When it comes to B2B market research and competitive intelligence, there is no better tool than In-Depth Interviews (IDIs) for gathering insight.
In-Depth Interviews: The Answer To ‘None of The Above’
This article is based on an episode of the B2B Market Research Podcast. The audio version is available here.
Surveys have long been a popular tool for corporate research, but they have a significant limitation: they can only reinforce or dispel assumptions you already have.
In-Depth Interviews can uncover context that you weren’t even aware of. As such, IDIs are key to qualitative research. They are even essential to building effective surveys, as they illuminate the best questions to ask.
In-Depth Interviews can bring insight to business decisions from every angle, including:
- The decision making process for selecting a product or service.
- The stakeholders involved in the decision.
- The factors considered before making the purchase.
- What could have changed the decision.
- Whether the customer or company is happy with the product or service they chose.
In-Depth Interviews: The Basics
To kick things off, let’s talk about what I mean by “in-depth interviews.”
IDIs are typically 30-60 minute conversations with a business stakeholder.
In-Person Vs. Remote
Historically, IDIs, especially in B2C studies, were usually conducted face-to-face. These days, telephone IDIs are incredibly common.
At Cascade Insights, we even prefer telephone interviews as they tend to allow for more time with the respondent. It’s much easier to grab time on someone’s calendar if you’re just asking for a phone call rather than something that requires a face-to-face meeting.
Interview respondents need to be able to provide insight into complex B2B business decisions. Often, studies will require respondents with a certain job title or highly specialized knowledge. To uncover powerful insight, you can’t just talk to anyone. Effective studies require talking to very specific people.
To ensure response from the right people, it’s common practice to offer an incentive. Our incentives usually range from $100-200 in value.
Finding good interview subjects can be done in a variety of ways. We frequently turn to LinkedIn, industry forums, and social media networks to identify knowledgeable respondents to reach out to.
Discussions guides form the foundation of the interviews. These guides are not just a list of questions that are recited verbatim. A typical guide includes key focus areas and specific drill-down questions but leaves room for discovery and investigation during each conversation.
Clients may even influence the course of each discussion by communicating via a back channel with the researcher who is conducting the interview. As the researcher conducts the interview, the client may be in contact with the researcher through an instant messaging platform like Slack, Skype or Google Talk.
Why In-Depth Interviews?
IDIs are useful because they are uniquely able to get at the heart of customers’ decision making process. For B2B technology companies, business decisions tend to be complex and involve many different stakeholders.
To illustrate how useful IDIs are for market research and competitive intelligence, I’ll share some examples of how IDIs have uncovered key information for Cascade Insights’ clients.
The Upstart Competitor
Our client was focused on selling directly to the enterprise and had enjoyed being relatively unchallenged in that market for a period of time.
However, a competitor was moving away from selling to small and medium businesses and started targeting enterprise-sized companies. Back when the competitor had focused on SMBs, they had posed no threat to our client even though their technology was somewhat superior. As the competitor started moving up market, they posed a much greater threat.
Our client needed to know two key things:
- Was this competitor truly in a position to sell to the enterprise?
- If so, could the competitor be stopped?
To complete this project, we conducted in-depth interviews with:
- Many of the competitor’s customers within enterprise organizations.
- Former members of the competitor’s sales team.
- Partners who would be in a position to sell enterprise-sized deals for the competitor.
Each one was able to provide a unique perspective.
Customers were able to tell us how the product was being tailored to meet enterprise needs. They could also shed light on how well the competitor’s sales team was able to engage with enterprise sized organizations.
The competitor’s former sales reps were able to tell us how much of a push there was to target enterprise accounts. They could also clarify which tactics were most often used when targeting enterprise accounts. Importantly, they could also tell us how often they were competing with our client for enterprise deals.
