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Adding Depth and Dimension in B2B Market Research for SMBs

The 3rd part of our blog on B2B market research focuses on a complementary form of agile research: qualitative ‘Voice-of-Customer’ (VOC) surveys. Like online surveys, VOC research is economical and can be implemented on a DIY basis. Qualitative VOC surveys perform a unique, strategic role in B2B research. They uncover key customer attitudes, motivations, needs and preferences, answering the ‘why’ questions that are often absent in survey-based quantitative research.

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Voice-of-Customer Research: An Essential Component in your B2B Research Strategy

By Mark Semmelmayer, CBC
Chief Idea Officer
Pen & Inc. Marketing Communications

Michael McClellan, CBC
President
Plexus Marketing Group, Inc.

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In Part 2 of this blog, we shared ‘Best Practices’ for online surveys, often called ‘agile research,’ due to the quick turnaround of results and insights they provide. The 3rd part of our blog on B2B market research focuses on a complementary form of agile research: qualitative ‘Voice-of-Customer’ (VOC) surveys.

Like online surveys, VOC research is economical and can be implemented on a DIY basis. Qualitative VOC surveys perform a unique, strategic role in B2B research. They uncover key customer attitudes, motivations, needs and preferences, answering the ‘why’ questions that are often absent in survey-based quantitative research.

Our first two ‘Best VOC Practices’ deal with the strategic role of this qualitative survey approach:

VOC Best Practice #1: Like online surveys, do up-front survey planning and include some brainstorming re: the potential value of a VOC component.

Some of the same planning steps discussed in Part 2 apply to both online and VOC surveys:

  • What key strategic and tactical questions are you trying to answer?
  • What specific decisions will you try to address with insights gained?
  • Who do you need to survey?
  • Are you trying to understand existing customers/segments, or seeking insights on new prospect audiences or market segments?
  • Which key issues addressed by your survey are ‘top priority’?

For VOC surveys, add two other key questions:

  • Which ‘top priority’ issues are better addressed by adding qualitative context for a deeper understanding of customer needs, pain points, or attitudes?
  • For issues where qualitative input is important, what level of emphasis do they warrant, and where in the survey process are they best obtained?

Let’s address ‘when to gain more qualitative understanding’ first. Here are couple of examples:

  • Example 1 – Obtaining Customer Input Before Developing a Quantitative Survey
    • A major accounting software client was starting a customer satisfaction initiative, with a survey needing to focus on the drivers of satisfaction and areas in which marketing/sales teams moved ratings ahead vs. last measurement taken.
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    • Knowing which drivers customers cared most about was key. A qualitative VOC survey was done, prior to quantitative survey development, to determine which satisfaction drivers should be included.
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  • Example 2 – Developing Customer Personas to Support Content Marketing
    • We’ve conducted this type of stand-alone VOC research for both corporate and agency clients. It’s useful to determine the content most valued by customer segments, and to support high-value initiatives like Account Based Marketing (ABM).
    • Probing questions are developed. Key priorities, like strategic initiatives or operational/budget-related priorities for customer segment are targeted. Success factors for the organization among customers? Pain points? Information sources and topics that contribute to their success? Any emerging issues or trend areas?
    • Insights are summarized, with key verbatim quotes to illustrate major insights, with followup, team planning sessions to act on VOC research findings.

Best VOC Practice #2: Several options exist for ‘level of qualitative emphasis’ and ‘where to implement in survey process.’ Consider them and choose the best fit.

If survey needs are primarily quantitative, consider adding 2 or 3 qualitative questions in an online survey. It’s a good way to add context, helpful in evaluating respondent engagement (and even keeping them more engaged).

For example, one recent effort employed an online survey, targeting distribution channel partners in the snack food market. Because a primary objective was understanding brand awareness and market penetration of various snack foods, it was a quantitative study.

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However, we recommended adding 2 qualitative questions to gain channel partner perceptions of market changes: one on key market channel usage trends, and the other on product category consumption trends. Distribution provided vital insights into trends in both areas and made numerous suggestions on how to best capitalize on emerging trends.

Beyond these ‘hybrid’ approaches, other options include:

(A) Initial qualitative VOC phase, followed by the quantitative survey

(B) Initial online survey, followed by qualitative VOC interviews (this approach works great after quantitative studies). Follow-up VOC interviews can focus on questions that further explain trends identified in the quantitative phase

(C) Stand-alone VOC study (qualitative only). It’s a good fit in limited-budget situations. Sample sizes of 10 to 25 completed “live” VOC interviews (10 or 20 minutes each) can be used and will fit most B2B company budgets.

Best Practice #3: Limit the number of topic areas to allow time for respondents to answer probing questions.

The whole idea of a qualitative VOC survey is obtaining a moderate level of response depth from targeted customers in market segments interviewed. For example, we try to allow a minimum of 3 to 5 minutes per key topic area in our VOC interviews.

Key topic exploration may involve one question with multiple parts (‘layered questions’ . . . one key question plus 1 or 2 followups). Or it might involve 2 or 3 questions relating to that topic area. The aim is to elicit ‘detail-rich’ responses to provide substantive insights about market segments that company/decision maker respondents represent.

Conducting a VOC survey via phone interview, or Zoom or Teams call, will allow you to cover 3 major topic areas in 12- to 15-minute interviews, or 4 to 5 topics in a 20-minute interview. We suggest limiting qualitative VOC surveys to 20 minutes (or less) to gain broad participation and avoid respondent fatigue. If you need a longer interview, say 30 minutes or more, consider using a professional research consultant seasoned in in-depth interviews (IDIs.)

Final Thoughts

There are many techniques for qualitative VOC surveys, and a wide range of potential applications for VOC results. Useful B2B applications to consider include: product/service concept testing, marketing communications preference testing, customer experience program design (customer journey mapping) and strategic Account Based Marketing support.

If you’re interested in learning more, we’d suggest collaborating with a VOC/qualitative research consultant specializing in B2B. Or consider getting involved with B2B trade associations, like the B2B division of the Association of National Advertisers, (ANA), with chapters in cities like Chicago and Atlanta.

Want to read the earlier parts of this blog? Here’s Part 1 and Part 2

Need more information?

Mark Semmelmayer, CBC
Chief Idea Officer
Pen & Inc. Marketing Communications
Marietta, GA
770-354-4737
LinkedIn

Michael McClellan, CBC
President
Plexus Marketing Group, Inc.
10 Glenlake Parkway, Suite 130
Atlanta, GA 30328
770-390-9692
LinkedIn

About the Author

Mark Semmelmayer, CBC, Chief Idea Officer, Pen & Ink Marketing Communications

Mark Semmelmayer, CBC

Mark is a past international chairman of the Business Marketing Association (BMA), the 2015 recipient of BMA’s prestigious G.D. Crain Award and an Inductee into the Business Marketing Hall of Fame. A 40-year B2B marketing pro, including 32-years with Kimberly-Clark, he’s the founder and Chief Idea Officer of Pen & Inc. Marketing Communications, a consultancy in Saint Simons Island, GA.

About the Author

Michael McClellan, CBC, President, Plexus Marketing Group, Inc.

Michael McClellan, CBC

Mike is founder and President of Plexus Marketing Group, Inc., an Atlanta-based B2B market research firm with over 30 years’ experience conducting research and Voice-of-Customer studies for companies like General Electric, John Deere, Kimberly-Clark, and Siemens, as well as a host of SMB and agency clients. He previously worked in product marketing and sales management for Monsanto and served with Business Marketing Association at both the international director and chapter levels.

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