How to move B2B market research beyond face-to-face conversations

The way businesses operate may be evolving as digital processes continue to take hold but what does this mean for B2B market research? Face-to-face conversations are still important but social media, gamification and data analysis are leading to deeper customer relationships.


Understanding, defining and talking to customers is just as crucial for business-to-business (B2B) brands as it is for direct to consumer businesses.

“One of the priorities for B2B has been to embrace the digital age but it’s important not to forget the simple way of finding out what customers want by just talking to them,” says Tim Crighton, marketing director at insurance specialist InsureTaxi.

Companies that attend trade shows spend around 41% of their marketing budget on being face-to-face with customers, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. Meanwhile, Outsell’s annual study of B2B advertising and marketing estimates that $26.1bn (£19.6bn) will be spent on events to get face-to-face with customers.

“There’s a big taxi show in the Midlands so in the past we have emailed people who have registered and got together a focus group of 16 people to speak to them about how we could do better, what their challenges are as taxi drivers and so on,” explains Crighton. “Taxi drivers like communicating. If you don’t like chatting to them, you’re in the wrong profession.”

READ MORE: Strong B2B brands drive value more consistently than B2C brands

Taxi drivers are not the only customer group to whom it is good to talk. Even in the world of data and marketing technology, getting the customer view is important. Salesforce senior vice-president of marketing and operations Thimaya Subaiya says: “We capture a lot of information from events and go through an elaborate survey process. We want to know if the content resonated, did customers get what they were looking for? We ask them about what they need from technology in general.”

One-on-one conversations are key

In the B2B area, it is still the case that face-to-face plays an important role, even when the number of business customers would rival that of any other business-to-consumer (B2C) organisation.

Ellen Porter, head of research at the Royal Mail, explains: “Qualitative research in all its guises continues to be important. Group discussions can provide a good forum for discussion where the topic is focused on Royal Mail’s behaviour – assessing communications or product development. However, when we need to ask questions specific to their business, such as volumes or how they engage with their customers, individual one-on-one interviews are a key tool.”

“Research is increasingly benefiting from combining primary research data with analytics from internal resources.”

Ellen Porter, Royal Mail

Of course, for companies with a handful of high value individual contacts research begins to blend with relationship building, since all the otherwise departmentally-led individual marketing tasks are delivered by a single person, which is the case for Fujitsu executive director of marketing Simon Carter.

“In the IT sector, most of the deals are for £50m upwards. It’s a long-term strategic relationship where the customer is trusting me to run the infrastructure of their business. The relationship is very different to when I worked in the B2C world,” he admits.

The rise of automation

However, the automation and machine learning increasingly prevalent in the B2C world is beginning to emerge in B2B market research. Royal Mail’s Porter explains: “Research is increasingly benefiting from combining primary research data with analytics from internal resources such as behavioural data, complaints and feedback through other channels such as sales. This enables market research specialists to be even more focused in framing the right questions.

b2b market research

“This aggregated data also enables researchers to build a more sophisticated analysis of links between stated satisfaction, planned actions and actual behaviour. It can also show relationships between the volume and subject of complaints and levels of satisfaction,” she adds.

READ MORE: B2B brands shift focus to customer experience

InsureTaxi’s Crighton agrees that using different sources of data is important. “We can use the taxi driver forums and send out simple surveys via email and text. Social is an additional channel and if we weren’t on Facebook and Twitter and listening to our customers that way [we would miss conversations], but it doesn’t replace the one-to-one conversation in my view.”

Experiment with new tools

Porter would like to see B2B marketers branch out and embrace the range of research tools open to them. “Recently, there have been good developments in consumer research with the introduction of gamification and passive data collection. These developments are less evident in B2B research, where there are challenges to introducing such methodologies and it would be good to see more innovation in the B2B space where understanding behaviour and the decision making process are of enormous value,” she explains.

It is not a case of shoehorning a B2C tool into a B2B space – there are clear differences in the motivations of customers in each of these spaces, as well as a dramatically different pool size of respondents. But underpinning the research methodologies in both sectors is the need to imbue the corporate culture with a habit of listening. Whether that is listening to what spreadsheets of data or dashboards are telling marketers, or opening ears to the information that is flowing through in real time while on the ground, working among clients.