Talking to partners was beneficial because they were able to describe how much of the competitor’s business was pivoting towards the enterprise. Typically, partners have a unique perspective on the markets that their vendor partner is targeting. If your competitor is attempting to move up market, that will probably be reflected in requests to their partners to reshape their sales and marketing efforts. An ambitious competitor may even reward partners who have been successful at changing their strategies to attract enterprise deals.
Key Buying Criteria and In-Depth Interviews
IDIs are also incredibly useful for understanding growing industry segments such as the cybersecurity market.
For example, lately, we’ve had a lot of work researching solutions that protect organizations from viruses, malware, and the like. We’ve spent a lot of time interviewing cybersecurity professionals about the features that matter most in endpoint protection programs.
In such a crowded marketplace, knowing exactly what features cybersecurity professionals want, which ones they aren’t interested in paying for, and what features will matter five years from now are all critically important.
In researching these issues for our clients, we conducted IDIs with network security specialists, network security architects, and cybersecurity thought leaders. We reached the people that could personally answer these questions with the authority of having worked with the solutions in question day in and day out.
Uncensored Customer Feedback
Another big advantage of IDIs is that significant client engagement is possible. All throughout the research effort, clients get to listen in on the interviews and hear how the research process is progressing.
There’s nothing like hearing the voice of your competitor’s customers as they tout the virtues of your opponent’s products and lay out 10 or more reasons why they believe they made a smart decision in choosing your rival.
It’s often the case that companies’ tribal knowledge of their brand’s image is very different from how they are currently perceived. There is nothing like a direct quote from a lost customer when it comes to battling the bias within your own company about the competition.
I can personally attest to scores of times during IDIs when a client was dismayed by the strength of a customer’s advocacy of a competitor.
Meeting Stakeholder Needs and In-Depth Interviews
IDIs don’t just bring hard truths to light. They can also help various stakeholder teams accomplish their goals more effectively.
Sales leaders often commission win-loss studies. Win-loss studies provide insights on what sales teams are doing most effectively, what they need to stop doing, and what the competitor does better.
Win-loss studies can also help identify the types of buyers that your sales team struggles to engage with and those they excel at selling to.
These studies frequently involve 15-60 minute IDIs with the client’s current customers and with their competitors’ customers.
Sales leaders also appreciate key buying criteria research. This type of research is typically based on IDIs with current customers, competitor customers, and partners.
IDIs can also bring insight key to the strategic development of content marketing assets. There are so many “how to do content marketing” resources out there and a plethora of blogs, articles, podcasts, video streams, social campaigns and more from your competitors and partners. With so much out there, it’s hard to know which type of content marketing to invest in.
To create content that has a real impact, you need to conduct real-world research. Certainly, you can look at statistics from your website, blog, and social media efforts, but it’s also important to actually ask current and potential customers what type of content drives them to buy.
For example, one very well-known tech company asked us to study which content drove developers to engage with their cloud service and which content helped educate them on the service’s features. Armed with the knowledge of which content initiatives were resonating the most with customers, our client was able to strategically concentrate their marketing efforts to drive even more engagement with their product.
In-Depth Interviews are also key to building great buyer personas.
One of our clients hired us to give them a greater understanding of the different types of buyers of advanced analytics. The aim of the project was to determine archetypes of different types of buyers from business leaders to tech specialists.
For this project, we conducted roughly 10 IDIs with each type of buyer. Through the IDIs, we learned what motivated each archetype to buy, the type of relationship they preferred with suppliers, the key buying criteria that drives them, and many other factors in their decision to purchase advanced analytics solutions. Obviously, all of this insight greatly improved our client’s marketing and sales efforts.
IDIs with customers, potential customers, competitors’ customers and aspirational customers can reveal information that is critical to product development. You may learn:
- Which features customers wish you had.
- Which features drove customers to buy a solution; yours or your competitors’.
- Why customers use a particular feature.
Today, most companies have a lot of data on what their customers are using but they don’t always understand the context around that use. IDIs can clear that up.
IDIs are also great for digging into how customers rate companies on the “itys” of tech: security, manageability, reliability, scalability, interoperability, etc.
