The Essential Guide to B2B Customer Research

Behind every succesful Business-to-Business (B2B) product is a product team fueled by solid customer research. This comprehensive guide introduces essential tools and practical methods for acquiring a more solid understanding about your market, customers, end users and competitors.

The piñata approach vs. the Sherlock Holmes approach

Before diving into how customer research can be done, let’s start with two metaphors for creating products: The piñata approach and the Sherlock Holmes approach.

The piñata approach

Photo by Steve McFarland / Flickr

You can’t create a clear product strategy on a scrappy understanding of customer needs, market trends and competitors. In fact, driving products forward in this way is like blindfolding a team, giving them a stick and hoping they eventually will hit the piñata. The lucky ones might hit it at some point, but inevitably they will miss a lot of shots. Product teams using the piñata approach are not directed by insights from customer research — they are guided by opinions and solutions to problems that don’t exist. Very few companies can afford this kind of blindfolded approach.

The Sherlock Holmes approach

Photo by Kevin / Flickr

Approaching your market, customers and competitors like Sherlock Holmes will give you significant better chances of achieving product-market fit. You will approach your product idea with great curiosity and wonder, and investigate all signals as part of a bigger puzzle. You’ll use all five senses and a dose of analytical skills in your journey to find product-market fit.

B2B research can be a bumpy road

As compared to B2C research, B2B research can be more difficult to conduct. It might be hard to get in touch with your target customers and users. For example, your users could be working with highly sensitive information that they are not willing to talk with outside companies about. Or your team cannot reach users directly, but must go through several stakeholders within the same organization before an opening is possible. You can’t just show up at any coffee shop and expect to run into your target customers. You must do a little more research before you contact and approach users.

This is why the Sherlock Holmes approach is without doubt your best way forward in acquiring as much information as possible about your target customers from different sources. Spice up customer interviews with a greater understanding of trends in your target market, competitors and desktop customer research to paint yourself a better picture of your end users.

Know what problem you are solving and for who

Needless to say, before you conduct any customer research, you need to know what problem you are solving, who you are solving it for, and have a product idea. In any case, try to be as specific as possible on both your idea and your ideal customer. Use the template below for stating your product vision:

Based on the elevator pitch template by Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm

An example below for Slack looks like this:

  • For teams
  • Who would like all communication in one place
  • The product Slack
  • Is a software tool
  • That enables teams to communicate using chat
  • Unlike email
  • Our product enables teams to organize their communicating in different channels, and it integrates seamlessly with existing tools and services.

Even at an early stage, try to describe the problem you want to solve, the assumptions you have about the problems and sketch out your first customer persona. Be aware of potential competitors too. Don’t worry about the details. Everything will be revisited, once you can add more information from your customer research.

The three levels of customer research

Customer research can be done on three different levels using the Sherlock Holmes approach: The macro, meso and micro level.

On macro level you’ll learn more about
 • Market segment
 • Market size
 • Overall market trends

On meso level you’ll look into
 • Buyers and user personas
 • Online user communities
 • Competitors

On micro level you’ll gain more knowledge from
 • Customer interviews
 • Surveys
 • Industry conferences

If you are fortunate enough to have direct and unlimited access to users, you can spend less time performing customer research on macro and meso level as a way to prepare yourself for user interviews. However, as mentioned above, it is often not the case for product teams in B2B. Limited access to users calls for more preparation before users can be contacted.

1. Macro level: Seeing the market from above

On the macro level you’ll look at market size, market segmentation and industry trends.

1.1 Industry reports

To begin, you can simple google “market report for [market x]” to get a more clear picture of market size and market opportunities. Market reports can be incredibly expensive, so look for summaries, blog posts and articles that refer to the reports to get a snapshot of what’s important.

1.2 Market size

You will probably find a gigantic number that tells your market x is worth $x billion. While this may all sound great, you need to figure out what the realistic market size is for your product idea. You can do this the top-down way; by taking the total number of the market and placing a (conservative) guess on what your share might be of the market. This is not a very accurate approach though.

Another way is the bottom-up approach: look for the price that competitors charge your target customers today and estimate what your share of that market could be. For example look at how many customers you will be able to win within the first few years. You’ll get a more precise and realistic number, because you know what customers are paying already for a similar service.

Of course, it might be difficult to figure out how much customers pay for the tools that they use. Pricing might not be openly available on competitor websites. Instead, you can try to tease out pricing information in direct conversations with customers. (More on that in part three about micro level customer research.)

