The art of product

Getting from ideas to delighted customers

Why B2B customer discovery is hard

a magnifying glass hovering over several copies of the word features and finding the word benefits to illustrate the difference between selling based on a feature and a benefit to convince a customer to buy

Customer discovery is a process for testing your core business assumptions. It is a process which helps us learn more about

  • customer segments (who has a problem, what characteristics do they have)
  • problem (it is really a problem people care about)
  • solution (what is an elegant solution)
  • value proposition (how must this solution be delivered to have the biggest impact)

In this article, I will dive into what makes customer discovery more difficult for a B2B offering than a B2C offering (though both are hard). I will also discuss what is unique about customer discovery in a B2B context, as I think some of these subtleties are not often understood.

  • Decision-making process
  • Access to Customers
  • Perception of Risk
  • Solution Complexity
  • The Black Box
  • Scientific Feedback

The B2B Decision-Making Process

A core part of testing your assumptions is using a scientific method, namely experiments and measurable results. The classic B2C experiment is to create a landing page describing your product with a buy button. If people click to buy, that’s a proxy for how many real sales you have. Many have used such a landing page MVP (minimum viable product) in the past, using paid ads to drive traffic to the landing page.

However, when a business makes a decision to purchase a complex product, it’s a much more complicated process. Questions that arise include

  • who is the decision-maker?
  • are there multiple decision-makers (and what roles do they have in the decision)?
  • what is the decision-making process?
  • what company policies exist around decision-making?
  • what data/privacy/regulatory challenges exist?
  • are there other products or systems that must integrate with this one?

While many businesses will purchase a product without talking to sales people (e.g. an email marketing tool like Mailchimp or Sendgrid) the point here is that you still need to talk to them for customer discovery (i.e. to validate your hypothesis). And then, these questions above are vital to answer (they are even more so when you later get into actual selling of your mature product).

So the customer discovery process will enlighten you with answers to these questions. However, at day zero, not knowing these things makes your job harder – you’ll have to figure this out first (through trial and error) before you’re even talking to the right people about the right thing.

Access to Customers

I have always found it relatively easy to find B2C customers to interview. My friends, family, work mates, social media connections and people in general are potential customers. I ask around and I can generally get some people to talk to me.

With a B2B product (speaking in generalizations), it can be harder. If you have a product for lawyers (say), then typically you don’t know 20 lawyers you can talk to (unless you work in that industry). This is why often people who have worked in a given industry and actually had a given problem themselves often have the best chance of serving that industry with the solution.

Your customers will not typically be “all businesses in a certain industry”. It’s more likely to be “businesses in a certain industry with attribute X and attribute Y”. That can be hard to find. Once you have found a business of that type, you then need to find the right person within that business. Some entrepreneurs will set up communities or mastermind calls that bring people together so they can later talk to some of the people in this community. You must also consider whether a true expert would want to spend time with you to discuss your product idea. What’s in it for them? Why should they trust that spending time with you is worthwhile?

All of these things make finding the right customer a challenge.

Perception of Risk

In order to truly engage with the problem/solution discussion, the customer must be genuinely suffering from the problem. Otherwise, they are a non-customer and by extension, this “customer” is “not a customer”.

The decision-maker in a business usually considers ‘risk’ as a primary factor in any business decision. After all, they don’t have to merely justify any failure or waste to themselves (B2C) but to any colleague who may want to question it (B2B). In a business sense, it’s often better to do nothing rather than invest in something that is not used, or worse, causes problems.

It is therefore difficult for a B2B customer to buy from a startup that no-one has heard of. Some customers will, and indeed they enjoy the aspect of pushing the boundaries of possibility and working with cutting edge solutions (we call them early adopters and the next question is “how to find those?”).

How can you do customer development knowing that the customer may be giving you answers but also knowing there’s no way a business like theirs will buy from a tiny startup like yours? This comes back to segmentation. Newer smaller businesses are fine with greater risk as they themselves are ‘closer’ to being a startup than a blue chip company.

Solution Complexity

Obviously B2B and B2C products can both be extremely complex. In general, B2B products are often more complex. Not only because of the logic or functionality of the system, but also because businesses tend to have multiple users with multiple user roles and in general, products/platforms need to integrate with and talk to each other.

Questions around user types, system dependency, business processes tend to be questions that you have to know to ask, meaning that your customer isn’t likely to volunteer key information here. You’ll have to drive this conversation and you’ll have to know what to dig into in order to get there. Given the context is that you have managed to beg someone to talk to you for thirty minutes and you see how it’s difficult to get to as many details as sometimes you would like.

The Black Box

You are talking to the key people that you have identified in an organization, the customers who you have managed to get access to. During a sales process, you will find companies that waste your time because

  • Decision-makers are not aligned
  • Some decision-makers are not trusted internally
  • Some decision-makers are looking to boost their career but will drop your product like a stone if they get the feeling it’s not useful to this end
  • Some decision-makers just like a good chat

This extends into customer discovery because if these phenomena occur when a company is in the process of (maybe) buying from you, then imagine how less reliable it is when they are just shooting the breeze with you. There are ways to compensate for this by only considering feedback from customers who give you time, money or reputation and discarding all other feedback. You can thus compensate for this, but it slows you down nonetheless.

Scientific Feedback

The process of validating our assumptions should be done using the scientific method, namely running experiments and analyzing the measurable results (i.e. data). Remember the B2C example at the start where we sent traffic to a landing page MVP? Easy to measure the page views, clicks and purchases on that.

But how do you measure the results or data from talking to various people from within an organization? It’s valid to use customer development during the divergent phase (what questions should we be asking) as much as the convergent phase (here’s what we know – can you validate it).

Conclusion

There are many reasons that B2B customer development is tricky but this doesn’t mean that we don’t have to do it. The benefits of effective customer development with a B2B product are many, including sharper knowledge of our target segment and its characteristics as well as better knowledge of the domain and its business context.

In short, we don’t have the option of staying in the building and not talking to anyone. We should however, be aware of the potential pitfalls and plan our customer development accordingly.

About Patrick O'Malley