Most companies don’t understand the needs of B2B customers and therefore waste a lot of time and money building products that nobody wants to buy.
Understanding your customer’s needs is a continuous process, meaning it is something you need to do throughout the lifecycle of your product. In other words, customer discovery is not a one-and-done exercise. It is a constant effort that takes discipline and hard work.
Although there are many tools and techniques out there to try to infer the needs of your customers, the reality is, there is no magic formula for figuring out your customer’s pains. The only answer is to talk to them!
But how do you do it?
By “talking to your customers,” I don’t mean grabbing a coffee and talking to them casually about whatever comes to mind. What you need is a systematic approach to conducting customer discovery interviews. The first step is determining who you are going to interview and what questions you plan to ask. I’ll cover the “who” in a separate post, since the topic of selecting your target market deserves its own spotlight. But in this post, I want to share with you the four critical questions you need to ask in every prospect interview.
The four critical questions to understand the needs of B2B customers
The four critical questions to ask your prospective customers are:
- What is your biggest pain around___________?
- Where, when, and how often is the problem occurring?
- What is the impact of that pain?
- What are you doing today to mitigate the pain?
By focusing on these four questions, you’ll get to the root of your customer’s problems, and you’ll be able to turn that information into your north star throughout the innovation and development processes.
Let’s break down each of these questions to understand why they are important and the outcome you want from each one of them.
By the way, if you want more detailed techniques for B2B customer discovery, make sure to check out my book: The B2B Innovator’s Map.
1. What is your biggest pain around ______________?
This question is a conversation starter that cuts right to the point. Using an example for the Logistics industry, you could phrase the question as: “what is your biggest pain around tracking packages inside your warehouses?”
When you ask this question, make sure you let the customer do the talking. You are here to learn. I’ve seen conversations where the interviewer picks up on a customer’s pain and immediately goes into “sales mode,” explaining how their (future) solution will solve that problem. By going into “sales mode,” you are turning the focus back to yourself and your potential product, instead of focusing on your customer’s pains. The more you listen, the more insights you will find, and the better product you’ll be able to build.
Pro tip: If you are very early in your innovation journey and haven’t identified the specific pain you are trying to solve yet, you can use a more generic version of the question: what is your biggest challenge today? Or what keeps you up at night? Once you gain insights into a specific problem, you can include that pain into your question when you interview other customers.
2. Where, when, and how often is the problem occurring?
It’s essential to understand the context of your customer’s problem to formulate the best possible solution. As you talk to customers, make sure to ask where the problem occurs, when it happens (at night, during the day, after a change in shift, etc.), and how often it occurs.
Your goal is to build a precise, step-by-step scenario of how the issue appears in the customer’s world. The best way to understand the scenario is by asking your customer to walk you through the last time the pain happened. That way, you are focusing on a concrete example, and you’ll get a rich story that describes the situation. Make sure you dig into the context before, during, and after the issue occurred.
For example, you can ask your customer where they were and what they were doing the last time they became aware of the problem. Then ask them to describe how the problem manifested and what happened as a result.
The details of this story will give you valuable information about your customer’s needs and how your customer felt throughout the whole incident. The emotional component is crucial because people buy based on emotion, not logic. The more you can get to that emotion, the better your customer understanding will be.
3. What is the impact of that pain?
This question helps you understand the consequence and magnitude that this pain has on your customer’s business. For B2B products, you can group the majority of desired business outcomes into three categories:
- Increasing revenue
- Reducing cost
- Reducing risk
Your first objective is to learn from your customer how this pain affects them (revenue, cost, risk) and what metrics they use to measure that pain.
Your second objective is to understand the magnitude of the impact. Is this simply an annoyance your customer can live with? Or is it something that disrupts their operations and affects their bottom line? The answers to these questions can help you realize how much your customer values solving the problem and provide insights into their willingness to pay for a solution.
For example, the potential implications of having leaky toilets for a hotel manager could be costly floor damage, unhappy tenants, or even creating safety hazards since people can slip and sue the hotel.
To understand your customer’s pain, ask follow-up questions until you get to the root cause and impact. For example:
- Why are leaky toilets a problem? Because the floors get wet.
- Why is that a problem? Because it causes severe water damage.
- How is that damage affecting you? It forces me to close entire floors for maintenance.
- How does that impact your business? I’m unable to get new guests, and I get bad reviews online.
- And what is the impact? Repairs and loss of customers cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, and then I miss my operations targets (i.e., desired business outcome).
Your goal is to quantify your customer’s pain to understand if it is a $10 problem or a $10 million problem. Without this information, your team can over-engineer the product and end up with a solution more expensive than the cost of living with the pain. Keep in mind that if your customer is not measuring or tracking the impact or potential savings of this particular pain, that is an indication that it is not big enough to warrant your solution.
4. What are you doing today to mitigate the pain?
Understanding how your customer is solving a pain today is a significant indicator that the problem is real. It gives you a sense of the magnitude of the problem, their willingness to pay, and the competition you are up against.
Sometimes customers start talking about a particular problem, but when you ask what they are doing about it, they say, “oh, nothing really.” That’s a clear indicator that the problem is not big enough and that, if you were to come up with a solution for that problem, your customer might not be inclined to buy it. Think about it this way, if your customer is not doing anything to solve that pain, how big of a pain is it?
On the other hand, if they share with you a list of solutions they’ve tried or tell you they’ve hired people to tackle the issue, then you know the pain is real. This opens the door for a rich conversation about what works, what doesn’t, and what opportunities you might have to fill in the gaps.
How many customers should you interview?
Understanding your customer’s pains is more of an art than a science. When talking to customers, your goal is to ask the same questions to people in your exact target market. After 8–10 interviews, you should have a good idea of whether the information you’ve gathered is converging into an evident pain you could solve.
Suppose you notice that all your interviews result in different answers. That’s a clear indication that either you are talking to people from multiple market segments or that the problem you are exploring is not a problem at all. Either way, you’ll have enough information to make your next product decision and move forward.
The Bottom Line
Understanding your customer’s pains is a key skill you need to apply throughout the complete B2B Innovation Journey. The secret to successful products relies on taking the time to understand your user’s needs and work with your team to develop solutions that meet those needs and deliver a significant return on investment for your company. The innovation journey is long and uncertain, but if you start by arming yourself with the right tools (such as asking these four questions during every interview), then you’ll be ahead of the competition.