In principle, Business to Business research (or B2B) is relatively easy to define – it is talking to someone in their professional capacity about their job or work.  However, it seems that the lines between B2B and B2C market research are becoming increasingly blurred.  Many researchers conduct both B2B and B2C work, and the days of dedicated B2B units appear to be over.


Yet B2B does remain as a discipline in its own right.  Looking around the marketing world, many companies (and organisations like BIG) ‘define’ themselves as being B2B specialists – there clearly is a demand/ need despite the blurring of the boundaries … but business market research distinct from consumer market research in any meaningful way?  It is a genuine ‘speciality’?  Why are the skills needed to deliver B2B market researcher extraordinary?


I believe that B2B markets do differ in key areas from B2C research and, as a result, require a unique approach in terms of market research.  The differences can be summarised under five key areas;


The market:  Purchasing is often more complex and higher value

The differences do not necessarily lie in the products themselves but in the way the products are exchanged.  Both the products and buying process are often more complicated in terms of the technicality, value and the number of people involved resulting in what can be extremely complex transactions.

  • B2B transactions often involve complex decision-making units, and likely to be increasingly so depending on value and importance of that purchase. This means that;
    • There are a higher number of decision makers and influencers in each purchase, each of which has different needs and purchase objectives.
      • The decision-making unit may be highly volatile – people leave and join companies or move to different roles within them the whole time. Equally their role and relative importance in the decision may change over time depending on the stage of commitment or the specific technicalities of that element of the product/ purchase.  Someone who was vital yesterday may be irrelevant today.
      • Often B2B customers may have less choice or ability to switch supplier. It can be more difficult to substitute or switch suppliers both in terms of opportunity and the time/ cost involved (and associated risk in doing so) so each purchase decision is more vital.
      • The combination of these factors means that the decisions may be made over protracted timescale.
  • The scale of purchase, either in terms of volume or value, is greater in the B2B environment. Each sale is not only more complex but often significantly more valuable than the equivalent consumer purchase – in both cases we may be discussing toilet rolls, but where as a consumer may buy a single (or even two) multi-packs, businesses may be purchasing many thousands at any one time.  Thus, B2B customers tend to have a higher value per purchase ratio – they buy in bigger quantities and so negotiation between buyers and sellers is much more prevalent because of the increased bargaining power of each buyer.
  • Whilst not always true, B2B products are often more complex, expensive or custom made. Buyers of consumer goods are generally less interested in the technical aspects of what they are buying (obviously with some exceptions) than B2B buyers who are qualified experts, and who will have specific requirements or want bespoke or niche products.   B2B customers want very exact information about the product capabilities.
  • B2B purchases tend to be more ‘rational’ although not exclusively so – buyers have accountability within their organisations which brings with it a professional responsibility to make the ‘right’ decision.

Understanding business practices generally, how each market ‘works’ and how each business is structured is critical to interpreting and placing the information within the right business context.

The client:  Clients and stakeholders are understandably nervous about exposing their customers to research (& researchers)

Because of the value of a B2B market, generally clients are more sensitive about their customers than the equivalent B2C client.  This introduces all sorts of internal sensitivities when approaching a B2B customer base – the organisation is allowing a ‘stranger’ to approach and interview one of their key clients.

  • The B2B market has relatively fewer customers vs consumer market, and this is particularly true at the high value end of the scale.
  • Clients often have specific sales forces in place for the customers. A lot of time and effort is spent in building personal customer relationships, and these relationships are crucial to future sales.
  • Buyers are often longer term, repeat buyers (either in their current role or in potential future roles) so the stakes are higher for the client organisation.

Managing not only the research client, but other key stakeholders internally (some of whom have nothing to do with the project itself but are ‘owners’ of the respondent lists) is a delicate task.

The respondent:  Often elusive and difficult to track down

B2B respondents are notoriously difficult to access and there are fewer of them, so the recruitment approach and process is crucial.

