Run B2B Sales on Data, Not Hunches

Run B2B Sales on Data, Not Hunches

Rather than relying on anecdote and myth, smart companies collect robust, reliable data in a few key steps.

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Run B2B Sales on Data, Not Hunches

This article originally appeared on HBR.org.

Decision making at big B2B companies is often skewed by anecdote and myth: A worried report from the most vocal salesperson about a competitor’s latest move; a customer complaint that happened to be fielded by a senior executive. The flow of one-off stories often has outsized influence on how senior managers shape the firm’s interaction with customers.

Anecdotes gain that stature because managers often lack timely, reliable information. The typical approach to gathering customer feedback involves a once-a-year survey that produces a wave of analysis and reports, but usually is based on too many of the wrong questions to too few of the right people.

Smart companies turn this traditional approach on its head. Instead of relying on scattershot annual surveys and hearsay, they systematically focus on key decision makers in the client organization. They view the process of collecting direct and more frequent feedback from these stakeholders as the first step in supporting sales representatives, account managers, operations teams and service agents in solving customers’ problems and earning more of their business.

How is this different from relying on anecdote and myth? The answer lies in scale and approach. Methodically capturing, cataloging, and analyzing individual conversations on a large scale allows companies to turn anecdote into statistically robust, reliable data.

While each company has different processes, they share a few key steps in their approach.

Gather useful feedback

Feedback should come from all of the right people in the customer’s organization, and should be gathered in a way that encourages them to respond in large numbers. That’s complicated at any B2B business. For example, Dürr, the German supplier of paint and assembly shops, may have only about 40 accounts, but each is a huge automotive manufacturer with hundreds of decision makers and influencers. What’s more, most departments within Dürr interact with many individuals at these customer organizations. As a result, mapping Dürr employees with customer contacts is complex, and the process of getting useful feedback requires thoughtful choices about whom to engage with and how to communicate back to these stakeholders after acting on their comments.

It’s not acceptable to solicit feedback only from the handful of people with whom your salesforce has direct interaction, or to be satisfied with low response rates. You need a broad census, not a sample, to understand what’s truly going on in your accounts.

Many people in a customer’s organization influence buying decisions. To ensure that you’re hearing from the right ones, make sure your account managers have accurate, thorough account maps. Who in the organization approves vendors? Who makes buying decisions for each kind of equipment? Check the map against the customer’s own organization chart.

For example, a vendor selling radiology equipment to hospitals obviously needs to include the director of radiology, but may also need to include the chief of oncology or orthopedics. Suppliers of scientific goods to a biotech company will want to hear from procurement officers and the scientists who use the goods. Until you achieve 60% response rates from the right people, you’re likely getting a skewed view of the company.

Use feedback to engage in direct dialogues

It’s critical to get individual responses from people in your customer’s organization, then provide that information to every relevant member of the account team. Account managers or their designees then place follow-up calls to learn more about the responses. These are not sales conversations, but rather a chance to probe for specific complaints, priorities and desires. The conversations also provide a great opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of the customer’s needs, and to explain how your team can address them.

The account team then reviews the feedback with these questions in mind: Who are the detractors, and how do we respond? Who are the promoters, and how do we make good use of their enthusiasm? How should we modify our behaviors or procedures?

When Intuit started to regularly solicit feedback from new accountant customers, it learned that many didn’t realize the full capabilities of the firm’s tax accounting software and weren’t aware of the company’s webinars and other instructional channels. In response, Intuit’s Pro Tax Group formed a New Client Services team to bring new customers on board, walk them through key product features and make learning a new system as easy as possible. As a result, accountants who participate in the program are 49% more likely to renew.

Sometimes, the team will need to elevate an issue to the broader organization. The problem might involve policies, IT systems or digital experiences that can be addressed only at higher levels or by other functional groups. Often, the account team has been well aware of an issue, but could not persuade other departments to focus on it. Now, armed with a consistent set of comments from customers, the team can spark action. Success here allows account managers to circle back to key people in the client company and say “This is the feedback we received from within our organization and here are the specific measures we’re planning so we can better meet your needs.”

Identify patterns that reveal opportunities for company-wide changes

The feedback and follow-ups from every account team also should flow to a central customer relationship office, which can then identify broader patterns. Typically, analysts code the verbatim responses to help identify such patterns. Coding categories might include price, the sales process, the product itself and service, with several sub-categories below each one. A high-level view might reveal, for instance, certain types of customer or certain roles in client organizations that the company consistently overserves or underserves.

Summarizing the feedback allows the central team to provide dashboard reports to operating managers, including granular response rates, verbatim summaries, and follow-up status. Group leaders can see additional reports comparing ratings for each account; they may also notice specific issues, such as a sales team that is out of its depth and needs more help. The central team can also identify and prioritize client concerns and opportunities, and launch initiatives to address them.

Cummins Engine, for instance, learned from its customers that it wasn’t responding quickly enough to product issues that arose in the field. So it launched Project Speed, which gave the service engineering team authority to implement temporary fixes in the field until Cummins could get a permanent solution into production.

For customer feedback to be useful to B2B suppliers, it must give managers the information they need quickly, and there must be mechanisms to ensure that the company acts on and incorporates the feedback into future decisions. Reliable feedback, not the latest war story, makes for stronger relationships.

Rob Markey is coauthor of the book The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World (HBR Press). Markey is a partner and director in Bain & Company’s New York office and leads the firm’s Global Customer Strategy and Marketing practice.


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