Many companies in the B2B segment are now shifting their sales to digital channels. But the result often fails to meet customers’ needs. The reason for this is that customers weren’t asked in advance what would really benefit them. Or they weren’t asked in the right way. Johannes Ihringer, an expert in digital transformation and Managing Director of management consultancy TTE Strategy, explains how companies can successfully obtain honest answers to important questions from their customers.
“Many customer surveys miss their actual goal,” says Dr. Johannes Ihringer. The goal is a clear acquisition of knowledge regarding how additional benefits can be provided to the customer and harmonizing this with the company’s own economic interests. Ihringer says: “Within a digitization context in particular, this often doesn’t work because, in many cases, initiatives are conducted by digital and IT specialists and not by the company’s sales professionals. They tend to be presented with ready-made solutions – especially because this is what they demand time and again themselves.” It is imperative here that companies consult with their customers prior to the transformation process. To ensure this leads to a real acquisition of knowledge and at the same time to a deepening of the relationship with the customer, the digital expert from TTE Strategy provides some basic advice.
Many customer surveys now take place online. Especially when it comes to digitization. Online surveys are cheap, quick, and the results are often easy to compare. “But this by no means implies that customers want to take part in this kind of survey,” says Johannes Ihringer. “When interacting with customers, companies have a tendency to treat them all the same. In the B2B environment in particular, however, where personal contact has laid the foundations until that point, many customers simply won’t participate.” Ihringer suggests answering the following questions together with the sales experts that are in personal contact with the respective clients: Who would prefer to be contacted by telephone, who in writing, and who using an online solution? Where would a personal meeting make sense? Johannes Ihringer says: “When it comes to selling a product, you would always choose the route that would provide the greatest probability of a positive purchase decision from the customer. Why should this be any different with an important survey?”
When it comes to the digitization of business relationships or a change of sales channel, customers still fear being worse off in the future. Personal contact disappears, ordering takes places via a complicated tool, complaints are hampered by a ticket system. “From experience, customers view digitization initiatives conducted by their business partners with skepticism – especially in the German mid-sized sector,” says Johannes Ihringer. “And for good reason. Because, in all honesty, who isn’t familiar with the much-lauded ordering platform that suddenly makes everything more difficult for customers? And the hotline where personal contact partners would disappear?” Companies who want to survey their customers must therefore make it clear that the survey does not serve to only legitimize decisions that have already been taken. “In essence, it has to be clear that this is about you, our valued customers. We want to know what would really benefit you. On this basis, we will weigh things up and design the transformation process around you. Only by being honest with us about what you really need and want we can move forward. It sounds mundane, but it must be verbally communicated clearly,” says Ihringer. “This doesn’t happen often enough, however – and the customer feels insecure rather than feeling they have an opportunity to help contribute to a development that would be positive for them.”
Anyone surveying their customers must also deal with negative feedback. Ihringer: “This is part of the process and is essential in eliminating problems. It is important, however, that the survey doesn’t become an exhausting problem dump. Especially when it is oriented to the future.” Companies should therefore not only ask their customers about what hasn’t been working, what they don’t want, and what won’t work from their perspective. Instead, it should be made clear in the survey that this is about a shared future that will be even better than the past for both business partners. “Companies should ask predominantly open, opportunity-oriented questions with a positive connotation,” says Johannes Ihringer. “Without at the same time missing the chance of learning from their past and present mistakes.” Proportionally though, future-oriented questions should clearly predominate so that the discussion – regardless of its form – doesn’t get bogged down in negativity.
“People who ask questions that are too open often get statements back that don’t really fit the question – and they are also very hard to compare,” says Johannes Ihringer. “And those who ask too many closed questions give the impression of already knowing the answers and wanting to predetermine an overly clear direction. Both have often proven themselves to be counterproductive in surveys.” This is why it is also important here to establish a balance between open and closed questions – and therefore steer the interviewee through the survey. “Or combine the two. So, asking a guided open question,” says Ihringer. An example may be asking an open question, providing a selection of five answers (guided) – and then asking an open question about the motivation behind the respective choice. “You thereby succeed in obtaining data that is quickly quantifiable, as well as differentiated statements. And the interviewed customers feel appreciated on the one hand because they don’t have to provide prefabricated responses, but are able to express themselves openly. At the same time, this provides sufficient support in obtaining really relevant points.”
In most cases, those who have participated in a survey don’t hear anything back afterwards. “I see time and again that after a survey, no playback is given and communication stops for the next stage and at some point, a solution is presented,” says Johannes Ihringer. “Those surveyed have often long since forgotten what their answers were. The sense of having participated in a change process has vanished.” The problem is that on the one hand, the results no longer feel like shared results. On the other, companies are giving up the chance to include customers again selectively during the development process. Ihringer: “I would rather not see a survey just as a one-off situation. Like a one-time briefing that forms a basis for action. Instead, I advise defining clear follow-up steps alongside those surveyed: ‘At this point you get the results of the survey.’ ‘This is done with results obtained to that point.’ ‘At this juncture, it would be worth being able to provide feedback again.’ Then customers will be involved in the transformation process over the long term. It gives them the security of being part of it, and not just watching from the sidelines. Companies who take this approach must put in considerably less effort after launching new processes.”
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