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product Manager B2B marketing Customer Marketing Marketing basics

Why you must meet with customers ?

Can you imagine that the genius who described customer’s needs, never met any customer? Not a single one?
Awkward question! One might therefore wonder why I ask.
To unveil customer’s need is the essential mission of the product manager. Being the customer’s voice in his organization, the product manager must deliver a useful and usable description of customer’s real needs.
However, I know many product managers who spend less than 10% of their time with customers. How a product manager can be credible when he is interacting with less than 2 customers per month?
For robust marketing, I always require product managers I work with, to build their own customer understanding.
How?
Product managers must meet with customers:
Despite we are in the digital age which simplifies and amplifies the search for knowledge, the face to face interaction is still the most important way to discover the true life. To understand the personas all along the life cycle of your product, you will spend time with a lot of them.
Hence, I explain hereafter the reasons for which Product Managers must meet with customers, and what should be asked.

What are you looking for ?

A product manager is a treasure hunter. His obsession is to collect quantitative and qualitative information.

Quantitative information.

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

The web is a goldmine for quantitative data. Through a few searches, using proper keywords you can access to financial reports, companies presentations and videos that contain a lot of quantitative data. Moreover, there are information companies which are competing to sell the market data you may need. Just to name a few : IHS, ARC, or MarketResearch. I list more in this page.
Searching for numbers takes time, but most of this task can be done using internet, in the comfort of your office.



Qualitative information.

Image by geralt on Pixabay

Let me phrase it simply :
those are all data that can not be given as a number.
The qualitative information are the key outcomes from customers interviews. They are coming as results of opened questions (mostly), using the magic of the 5 W and H. 
What, Why, When, Where, Who, How.


A poem to remember

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

 Rudyard Kipling in his “Just So Stories” a poem, accompanying the tale of “The Elephant’s Child”

Keep this poem in mind, you will never forget that the 5 W and one H tell you everything your know.

What a product manager must know ?

There are two priceless knowledge’s delivered by a product manager.
– The market understanding.
– The customer needs.
We all agree that market understanding is the result of quantitative data analysis. This helps to size business opportunities, attractiveness and accessibility.
But for customer needs, there aren’t any publication, any figures, any list of verbatim. 
The only way to learn about needs …. is to meet the customers!
Product Managers must meet with customers!

What are you looking for ?

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

First of all, remember that you are not selling. You are discovering customer’s needs and pains.
Secondly, you are learning by listening to the customer. So just shut up and let them speak. The art of the marketer, the product manager, is to ask the useful opened questions and to reword when needed.
Hereafter is a list of  questions you will adapt depending on the context.
However, do not simply read this list of questions when interviewing a customer. You must do some homework, preparing your interview guide and adapt it depending on the context.

Who is the customer?

That’s the first understanding you have to build wen meeting a customer.
It’s not about knowing about his life and hobbies (not yet! You may come to this later. When your relationship is more of friendship). It’s about understanding about his business and his organization.
The best way is to ask him or her.

  • What is/are the activity of the customer ?
  • In which market do they act? Sell?
  • What is their organization structure? Who’s who?
  • What are their decision process? Who decides and how? Who influences the decisions and how?
  • What is their business figures? their business health?
  • What are the geographical areas of their business? What is their export ratio and why?
  • Who are their competitors? How do they fight against their competitor? Why are they better than their competitor? Why are they different from their competitor?

What are the customer needs?

Above all, that’s the product manager’s mission.
You can ask directly. The answers seldom helps to discover the real needs.
– Dear Mr Customer, what do you need from us?
– I’d like lower prices, higher quality, higher performances, better delivery services ….”

Those are not needs!
Most of the time the answers are only what the customer wants and it does not give any clue for creation of innovative offer.

The needs and pains can only be discovered when you explore the full life cycle at your customer’s :

How do your customer work?
  • How do you decide to create? Invest? Buy?  something new … Why?
  • How the purchasers work? Their tools, habits, preferences, like and dislike? Why?
  • How the designers work? Their tools, habits, preferences,like and dislike? Why?

