Understanding the needs of your executive decision makers

Of course all of our customers are important, but as the 80/20 rule applies throughout business some of our customers are more important than others. Perhaps in a B2B environment this distinction is even greater and this may be because of their impact upon your revenue stream or perhaps they are of particular strategic importance to your proposition. Either way account management of senior customers is extremely important and it is critical to have a very close and precise understanding of this customer group at an individual level. Clearly, the key benefits from this would be:

  1. Increased customer retention through illustrating their importance to your business by listening, understanding and acting upon their needs
  2. Increased spend / share of wallet from your key customer group through the identification of up and cross selling opportunities through greater understanding of their business and how you can help them achieve their goals
  3. Increase the possibility of customer recommendation or the development of testimonials and case studies

Many of these customers will typically have account managers but how can they be supported in ensuring that both your own and your customers’ plans are fully aligned?

Senior decision makers within a business are highly unlikely to respond to traditional customer satisfaction surveys that are typically conducted either over the phone or online. You would rarely expect to win business from them by presenting yourself either online or over the phone; equally one shouldn’t expect this method to be successful when looking for their feedback. Most people still value the power of a face to face interaction. The same approach needs to be taken when seeking an understanding of key decision makers. Face to face via senior executive interviews is always going to provide the most valuable insight both for that reason and because it is the most effective way to gain a deep individual insight into their needs, and their views on you as a supplier.

But who should undertake senior executive interviewing? Someone from within your organisation?

  1. The account manager?  They definitely have a major role to play in that they are the primary communication channel between you and your customer, but this regular contact my very well deduct from the importance of a formal customer research interview. The fact that they are already so familiar with the customer means that they can’t have a fully independent view during the interview and a number of dangerous assumptions may be made. It is much easier for an independent person to ask the “naïve” questions of the key decision maker in order to gain further insight. From the customers’ viewpoint they may also want to feedback about account management and clearly there would be an immediate hindrance to expressing anything negative.  Indeed, an account manager with a problematic client may feel utterly unable to ask probing questions for fear of upsetting his or her customer.
  2. Senior executives within your own business? Some companies do have very successful customer partnering programmes where a senior executive within your business is the sponsor of the relationship between the two businesses. However “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing”. We have found that although the idea of the interviews being conducted by these executives is received positively initially, it does have some drawbacks:
    • Not all executives have good interview skills and therefore may not be the right person to front the discussion.  At the other extreme, discussions can be too cosy and in no way critical
    • Many don’t like to be constrained by following a discussion guide and therefore through ignoring it remove the ability to compare feedback across customers
    • The severe time pressures on executive diaries and therefore their availability can result in delays in obtaining customer feedback
    • Capturing the issues discussed in the interview and feeding these back formally within your own organisation is often inconsistently done. Too often you get the feedback that “everything is OK”, with nothing that you can action.

This last point in particular is very important as it is essential that the customer perceives that the investment of their time, which itself will be severely constrained, has been worthwhile and that they see change based upon their input.

Our recommended approach to conducting these executive interviews would be the use of an independent professional third party working very closely with the account manager to gain an understanding of the key decision maker and their issues.  This offers both the company and the customer the optimum route to gather feedback that can be communicated effectively to ensure the account management of senior customers can be improved.  But we would say that, wouldn’t we?!  OK, take a look at our approach to an executive interview programme and see if you agree:

    1. Brief all account managers on the purpose and process of the programme in order to a) reassure them that this will provide valuable insight and support and b) conversely gain their buy-in and support. We recognise that these are their customers and they are allowing us access to them. It is vital that they feel comfortable with this.
    2. Develop an accurate and up to date database containing full contact information on the customer along with some profiling of the services that are provided to them.
    3. Develop a topic guide that contains key points that the company would like covered with all customers. Script key communication messages to go out to customers and seek the support of the account manger to make contact with the customer in what they believe is the most appropriate manner. The account manager gains the agreement of the senior decision maker to participate.

They interviewed our customers in a professional manner and highlighted a number of key areas we need to focus on to grow our business. Their focus on action planning will ensure we will take the results forward and demonstrate further added value to our customers.
M.D. Private Sector, Serco Solutions

  1. The interviewer follows up with the customer and arranges the interview with the senior decision maker. The interview is scheduled to take place in a location that suits the customer best, and is scheduled with a clear time allocation (usually an hour).  [Tip:  It is a good indication of how much the customer is getting out of this process when they themselves regularly choose to run over the allotted time.]
  2. The interviewer makes contact with the relevant account manager to gain an understanding of their key issues, concerns and questions as well as a profile of the customer to be interviewed.
  3. Although there is a topic guide that should be followed it is important that the customer has every opportunity to raise the issues that are most important to them if a true understanding of the key decision maker is to be gained. These may well differ from the issues that the company wanted to cover within the topic guide, but usually there is a high degree of overlap between the two.
  4. When acceptable the interview should be recorded, and this, along with notes taken during the interview, be used to develop a detailed report of the interview which is illustrated and brought to life by the use of customer quotes.
  5. The customer is encouraged to review and approve the report so that they can add any additional points of clarification. Only once this has taken place is the report released to the account manager.
  6. The account manager is encouraged to follow up with the customer, thanking them for their time, but most importantly agreeing an action plan to cover the issues raised by the customer.  The account manager can also follow up any points directly with the interviewer for any further clarification or insight.
  7. The final part of the programme is a summary report and presentation designed for the management team.  This will pull together the common threads of all interviews as well as an analysis of where key improvements need to be implemented.

Programmes of executive interviews to gain an understanding of key decision makers can be deployed for many reasons, we commonly see them used with clients who need customer input into their strategic direction. Or want to understand why they lost a key account or why an account was successfully won despite stiff competition.

The programme of Win / Loss reviews that Customer Champions have conducted for us have provided real insight into our competitive offering, and has driven many actions to help both retain and regain customers.
BT Marketing Manager

Competitive insight into an account bid might be the reason or simply to augment a more quantitatively focused customer satisfaction programme.  Particularly in a B2B setting, the influence of these highly valuable customers is something that organisations both in the private and, increasingly, the public sector are seeking out.

If you’d like to talk to us about how these interviews could be a tool you could use for gathering insight into those most valuable of customers, your top 20 percent, we’d be delighted to hear from you.

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