Photograph of a pile of jigsaw pieces

How To Understand B2B Customers In 4 Straightforward Steps

Four straightforward steps make up this framework to guide the process of better understanding markets and customers. The result -> a refined, fact-based understanding of customers

Each step carefully contributes to a better understanding of your customers.  Each step takes advantage of your existing knowledge base.

Each step requires data collection, analysis, and constant comparison with data from previous steps, to integrate learning into a cohesive rich picture.

Early steps exploit available internal data sources.  Later steps explore data external to your organization.

Step 1. Define the Business Problem

From a ‘muddle in the middle’ to clearly defined agreed learning objectives, problem definition evolves with learning.

JEM 9 Marketing Consultancy Market Research Process Step 1

Getting the question right is half the problem solved.  Ill-defined business questions often suffer from floundering; bouncing from one aspect to the next.  Solutions that are anchored in clearly defined needs, benefit tremendously from time spent getting the question right; what is it you need to know about customers?

Step 2. Understand Your B2B Customers Through Internal Discovery

JEM 9 Marketing Consultancy Market Research Process Step 2 - Internal Discovery

Analyzing internal data starts out much like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces jumbled together and chucked on the table.  Internally these ‘pieces’ fall into two categories:

  1. Uncovering and analysing in a systematic fashion what’s your people know, and
  2. Tapping into the systems, technology and processes which house (and sometimes hide) information about your customers, and their experience interacting with you.

Understanding Customers With Internal Stakeholders

Learning from your internal brains.

Working with stakeholders across departments to understanding their perspective has many benefits. It gets them on board what is a learning projects, and lead to changes.  It’s typically inexpensive and fast. It often yields rich learnings, or at the least, details signposts for further learning.

An early project step is to identify stakeholders which include decision makers who direct resources, and practioners who put decisions into action.

The focus of each department (and each individual) is colored by their particular view point.  Post-sales support may have a focused, rich picture of what detailed implementation entails for customers. 

The events marketing team may have a broad view of conferences where competitors and influencers are active, and current popular speaking themes.

Thus there are multiple valid understandings of customers, and different perspectives on;

  • potential solutions and opportunities
  • cause and severity of barriers
  • the impact on customers,
  • the impact on the business, and
  • the impact on their team.

Typically people are pleased to be asked and appreciate that their professional perspective is valued.  A careful approach to data capture and analysis uncovers the lived experience of your team while avoiding loud, unfounded opinions.

Who To Involve In Understanding Customers

Different projects benefit from input from different areas of the business.   An internal workshop may be used to align the project team, and start creating shared values and objectives.

In market strategy development skakeholders include the leadership team, CEO, as well as business unit and functional leaders.  Combining a top-down and bottom-up approach to working with stakeholders helps ensure you are moving smoothly, laying the foundation for successful strategy change. (Change is almost never a smooth road.)

In customer persona development and customer journey mapping for example, typical stakeholders include: product management, marketing, account management, service delivery, service management / on-boarding teams, and post-sales support.

In product development including the perception of multidisciplary teams develops customer empathy and a deeper understanding of customers’ needs.  In addition to strategic product management typical stakeholders include; project management, engineering, service / post-sales support, and R&D leaders.

Understanding Customers From Internal Data Sources

Similar to internal stakeholders, internal data sources are usually relatively inexpensive to locate.  In some cases data is abundant. It’s important to stay focused on the data you need and couple that with careful data analysis.

For example, perhaps a sales win/loss analysis will be more insightful than more A/B testing on that landing page.

While in some organizations there will be a degree of arm wrangling and persistence required to access data sources, it’s a rare project that does not gain understanding of customers from internal data.

Involving the multidisciplinary stakeholders, from the previous step, faciliates uncovering department-specific systems.  Not only people silos but ‘data silos’, disparate IT systems and marketing systems, may emerge.

Step 2 Outcomes From Internal Discovery

As you reach the end of the internal discovery phase,

  1. the business problem is sharply defined,
  2. the multifaceted perspective of your teams is transparent,
  3. you’ve learnt what internal information sources have to offer, and
  4. the team involvement, crucial for implementation, has commenced.

Depending on your situation, you may have a rich picture of customer ecosystem and what it like for prospects to interact with your organization.  Or you may have a patchy picture with personal perspectives.

Either way ‘what’ the organization knows, and known gaps, about customers will be clear.

Usually the project moves now to grounding the internal prespective on customers in the realities of a competitive and dynamic market place.  Filling gaps in the blind spots and uncovering unknown unknowns

Step 3. Understanding B2B Customers Through External Discovery

JEM 9 Marketing Consultancy How To Understand Customers Step 3: External Discovery

There is no better way to understanding customers than by going beyond the boundaries of your organization; getting outside the building.  This stage typically commences with ‘we think’, rather than ‘we know’.

