Many paths to the same goal

Editor's note: Doug Berdie is president of Consumer Review Systems, a Minneapolis research firm.

Imagine you work at the fictional company TechniNano Inc. and your VP of marketing asked you to design a system allowing the company to conduct periodic B2B surveys so it can determine: criteria and processes customers/prospective customers use to make purchase decisions; product/service strengths to be leveraged and areas needing improvement; evolving marketplace needs; and whether/how customers should be segmented for marketing.

You’ve been involved with consumer surveys but realize B2B surveys might be different. What do you need to know?

The most fundamental difference between B2B and consumer surveys is that most B2B surveys are conducted to draw conclusions about organizations, whereas almost all consumer surveys wish to draw conclusions about individual people. Dealing effectively with this critical difference can result in highly effective B2B surveys, whereas failure to deal with it can result in sub-optimal surveys.

B2B sampling issues

Companies conduct B2B surveys to understand the perspectives/experiences of: clients to whom they sell direct; companies who buy their products/services indirectly – through dealers, distributors and others in the channel; and channel partners who buy to resell to end users.

Surveys of each type present their own challenges. For example, TechniNano is more likely to know the identities of clients to whom it sells direct than it is the identities of companies who deal with TechniNano channel partners. Hence, it is easier to know whom to survey in the former than the latter. And, when assessing the experiences of its own channel partners, in addition to asking about product/service issues, TechniNano must include questioning that addresses partner fears of channel conflict and other business issues unique to the channel relationship. Failure to do so undercuts credibility and prevents buy-in from partners.

Deciding which person to survey for B2B surveys is rarely easy. The first step is to be clear as to whether one wants to assess specific interactions or measure more of an overall relationship. For evaluations of specific interactions, the actual person who had the experience is best qualified to evaluate it. Identifying that person is best done at the time of the experience. Although this seems simple, unless a careful identify-capture process is established, this information may not be available – and is difficult to resurrect later.

Assessing an overall relationship may span a variety of interactions of different types and it is often a manager with familiarity of the entire span of experiences who is best qualified to provide comprehensive feedback. Resist the temptation simply to survey top executives. For example, plant managers may have an overview of what happens in a manufacturing plant but a survey related to electronic process control equipment is best directed to the process manager and/or the maintenance engineer. Determining which job titles have the desired knowledge requires up-front, qualitative research – especially when a project is being initially designed.

Job titles can be misleading. For example, in some companies the title “manager” is a mid-level position, whereas in other companies that title carries more responsibility. Although how job titles are used is to some extent related to industry, company-specific behaviors vary and one cannot assume the same roles across companies for the same titles.

Many B2B companies do not know the identities of all relevant people at their clients’ organizations. They usually know the executives but likely do not know all the people involved in placing orders, product installations, daily operations, etc. Yet these people often have precisely the information needed to gauge and improve products and customer service. And experience has shown that company databases are usually deficient as a source of such identities. Investigating supplemental techniques to find the names of people is time well spent.

Techniques to identify names of B2B people to survey:

  • Assess CRM databases for completeness/accuracy/up-to-dateness.
  • Investigate additional customer lists beyond CRM databases.
  • Work with sales force to capitalize on rep knowledge.
  • Use skilled telephone interviewers to conduct calls to identify names.
  • Utilize commercial databases as identity supplements.

Some B2B companies have few customers and some sell to thousands. In either case, sample designs should help companies profile their most important customers while also paying enough attention to smaller, perhaps evolving, customers to produce a customer-wide profile.

Consider surveying more than one person at a given organization. For example, if you want to learn why TechniNano wins some bids and loses others, you must survey the person who makes the purchase decision. If you also want feedback related to TechniNano’s billing, customer service, product repair, etc., you must survey people who deal in those areas. Sometimes, a given person deals with multiple parts of the process while at other organizations it may be a separate person dealing with each aspect of the experience.

