B2B marketers should strive to know their customers better

Marketers should strive to know their B2B customers better. As implausible as it may sound, since it’s the essence of their job, B2B marketers may not always have a clear idea of what their customers actually want. In this podcast, Andrew Deutsch from the Fangled group discusses the misalignment in what marketers ‘perceive as customer requirements‘ versus what their clients actually desire and like about the product and company. It will be a surprising and worthy revelation for many of our peers. But delving deeper into what he says may ring a bell for a few of us with significant marketing mileage. By the end of this discussion, marketers will appreciate the worth of listening to customers and building action plans based on qualitative research. Here’s an account of my interview with Andrew Deutsch. 

B2B marketers should strive to know their customers better

Marketers should strive to know their B2B customers better
Robert Keith’s 1959 piece, which gave birth to our noble profession, was entitled The Marketing Revolution and it started with that sentence: “the customer, not the company, is in the middle”. Now call me stupid but I thought that B2B marketers knew their customers better than that. Andrew Deutsch proved me wrong.

Many B2B businesses do not know who their customers are

Businesses do have a notion, but don’t necessarily know their B2B customers in and out, which they should. One of the major problems is that companies promote things that they’re proud of and founded their business on, in ways that really do not matter to the customer. This is because these aren’t the underlying motivation or reasons for which people do business with them.

This is a business problem prevalent across the globe

B2B marketeurs should strive to know their customers better
Andrew Deutsch

There isn’t a region of the world where Andrew hasn’t come across it, with varying degrees. Some countries like Germany or the northern part of Italy have very strong engineering and manufacturing capabilities. Companies in these regions sometimes don’t recognise the need to grasp their clients’ requirements nor serve them better to make them feel valued and part of the business.

Companies that are world leaders in certain industrial segments aren’t immune either

Let’s imagine that you put your engineers in charge of sales and you manufacture cars. Now the consumer for a new car is looking for certain benefits, e.g. he wants to impress people of the opposite gender and be “the coolest dude out there” Andrew said.

He talks to the engineer and the latter says, well, this has X horsepower, we use Y type of steel, etc. The customer doesn’t care about any of that. “Am I going to impress the girls?” is what he would ask.

Hence, it may be a possibility that the buyer of a sports car starts with a very different mindset than the people who design and market it.

When you can bridge that disconnect to what is the actual value people desire out of their purchase, it gets much easier to meet them at their model of the world and show them that yours is the right solution

Technical features of the product are important, but it’s just one of many things for B2B customers

Let’s take an example to elucidate this, Andrew added. Let’ say we, as a B2B customer, are working to purchase a brand new high-tech laser cutting machine for our manufacturing company. We want that laser cutter to be able to cut up to a certain millimetre of steel at a predetermined grade, rate and speed.

Three vendors have the machine which meets our requirements, and the pricing is somewhat similar. But as a manufacturer, what am I looking for? It will do what I need it to do, but I also want to make sure that there is good customer service available.

What is the annual cost to power that machine? How quickly can I repair downtime? Is it something that has modular components? All of those things are what I’m really looking for. I want to make sure that this machine never shuts down my production.

The fact that it can cut and do those basic things, that’s the table stakes. Clients are not going to talk to companies that don’t meet those requirements of the capability of doing. What they really want, however, is customer service, training. They want all of those other things that make them feel comfortable, since what they really wish to buy is comfort that this machine won’t cause them any problems

The consumer space is just as prone to the problem as B2B

In the consumer space, there’s a client of ours: two brilliant women who inherited their grandfather’s business. He invented a diaper rash formula in 1927. Four or five generations of families have relied on that product, but they haven’t seen more than three to five per cent growth in sales for years. They were proud of the brilliant product because of the famous ingredients that Grandpa invented back in 1927.

Andrew’ teams did a bit of qualitative research and talked with parents to find out what they care about while buying a diaper rash cream. None of them had any idea of what the ingredients even were.