Remember, it’s easy to observe and ask for each personas: the tools they used ( hardware and software), their habits, their preferences, their like and dislike. You just need to be on your customer’s sites.
IRL as gamers would say.

Listen to each and every department
  • How the engineering team works? Why?
  • How the blue collars works? Visit workshops, spend enough time to observe the workers. Come back if the time is too short.
  • How the supply chain is operating? Upstream? Downstream? Warehouse? Why?
    Visit the warehouse if there is one. You’ll discover more about habits in regards to used brands and products. As well as it will give you knowledge about handling stuff.
  • How their after sales and customer support are working? One more time, what are the tools they use, their habits, their preferences, their like and dislike? Why?
Opportunities to discover more

This list of questions is a simple guide to help you to discover your customer problems, pains … and workarounds.
Interviewing customer to build you understanding and discover needs is also impacting the interviewees. As a matter of fact, your customer will naturally discover that he needs some solution to untold issues, and may ask you about your proposals and ideas. But remember, you’re not selling or promising! You are learning! That’s opportunities to tell to your sales team, and opportunities for another face to face meeting when you have a new offer to be challenged and tested.

Learning customer’s needs is also coming from opportunities you meet everyday. When you commute to your workplace, when you travel for business, when you meet new strangers at your fitness club…There’s always discoveries with people you talk to. 

What is the customer experience?

Lost? Confused? Unclear?
Photo by Christopher Rusev on Unsplash

An interview with customer is also delivering some insights about his experience. His experience with your company, his experience with your offer, his experience with your competitor.

How is your customer aware of your offers?

How does he receive information?
What the sources he uses to search for information? What type of information?
Ask him to list the documents and media he is looking for? what for? why?
How are they easy to find? How are they easy to use? 
What is he doing when he does not find what he is looking for ?

That’s an opportunity to understand and test your documents, the promotional collateral’s, the catalogs either printed or digital, the technical documents and user guides. How are they used? By who when, where and why?

What is he buying? How is he buying?

Asking for an exhaustive list of products and solutions he is purchasing, it’s not enough! You will ask also:
Whom from? Why? What is missing?
How is he satisfy with what he is buying? Why?

Here you ask for more details about his satisfaction. Covering  pre-sales support, offer quality, delivery service level, pricing and values, etc.

The 5W and one H list would not be complete without asking more about how:
How is he buying? From outlets and shops?online? How could he describe the two experiences? How can he define the most efficient and enjoyable way of buying? Why?


Hunt for feedback

Image by Tumisu on Pixabay

A Customer interview is also a great moment to get feedback about new ideas, prototypes, even existing offers.
You may ask about your offer features, to check if you deliver the minimum viable product. In this case you ask about what the product is doing.
More important is to ask what the customer is using the product for, and why. His answer will tell you about the real perceived values.
Learning what the customer is doing with your offer can help you to jump to quantified interests: values pricing, projects and business opportunities.

When you get a customer who agrees to test your offer, whatever this is an existing offer, a prototype, or a field test, asking for his feedback face to face is of great value for both parties. Do not replace this face to face interaction by an impersonal and inhuman questionnaire form. Never!

More

Listen
Image by jamesoladujoye on Pixabay

In conclusion, Meeting with customer must be the obsession of every product manager.
That’s the only place where the real life happens. Where you can discover and experience.
That’s not easy?
It’s never easy if you are not prepared. The minimum is to write your interview guide. Not a questionnaire to be filled, but a step by step guide to help you during interviews.
Moreover, if you work with customers in different countries, having an interview guide means that you can give it some weeks before the meetings, to you local colleagues. Then, they can localize it and run the interview, with your support, within the native language of the customer. That’s proficiency!

We could talk during hours and days about customers visit. This short article is just an introduction.
Do not hesitate to share your comments and suggestions with me, I’ll be more than happy to update this article with your feedback’s

References.

This article is built from my 20+ years of experience and from web searches which I’m please to share the links to.
It is also the result of discussions I recently had with one of my good friend, Christian Pillot, and I’d like to simply thank him.

Links :
Who Is Your Customer?
by Filip Duszczak, CEO at Growthlab pl.

The 4++ times Product Managers meet B2B customers
by Phil Hornby, Product Focus Associate and Independent Consultant.