Another B2B sampling-related complexity relates to companies vs. sites. TechniNano has some clients who have purchased equipment that is installed at, say, 40 sites across the world, whereas other clients have all their installed equipment at one site. In situations where the equipment is at many sites, it is likely that client operations and service personnel exist at each site and it may be necessary to get feedback from multiple sites to fully reveal how well TechniNano is serving this type of customer. An additional consideration is that, among customers with multiple sites, some functions (such as purchase decisions) are made centrally and others locally. Careful up-front work is needed to understand the dynamics at play so appropriate sampling decisions can be made.

Techniques to address B2B sample issues:

  • Ensure key accounts are comprehensively covered; sampling others.
  • Obtain information from right level – usually not upper management.
  • Be flexible as to eligible job titles given that the meaning of titles varies.
  • Sample by job roles not just customer accounts.
  • In relevant situations, sample by sites not just companies.
  • Factor in centralized vs. local decision-making.

When surveying customers of competitors, identifying the people to survey has additional challenges including finding them (companies, and people within them) and motivating these people to respond.

In settings such as TechniNano’s, the company knows most potential customers because it is calling on them. In cases where the potential customer base may be much larger, use of trade industry and other (e.g., Dun & Bradstreet) databases sorted by NAICS/SIC classifications may solve the problem. A common solution is B2B online panels, which can be a good resource, realizing that some industries are not well-represented in panels.

Motivating competitive customers involves finding an effective incentive. For panels, the benefit is usually cash or some non-cash reward. These incentives work for non-panels as well, though other incentives (such as a summary of survey results – those the sponsor does not mind sharing) may be more effective.

Some panel members complete surveys capriciously. Hence, including some trap questions and speeding checks is advised. The former instruct respondents to answer a particular question in a certain way and serve as a check on attentiveness. The latter detect people who are moving at an unreasonably fast pace so they can be disqualified.

Techniques to survey competitive customers effectively:

  • Explore a variety of sources to identify these customers.
  • Allocate sufficient time/resources to drill down to find names of people.
  • Check with general and specialty B2B panels to assess viability.
  • To motivate, offer a summary of selected survey results, if feasible.
  • Include trap questions and speeding checks.

When surveying customers of channel partners, other complexities exist. Channel partners are often nervous about sharing customer names with the supplier because they fear the supplier may start selling directly to their customers. Assess the extent to which this “channel-conflict” concern exists. If it does, it must be resolved. One way is for an independent third party to receive and maintain the customers’ names and administer the survey after having signed nondisclosure agreements with the channel partners.

Another channel issue is whether all the partner’s customers should be surveyed or only those who have TechniNano products. In some cases, manufacturers only wish feedback from companies using their products, while in other cases feedback from channel partner customers who buy competitive products is desired. Furthermore, many channel partners prefer a comprehensive view of all their customers and resist surveying only those who buy certain brands.

Some channel partners provide both sales and service (and, in some cases, technical training) whereas others only provide sales. In the latter case, customers may get service directly from the manufacturer or may obtain it from other service providers. Understanding how this works facilitates the most efficient and effective sampling designs.

Techniques to survey channel partner customers successfully:

  • Set up nondisclosure agreements where needed.
  • Consolidate channel partner and supplier customer survey activities.
  • Standardize the formats in which channel partners submit sample.
  • Provide options for a) all partner’s customers or b) only supplier’s.

When surveying the channel partners themselves, as with customers, be certain the most appropriate people within the organization are contacted. Companies will know who the partner principal is but may not know the identities of other personnel who should be surveyed, such as sales managers, service managers, channel relationship managers, etc.

B2B survey questionnaires

B2B surveys are most useful if they contain core questions and the flexibility for drop-in questions of temporal interest. Core questions allow for tracking over time and drop-in questions provide a means to obtain feedback on issues of short-term interest – without having to initiate a separate survey to do so.

Drop-in questions add value for channel partners because partners may be working on different initiatives. Options to select questions that fit their own needs make survey results most meaningful to them. Drop-in questions add much value when the survey is administered on a frequent basis.