1.3 Market segmentation

Market segmentation is another method of determining market size. For example, you might offer a product that helps small company owners manage their expenses via a mobile app. Small company owners is a quite broad audience. So to make sure you start realistically, you divide the market into different segments and choose one segment that you would like to target to begin with. For example, this could be owners of small web development shops. With your best Sherlock Holmes approach, figure out what that specific market segment does today, and how much it pays already or is willing to pay to solve this need.

1.4 Trends

In addition to figuring out the market size and deciding on a specific market segment, find out what trends are evolving within your market. Read industry leading blogs and subscribe to industry newsletters. Notice what themes are repeating within the material you are reading. Take part in online discussions and understand what makes your target customers tick.

Macro level in summary

  • Google “market reports for [market x]” to figure out market size
  • Do a bottom-up estimate of market size to determine your most realistic market size
  • See if pricing of competitors is openly available on their website
  • Subscribe to industry leading blogs and newsletters to understand where your market is moving and what the trends are

2. Meso level: User and competitor research

Now that you know more about your potential market size and industry trends, it’s time to dig into B2B customer research on Meso level. In this section you will learn more about personas, how to conduct user research from your laptop, and how to work with competitor research.

2.1 Buyers vs. users

As mentioned in part 1, you should know who your target customers and users are. For B2B products, the users and the buyers are not always the same people. Try to figure out who will buy your product vs. who will use it.

Figure out what job titles these profiles have. Read job listings for their specific roles and look up people with the those job titles on LinkedIn. Figure out what terms they use to describe their work and what their educational backgrounds are. Collecting this information can help paint a picture of who your target users are. It is also a great starting point when you talk to your users later in interviews and have learned about potential pain points and goals beforehand.

2.2 Online user communities

Online user communities such as LinkedIn, Slack or Reddit hold valuable information about your target users.

LinkedIn: An example of an interest group for professionals within social media marketing. The content within this group can reveal more about pain points, needs and terms normally used for this target audience.

To gain an even deeper understanding of your target audience, try to think like them. Ask yourself: Where would my users go to gain new knowledge or share his or her professional interests with likeminded people? You will learn more about what they struggle with and what they need. You’ll begin to learn the language of your users as you see what terms are used most frequently. In some cases, you can find blog posts written by your target users that reveal ideas and frustrations. Use all this information to propel your customer research forward.

2.3 Competitor analysis

In addition to learning more about your target audience, researching competitors is another must in customer research. Competitors might be direct competitors who solve the same problem as you and offer a similar product at a similar price. They might also be indirect competitors who solve the same problem with a different product, or potential competitors that target the same customers as you, but solve different problems. Potential competitors might become more indirect or direct competitors in the future, so they are worth keeping an eye on.

Read your competitors’ product descriptions and customer case studies, and look for product demo videos on Youtube. Subscribe to their newsletter or add their press releases to your RSS feed. Follow each competitor on Crunchbase.com and enable Google Alerts every time a competitor is mentioned in a new link on Google.

Crunchbase.com is a great source for following competitors. See recent funding rounds, acquisitions and more.

2.4 Compare your value proposition

When you understand the competitive landscape, you have a list of companies to compare your product idea to. Analyze what competitors do right and wrong. You can look for parameters such as:

  • Year founded
  • No. of employees
  • No. of and size of clients
  • Product offerings
  • Essential features
  • Usability strengths/weaknesses
  • Technical strengths/weaknesses
  • Brand strengths/weaknesses
  • Social media/blog content

In addition to comparing your own product idea to competitors, you’ll also learn more about how competitors address your target audience. You’ll understand why customers might prefer your competitor’s product. Further, you will be more aware of your own product’s benefits and base your marketing material and product pitches on this knowledge.

It goes without saying that competitor research is not an activity performed just once. Your preliminary competitor research is simply a snapshot in time. This activity must be performed continuously as part of a product manager’s frequent tasks.

Meso level in summary

  • Create detailed user personas
  • Find users communities on LinkedIn, Slack and Reddit to learn about their pain points, needs and terminology
  • Read blog posts written by your target users
  • Research your competitors and segment them
  • Check out competitors’ product descriptions, product demo videos and press releases
  • Subscribe to Crunchbase and Google Alerts
  • Compare your own value proposition with your competitors

3. Micro level: Interviews, surveys and conferences

Now that you have a preliminary understanding of your market, competitors, and what struggles and goals your target customers have, it’s time to hear things straight from the horse’s mouth. This is the micro level of customer research. Use interviews and surveys and attend conferences to gather rich insights and validate your product idea. Not surprisingly, talking directly with customers and users will inform your customer knowledge significantly.

3.1 Customer interviews

Customer interviews are direct conversations with customers and end-users. They help shape your understanding of user pain points and needs. Interviews are thick data: you will use your interviews to extract qualitative data that communicate insights and stories from your target audience. Customer interviews are typically performed by a team of a product manager, designer and a developer.

