Steps and Suggestions to Avoid the Perils of B2B Research
by Laura Latshaw

  • Innovation and Analytics Strategy

    I have worked in business-to-business research for many years. When I meet with clients, I often find myself having a similar conversation about the difficulties in conducting B2B research.


Very often, what I hear from clients is:

  • We know how to find our customers and can provide contact information for them. How do we find non-customers who work with our competitors?
  • How do we identify the correct person to target for the research?
  • Where do you find sample for my industry?
  • Our industry is very small. How are you able to achieve a statistically significant sample? What is a statistically significant sample in my industry?
  • My industry is very technical. I need a researcher who can understand what we do, right?

Since the sample may be limited and difficult to find, it is important to be flexible and creative in your approach.

Think outside the box. Be open to new ways to reach your audience.

  • Consider developing a list from your CRM database, going to industry conferences, joining industry associations, and purchasing industry lists.
  • Be prepared to use old-school methods (such as telephone interviewing) to reach the right person.
  • Plan for extra time to screen for the right person in the company once you have reached the right company.

Be prepared to use mixed methodologies and test multiple approaches.

  • You may have a list of your customers who can be emailed with an invitation to participate in an interview.
  • To reach non-customers, however, may require testing out several options.
    • Purchase a list from an industry association.
    • Call companies and ask to speak with the person who has the job description you are looking for. Once this person is found, they can be recruited to participate.
    • Attend an industry conference where you can either get names of potential research participants or conduct intercept interviews with conference attendees.
    • Ask the sales team to identify non-customers based on the team’s outreach.

Identifying the correct research participant requires that the screening questions are targeted.

  • The respondent will vary based on the industry, but oftentimes the correct person can be identified based on their job function. Are there multiple job functions in a company that will qualify to participate in the research?
  • Is this person a decision-maker? The correct person may not always be a decision-maker, but someone who works with the product or service and is, therefore, an influencer.
  • No two companies are exactly alike, so be open to the idea that job titles will vary.

Depending on the objectives of the research, if you have a small universe of potential respondents, qualitative in-depth interviews may be more informative than quantitative research.

  • For very technical types of issues, the information provided by a handful of highly qualified participants in an in-depth interview can outweigh any type of quantitative data.

When quantitative research is the correct approach, look for trends in the data rather than focusing only on significant differences. If you have a small group of product users who are having similar experiences, this in itself is very informative.

  • Are the professionals providing similar types of responses?
  • Do these professionals have the same concerns and frustrations?
  • Do they see the future similarly?
  • Realize also that the number of subgroups that can be analyzed will be more limited. Getting a cross-section is important, but don’t overcomplicate the sample.

Another key to B2B research is patience. While it is great to develop a timeline, be aware that the data collection phase may not go according to plan and could potentially take longer than anticipated.

  • Similar to conducting research in the medical field, businesspeople are busy and not always available when you contact them. They may be willing to participate, but it might take time to find the right time.
  • Avoid peak business times. For doctors, the end of the year is busy, so they are not open to doing research at that time of year. In the HVAC industry, July and August are busy times, so it is best to avoid that time of year if you want to target heating and air-conditioning contractors.
  • It is also possible that you will need to explore several sample options while the study is underway. Trying different sample sources takes time, but it could result in finding a great source for your study and for future research as well.

It is important that the researchers you work with understand B2B research. That does not mean, however, that they will be as knowledgeable about your industry as you or you respondents are.

  • For qualitative research, B2B researchers are trained to ask questions that elicit conversation. While they may not be experts in your field, asking simple questions about a respondent’s day-to-day experiences and needs will often uncover a wealth of new information.
  • Oftentimes, because the respondent knows that the moderator is not a professional in the respondent’s field, they will spend more time explaining the issues or the process involved. This explanation of the facts to the moderator, and the questions the respondent’s answer about it, will often times provide more detail and more insight than can be found when the respondents are talking to industry professionals.
  • The customers you serve have insights and experiences that they don’t often express with the sales and technical staff. Asking customers simple questions about their day-to-day experiences and needs will often uncover a wealth of new information.

While B2B research is not easy to conduct, the rewards can be huge. Whether it is helping a company improve their product performance, develop new products, or improve communications, the ability to help companies to be successful and shape the future is worth the hard work involved.

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