The rising importance of Product Managers in a digital transformation
by Emily de Vale, Marketing executive at UcaDO

10 Weekly Habits of Product Managers That Make a Big Difference
by Gabriela Araujo

Explaining user research to skeptics 
by Cameron Spilman, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Paper and Co-Founder, organiser and mentor at legup.social



Categories
B2B marketing Beginner Marketing Marketing basics Marketing definition

What is B2B Marketing ?

B2C, B2B or BtoB, B2B2B, B2B2C, just an extract from an acronyms list to leave the dummies outside of the expert’s discussion. That’s bad !
Like many other domains, the marketing and his folks have an incredible list of acronyms and expert vocabularies to protect their private backyard.
There’s nothing better than the usage of acronyms when you want to loose your non-expert audience.
I hate acronyms ! So, let’s kill them !

B2C ?

B2C stands for “Business to Consumers“. Therefore, B2C marketing is about the activities I described in a previous article, that target consumers as customers. marketing?
Basically you or me into our daily life, buying and using goods : from food to smartphone, from water to membership of fitness club…
I may write later about B2C, but the main subject of this article is B2B marketing , let’s speak about it.

Companies as customers
Photo by Rodney Minter-Brown on Unsplash

B2B?

Our key question, what is B2B marketing ?
B2B stands for “Business to Business” .
Then it’s about the marketing activities that target companies as customer.
Let’s list a few examples :
. Rolls Royce selling engines to Boeing, that’s Business to Business.
. Foxconn manufacturing iPhone for Apple, that’s Business to Business.
. SalesForce selling services and software, that’s Business to Business.

Business to Business is a huge market, covering many fields , from raw material to machinery and tools , from stand alone software to services, from energy generation to waste treatments. We speak of trillions US dollars.

Like Business to Consumers, Business to Business marketing starts and ends with customers.
It is  targeting your most relevant market segments, discovering and learning about the customers, creating and delivering values.

Who are the customers in Business to Business marketing ?

The customer is always the one who decides that the value your deliver is really a value for him or her.
The customer will buy, or will influence the decision-maker to buy.
Human beings involved in companies decision process are exactly the same who are  buying consumer goods.
If their behavior varies upon their role ( I mean as actor into an enterprise, or as a individual consumer) , their expectations are unconsciously cross-influenced by their two experiences.
The border between B2C and B2B can easily be drawn :  target is consumers on one side , target is companies on the other side. But customers are human beings and they cross this border all the time.

Market Segmentation in Business-to-Business.

What is targeting in B2B marketing ?
Photo by Simeon Jacobson on Unsplash

Business-to-Consumers market segments are usually done by  definition of social and cultural groups , impacted by level of education, age, receptivity to social media, income categories …. And you can put each and every individual in one of your defined box : the market segments.

Business-to-Business market segments are usually defined using other dimensions :
 – the category of industry type ( such as mining, electronic, automotive, chemicals ….),
 – the activity ( such as machine builder for segment/application X, building and structures for segment/application X, integrator for segment/application X, and much more).
You can always create your market segmentation by using very standards categories such those of NAICS : (one more acronyms to keep away ignorant) North American Industry Classification System.
Above all, be lazy ! No need to re-invent the wheel , use what is already available and adapt it to your own need.

The good market segmentation is the one that is useful for your organization

It’s not necessarily the academic one.
Useful for your organization, that’s common good sense : your peers understand the way you define each segment and it gives you powerful data to select the most attractive and achievable targets.
Your good segmentation is your foundation to target your winning battle-fields.

A classical mistake 

The mistake I always see : Marketer in Business-to-Business are defining their segments with industry classification.
However they always skip or disregards the social and cultural criteria.
After that, no wonder if a product that perfectly fits an industry in Europe, will never raise in the same industry in China !
I did make the mistake. I have to admit that I had to live several years in China to understand and take the cultural criteria into account
These social and cultural criteria can be strong differentiation and added values when creating new offers.

Understand who’s who.

who are the customers ?

