We have to talk: There is no substitute for talking to your B2B customers about your brand.

There is a gravitational pull in B2B branding circles towards quantitative marketing metrics around lead generation, engagement, adoption rates and the like. Obviously all of this analysis brings new insights into buying behaviors, yet should this come at the expense of real conversations? Your brand is built on relationships with customers and prospects; it’s built on the emotional connections you’ve been able to make over the years; it’s built by nuance, authenticity and a range other qualitative factors. Big data can help you find correlations and behavioral trends - but big data does a better job of telling what happens than it does of telling you why. And why is at the heart of your brand.

 Great brands are not built by analytics alone.

There is no arguing that web analytics offer powerful tools for measuring behaviors and evolving digital practices. And you may employ other valuable quantitative tools - like perception surveys to track your brand’s performance and compare/contrast relative to traditional competitors; or customer satisfaction metrics to help to assess how well you are delivering on your promise. But can any of these quantitatively driven tools really help you get inside the head of your customer?

Spend a half-hour on the phone with a customer.

Your customers can teach you things about the role your brand plays in their lives. All you have to do is ask. Better yet have a third party do it. (Full disclosure: that’s where we come in). You want the bad with the good, you want someone who is able to ask the “stupid’ questions, and mostly you want your customers to know that you truly value their uninhibited perspective. For B2B brands in particular - where relationships, consensus decision-making and multi-layered sell-in processes define the dynamics - a rich qualitative understanding of the needs and expectations of your key customer audiences is golden. How are decisions made? What permissions or limitations might your brand have as you spread beyond your perceived comfort zone? Are there unexpected ways that customer teams are using or applying your products/services that might suggest new opportunities?

The fact is, your strongest clients look to you as a partner in helping them to achieve their business goals. They look to you as an ally. They trust you. They know that your success is good for them. And, in all likelihood, you’ll find that your customers are thrilled you’ve asked for their input. Typically, warm prospects and more recent customers are also very willing to share their thoughts and perspectives in a sales-free discussion.

So how do you do it?

  1. Partner. Best to work with a third-party to conduct the customer discussions to ensure candor, confidentiality and authenticity.
  2. Start small. Depending on your organization’s size and industry, this can be as simple as 12-15 conversations (by phone is significantly easier and substantially lower cost than in-person). Work with your internal partners to develop a manageable target list that offers the appropriate range of customer types.
  3. Create a guide. A good discussion guide will get at the issues you want to explore. The goal is open, free-flowing but directed conversations built to explore areas like those noted above. Keep in mind that this is not an “on-a-scale of 1-5” survey, nor a customer satisfaction vehicle, nor a sales prospecting tool.
  4. Facilitate introductions. With interviewees from within your company’s network, it is often best for you to take the first step in introducing your research partner to prospective interviewees.
  5. Stay connected to the process. After half of the interviews are complete, you’ll want to review and discuss progress with your research partner. While findings will still be raw and may not be representative of the whole set, your research partner will have a sense of which areas of the discussion are getting the most valuable feedback - and there may be opportunities to tweak the discussion guide. The fluidity of this entire process is tremendously valuable. Your intent here is decidedly not to field a scientific, statistically representative study - so there is always room to adapt the approach along the way to make these inputs more useful.
  6. Share. Following a findings presentation by your research partner, you will likely have opportunities to share market insights with colleagues across your organization. There will be some implications that sales and client relationship teams can incorporate into their work immediately. And there will likely be factors uncovered in the study that you may want to prove out with some quantitative research. The feedback you see here can be incredibly valuable and eye-opening - and this research can be a first step in both major and minor transformation. Be prepared to spend some time with colleagues discussing the implications of this work and how you can build upon the happy surprises while influencing areas noted for weakness.
  7. Repeat. How often you may wish to do this is subject to the size and diversity of your company and your customer base. As with any research, tracking feedback over time offers incredibly valuable points of reference as your company grows and evolves.
  8. Evolve. Over time, there are a number of qualitative approaches to help you keep your finger on the pulse. You might look to incorporate this type of discussion into an annual review with every client. Or you may wish create a panel of customers whom you can bring together to share ideas and feedback within small group settings. Again, with relationships and mutual success as the objective, your customers will likely be willing participants.

A strong sales team is certainly doing all of this as part of developing and maintaining client relationships. Yet, the larger the company, the more disconnected sales can become from marketing. The same holds true for strategy and R&D and almost any other centralized function. At best, you are able to manage through the inevitable dissonance in the customer experience; at worst, the strategies you build and the promise you communicate gradually lose relevance and currency - and you’ve let the market pass you by. Take the time to truly listen to your customers about how they think and how you help to make them better or smarter or more successful. This type of research will inevitably uncover opportunities for your brand to continue to grow as your customers grow and as your market continues to evolve.