In our age of innovation, all eyes seem to be focused on product and service improvement, especially the disruptive variety, as the key source of competitive advantage. It’s what’s in the news, it’s culturally more highly valued, and let’s face it, it’s more fun to think about “what’s next:” building glittering, tangible product features and services that will leave the competition behind and struggling to catch up.
So what’s wrong with that approach in B2B research? Nothing, fundamentally. In fact, pursuit of incremental improvements that address current product needs, as well as disruptive featural improvements that see beyond today’s needs are must-do’s in our world. This is true whether you conceive of your products as physical things, as services, or as a combination of the two.
The problem comes when product planners, managers, and researchers focus so enthusiastically on product improvements that they dismiss pain points related to “non-product” or execution needs as trivial. This imbalanced focus on future improvement at the expense of current needs can be a mistake. That’s because the most urgent opportunities for tactical and strategic advantage, and for defense against encroaching competition often do not lie in the innovation of the core product or “what’s in the box”. Rather, these opportunities can lie in the smaller non-product and execution needs that are often taken for granted. While seemingly obvious, they are also often the most powerful, immediate, and accessible levers for driving adoption and for protecting and taking market share.
Often, the most powerful levers… for driving and protecting share…do not lie in product and service innovation.
We’ve conducted countless B2B studies in high tech, IT, engineered products, and services designed with the goal of discovering and guiding critical product improvements. In them, we’ve consistently found that many of B2B buyers’ top-of-mind pain points and their resulting choices to stay with current vendors or to consider a switch are NOT based on desired improvements in features and functions of products and services. Rather, improvements in features are merely table stakes. They have less potential to drive share quickly than one might think for several reasons. Incremental improvements are easy to adopt, but are often quickly duplicated, or provide only marginal advantage. Disruptive improvements are exciting but may provide uncertain benefit, and integrating them can require more time and wide-ranging systemic changes. Instead, the most immediately accessible and sustainable differentiation opportunities are often based on factors that many companies might dismiss as obvious basic blocking and tackling, execution, and support, including:
This evidence is not hard to find, if you’re listening. When we ask B2B decision-makers to describe their current pain points and triggers for switching, they commonly have to do with the above factors, and have surprisingly little to do with missing product and service features. These factors can drive decision-makers’ vendor decisions to switch immediately – with little or no need to justify their changes to anyone else in their organization. These factors are responsible for your design wins, losses, rebuys – and for the silence you hear when established customers simply don’t return. It’s like the diner who tells their waiter that “everything was fine” with the meal, when some small and easy-to-fix thing was “off.” One tiny lapse can be just enough to keep the diner from returning, or at least to start thinking about other restaurants. Meanwhile, the restaurant owner may have grand ideas about menu changes and expansion. These might be “disruptive” improvements that the diner might really enjoy next year. But it’s the little things that keep the tables full today. Sadly, the restauranteur may never have really tried to listen deeply to what his or her diners really need to maintain their interest.
It’s important to think beyond your customer’s current needs – but it’s their current pains that drive them to switch today.
These are not groundbreaking ideas. Understanding them does not require advanced academic or scientific analysis. Their importance is independent of the semantic issue of whether you define execution to be part of your core product or not. This understanding is often a matter of keeping an eye on the broader context, of simply listening when decision-makers describe their everyday world, their jobs, their workflows and processes. And then, of hearing the role your products play in them. It’s especially key to listen to the ways that your execution can either enhance or inhibit their own daily execution and success, both at the personal and enterprise levels. The siren call of new technology and features can drown out the most powerful switching drivers, and can lead one to dismiss customer and prospect cries to make the basics truly great.
The benefits that your B2B customers obtain can be dramatic, at two key levels:
The answer to both questions is, of course, that many of your customers will simply move on. In many cases, they’ll just disappear without giving you a chance to remedy your lapses, or even to know that you’ve slipped. And: they’ll look for vendors who will execute perfectly, often by asking around. The stories they hear will certainly be about “who has great product.” But even the best product or service will not be considered for the audition without being accompanied by glowing recommendations about great execution.
It’s easy to leave great execution in the hands of field sales and support organizations, and to take it for granted. “This is what good people do, and we rely on good hiring and good training to make sure it happens.” But as shown above, there are huge opportunities to program better execution into everyday activities, so consistently your customers can count on them as “features” in working with you. While innovative product and service features can often be duplicated by competitors in short order, great execution is anything but easy and can be a tremendously powerful and highly sustainable differentiator, welding your customers to you, and attracting the attention of your prospects.
When you commission B2B qualitative research to help you guide future product development efforts, don’t let listening for today’s non-product decision-drivers be an afterthought. Adjust your priorities to balance current and future needs. You may need to make digging for seemingly little things a higher priority. Just as with the restauranteur who at first gets the answer that “everything was just fine,” you’ll need to ask those questions fearlessly. And you’ll need to probe them in several ways, which may not be well-suited to quant research. You should NOT stop looking for product and service improvements, both incremental and disruptive. But as meaningful product differentiation becomes tougher to achieve, today’s buying decisions are driven just as powerfully by even slight differences in execution. If you don’t listen for them, you may be passing on your best opportunities to be a star yourself, and be doomed to learn those lessons the hard way.
Basic execution is often the most powerful lever you can pull to prevent your customers’ gaze from wandering – and to encourage them to look your way, when the competition stumbles.