing is to begin; you will get better over time.

Thoughts on Net Promoter Score

The Net Promoter Score (NPS), now the Net Promoter System, has received a lot of bad press lately because it is not actionable. Web surveys are sent out but insights are not captured. I have a 26% NPS. Now what do I do? Who knows? The score was meant to be a benchmark, not the objective of the research. If you add qualitative diagnostic questions, you will get the answers on how to improve. Done incorrectly – and most are done incorrectly – you have a vanity metric for the CEO. It won’t help you transform the business. Even the creator of NPS, Fred Reichheld, has indicated that NPS is being used incorrectly. 

Done right, it is a powerful predictor of who will buy more as well as who will churn over time. You can take actionable steps to raise the NPS score of each account. I am a strong believer in NPS and have seen remarkable results. But I am not here to convince the multitudes of service providers who think it is not a good methodology. It will remain an important part of my marketing toolbox.

Post-research actions

OK, the research has been executed but you are not finished. Now what? You need to act on these insights. The goal is to make research expenditures an investment in the business, not just a line-item cost. It is about ROI, something the CEO will be in tune with, possibly making them more likely to fund future research.

Here is the post-research activity checklist:

  • Identify the top three to five issues that cut across customers. It could be delivery, lack of responsiveness or that the company is difficult to do business with. Make sure they are root-cause issues and are important to these customers.
  • Share the findings with employees. “Here is what we heard and here is what we are going to do.” Every employee, as well as key vendors, should know the situation and your game plan. Obviously, for key vendors like ad agencies there should be a non-disclosure agreement in place.
  • Craft initiatives that address these high-priority issues. How will these actions delight your customers?
  • Select the three to five most important attributes identified by your customers. Don’t just meet the competition on these criteria. Blow them away. Leave them in the dust.
  • Assign each initiative to a senior-level manager for sponsorship. Someone needs to be accountable as well as allocate resources to get the work done.
  • Address the silo issue. The goal is designing processes around the needs of the customer. This is where top leadership needs to enforce the policy that all departments must work together to service the customer.
  • Each large account may require specific initiatives in addition to the top three to five identified earlier. Again, the goal is to make them raving fans. This step is often ignored by companies.
  • Hand out customer transcripts to the salespeople of their assigned accounts. They should carefully review these documented conversations. Tell the reps what the company is doing about it. Train the salespeople to learn to take criticism. We have seen role-playing with professional actors be very helpful. The last thing you want is a defensive rep verbally attacking a customer (which we have seen happen).
  • Close the feedback loop. This is not a one-and-done process. Go back to each customer. Here is what we heard. Are we missing anything? What else would you like us to do to make you a raving fan? Here is what we are going to do. We are going to implement the following programs. We will visit you every quarter, to assess our progress jointly.
  • Start a war room to track where each account is and the progress of your initiatives. The CEO or CMO can come in and review. When they can see what you are doing and the progress you are making, they will be more likely to fund research. Do not keep them in the dark or treat research like a black box.

Research is a journey

As cited earlier, this is a journey, not a single transaction. Eighteen months after the initiatives have been launched, have discussions with customers to determine if your efforts have any impact on your relationship and determine what is to be fine-tuned.

Independent of this framework, you should be proactively reaching out to your customers to understand how you are doing.

We recommend a 10/30/90-day program. Every business day for two weeks, marketing should be spending time with a customer or customers. Every 30 days, engineering should also visit customers. What improvements would you like to see in our product? What issues would you like our solution to address? And senior management should visit assigned platinum accounts every quarter. This sends an important signal that their account is getting high-level attention.

Remember: Discussions and engagements are much more valuable for developing insights than survey-slapping customers.

Building a strong foundation

The above is an iterative process. It is a change in paradigm from thinking, “We don’t need to do research; we know what our customers want.” You don’t. 

This approach identifies and helps you focus initiatives on key insights. You are building a strong customer-obsession foundation. The research becomes an investment, not just a line-item cost, and your CEO will be more likely to support you since it is ROI-driven rather than merely nice-to-know.

Perhaps best of all, this kind of customer-listening work is difficult to impossible for competitors to duplicate. After all, they are likely too busy managing their own activities and focusing on marketing to undertake a paradigm shift of their own.

Are you ready to shake things up and develop effective marketing strategies and tactics that are customer-based? Are you ready to make being customer driven your true north? To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the journey to customer obsession begins with a single step.