New Product Blueprinting
Front-end innovation for B2B organic growth

The Missing Objective in B2B Voice of Customer

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What’s the objective of voice-of-the-customer (VOC) interviews? Trick question. There are two objectives. At least there should be if you are a B2B supplier. The first objective is to understand the needs of customers much better than your competitors. This ensures that your R&D is answering questions customers actually care about, while the competition squanders its R&D on… other questions.

The second objective is to conduct your VOC work in a manner that “primes” customers to buy your product when you’re done developing it. Do this well and you sell your product before it even exists. Sound odd? Let’s look at the research: In his landmark book on selling, SPIN Selling, Neil Rackham described how 35,000 sales visits were monitored to find the most successful sales method. Here’s the punch line: Great salespeople engage customers in discussions about customers’ problems.

Now please consider your own stage-and-gate process. You know… the one that starts with “Idea” on the left, perhaps next to a lightbulb icon. As you move to the right—through Concept Development, Feasibility, Development, and Scale-up—you eventually come to “Sell Product,” right? At this point, according to Mr. Rackham, your best salespeople look the customer in the eye and ask, “So tell me… what problems are you facing?”

What if we pulled this question forward in time… before Scale-up… before Development… before Feasibility… before Concept Development? What if we asked this question before we even knew what “Idea” we would work on? Two things would happen. First, this question would be more genuine, because we weren’t trying to sell something we already had. Second, we would be using the best possible selling method… before we had anything to sell. We would be engaging customers in designing something they wanted, and priming them to buy the product later.

We would be using the best possible selling method… before we had anything to sell.

Why don’t you hear more about this missing second objective? Simple: It doesn’t exist in consumer-goods VOC. You pay consumers to come to your focus group, ask your questions, and say goodbye. It’s just not practical to engage a million toothpaste buyers in a manner that primes them to buy later.

Would it not be an incredible waste if you failed to engage these companies during interviews?

At New Product Blueprinting workshops—which are for B2B suppliers—I like to ask teams this question: “Within your target market segment, what percent of the total buying power comes from the 10 largest companies?” The answer is usually above 20 percent and is often above 50 percent. Would it not be an incredible waste if you failed to engage these companies during interviews? After all, why fly across the country for a VOC interview and not do everything you can to engage this important prospective buyer?

Nine Ways to Engage B2B Customers

If you wonder where our New Product Blueprinting process diverges from traditional VOC, you now have the answer: It’s about engaging knowledgeable, rational, interested B2B customers to a) uncover needs that competitors miss, and b) prime them so they’ll be eager to buy your product later. Here are some approaches you may want to consider building into your new product development process…

  1. Kill the questionnaire. Do you like to see people come to your home with a survey? Do you have more—or even less—time at work for surveys? Of course customers want to avoid such interviews.
  2. Let customers lead. I recently did an interview where I asked for problems and ideal state. Period. I kept asking, “What else?” and let them take me wherever they wanted to go. We got 64 ideas. Some were absolute gems I wouldn’t have thought of in several lifetimes.
  3. Discuss their “job.” At AIM, we’re big fans of Tony Ulwick’s “jobs-to-be-done” approach (What Customers Want). Don’t set up the interview to discuss your product; it should be about some job customers want to accomplish. After the interviews, you might address those “jobs” with a new or enhanced product, service, or business model.
  4. Project your notes. Use a digital projector—a VOC approach pioneered by AIM—so customers can correct you in real time. When you do this, you’ll notice the meeting becomes theirshow. You’re simply a skilled and helpful facilitator.
  5. Focus on outcomes. The primary objective of qualitative VOC is to uncover and understand as many possible “outcomes”—desired customer end-results—as possible. This is what customers love to talk about. Everything else is clutter to be minimized or eliminated.
  6. Probe… deeply. You don’t truly understand a customer outcome until you know how to measure it. AIM has developed customer-engaging methods to let you replicate their experiences in your labs. Very powerful for competitive analysis and new product design.
  7. Don’t sell or solve. If you sell during a discovery interview, you’ll destroy your credibility. If you solve during the interview, you’ll jeopardize your intellectual property. Do either and you’ll waste precious time better spent uncovering customer outcomes.
  8. Get quantitative. If you do only qualitative VOC, you may hear only what you want to hear. You need unfiltered, unbiased customer ratings on importance and current satisfaction. High-importance, low-satisfaction outcomes are the only ones they’ll pay you to improve.
  9. Use triggers. Skilled brainstorming facilitators use trigger methods to generate about 30 percent more ideas. Your triggers can help customers think differently about their processes, trends, and new ways to improve profitability. You get more outcomes, and customers get free help from a facilitator.

The Engagement Bonus

As they say in the infomercials… “But wait. There’s more.” When you launched your last product, did customers start snapping it up right away? You know… when you were ready? Or did they take a while to evaluate it because they were swamped with other matters? And even after your main contact was convinced, did it take longer yet for him or her to convince everyone else to sign off?

Rapid “time to market” is good, but fast “time to money” is even better.

A good rule of project management is to do tasks in parallel instead of in series whenever possible. So why not start engaging all the decision-makers and -influencers before you launch your new product? Rapid “time to market” is good, but fast “time to money” is even better. This brings in the sales much sooner. You can start this engagement during VOC interviews, but there are many ways to keep this parallel process going afterwards: Offer a sample, demo a prototype, share a concept drawing, ask for updates on their situation, or just discuss your progress. Do this and you’re not only accelerating; you’re selling.

Learning More…

At the end of a Blueprinting workshop last week, the president told his troops, “New Product Blueprinting is next-generation VOC… it’s where everyone will be going. We need to get there ahead of competitors.

If you’d like to learn more, you can contact us to request a one-hour personal web-conference. You might even hear us ask, “So tell me… what problems are you facing?”

Article excerpted from B2B Organic Growth Strategies Newsletter March-April 2013.