Internal perceptions may be incorrect. Departments may have siloed views.  Day to day practical operational matters may cloud view.  It’s also important to get grounded in the wider market space and the competitive environment.

Understanding customers from internal discovery alone may be correct, but with many blind spots on what customers really need.

Understand Customers Using Existing External Information

Secondary data sources are seriously abundant.  No longer is the challenge one of finding data. Rather the information search requires honing in on relevant, quality information about your customers and market space.

Typically fast and relatively inexpensive to acquire, using existing external data sources is undervalued.  Indeed sometimes third party information is excellent, and sufficient in itself.  This market map of SmartPhone usage with three different customer persona was created entirely from desk research using existing external data sources.

Understand Customers Using External New Market Research

Existing information may also be somewhat removed from the specific aspects your customer that you want to understand.  In which case primary research focused on answering your specific knowledge gap is required.

The Most Common Error In Understanding Customers

As we move to the most resource intensive form of understanding customers, I want to caution against skipping the previous steps.

It is, unfortunately, very common to be asking the wrong questions; a terrible waste of your, and your potential customers’ time, energy and good will.  Take the time using internal discovery and existing data sources to fine tune what you need to know to and from whom.

(The second most common mistake is….. not involved the right stakeholders within your organization.)

With that out of the way, back undertaking external research.

What you need to learn about customers indicates which learning methods are appropriate.  Broadly there are two types of external market research to assist you in understanding customers; qualitative and quantitative.

Understanding Customers Through External Qualitative Market Research

Qualitative market research explores themes by listening to or observing prospects and customers. There’s room for the emergence of new ideas, discovering unknown unknowns, in qualitative research learning methods. So projects often undertake qualitiative research before quantitative

For example, qualitative market research can help you understand

  • What does it take for a new user to become competent and confident uisng our solution?
  • Who within the customer’s ecosystem is likely to influence the sale?
  • Are the needs of customers homogeneous?

Voice of the customer‘ in-depth interviewing, focus groups and customer councils are examples of qualitative methods to understand customers.

Quantitative market research validates the applicability of hypotheses to larger cohorts of customers, or goes in search of evidence to support a theory.  Where hypotheses are well formed, (often from internal discovery or qualitative research) quantitative research enables you to count and sort into known groups. Often check boxes and ranges are used.

For example, quantitative market research can help you understand;

  • How many customers fit this customer persona?
  • Of this set of customer needs, which is most important?
  • What percentage of customers operate in multiple industries, as against only one industry?
  • How many prospects attend industry events to search for new solution?

Surveys/questionnaires, Net Promoter Score, kano analysis and conjoint analysis are examples of quantitative methods to better understand customers.

The appropriate research method is indicated by the business question under consideration.

Step 4. Validating B2B Customer Learnings

JEM 9 Marketing Consultancy Market Research Process Step 4 - Validated Customer Knowledge

Understanding Customers Requires Staying Grounded In Data

While early steps were open to the emergence of new ideas, it’s critical here to incorporate customer learnings into a solid storyline that draws together facts; form explanatory statements.

Careful analysis throughout the project pays off, and now integrates the various strands into a cohesive answer to the business questions.

Explanations must be a good fit and significant. Explanation must represent a clear understanding of what matters to customers.  Teams say:  ‘we sort of sensed something there, but didn’t clearly know this in an integrated’.

“It fits. The analysis rings true.”

UK Client, Head of IT Service Management

constant comparison

The power in powerpoint requires sticking to the point.

Explaining methodology and detailed data are important for future reference and context, but secondary to the business question.  Gaps and scope limitations should be clear;

  • “We spoke only to customers in North America.”
  • “Web analytics commenced in Jan this year.”
Understanding Customers Requires Clear Communication

For the project team, the communication of results should be just another step in the process to understanding customers.  It’s an articulation, or perhaps a more polished artefact of what the team has now learnt.  Projects that present “findings” to a whole slew of new faces break my heart; the goal is for your team to gain an embodied understanding of customers.

Beyond the project team, communications need to be tailored at the right level of abstraction.  A summary graphic may be the way to go. In all cases  easy to understand; appropriate for the audience

If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.

― Mark Twain

Summary Image of the 4 steps to understand customers

About Jane Morgan

With 20+ years high-tech marketing & product development experience from Boston to Billund, Berlin to Bangalore, Jane has managed teams and tech products with millions of installs, and millions of revenue (annually). She's researched and developed market strategy for global markets, and established the blueprint for product management in many new teams. As an intrapreneur turned entrepreneur, she changed vowels in 2014 and founded JEM 9 Marketing Consultancy. Today she works with CEOs & business leaders to assist them in understanding and reaching customers. Speaker on market research, technology marketing and product management.