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Probe for real customer business needs

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In today's continuing, though modest, economic growth, companies that develop ahead of the curve will be ones that concentrate on improving their knowledge of customer needs, market segments and the drivers of customer value. To unlock real growth in their markets, they will find ways to go deeper: to an understanding of the emotions that lie beneath those often-unarticulated business needs of their customers.

At the Institute for the Study of Business Markets (ISBM), we recently completed our biennial "Trends Study," in which we asked leading business marketing executives, researchers and academics to predict the most important critical challenges business marketers will face through 2007. Topping the list of seven priorities our panelists cited was: "Gathering and acting upon intimate knowledge of customers and their business needs."

As one survey participant explained, business marketers must "learn to account not only for tangible differences between offerings but also for emotional differences related to relationships, reputations and trust."

The other six imperatives for marketers that our panelists listed are also very important: 1) understanding the emerging roles China and India will play in the future; 2) mastering analytical and quantitative skills; 3) reinvigorating innovation; 4) creating more effective marketing organizations; 5) improving return-on-investment decision-making; and 6) improving customer value-based marketing and pricing. (The full "Trends Study" report is available at isbm.org.)

It's no surprise that customer knowledge heads that list of seven challenges. Meeting each is more difficult, if not impossible, without understanding and catering to customers' real needs, economically and organizationally.

We explored this theme at our annual ISBM winter conference this year. Our speakers showed advanced models of business customer behavior, new research techniques and strategies companies such as IBM Corp., Siemens and other ISBM members now use to win customer loyalty, up-sell and cross-sell. Across virtually all industries, it is clear that the once-voguish management fantasy-that companies can continue cutting marketing budgets and magically keep achieving "more with less"-is not advancing but is actually hurting real competitive advantage.

Since our first survey in 1997, "Trends Study" has proved its value in alerting business marketers to nascent challenges, lest changing market conditions blindside them. Today, our experts say, companies must study and then actually use the growing body of knowledge and tools available for probing the deep, uniquely personal, financial and organizational needs of business customers. Meeting those needs competitively requires marketing that's more nuanced than the traditional features-and-benefits approach to business buyers. Yes, it's all about the customer, but it's about going deeper.

Ralph A. Oliva is executive director of the Institute for the Study of Business Markets, a consortium of leading executives, researchers and educators in b-to-b marketing. ISBM is located at the Smeal College of Business of the Pennsylvania State University and at www.ISBM.org. Oliva can be reached at roliva@psu.edu.

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