10 secrets to B2B product research

So why should you do customer research? Asked no one ever… or at least anymore. I don’t need to tell you that research is key to avoid wasting time, resources, and the team’s morale developing a product that no one wants to buy. I don’t need to tell you that discovering what customers really need will give you flexibility in figuring out the right solutions, help prioritize features, and save you from playing catch-up with competitors.

So if we all know that customer research is key for product development, why don’t people always do it for B2B products? Because it’s more tricky than B2C research. I’ll share some tips for how to get around the complexities with B2B research at Empower B2B. This post is a pre-taste of that talk.

1. Not just a product team project

For consumer facing products, product managers can usually find or create the right channels for customer research. It can be as easy as surveying users directly in the product and following up with interviews, searching for relevant folks on social media, or just talking with friends who match the target user. B2B research requires more cross-functional collaboration. You need to partner up with sales, business development, or customer success teams to put you in touch with relevant customers.

Sometimes, direct communication with customers will not be possible (though you should always try!). In those cases, you need to figure out how to parse the feedback you get from sales and other customer facing roles to uncover customer needs. Ask about the customer who gave the feedback, what context it came up in, and about their use cases. At a minimum, this will help you create personas that can be a starting point for your research.

Other times, you will be lucky to get on the phone with the right customer to interview, just to be told that they can’t tell you anything about their work or how they plan to use your product. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get hold of the right customer to interview and then hit a confidentiality wall. Working closely with customer facing teams, you can have the customer sign an NDA ahead and get the customer comfortable with a suitable introduction to set up the interview for success.

2. Collaborate with gatekeepers

I’m fortunate to work with a supportive sales team that truly understands the value of well targeted product development. But from previous experience and from conversations with colleagues at other companies, the need to collaborate with sales teams is one of the biggest problems in doing B2B customer research. Sales teams often try to close a deal by promising things that are not on the roadmap, so painting a clearer picture of the actual product roadmap can get in the way of their sale and upsell process. They’re worried that if you push customers to tell you what they really need, you’d expose the gaps of the current product offering. Alternatively, if the roadmap looks exciting to customers or prospective customers, there’s a risk that they’d want to wait until a product is launched.

One way to minimize this risk is to focus on current customers and avoid interviewing prospective customers who are in the middle of evaluating your offering. That will not work if the company is just starting out or focusing on a new market segment.

In any event, you need to get your sales team comfortable with your approach. Have them join the interviews to see you in action. Learn about potential sensitivities of a customer ahead of the interview. Be careful to avoid questions that could upset a deal. If you ask the right type of questions (I’ll give some examples below), you’ll never directly ask customers what they need that your product doesn’t provide. Never outsource customer research to someone who wouldn’t be mindful of the customer relationship. I’ve made this mistake once… so you don’t have to. ;)

What if your sales team invites you to customer calls or visits, but will not let you lead an interview? Take every opportunity you get to talk with customers! Even if the meeting is primary about pitching the customers. You will learn super valuable information from listening carefully and asking tactful questions that will not disturb the sales process. A lot of product managers reject these sort of opportunities thinking that it’s not their job to sell or pitch and they want to save their time for specific customer interviews. Customers interviews will of course be more valuable, but there are fewer opportunities for that. So waiting for the perfect interview settings will just forego you useful learning that could inform the product development process.

And if you absolutely can’t collaborate with gatekeepers, get around them! Sign up for industry conferences where you can chat with prospective customers in a more informal setting. Find friends of friends through LinkedIn and reach out directly. It may feel pushy to reach out to random people, but you can get lots of relevant information for your product and end up building a stronger personal network.

3. Find the right people to talk with

Doing B2B research often feels like playing with matryoshka nesting dolls. You talk with one person only to discover halfway through the meeting that you really need to talk with another part of the org. And it’s often not that it would be enough to only talk with the second person and skip the first. B2B products often need to satisfy many different stakeholders. The most important product requirements will come from the individuals who will actually use the product. If the product doesn’t solve their needs, the company won’t buy it or renew. Another set of requirements will come from the buyer and contract approvers, like finance or legal. IT departments will usually have lots of requirements for B2B SaaS products, so checking off their checklists without creating a clunky Frankenstein’s monster product will be crucial too.

4. Prepare and over-prepare, but be ready to throw out your preparation

Lots of preparation goes into a customer interview. You need to figure out the ideal customer for your product and what general problems your product will solve for those customers. You’ll want to research general trends in your target market to understand where your product fits in. This includes researching your competitors and solutions that compete with your product (for example, Skype’s competition is not only Google Hangouts, but also just a phone).

Learning about the customer before the interview is also key. You’ll want to learn as much as possible about what they do, their products and recent releases, and their competitors’ products. Learning about a customer’s competitors will tell you a lot about what the customer aim to do. If you can, try out the customer’s products and analyze them extensively. It will help you ask deeper questions about their work and have better context for their answers.

