Customer relationship research / surveys for B2B – First of three articles

In almost all B2B situations, you have a relatively small number of customers that provide the majority of your revenue. For many companies, it is not the old 80:20 rule, or even a 90:10 rule, but more of a 99:1 rule, or even 999:1. If you have a ‘strategic account’ team or something similar, you are likely to be in this situation. If you are not sure whether you have strategic accounts, a way of looking at it is to understand how many customers a face-to-face sales person has. If some of them are assigned one to three customers or partners, you have strategic accounts. You need to listen to them in a special way and work on improvements that are specific to them. Rather than going through a series of definitions, let me start with a personal story.

Shortly after HP and EDS announced their merger, I went to see Vodafone in Newbury, UK. They were a large customer for both HP and EDS. At the time, information from Vodafone showed that they really did not care very much for HP. My new EDS colleagues gave me their Voice of the Client (VOC) survey results for Vodafone, which were outstanding. I started the meeting by saying, “Look, I would like to cut this short. You hate us and you love EDS. I am going to learn what EDS is doing that HP is not, and copy it.” The main Vodafone person in the room was surprised. “EDS is even worse than you,” he said. “What makes you think they are any good?” I proudly produced the transcripts of the EDS interviews with senior Vodafone people. “But…” he said, “None of these people were actually involved in the EDS project.”

The point here is that not all relationships are equal. You need to be certain you are talking to people who matter.

B2B Relationship research

A good relationship feedback process could be described as a non-anonymous mono-vendor benchmark survey. You usually only get detailed information about your own company. If you just have a small number of customers, say less than a hundred, you should simply interview them all face-to-face. If you have a large number of customers, you should segment the customers in some way, using increasing depth for your most important customers. Deeper research does not mean asking more questions. The Net Promoter System format (for example) remains intact. When you interview your most important customers, you go into far greater depth on the ‘Why?’ and ‘What should we improve?’ questions. Clarifying the input right away will make it far easier to prepare a worthwhile improvement plan for the customer to approve.

It is certainly possible to add questions about competitors to your relationship survey, though it would dilute the focus on your own company’s improvement opportunities. In cases where your product and your competitor’s are mutually exclusive, meaning nobody would buy from both companies, adding questions about competition would give you an early indication about whether customers are thinking of changing. For example, “Why do you buy from us instead of [insert key competitor name]?”

Resellers and other partners

Companies that help you to sell or implement your products and services are a special case. Since their job is to recommend your products and services, asking them the recommendation question is not appropriate. I recommend asking “Please rate your overall satisfaction as an Acme partner,” followed by the usual “Why?” and “What should we improve?” Since your partners have the choice of working with other suppliers, they are a good source of competitive information. I therefore suggest adding the following questions, using a reseller example, and supposing that the main competitors are called Alpha and Beta:

  • Do you sell products from Alpha or Beta?
  • What can Acme do to make it easier for you to recommend us over Alpha and Beta?

Future-facing relationship segmentation

I believe it is more useful to segment your research and improvement process by your future revenue expectations for a customer, rather than by what you achieve now. This means that customers who spend a lot on your type of product or service deserve a lot of attention, no matter who they spend it with. I suggest a two-year time horizon. The segmentation is used to determine the type of feedback process you will use. The top tier should be interviewed face-to-face, the second tier by phone or Skype and the lowest tier by email / web. The depth of your loop-closing and improvement commitments will also vary by tier.

Relationships are relative

Some time ago, we hired a new account manager for an important Swedish / Swiss customer, ABB, based in Baden, near Zurich. OK, it was a long time ago, when Digital Equipment Corporation still existed. Being clever sorts of people, we at DEC decided to move a Swedish sales person down to Zurich. While ABB was based in Switzerland, the most important executives were mainly Swedish. We told him he could live wherever he wanted. He did his research to find out where the key ABB executives lived and found a house on a street near two of them.

He struck up social relationships, and was feeling pretty good about himself and his prospects after a few months. I thought he was fantastic, and that his thinking was perfect. One evening he met a sales person from Andersen Consulting, who was competing with him for an ABB project. They had a discussion over a drink. He asked whether the Anderson person knew Mr. X, mentioning that Mr. X lived just a few doors away from his own home residence. The Andersen Consulting guy replied, “Sure. I took his kids to school this morning.” Oops.

Relationships can be complex

If yours is a large company and the customer is one of your most important ones, the relationship is likely to be complex. Multiple projects may be on the go at the same time. Some may be going well and others less well. One department can be ecstatic about you, while another may want to drop you as a supplier. Each person that deals with the customer in your organization is likely to have a partial view, but believe they understand everything. Good sales people are likely to know everyone that matters for their next deal, and may be totally unaware of an escalation on a product or service the customer bought three years ago.

Similarly, the support team may not know anything about a new deal that is being negotiated. When I was due to give a Big Data presentation to Swiss TV encryption provider Kudelski, I was given an exhaustive and rather painful briefing about a technical escalation that was in process. I was assured that the leadership team would not want to know anything about Big Data until the issue had been resolved. Once on site, the CIO did indeed note that “Our technical teams are working on an issue, but that is not why we are here today.” None of the others present mentioned it, and we had a great session.

In the next episode…

The next blog post / article will be on deciding who to interview, interview formats, and how to track results.

As is usually the case, the content of this article has been assembled from our books. This particular article combines content from Customer Experience Strategy – Design & Implementation, with related content from Net Promoter – Implement the System. As always, your comments, suggestions and personal experience are all most welcome below.