Keeping ears to the ground is particularly important in a client services environment where the supplier and client teams are merged in-house. “For most of our clients, we have people on-site,” says Fujitsu’s Carter. “In a bank, we will have 1,000 people working in their office and we will get first-hand experience of whether it’s taking things too long to work. You hear about it in the canteen and between desks. But we also do a lot of work in defence and 97 of our employees have campaign medals because they have been on site while bullets have flown past their ears.”

Salesforce’s Subaiya also points to a much neglected stage in the development of B2B market research. ”We consolidate the information back into the voice of the customer that sits at the heart of Salesforce’s development. It’s also the voice of employees and partners. We have changed our entire messaging to be one consolidated framework driven by the voice of the customer.”

“It’s not just the analysts who need to listen, but the CEO too.”

Thimaya Subaiya, Salesforce

He adds that of the three product releases the company puts out a year, each undergoes multiple changes based on customer input. “When launching Salesforce One, we went through another process of talking to people using the mobile platform. We made 30-second videos and the executive team spent an entire day listening to feedback. It’s not just the analysts who need to listen, but the CEO too.”

Getting the information back into the business and acted upon can be a challenge but it is without a doubt the most vital step in any market research programme, B2B or otherwise.

Even at InsureTaxi, where the business is growing rapidly, Crighton is making sure customer feedback makes it right to the top: “I can get the key people I need to speak to into a boardroom and get that feedback heard. I don’t want to lose that model. As soon as you start sharing this stuff by documents, people start to drop out of the process. It makes a massive difference having sales and marketing in one room.”

Tradition and technology are far from a match made in heaven when it comes to B2B market research, though the latter is beginning to show its worth. It will be difficult to move business marketers on from the face-to-face style of information gathering, but you would have to question why you would want to. Gaining insight while deepening relationships is killing two birds with one stone and is even possible at volume if you choose your channels and conversations carefully.

Viewpoint: Ellen Porter, head of research, Royal Mail

There is little doubt that the business world is changing fast. The advent of disruptive new players and new technologies continue to shake up long established markets, while social media transforms the way businesses interact with their customers.

Ecommerce in particular has created a democratisation of business. We have to work with and understand an increasingly diverse market from established retailers moving from traditional high street selling to online, right through to an increasing number of individuals selling via marketplaces. Although they may look like consumers, their needs, expectations and attitudes are business oriented.

This new business environment has resulted in new challenges for our market research, for corporates there is dispersed decision making and as a result it is important to be able to relate individual responses to business actions, presenting a wide and diverse set of targets to monitor in order to get a detailed picture of the organisation. The research design needs to be focused, with clear objectives that relate to very clear business questions and business goals.

It should also respect participants’ time and opinions by keeping the interviews as short and focused as possible, while providing an opportunity for respondents to tell us what is important to them, rather than just asking about what is important to Royal Mail.

Research can gain behavioural and attitudinal insight to directly inform sales and promote the benefits of services. If any issues are raised by customers in an interview, these red flags can be passed back to the customer experience team to deal with.

Telephone still ranks high in terms of response rates, while the option to collect and confirm email addresses means that follow-up research can be done more cost effectively. The use of panels in the B2B arena lags the use of panels in the consumer space, since the recruitment of relevant respondents is more challenging. In future, there is undoubtedly a greater role for B2B panels to play, as well as finding ways to collect more real-time feedback, but success lies in building better processes.

Researchers need to balance a range of different factors to get the best results: what the business wants to know, the time a respondent has and the level of detailed information they are happy to provide. The final success factor is to make clear that the research has the potential to deliver a benefit to them as a customer in a tangible way, such as improving their customer experience or developing better products.

Hide Comments1 Show Comment
  • Shiny Johnson 15 Aug 2016 at 9:48 am

    Thanks for sharing this informative article. B2B marketing has experienced lot of changes according to the marketing trends and technology. Face to face B2B marketing will always have its own benefit which is standard one. According to recent trends social media, gamification and data analysis plays vital role in B2B CRM.

    Shiny from Bizbilla B2B

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