Closing the Gap Between What Customers Want and What Companies Say

The October 2013 McKinsey & Company article entitled How B2B Companies Talk Past Their Customers documents the “ surprising gap between the brand messages that suppliers offer to customers and what customers really want to know”.

I am reminded of a research study conducted early in my career. The client had worked hard for many years to promote a signature feature. Indeed, the research showed that they were highly associated with this feature. Yet it ranked 20 out of 20 tested items in terms of importance in making a buying decision.

A strong brand message should emerge from the intersection of what matters to customers and what the organization both values and can own within its category. In the B2B context, finding that sweet spot requires the organization to be both introspective and outward looking. Answering a few key questions is essential to keeping communicators and sales people on message:

  • What are the table stakes in the category? B2B companies should begin by understanding what nonnegotiable attributes are considered in the buying decision and making sure that they are flawless in delivering on those essential attributes.
  • What are competitors saying and doing to set them apart? Assuming these competitors can also perform well on the table stakes attributes, a review of their communications should reveal how they are attempting to distinguish themselves. What can you do to make their distinctive attributes either table stakes or irrelevant?
  • What do buyers currently associate with your company more than with competitors? It may be that signature feature or perhaps something no one expects.
  • How well do your communications reflect your brand? Understanding that that includes what the sales force tells customers whether in the field or by phone or email, as well as traditional marketing communications.

So what did we tell that long ago client who recognized they might have become known for something that did not matter? That signature feature needed to become part of the proof that they were delivering in a distinctive way on what mattered most to their users. Their communications changed to make the case for the feature they “owned” as a proof point for their superior performance on several attributes of high importance to their customers.

Closing the gap between what companies say and what buyers want to know begins with asking customers key questions and shaping communications to provide them.