Fast Company

How to Interview a B2B Customer

In my last blog, I mentioned all the ways that a B2B customer (another business) is different than a B2C customer (an end consumer): they tend to be more insightful, more rational in their decision-making, more dependent on suppliers…and there are generally fewer of them. In essence, your B2B customers are very smart… and will make you a lot smarter if you know how to extract that knowledge.

In my experience, there’s no better way to access what your B2B customer knows than with a good interview. Think of the alternatives, such as phone calls, surveys by mail or internet, etc. Compared to these, the face-to-face interview has a number of advantages.

First, it’s much harder to refuse to answer when you are facing the questioner. When you get a call from a telemarketer, do you feel compelled to answer his or her questions? A friend’s daughter had just reached the age when she could talk… and she liked it! When he received a telemarketing call, he would say, “I’m not interested, but there is someone in our family who might be”… and hand the phone to her.

Second, a great deal of our communication is non-verbal, so face-to-face interviews that involve all the senses are much more information-rich. If the information being sought is new or complex—say understanding customer needs so you can develop a new product—this is especially important.

I find the major shortcoming of most supplier-customer interactions is a failure to probe. This leads to a third advantage of the face-to-face interview. Once you’ve mastered good probing skills, you’ll be able to pick up subtle cues from your customer and use probing questions to chase down “the good stuff.” The difference between doing this and just listening is often the difference between a so-so new product and one that delights your B2B customer.

Fourth, you can supplement the interview with on-site observations. We train our clients to schedule a customer tour prior to the actual interview if possible. Then they can develop a frame of reference for better probing and ask about specific things they observed during the tour.

Finally—and we’ll beat this drum hard in coming blogs—there are really two purposes for a customer interview in the new product development process. Sure, you want to understand customer needs better so your new product meets them. But you also want to engage the customer to prime them to buy your product when launched. Most B2B suppliers have a few very large customers or prospects they would like to get close to. Done well, a good interview not only piques their interest for the eventual new product launch, but impresses them that you are supplier they’d like to do other business with.

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