What they wanted were guarantees: a. a healthy baby; b. as a parent, anything that would get me a good night’s sleep, because I don’t want to wake up with a sick baby; c. this one was the key, I buy products to tell my in-laws and my parents that I am a good parent. I know what I’m doing. When they built a campaign around these, their product became far more attractive in the market to parents. In the end, it turned the company around.

How can one solve this issue of not knowing what his customers want?

In the consumer space, a decision is made by one person or a partner. While in B2B, there are many more people in the value chain that decide to buy. A marketer must comprehend the necessary buy-ins for all the folks involved.

Let me exemplify. Years ago, I worked in the performance tapes division at a Fortune 100 company in the adhesives space. When we would talk to buyers, our biggest competitor that made a similar product was 3M, and they were brilliant. Every time we talked to a buyer, it was about a better solution at a better price with better delivery. He would say “I’m not willing to take the risk because nobody ever got fired buying 3M”. It’s how they’ve trained the voracious advocates at 3M: buying from us is safety.

Again, it’s not the product or what the product can do, but when something fails, you go, “it couldn’t be my fault. I bought 3M”. So we had to create campaigns and conversations saying “it might be true. But whoever got promoted and became the king of the company by taking a small risk with a guarantee of the quality that we have and proved to the boss that you’re willing to stick your neck out and do better for the company. I have a better product with a better price and better conditions.”

We turned our entire conversation with potential customers into us being able to make them a hero to the buyer.

Taking ahead the same conversation with the operations folks was like “the current one that you’re using takes this much time and has these issues. We can resolve those problems and make your life easier with our product. How often have you had a recall or a problem that our product could have solved so that you could just continue to do your job and have an easy life? Which production manager wouldn’t like to have fewer problems in his life? We solve problems.”

It’s about connecting those value pieces along the chain when you figure out all the people involved in a decision.

Why is it that so many B2B companies in 2021 do not know what their customers truly want?

Maybe it’s technology that is the culprit. People flocked to automatic ordering and digital communication, while buyers became savvier in how to find the right pricing. This caused companies to provide less service. Hence, in the 90s, we had a drop in solution selling. Now, we’re recognising that we’re not properly servicing our customers and should leverage technology to do it better.

Sales have really gone back to the human factor. There are lots of tools out there that can help you with it.

The reality is today, as it was one hundred years ago and it will be one hundred years from now; people will still need to do business with people to make sure that they have the assurances

“I have seen factories literally shut down for days”, Andrew added, “because they’re missing a 10 cent component”. Somebody didn’t build the relationship that when the schedule changed, they could adjust for it or find alternative sources. We all need to recognise the importance of human connection and selling to the needs of the customer. It’s not all about features and benefits. Features are nothing more than proof that the benefits are real.

Advice for B2B marketers who want to better  know their customers

Here are Andrew’s five-minute advice for business owners and B2B marketers who do not know the pain points of their customers and would like to know their customers better:

  1. Make a list of the 10 most loyal customers that you have. Find 10 customers that may or may not buy from you exclusively, or may split their purchasing, and find 10 customers that told you goodbye. Reach out and ask: Why did you choose to do business with us? What turns you on? What could we do better?
  2. Then you combine answers from these based on very correctly done interviews. Mind you, if things aren’t handled well, qualitative research can send you in the wrong direction.
  3. “Almost every time we do it”, Andrew said, “the seeds that need to be planted are very clear”. You would understand what messaging is to be changed to emphasise the personal touch, customer service, and convey to your buyer that you care about their business.

Our interaction with Andrew was very fruitful in unveiling the reasons why businesses lack traction despite having a great product. There remains more work to be done by us, marketers. Why not invite your top customers for a cup of coffee or organize a fireside chat with the most loyal buyers? There may be other ways to know your B2B customer, but these to start with, aren’t bad either! 

Yann Gourvennec
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