More than in Business-to-Consumers, Business-to-Business marketing must take care of the people involved with your offers. I would say, impacted by your offer !
Marketers often tend to mix their targeted customers with a limited number of people, those they can easily interact.
You should never skip the guys who will implement , set, maintain or use daily the product.
Above all, customers-as-personas are one of the most valuable knowledge in Business-to-Business marketing,
You must always dig deeper and know who is doing what,how and why.
Therefore, you must take the necessary time to understand each and every persona concerned directly or indirectly by your offer.


Business-to-Business marketing is : dealing with people.

who is the real use of your product ?
Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Coming back to the basics : the foundations of every organization are people.
Organization being often structure in a pyramidal way , it makes easy to list each sub-function and then categorize and describe the personas that marketers must understand.
Do not forget also to understand the customer of your customer !
Sometimes named as the end-users.
The values you create and deliver must address this end-user’s real needs and pains !
In our Cartesian logic education, we would build our personas-understanding from the top of the pyramid. From the C-levels, down the base of the pyramid : the workers or the end-user.
As a result, the understanding of the real user , or end-user, is influenced by what we discover and learn from the above levels. And our final picture is not the real one.

Who to Start with ?

When digging in customer’s need, please start by the bottom of the organizations.
Then you must start by the end : the end-users. The end is the beginning !
Start with the real user of your product.
Then learn from other levels to understand better the decisions processes and indirect needs that your offer must answer to.
Even if this looks like a linear process, from bottom to top, it’s not!
You must challenge your learning and knowledge’s : always come back to your personas end-user to check and value what you may have discovered. 

Real life vs objectives

Ideally, every companies would like their marketers to follow a timely defined process.
In a very summarized steps approach :
1- describe customer needs
2- create values
3- monetize the values

But the reality is quite different:
The marketers must discover and learn about their customer’s personas every day.
Each interaction with a customer is a unique and priceless moment. The unique moment to learn more about who is doing what, how and why.

Projects to create new offers, as well as to maintain and evolve existing offers, must be fed by marketing knowledge.
This knowledge is acquired along years of customer’s experience. Therefore, the marketing knowledge can not only be fed by  short campaign of interviews or customer-interest-check meetings.
What is B2B marketing : Business-to-Business marketing is dealing with people, interacting with the personas of your targeted segments.

Marketing needs time.

The activities I describe TAKES TIME.
But it’s the only  way to get robust offer requirements.
Marketing is delivering business opportunities from customer understanding ; those marketing facts are the trigger of offer creation and offer evolution.
Marketing facts are also the triggers for design thinking and co-creation.

Business-to-Business delivers values

Finally, marketing must deliver the values : Show and Tell .
The tools and media used can be very similar to those of Business-to-Consumers. But the how to
“show&Tell ” must take into account that Business-to-Business customers have a different behavior.
They don’t buy your product because of the product.
In fact they don’t care about your product!
They care that your created value is solving one or several of their needs or pain points.
The list can be long and embraces topics such as productivity, safety, return on investments, easiness, robustness ….
Therefore , your Show&Tell must speak more about customer than product.

Long-term but short-time ?

Business-to-Business customers are usually loyal and long-term customer, and remember : they don’t buy , they invest.
Therefore their decision can take time. Sometimes months, even years.
You must never skip those key facts when delivering your values to your Business-to-Business customers.
Messages must tell about how their issue is solved and communication Campaigns must last. Targeted media must be those your customers-as-personas are used to get … and have time to go through.

That’s a paradox in Business-to-Business Marketing :
Excited by the tremendous successes from brands acting in Business-to-Consumer, companies managers ask to copy/paste those successes in Business-to-Business. Awaiting for short-terms business results.
Business-to-Business marketer’s roles and responsibilities are to create the future , but the paradox is that they struggle under pressure for immediate actions and short-term results.

In a nutshell.

What is B2B marketing ?
Business to Business marketing is :
understand the needs then create and deliver values, to the various and complex organizations of companies, and to their own customers : other companies and sometimes consumers.
Therefore, Business-to-Business marketer’s value stands in their abilities and skills to listen and understand the real needs of the various personas along the decision chain, from the real end-user up to the c-level of the targeted customer segments.
It takes time.