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This is what many B2B companies are doing wrong when they build products

It’s about focusing on your customers, of course—but probably not the one you’re talking with already.

This is what many B2B companies are doing wrong when they build products
[Photo: tifonimages/iStock]

Solution Selling. The Challenger Sale. MEDDIC. Customer-Centric Selling. The B2B world is full of countless methodologies promising large, profitable results. There are so many meetings, product demos, and stakeholders to win over along the way, and it’s easy to get totally consumed by their requirements. 

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But more often than not, the actual end users of your product sit in a different department and live in a different reality than the buyers with whom you typically communicate. Forgetting this means you’re leaving your true customer behind and missing a massive opportunity to deliver something of value. I know, because I experienced it firsthand. 

In the midst of pounding the development pavement, boasting about the grand market opportunity, and thinking through the overall go-to-market and fundraising strategy, did anyone actually sit down with the people who will use the product? Not the executives in the C-suite, or the IT team that signs off on the integration, or the procurement team, but the person who will use the product as part of their job. How does the product fit in with their current day-to-day processes? How will it make their life easier and improve their results?

 As CEO and founder of fintech company Hearsay, I’ve long made it a priority to shadow customers to better understand their specific needs. Not long ago, I spent a day with an employee in a local field office of one of our top insurance customers. Let’s call him Joe. Joe is precisely our target user as Hearsay looks to reinvent the client experience with compliant digital communications and workflow solutions. 

At that point, I had visited their corporate headquarters dozens of times, spent time with their executives, IT managers, and marketing team. I could recite their corporate priorities and annual goals and thought I deeply understood their business. 

I expected this visit to be fairly routine. I would talk with a few people who’d graciously host my team and me, and they would provide some feedback that ultimately would validate what we already knew about serving their customers. But that is not what happened. Instead, my time with Joe changed the trajectory of our products and approach to product development.

We had developed a text messaging solution that we expected Joe to embrace, but he couldn’t have cared less about it. Joe spent the entire day tracking down customers’ late bill payments through a painfully manual process consisting of spreadsheets, phone calls, voicemails, and Post-it Notes. Between dozens of call attempts, he shared that this was how he spent the majority of his time.

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Our minds were blown. First, how could this Fortune 100 outpost in the heart of Silicon Valley be operating in such a low-tech, inefficient way? Second, how could their corporate HQ teams be so disconnected from reality that they’d roll out a texting solution when something as foundational as billing was so broken? 

Hearsay didn’t get to where it is today by building a product in a vacuum. We developed a solution for a significant problem, and our core platform is used by over 170,000 advisors, agents, and bankers at more than 150 of the top 200 global financial institutions. We’ve always met with customers to get their feedback, but there is a big difference between sitting around a conference table talking about a problem (or solution) in theory and actually experiencing it on the ground, with the end users. 

 This afternoon with Joe helped me and my engineering and product design teams realize that we were so heads-down refining our product based on feedback from the customer HQ offices that we were missing an opportunity to be so much more. We could deliver the type of innovation and value that changed workers’ lives. 

 The desire to be and do more is ingrained in entrepreneurs. It can lead companies to greatness—or their downfall. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that growth and expansion must be strategic, and consider a long-term vision for what the company could become. Every subsequent decision depends on whether it brings the company closer to this goal or further away. 

A few years after starting the company, we had to make a choice between whether Hearsay would go broad, servicing a big array of companies across myriad industries, or dive deep in the financial services arena where we could help transform an industry. We opted to go deep, which helped us focus on building solutions in an entirely different way than we would have if we decided to sell horizontally. 

In focusing exclusively on the financial services industry, I needed to bring in and train up domain expertise. One of the ways we did this was implementing a mandatory “Spend the Day with a Financial Advisor or Insurance Agent” program for all of our employees and new hires. Building on a concept several of us had experienced at other companies, including Intuit’s “follow me home” program, we realized requests from our core end users—the insurance agents and financial advisors in the field—never made it to the Hearsay team. Instead, we decided to engage end users directly. To better serve them and learn what features they actually use, we had to walk in their shoes. 

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Over the course of a year, every single Hearsay employee, from engineers and product teams to our accountants, support staff, and recruiters have had similar experiences sitting down with end users. It has been a huge investment in time and coordination, but incredibly high-return on investment, our employees have come back feeling inspired and saying they viscerally understand our company mission and opportunity. We’ve visited all types of advisors and agents—young advisors struggling to engage enough clients to build a viable business, experienced advisors wanting to do less as they wind down their careers, and everyone in between.

The conversations we have with end users have shifted from what they think of our product to the pain points they feel daily. The right question to ask isn’t, “What do you like and what’s hardest to use about our product?” It is, “What do you like, what’s hardest about your job, and how can we help?”

Often the most meaningful innovation is not what would make the most impressive PowerPoint slide. We learned the importance of prioritizing the products we should build, versus producing products just because we can or because someone at HQ thought it sounded cool. This was humbling. It doesn’t mean turning off big, bold innovations that make press and mainstream audiences ooh and ahh. It means vetting those against what will actually move the needle for our users.

Visits with agents like Joe have inspired our team to introduce several new products, to solve business challenges in processes like billing, claims, and lead management. We’ve also refined existing offerings to focus on actual tasks that our end users must get done each day. 

“Spend the Day with an Advisor and Agent” continues to be an important program for our employees. Specific individual users and anecdotes are now always on our minds and come up in meetings when we debate trade-offs and prioritizations. 

It’s more than capturing user feedback. Empathy requires observation of end users in their natural habitat, something user experience designers and anthropologists call “ethnographic research.” The idea is that if an end user visits a lab or a tech company, she may answer questions differently than if she is in her office doing her actual everyday work. In a lab or on a survey, it’s also easier for technology product teams to ask leading questions and make assumptions. But when you visit your end user’s office and simply observe, many of those biases and assumptions quickly disappear.

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I’m proud and excited about how direct end-user engagement has energized my employees, increased usage of our products, helped us launch new products, and allowed us to bring expert insights to our home-office buyers. I highly encourage every B2B leader to spend quality time with your users in their everyday settings. I will bet that you will soon find these visits to be the most exciting meetings on your calendar—as they have become on mine.


Clara Shih is CEO and founder of Hearsay Systems, a financial technology company used by more than 170,000 advisors and agents to reinvent the client experience. Recognized as one of Fast Company‘s “Most Influential People in Technology,” and a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum, she is a member of the Starbucks board of directors and previously held roles at Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce.com.

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