  • There are fewer respondents in the universe, and many of them will be extremely time pressured. Research is often trying to access a limited number of busy and important experts in their field, many of whom reside off grid, and may be geographically scattered.  It is crucial that every contact count – so creating a motivating story and adopting a suitable (and flexible) approach to both the recruitment and methodology is critical for success,
  • It is more difficult to identify who is it that is authorised to purchase those goods/ services and there are often multiple decision points/ key influencers. Deciding whether the person you are talking to is the right person to interview and/ or what part of the story they can tell can be tricky
  • Many B2B respondents have gate keepers in the form of PAs, secretaries or more junior team members. Getting past these gatekeepers to speak to the main individual, and then avoiding being ‘fobbed off’ to someone less suitable is an art.
  • Each respondent is multi-faceted. The research needs to consider both their personal and business persona as well as firmographics (company size, location or activity)
  • The research is talking to them in their professional capacity about a subject that they know intimately. We will be asking them to talk about semi confidential details about their organisation’s activities.  This means that the approach needs to ‘match’ them in terms of understanding of the market, knowledge of terminology and seniority of approach.
  • The audience is less motivated by monetary incentives, more by interest in the subject and/ or the value of their input may have, plus the connection with the research/ researcher –
  • Responses are less black and white – often decisions or actions are dependent upon the context in which they are taking place, so the research approach and the analysis needs to take account of this and/ or appreciate that their responses may only give part of the wider picture.

In the B2B environment, understanding their job, their company and their industry is critical and giving them a motivating reason to participate (beyond personal incentives) crucial to success.

The researcher:  Requires knowledge of the broader business and sector in order to contextualise and maximise insights

All of this demands a particular type of researcher for B2B work.  The researcher needs to know both the subject area specifically and business practices generally and be fleet of foot in terms of the approach as well as the interviewing style.   That is not to say that we can’t all get that knowledge, but it comes with experience…

  • Scope of experience – most of us have some experience of (say) clothes shopping, high street retailers, drinking coffee – and so have a varying degree of appreciation of what is involved as consumers of that product. However, many of us have less experience of running a business, heading up a finance/ IT/ purchasing department or running a global coffee company, or how the company structure and values may impact the purchasing approach
  • Plus, the researcher needs to know about, and convey genuine interest in, the specific area. This knowledge of the topic allows you to think on your feet, hold an intelligent conversation with the respondent, probe and challenge appropriately and engage the respondent so that they participate fully.
  • Winning credibility with both the client and respondent is important to get the best out of the research. The ability to speak their language and understand acronyms – from ISA to SASS, ETFs and – and understand the differences between them.  The respondent is multifaceted and knowledgeable – and expects someone who has sufficient technical and business knowledge to intelligently moderate the conversation and understand the needs of different decision makers within the same organisation.
  • Understand the briefing/ market background – even if the researcher doesn’t know the detail of the specific product in the more esoteric areas, understanding the broad context and underlying principles gives a head start, shortcuts some of the briefing required and adds credibility. Researchers don’t necessarily need to be an ‘instant expert’ in the detailed subject matter, but it does mean your expertise cannot be limited to research methodology.
  • The researcher must have the ability to see how the insights build up with other information to form the big picture. This means a full appreciation of the industry, its competitive landscape, the client’s business model and market strategies as well as the respondent’s position within this.
  • Interpret what you have been told in the right strategic framework and business context and then and explain complex decision-making process and influencing factors in a concise and easy to understand manner so that the findings become actionable.

A B2B researcher must have at least basic understanding of the business context and incorporate company and industry specific distinctions into the approach and processes.  Overlaying the business context is a crucial difference, as is the ability to challenge both the client and respondent’s thinking.

The approach:  Flexible and able to adapt to each project, and sometimes, to each respondent

In many cases, it is higher risk to be innovative/ creative with B2B.   B2B markets themselves tend to be less innovative than consumer markets – most innovation is driven by consumer markets, and this is reflected in how research is conducted.  Equally, as the environment for the research is a professional one, both clients and respondents tend to expect a more conservative approach than may be the case for the equivalent B2C project.  This is not always the case, but often developing a new/ unique approach that suits the audience, will deliver on the objectives and will be acceptable to the client and respondent can be a fine line to tread.

Often B2B projects employ multi-methodologies.  Often a single methodology is too constraining, and the approach needs to adapt according to the needs, expectations and availability of the different audiences.  A mix of depths and tele-depths, or groups, or a new methodology invented for that project may be employed where, in a B2C project a single approach would be enough.  Even once methodology has been decided, the researcher needs to continually adapt – it is not unusual that, on the day, a CEO may only have 20 mins available for what is in reality a 1 hr interview.  Managing this, and maximising and prioritising is key – some input from a key individual is better than none.

Ultimately a B2B project is about maximising the input – and the best way of doing this is by using a specialist researcher who is familiar with the (potential) issues and who is experienced enough to be flexible on the fly, challenge both he client and respondent and place all the information in both the business and industry context.

Author:  Claire Labrum, Strictly Financial