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Three Challenges of B2B Research

I recently completed a project for the Incentive Research Foundation and the Incentive Gift Card Council.  The question on the table was how much do US businesses spend on gift cards each year?  The project has been a great success, and was fun to work on.  But it was a case study in the challenges of B2B research.

Much of my work has been in the B2B space.  I enjoy the complexity involved in understanding how businesses work, and how they buy.  And it’s that very complexity that makes it so important to be very careful and precise when conducting B2B research.  Here are three critical issues that will make or break your B2B research project.

  1. Identifying buyers in the B2B space is much more difficult.

    In consumer research, it’s pretty straightforward to identify the decision-maker.  One household will have a limited number of adults in residence, and, for most purchase decisions, one of those adults will be the decision-maker.  In a business, there may be tens of thousands of people, and many of them may consider themselves decision-makers, depending on the decision being made.  In larger companies, there are frequently several different groups responsible for purchases for a sub-unit – a subsidiary, a division, a region, or a department.  Do you interview one of these and extrapolate to the entire company?  Do you invest time and energy trying to understand how all of these units fit into the picture?  There will always be trade-offs to different approaches, and if you aren’t making deliberate decisions about these issues during the research design, you’re going to have trouble when it comes time to interpret the findings.

  2. Decisions By Committee

    Compounding that issue is the fact that in business, big decisions are often made by committee.  So even if a purchase decision is being made for a single division in a firm, you might have an executive sponsor, a budget owner, a person who is responsible for implementation and day-to-day execution, and several stakeholders from various areas.  Which of these do you want to interview?  How are you going to identify them?  Being precise about what you want to know and who is going to be in a position to best answer your questions is critical.

  3. Overcoming Semantics

    Language is another place where many research projects get compromised.  Outside of some of the more mainstream purchases, such as equipment, benefits, software, etc, there will be terminology issues that may pose a problem.  Vague and generic terms can be problematic.  For example, what exactly is “IT Consulting”?  Does it include all aspects of IT that may be faced by a firm, from business process to equipment to point-of-sale technology?  What are “Marketing Services”?  Is that brand and advertising, or CRM support, or web design, or something else?  Jargon becomes part of the natural language of any company, but the danger is that people start to assume everyone outside the company uses the same language to mean the same thing.  In my experience, this is rarely the case, so establishing what language the target audience uses is critical to the success of the research project.

There are, of course, many other issues that pose particular challenges to B2B researchers.  The three outlined here are foundational – if you get these wrong, the whole project falls apart.