The questionnaires for evaluating interactions and those for assessing overall relationships differ in meaningful ways.

Questionnaires to evaluate specific interactions should basically address only issues directly related to the specific customer experience. (They usually include a few firmographic and other classification questions.) The reason these questionnaires are kept short is to 1) focus the respondent’s attention on the specific experience and 2) minimize response fatigue so people may be contacted about subsequent interactions without irritating them.

Relationship questionnaires need to be constructed differently given that different people within a B2B customer organization interact with different elements of the customer experience. Most B2B relationship questionnaires benefit from an early role-screening question such as the following (which would be relevant for B2B companies like TechniNano):

Please indicate which one of the following best describes the main role you, personally, have when interacting with TechniNano products/services.

  1. Work with TechniNano’s sales team to decide which products/services are required
  2. Deal with the finances related to buying products such as TechniNano’s
  3. Actually place orders and/or are involved in scheduling or accepting product/service deliveries
  4. Schedule or oversee equipment installations/deployments
  5. Do day-to-day operations, maintenance or service on TechniNano products

Responses to this question determine which subsequent question sets the person is asked, ensuring people only answer questions with which they actually have direct experience (resulting in the most reliable feedback). Also, it keeps the survey short enough to ensure a strong and representative response rate. (Good pre-research investigation will reveal when people may have direct experience in more than one area. If so, the questionnaire programming logic is adjusted to let them respond to more than one area of questioning.)

Techniques to ensure B2B questionnaires yield the best data:

  • Obtain questionnaire buy-in from stakeholders before launching.
  • Use role-screening question to increase reliability and minimize fatigue.
  • Include core questions for tracking, drop-in questions for flexibility.
  • Keep interaction evaluation questionnaires short.
  • Allow partner-specific questions (if relevant) to add value for partner.

B2B data collection

B2B data collection method depends on the extent to which the identities, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and mail addresses of people are known. Obviously, telephone numbers are required for phone surveys, mail addresses for mail surveys and e-mail addresses for online surveying – except in situations where people are recruited by phone (or other means) and provided with a URL and asked to visit an online site.

Using online has the advantage of allowing for a full array of trade-off techniques (max-diff questioning, discrete choice/conjoint designs, etc.) because people can see questions on the screen. Trade-off options are limited (e.g., paired comparisons) during phone surveys because respondents can only answer simplified questions retained in memory. Online and mail surveys can incorporate photographs and other graphics to help clarify a question’s intent. Another advantage of online and mail is people can choose when they wish to complete the survey.

The greatest advantage of telephone surveying is it can obtain a higher response rate and be less prone to non-response bias. However, in today’s busy B2B environments, and with the increased use of e-mail, it is difficult to reach people by telephone. Interviewer persistence and creativity are needed to succeed with B2B phone interviews.

In B2B situations where responses from specific customers (e.g., those who buy the most) are extremely important, in-depth telephone or in-person interviewing may be desirable. Talented interviewers can obtain insightful information by probing into responses. When these methods are used, the customer will expect issues that have been brought up to be resolved. So only use these methods if a commitment exists to follow up appropriately.

Techniques to ensure data collection is optimal:

  • Ensure method is feasible in terms of obtaining contact information.
  • Select data collection method after deciding question types.
  • Use interviewers with extensive B2B experience for phone surveys.
  • Use mixed modes of collection if necessary.

B2B analysis

Consumer survey analyses profile customer segments according to: product(s) purchased; geography; amount of money spent and share of wallet; attitudinal/behavioral characteristics; length of time as a customer; various demographics such as age, gender income, etc.

B2B analyses usually conduct profiles of many (if not all) the above and also view the data according to: role person surveyed plays in the decision-making process; specific aspect(s) of the relationship in which person is involved; whether customer is at a key account; industry in which customer resides.

B2B analyses also need to combine responses of people from different sites who are all employed by the same customer so that an “overall customer” profile can be shown. These combinations often involve weighting by sales data and other information that varies from site to site.

