Master or servant? Which one should a B2B supplier be?
Many B2B companies are built on technical expertise. They start with a great innovation and turn it into a thriving business. Yet in our work, we see many examples where a supplier’s mastery of technology masks an unhappy customer base. And in competitive markets, when your customers don’t like you, you lose them – fast.
Take the example of a highly specialised logistics firm. Their business is based on maximising the load on each of their trucks, a feat they achieve with sophisticated software and planning. They’re rightly proud of what they do and how they do it. But talk to their customers and you hear different priorities. They don’t care about 'logistics infrastructure planning', or whatever the special technology sauce is called. They want their expensive stuff delivered on time, in good condition and with all the right paperwork.
Cost objection? Or something deeper?
When we spoke to this firm’s customers, we heard many complaints about pricing levels. As far as the supplier was concerned, its prices were entirely justified by its expertise and service levels. But in our experience, price objections are rarely about the money. They’re usually a proxy for something else. In this case, in-depth interviews, using the IPA methodology, revealed that customers felt that the supplier was at best misunderstanding them or at worst, simply not listening to them.
When people feel treated this way, they first feel anxious; this then turns to anger – which in this case manifested itself as a metaphorical raised middle finger over the topic of pricing.
How does this happen? How can a company that’s a master of its sophisticated game end up with such disengaged customers?
See things from the customer’s viewpoint
It’s all about perspective. In particular, learning how to see things the way your customer sees them. Many people find this very difficult to do. Technically focused businesses, in my experience, find it especially hard. They struggle to make the leap from thinking about their own capabilities and products to thinking about what the customer really wants, from his or her own point of view.
Changing your frame of reference to see things from your customer’s perspective is, in essence, like practising empathy on a corporate scale. My last blog post illustrated how difficult this is: the ‘cup exercise’, for example, shows how one word can mean many things to different people, depending on their frame of reference at the time.
How do you “reframe”? These exercises are tried-and-tested ways to shift your perspective:
Walk with an expert – in her book On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz walks around familiar places with various experts on typography, public spaces or geology to gain a new perspective. This mirrors using consultants who will bring in people from diverse backgrounds with different experiences and expertise.
Change your physical position – if you’re a factory boss and you always enter the factory by the same door each day, always take the same route to your office, always have lunch in the same place, then deliberately try changing this. Do things differently. Mix it up. See if you start to notice different things about your regular day.
Zoom in and zoom out – this is something I practice daily. Imagine that you are looking through a viewfinder on a camera and you are zooming into something nearby. Take a few moments to focus and see the detail and richness in that thing. Then imagine you are zooming out and looking at that same thing but now you are seeing it in the context of its relationships with everything else around it.
Translate your new perspective into new services
However, while reframing is hard, it can be even harder to translate it back into the service you provide. Here's how we’re doing it for the logistics company:
Understanding what the company has got, from its own perspective - Capabilities, tools, resources, people, products, and services – mapped out in forensic detail
Understanding the customers’ issues and opportunities from their perspective, in detail - this is where we use psychology and anthropology research to uncover the customer’s unmet needs and make sense of their world
Structuring what the company has to make it best meet the customer’s needs
Workshopping the outputs with a few selected customers to check the fit
Market testing a solution with more customers once we’re more confident of it
Weighting the value of the solution to customers from their perspective and then weight the value of the solution to the supplier company from its perspective.
So reframing, and putting it into practice, takes effort. But the insights and changes can be transformative. Using the methodology above, our logistics supplier is now developing new service packages that match the customer needs it now understands.
As business coach Joshua Spodek says, "Flexibility in changing your perspective is one of the most important tools in changing your world, creating freedom for yourself, and in building intelligence."
And once you have a new perspective, there is also an opportunity to 'co-create' with customers, as in the six-step example above. This means that rather than creating a new product or service and then market-testing it, you develop it iteratively with customers. You lose some control, but potentially gain resilience in the customer relationship.
Think like a master, act like a servant
In some ways it’s like taking a servant’s perspective. No-one is better attuned to customer needs than a person whose job it is to attend to them 24/7. As Helen Mirren’s head servant in the film Gosford Park said:
"What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It's the gift of anticipation. And I'm a good servant; I'm better than good, I'm the best; I'm the perfect servant. I know when they'll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves."
B2B companies don’t need to lose their mastery. It’s essential to keep the specialist expertise that got you to where you are today. But if you want to stay there, perhaps you need to start thinking like a servant, too.