Most of us have filled in a survey, many of us have surveyed customers too. 

But do surveys give us all the answers we need? How do we know if we are asking the right questions? 

We look to understand the Objective vs the Subjective needs and wants of our customers, but how do we know if survey answers truly represent reality? 

For example, a survey of IT infrastructure purchasers conducted by HBR, Research Now and Lucid found that cost reduction was ranked as the most important factor in a purchasing decision.

However, further statistical of ratings given to suppliers found other factors were just as, if not more important. Product quality, expertise, and responsiveness emerged as the strongest predictors of customer loyalty.  Cost reduction was not even among the top 10. 

So it would be easy for us to ask one question and build our propositions around cost reduction and ignore the potentially more important factors of product quality, expertise, and responsiveness. 

There is no simple solution to understand your B2B customers and prospects needs and challenges, but I urge you to consider the context of which a question is asked, and answered. 

How else can you understand customer needs? 

There are many theories and suggestions about how you should rank the needs of your customers, one of which I was recently fascinated to learn about (from the same article) is Bain's "B2B Elements of Value Pyramid" 

Bain's pyramid suggests there are 40 distinct kinds of value that B2B offerings provide customers, which Bain has split into a hierarchy of 5 levels. 

The most objective kinds of value are found at the base, and the higher a level is, the more subjective and personal the types of value it contains.

The pyramid suggests that all customers have a consistent hierarchy of challenges and priorities based on personal and business values, starting from table stakes (price, compliance, ethical standards) all the way up to inspirational values (vision, hope, social responsibility). 

So how do you know if you're asking the right questions? 

The answer is you probably won't ever know. The key is to ask a variety of questions, test preconceptions, ask questions that go beyond 'What factors are most important when making an organisational purchase?' and factor in context and values. 

Understanding your audience is key, but don't always take the first answer as gospel.