Having acquired as much knowledge as possible by doing your desktop research, it’s now time to put your assumptions to the test. Your customers will need to confirm or disapprove your assumptions — and of course add lots of details by telling you how they do things today.

Using your Sherlock Holmes curiosity, you’ll ask follow-up questions and make sure you understand the details of what your customers are actually saying.

Think like a journalist — you need to be able to write a story afterwards with the facts you have learned from your interviews. You are in charge of communicating this information to the rest of the product team. If you don’t understand why the customer does a certain thing, ask why several times until you understand the underlying problem. Otherwise, there is not a coherent story to be told.

3.2 Questions to ask

The number one rule for engaging with customers is relationship building. Be polite, ask questions with genuine interest and be empathic when you ask your questions. See your interviewees as complete human beings. They take pride in their work and want to do their job in the best possible way with the tools they have at hand.

If possible, visit your interviewees at their office to observe their work settings. This might tell you more about who they sit next to and work with on a daily basis, what monitor size they use, what information they keep on the walls etc. All this contributes to a greater understanding of your customers.

Ask them questions such as:

  • Tell me about your background: What did you do before starting at company x?
  • What does a normal day at work look like to you?
  • What tools do you use to do x?
  • What do you like the best / the least about these tools?
  • What do you find most challenging when you do x?
  • What are you trying to achieve from it?
  • How do you serve your customers?
  • What would make your job easier?
  • How much do you pay for your current solution? (Remember, the interviewee might not be the buyer, so she might not be able to answer this question)

In addition to asking questions, ask your users to walkthrough their current workflow and explain out loud what they do in each step. This will add some more context to your customer research.

3.3 Hold your horses — save your product presentation to the end!

Instead of jumping directly to presenting mockups of your latest product idea, spend the majority of time in these interviews on asking questions, observing and listening. If you don’t validate your assumptions by asking lots of questions, you can easily end up speaking most of the time. That leaves little room for your users to explain their pain points and needs, and it leaves you with a limited understanding of the actual problem that you are trying to solve.

When you learn more about interviewees’ needs, you can frame your product presentation with the same pain points and needs that they pointed out earlier in the conversation. For example, if you want to learn more about what tools project managers use to organize their work, design your interview guide around that. Once you understand what needs project managers have, you can show a mockup of own product and ask clarifying questions of what might or might not work out for them now that they see your solution.

Remember, the intention is to learn how users react to your product and what value they might or might not see in it. Interviews and product pitches shouldn’t be mixed together in the same session. As a product manager or designer your job is to understand user needs, so leave the pitching to the sales staff.

3.4 Surveys

Surveying potential customers is another way to learn more about their needs and pain points. If you can get a hold on your target audience — via established industry networks, or contact users manually via professional networks such as LinkedIn — surveys can be a useful way to gain insights from many participants. Have in mind that surveys can be difficult to use for B2B research, as you might not be able to get direct access to many B2B users at once. Surveys are mostly useful if you can get a large number of respondents; otherwise direct interviews will provide you with richer insights. If you do get the chance to contact a large number of B2B users, you can use tools such as Google Forms, Typeform or Survey Monkey to create surveys.

3.5 Conferences

In addition to interviews, observations, and surveys, industry conferences are another great way to meet your customers. You might not be able to schedule formal interviews, but the number of customers you can face in a conference setting can be significantly larger. More chit-chat sessions can help you quickly narrow in on what customers are focusing on or currently concerned about. Further, attending talks and discussions with industry professionals can fuel your understanding of major movements within your market. Find the most popular conferences through relevant industry blogs, in newsletters or check out where competitors pitch their products.

Micro level in summary

  • Use your existing user research to prepare an interview guide
  • List all of your assumptions and divide each interview into themes you are curious to learn more about
  • Be polite and have a genuine interest in your customer’s work life
  • Spend the majority of an interview session on asking questions, observering and listening — not on pitching your product ideas
  • Use surveys if possible
  • Attend industry conferences and meet with customers in more informal settings

Conclusion: Guide your product strategy with customer research

The insights you get from doing more solid customer research will guide your overall product strategy, inform your design decisions and your technical choices. On the contrary, if you don’t have these insights to inform your product decisions, you quickly end up practicing the piñata approach — swinging your imaginary stick countless times only to miss the target.

Customer research shouldn’t be done only in the beginning when you have an idea for a product, it should be done on a continuous basis. Customer needs change as new requirements are enforced, or as competitors offer new features. You need to constantly figure out where the market is moving on the macro, meso and micro levels.


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