Challenges with In-Depth Interviews
Now that we’ve talked at length about the benefits of IDIs, I’ll acknowledge some of the risks of using this methodology.
Stakeholders sometimes push for quantitative measures when the research demands qualitative data.
Many stakeholders know that they can obtain a quantitative view of their own customer base quite easily. With direct access to their customer base, they often assume it will be easy to get a good-sized sample.
However, things change when you need to hear from competitors’ customers. Finding enough of these folks to have a meaningful quant study of their views is less likely, definitely not easy, and most likely expensive. A better first step is to go with a qualitative research effort that includes IDIs with competitor customers.
Needlessly Infinite In-Depth Interviews
Another related challenge is that stakeholders often want more IDIs than are necessary.
Frankly, you don’t need that many IDIs to have an effective study.
If you think about a study that focuses on an average B2B sales process, the sample you need to target is already pretty darn small. Just some basic criteria shrinks the pool down a lot: customers who bought a certain solution from a particular competitive landscape (example: 4-6 vendors) for the purpose of completing a specific job, for instance.
Further, clients typically commission a study to understand a certain type of buyer persona such as a technical or business leader.
Once a study is dialed in this tightly, it’s usually better to conduct a set of 10 -20 IDIs with stellar respondents than to launch an enormous (and expensive!) quant study.
Stakeholders also sometimes fail to recognize the difficulty that exists in targeting the customer base of small startup companies with a quant survey. For example, at least 10 times a year, clients call on us to research a company with a customer base that only numbers in the hundreds. For studies like these, it would be unwise to go with a quant survey. With such a small customer base, and factoring in typical response rates, you won’t be able to get meaningful insights about a startup’s customer base with the number of surveys that would actually get completed.
Luckily, 10-20 IDIs can give you a ton of insight about a customer base that numbers in the 100s.
Interviewees, particularly for B2B studies, often need to be pushed.
For B2B tech market research and competitive intelligence studies, we’re not asking people about sensitive medical conditions, their kids, or their failed dreams. We’re just talking to them about business and technical issues. Hence, it’s fine to push for a meaningful answer that has a strong industry context.
For example, if someone tells one of our analysts that they decided to go with a competitor solely based on price, we are not just going to drop it there. We will ask them to justify that response, maybe even a couple of times, because business decisions are rarely that easy. In B2B tech, there are multiple stakeholders that interact as part of a very complex decision tree. It’s important to get at those secondary and additional factors that drove the decision. Perhaps price played into the decision, but it was really a particular integration or support offering that landed the competitor the deal.
Interviewers That Don’t Get the Jargon
For effective IDIs, the interviewer needs to be nearly as knowledgeable as the research participant.
How often have you been at a party and struggled to explain your day job to someone who isn’t in the same line of work? Instantly, you start dumbing things down so that they can understand what you do day to day. In casual conversation, that’s just fine. However, for B2B market research, the respondent dumbing things down is the last thing you want. Ideally, the respondent should speak to the interviewer like they would speak to a colleague. Only then do you know you’re getting in-depth answers that have real industry context.
The Drive-Thru Interview
Another challenge with IDIs is that you can’t control the interviewee’s environment. If the interviewee is ordering a cheeseburger, they aren’t really paying attention. The same is true if they’re focused on their email as much as they are the phone call you’re having with them.
A skilled interviewer versed in the technical and business aspects of the industry tends to solve this problem as well. As soon as interviewees realize that the person interviewing them really gets the challenges in their industry, they tend to quickly focus on the phone conversation. The interviewer just has to be knowledgeable and personable enough to be more interesting than the subject’s email or cheeseburger.
…Why Do In-Depth Interviews
There is just no better way to solve the puzzle of B2B business decisions and find out what customers really, really want.
This podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. We specialize in market research and competitive intelligence for B2B technology companies. Our focus allows us to deliver detailed insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. Got a B2B tech sector question? We can help.
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