Shining a Light on Hard to Reach B2B Customers and Markets

 

Schedules and Priorities Get in the Way

It can be tough to get time with customers in B2B markets. They are busy dealing with customers and suppliers, working in the field, checking out the factory, racing toward deadlines, etc. It’s even more challenging trying to conduct research with B2B customers. Even when they are happy customers that are willing to talk it’s difficult to align schedules to get them to participate in a survey or an interview.

The challenges of customer participation in research extends beyond the difficulty of reaching them. Customers are experiencing fatigue from being asked to participate in so many surveys. Your company may not be considered a critical supplier in the eyes of your customer, so they don’t prioritize your request. Some of your customers may not allow their employees to participate in research studies. These are all realities we must deal with in our B2B research.

We can’t abandon primary research with our customers just because it is hard. Customers are the life blood of your business, so you need to build relationships, understand their world, and evolve with their changes. What do you do when you can’t reach enough customers or prospects to complete a statistically valid survey or interview enough of them to get a detailed look into their environment?

 

Filling in the Research Gaps

I have been faced with this dilemma many times. We’ve had to pin down turbine control engineers in powerplants that are never at their desks. Corralled home security service technicians that are constantly in the field. We’ve even sent people to mining operations in South America to do onsite focus groups with equipment operators.

Even though we’ve been able to reach some of the most challenging customers like these, sometimes you just can’t reach enough of these hard to reach (H2R) customers to complete a statistically valid survey. That means there will be gaps.

I have successfully used two methods to fill such gaps – secondary research and experts. These tools can never replace primary research with your customers. But they are excellent tools to deepen insights and fill in gaps in order to get to the complete understanding you need.

 

Piggyback on the Work of Others

Secondary research comes in many forms. Basically, it’s anything that is published. That can be a page on a website, an article in a trade journal, a job posting, or a stock analyst report. Once you start digging into secondary research you may find that a market research firm produced a syndicated report on your industry or your customers industries. Try searching marketresearch.com and see what you find.

Searching Google does not constitute secondary research. Google is a great search engine, but much of the content you’ll want to access will reside in databases not web pages, behind pay walls or in specialty sources where Google doesn’t reach. This means you should leverage a secondary research pro that has two things you probably don’t: 1) access to content sources and, 2) the experience to target the right sources and the knowledge to effectively search them.

For example, if you provide digital transformation services to the mortgage industry, then understanding the impact on the lender workforce may be a priority for you. Fannie Mae just completed a survey with 200 senior executives at mortgage lenders about the impact of digital transformation on the lender workforce. This report is a quick and free way to get solid insight into the digital transformation needs, goals, and challenges of mortgage lenders.

Here is another example. Maybe you provide logistics solutions and you are trying to understand the broader impacts of COVID on your customers’ supply chains. The Institute for Supply Management completed a survey with 559 members to understand this issue. The report discusses seven major themes uncovered from their research.

Other valuable sources of insight into customers are their presentations to investors and analysts, which can be found on company websites in the investors section. You will find information about their strategies and markets. Sometimes it’s quite detailed. Other premium sources will give you sentiment analysis of a company’s earnings reports so you can get a clearer picture of their situation.

Published sources like these can deepen your understanding of customers and their ever-evolving situations. You should always examine secondary research about your customers because:

  1. It is inexpensive and extremely fast
  2. It provides a broader market perspective you won’t get from primary research
  3. It helps explain a lot of the eyebrow raising questions you get from primary research
  4. It gives you the viewpoints of analysts, government economists, researchers, journalists, competitors, suppliers, and others about companies and markets

 

Use Experts as a Proxy for H2R Customers

Another technique I use to get more perspective on B2B customers is expert research. In many cases, experts can be used as proxies for customers. Think about it – experts become experts because they spend their entire careers diving deep into a subject or industry. They know the needs of the customers in those industries either because they are or were that customer or they are still actively consulting with those customers. They talk to those customers every day, visiting their facilities, solving their problems, working on their initiatives, helping them achieve their goals. Experts are great proxies for H2R B2B customers. Read about an example of how we surveyed experts, as proxies for customers, to find new applications for our clients IoT solution for laboratories.

Experts can often provide you with information about your customers that your customers might not know or share. Experts can relay their experience working with customers, helping you understand the “personality” of a company. They can introduce you to new contacts within a company. It may even be beneficial for an expert to make a connection between you and a different buy point at your customer or a new prospect.

 

Squeeze Every Ounce Out of What You Learn

The key to extracting value out of secondary research and experts lies in what you do with the findings. There is a big focus right now on telling effective stories. But before you can tell an effective story, you must uncover what the new insights are you want to convey. I find that research and analysis frameworks help me organize findings in such a way that the story reveals itself.

First, try something as simple as organizing everything you’ve found into topics of what you are trying to learn about. Cut each snippet from your results and paste them into the topic categories. Once you’ve arranged all the snippets into proper categories, read through the snippets you’ve arranged into each category. Whenever I do this, a story of each topic emerges as well as an overarching story about all the findings. This simple organization helps you see patterns and themes you wouldn’t recognize with the relevant snippets buried deep into the pages and pages of articles you found.

To go a step further, you can sort your findings into potential opportunities and threats. To go beyond the obvious in this exercise, look at each opportunity you identified and imagine how it can become a threat and then do the same with threats as opportunities.

Try using the categories from the 10 Types of Innovation framework. The categories are business model, supply chain, organizing structure, operations, products, product systems, services, channels, brand, and customer experience. What new insights about customers can you generate when you arrange your findings in this way?

There are many other frameworks you can use to organize and analyze your findings in ways that reveal new insights and the story the information is trying to tell you. The framework you use is less important than making sure you choose one or two and use them. That is the best way to be certain of generating new insights and finding the hidden story.

 

Written by Brian Reuter, SVP at ENGINE Insights.