Techniques to ensure robust B2B analysis and insight:

  • Profiles showing customers as a whole and their subdivisions.
  • Profiles by the different roles people play.
  • Summaries of key customers and other customers and weighted “customers as a whole.”

B2B reporting

For B2B reporting of specific interactions, tactics such as the following help:

  • Profiling data by specific field personnel managers to assess how well customer-facing personnel have been trained and are performing.
  • Displaying rolled up data for regional/district/HQ personnel so they can see how their areas of responsibility perform.
  • Allowing managers to indicate in reports customer improvement initiatives with associated responsibility for implementing them – and a tracking mechanism.

For relationship surveys, overall summary reports typically show trends and comparisons among relevant customer subsets. In addition, a tip for B2B surveys is to generate individual sales rep profiles, which:

  • Make it easy to see how satisfied customers of a given sales rep are with the things that matter most to them.
  • Let account teams review key customers and provide content for having a post-survey discussion with them.
  • Can be rolled up to “overall account” profiles – in cases where more than one person from a customer organization has been surveyed.
  • Provide managers an easy way to spot trends among given sales reps across accounts and to spot systemic problems that may exist across their sales teams.

Techniques to ensure insightful B2B reporting:

  • Use a series of interaction roll-up reports to help managers at all levels.
  • Provide individual sales rep reports to profile key B2B customers and rep performance.
  • Build action into reporting sites by integrating initiatives/responsibilities.
  • Present major themes, keeping details in a supporting, as-needed role.

Turning B2B data into action

Although company cultures vary, proven techniques do exist that help translate data into action, regardless of company.

Setting the stage for action consists of obtaining input – before surveying – from those who will be asked to implement change once survey feedback has been obtained. Without up-front buy-in, unpleasant customer feedback is sometimes dismissed with objections such as the following:

“The survey did not ask the really critical questions.”

“The wording in the survey questions is biased.”

“You didn’t ask the right people the questions. My key customers were not included!”

“You asked people at my customers’ sites but you asked the wrong people!”

“You asked about issues about which we can do nothing.”

Up-front sign-off from the people who might potentially make such objections allows movement into an open review of results and subsequent action prioritization, planning and implementation.

During planning, identify each company process and its owners. This results in clearly defining who will be responsible for addressing issues so that improvement is not thwarted by arguing over who has responsibility.

Maintaining excitement throughout the process ensures management is ready to move with the results rather than having to gear up once the data arrive. Effective communication during data collection helps keep interest high and dissemination of preliminary findings can keep interest piqued.

Gaining direct, post-survey feedback from customers provides an excellent way to mine data for deeper insights. Presenting results to special ad hoc customer conferences or existing customer (or channel partner) advisory committees results in detailed feedback and recommendations regarding what specific fixes would resolve problems.

Action-planning and prioritization is best accomplished by structured sessions with key management personnel – led by a seasoned moderator with experience across many industries so best practices can be shared. This type of session should: present data so everyone has a common point of reference; allow attendees to clarify issues; allow attendees to indicate situations where more detailed information would be helpful; and end with tentative decisions as to which initiatives will be undertaken, who the primary owners of the initiatives are and who the influencers are who will need to cooperate with the primary owners to ensure smooth implementation of actions.

Techniques to turn B2B data into action:

  • Obtain buy-in from stakeholders before data collection proceeds.
  • Conduct sessions to clarify process ties, ownership.
  • Use ongoing scorecards to keep excitement up.
  • Integrate report platforms with action (planning, implementing, tracking).
  • Provide drill-down/supplemental data to clarify action requirements.
  • Conduct periodic action sessions to update plans, realign actions

Show solid ROI

You will need to show a solid return on investment if you expect TechniNano to continue to fund your B2B survey program. Unless each of the issues reviewed above (from deciding how to sample effectively through working with the data) are conducted carefully, the chances of continued funding are diminished. It is the combination of this sound set of principles that maximizes the likelihood that B2B research meets its intended objectives. You are embarking on an exciting challenge. I wish you well!