Most technology entrepreneurs believe that their innovation has utility, is superior to competition and creates great value for potential customers. After all, they came up with the idea, likely toiled for years developing the concept and possibly even left lucrative corporate careers behind in order to productize (and hopefully monetize) their grand innovation.
“Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.” —Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
In Szent-Györgyi’s quote he was referring to fundamental ground breaking scientific research—he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1937 for his discovery of the role of Vitamin C in the citric acid cycle—but the quote also applies to efforts to understand the needs of customers.
Understanding the extent of the served market for an innovation and the actual value to the various customers in that served market is critically important when trying to value the impact of an entrepreneur’s idea. While the actual approach can differ, these efforts are commonly known as “Voice of the Customer” (VOC). Nearly all entrepreneurs, particularly on the leading edge of technology markets, believe their product will make a huge impact. It is that belief which drives them and motivates them to work through their startup struggles. But far too often entrepreneurs, many of whom are scientists or engineers by training, do not apply the same rigorous investigative techniques to market research as they did for their invention. It is critical for early-stage companies to not assume what customers need, but rather to investigate in a structured and systematic way.
VOC surveys don’t give you the whole picture in complex B2B environments.
Business leaders love numbers. They are easy to understand, and they can be used almost like a score card, with an air of objectiveness and impartiality. But a quantitative survey is only as good as the questions that are asked and the population of respondents in the survey.
In a B2C business model, particularly in retail, entertainment, or food service, where you have the potential of gathering thousands of data points in a short span of time, surveys work well because you can apply statistical methodologies and know if a trend is real. However, in a complex B2B sale, especially within a regulated environment, what a business is really trying to do is sell a solution, not a product. Solutions are unique to the problems they solve, and they cannot be reduced to a handful of statistics or generalized by inductive reasoning. As my colleague Bill Glauser has written in a prior article, most customers have a “job that needs to be done”, as compared with simply needing to buy a product or service.
Deep interviews get to the bottom of the customer’s needs.
Before one can understand what jobs need to be done, one needs to understand the customer’s story that needs to be told. This is where a traditional checklist-style survey misses the nuance and detail. Conversing live with thought leaders in an extended two-way format reveals far more about their needs than trying to categorize their responses into a pre-configured set of quantitative responses.
This is particularly true in regulated environments. When Medicare reimbursement policy changes, FDA standards change, or GLP/GMP norms begin to evolve, one cannot simply send out a 10-question survey and expect to get a full picture of the impact along with all the nuances and possible strategic alternatives. A more effective approach in complex cases like these is to identify and dialogue with senior-level thought leaders who understand the needs of customers in the proposed served markets.
Like a scientist, a good market researcher needs the opportunity to debate with thought leaders and test multiple hypotheses, and learn not only what they are thinking, but why they hold that opinion.
When following this approach, an efficacious B2B market researcher brings to bear his or her own professional experiences and insights while weaving together the stories from a panel of experts. They find consensus opinions and interpret VOC responses in light of their professional context and background. With a collection of educated interpretations, it is possible to write a consensus report to inform strategic business decisions.
A thoughtful narrative of market dynamics
Jeff Bezos has famously said that he would rather read thoughtful narratives than a slide deck with a series of bullet points. These types of narratives enable business leaders, who are also strategic thinkers, to formulate informed points of view and develop more impactful business initiatives. The most meaningful VOC interpretations are those that account for the subtlety and nuance of the customer’s reality. These invariably result in the most appropriate commercial solutions for the complex jobs that need to be done in complex markets.
A thoughtful narrative is most effectively constructed by subject matter experts in the area being researched. Such an expert would be able to digest the body of feedback provided by the thought leaders and create a composite point of view which is actionable—and most importantly, relevant and impactful—to the business leader’s goals for his or her enterprise.