You’ll also want to learn about the specific individuals that you will talk with. Learn about their role within the company and how long they’ve been there. You can use your research about the company and the individual to formulate user personas.

Once you have a persona it will be much easier to formulate relevant questions to ask. Some of those questions may be very general, like “what does your normal day look like.” Other may be super specific, like “what do you do when the number of your browser tabs makes it impossible to navigate between them.” Either way, think through every possible question you may want to ask and write it down. But be prepared to put your questions aside if your conversation goes in a different direction. Group your questions under different categories so that you can easily dive into a category that still seems relevant during the conversation.

5. Whom to bring

Ideally, you don’t want to bring anyone. The smaller the group, the better information you will get from the customer. If you have a big team on your side, it will feel more awkward for the customer or they will try to bring more folks from their side, which is not particularly helpful.

Having said that, customer facing folks will likely want to be part of the meeting if your talking with their contact. They want to keep track of everything their contact asked for so that they can be responsive to their requests and follow up appropriate. Since they already have an established relationship with the customer, their participation usually doesn’t impact the conversation too much, unless they take over the show and stop you from asking questions.

Depending on your product, you want to bring certain people due to their expertise. For example, I usually try to bring an engineer when talking with another engineer about our API.

Except when it really makes sense for your type of product, some customer facing folks prefer that product managers don’t bring engineers or designers to the interview. The stereotyped concern is that they may be less tactful in asking questions in a way that doesn’t disturb a sale or renewal. This will of course greatly depend on the people. Some engineers are just the most thoughtful communicators. Some PMs suffer from foot-in-mouth and have a hard time getting facetime with customers.

6. Tell me how you do it

You want to get customers talking in detail about how they would use your product (or the solutions it replaces) to fully understand their needs. So if your product is a tool they would use in their work, you’d want to ask them how they go about their day. If it’s something they would use in their product, you’d want to ask about when they previously used something like your product and have them describe that process. Ask them things like how long the different steps took, what the main pain points at each step were, and why they decided to do it a certain way. It also helps to ask the same question in different ways to elicit more detail. Regardless of the situation you’re trying to learn more about, your goal is to get the customers to paint as complete picture as possible.

If your product is a tool customers would use in their day-to-day, you probably want to visit their office and observe how they go about their day, what their work setup is, what hardware and software they use, how they use it, etc. Site visits are less important and sometimes plainly irrelevant for other types of products. For example, for products that your customer’s employees will not use directly, site visits is just a way to spend money and time you could have spent talking with more customers.

7. Don’t be afraid to be wrong

After asking various open ended questions to try to uncover the customers needs and pain points, you can tell them your assumptions about their needs based on the personas you prepared. Some interviews get to this step pretty quickly if the person you’re talking with doesn’t respond well to open ended exploratory questions (everyone’s different that way!).

Customers will confirm or deny your assumptions. When my assumptions are slightly wrong I tend to uncover more useful information because customers offer more detail when they try to course correct you. It will also make them feel like they’re clearly more knowledgeable than you, and open up in the interest of sharing their wisdom.

8. Save the demo

If you can, try to save your product presentation to a follow-up call. The customer or the person who put you in touch with the customer may get annoyed that you’re wasting their patience without pitching the product. It may help to explain your process and set the expectations that you will share a demo in a follow-up call. They may give you slack if you promise to use the information you uncover to create a better tailored demo for the customer (and follow through!).

Sometimes your product may be too abstract to have a meaningful conversation without some sort of demo or extensive information about your product. In those situations, it helps to present your product in terms of use cases formulated based on your customer personas and research. The more visual (think mock-ups), the better. This ends up being similar to having customers confirm or deny your assumptions. Customers can engage with those use cases and modify them or suggest their own. They can get more specific about their product needs, like what particular part of the product needs to be logged for IT or white labelled.

9. Don’t build for just one customer

So you may go through this process with lots of customers, but not get to really valuable information for all of them. Sometimes you have that one helpful customer who tells you everything about how they do things, uncovering lots of pain points and clear priorities. It’s so tempting to take those priorities and run with them. Don’t do it! Don’t build for just one customer.

Try to validate the direction you get from one customer with multiple interviews and surveys. Having a clear direction can help you formulate better assumptions and use cases that other customers can pick apart, giving you more nuanced information. Surveys can be more helpful after you’ve talked about the same stuff with customers because you can ask better questions when you know how customers may respond to different types of questions from your conversations.

Depending on the product, you may not be able to get really useful information from a large number of customers until they can try your product. If that’s the case, you’d want to build lots of iteration into the development process and make time for early adopters who can give you feedback before you finish building and polishing the product.

10. Always be learning

In general, you should never feel like you’ve learned everything about any customer’s needs, not least because they continue evolving over time as customers face new tasks and technology. Talk with the same customers periodically. See if they have new needs or pain points. When appropriate, share how insights from previous conversations shaped the product so that customers feel like it’s worthwhile for them to participate.