For B2B innovation strategy development over a one to five year horizon, my firm, Insight to Action recommends considering field, headquarters and expert primary insights perspectives. Of course, before conducting the new research, a critical first step is to leverage secondary sources and to assess any historical data and identify unanswered questions. An example of an unanswered question might be “What are the emerging trends relevant to our business and what innovation opportunities and threats do they present?” After that work is complete, and unanswered questions are identified, a new primary insights approach that works well will include three major components. They are:
- In-depth customer/prospect interviews with fifteen or more headquarters decision makers
- Quantitative survey of 100+ field operators and decision makers/influencers
- In-depth expert interviews with five to ten market and industry experts
Innovation Strategy: Headquarters Perspective from In-Depth Customer Interviews
Typically, when thinking of a longer range (three to five year innovation strategy horizon) for a B2B manufacturer, we suggest having conversations with decision makers at current and prospective customers. Headquarters decision makers’ timeframe often will look more into the two to five year horizon, while field perspective is often closer in. These headquarters decision makers in B2B typically hail from different functional disciplines such as R&D, marketing, sales, strategy, purchasing/supply chain, and others as I’ve explored previously in “Driving Innovation from B2B Market Research.”
A typical approach we suggest is to conduct in-depth phone interviews with prospect and customer decision makers. These conversations take between thirty and sixty minutes, and our goal is to engage the decision maker and add value to the conversation, not to administer a survey. For this reason, we will often start with a broad question such as “What are the major trends that you see impacting your business and your innovation plans over the next three to five years?” Since we are interested in their future outlook and are not asking for an evaluation of their current suppliers, we typically establish upfront that we will not reveal the B2B sponsoring client’s organization until the end (and only if desired for specific feedback). We find that after 8-15 high-quality, diverse interviews that innovation and future strategy themes begin to emerge.
For example, three trends that emerged from recent workplace engagement interviews were:
- Gamification of training and recognition for training completion
- Reporting made more visual and easier to understand
- Viewing reports on mobile devices
These market trend themes typically have some overlap with themes from the industry experts, who generally also bring the longer-term perspective to their conversations.
Example of Longer Headquarters Timeframe in B2B Manufacturing
One example comes from interviews with current and prospective customers across industries for a manufacturer of metal containers. Because these containers are highly customized, fairly low volume, and heavy, several of the end customers have chosen to work with only one supplier (vs. dual sourcing). The product life cycle is fairly long, ranging from three to ten years, so that once the supplier has the business, and it is sole-sourced, that revenue will typically remain with that supplier until the end of the particular product’s life cycle.
We received different answers driven by different planning timeframes when looking at the innovation outlook for this customer. The longer timeframe came from the supply chain strategy headquarters executive who shared that his firm intends to relocate its plant to Mexico in two years, meaning that future innovation orders and containers would be sourced close to the new location in Mexico rather than from the existing supplier in Wisconsin. The shorter timeframe came from the field purchasing manager for the existing product line who will continue to use the existing supplier (our client). As a result of this conversation, we learned two years in advance of a major geographic change that impacted our client’s end demand but would not happen for two years.
Example of Field Timeframe Relevancy in B2B Retail
In 2015, we explored the innovation plans of a market leader in retail foodservice by talking with innovation, marketing and strategy leaders at headquarters. The typical timeframe they were focused on was 18-48 months in the future. At that time, some of the areas of greatest interest included clean label offerings within handheld, indulgent snacks.
We also conducted a quantitative survey of field managers in over three hundred retail outlets, looking at their current and future needs. The survey found that while handheld, shareable snacks were of interest, their greatest immediate need was in breakfast sandwiches. The field timeframe was more focused on current and shorter-term customer needs (zero to 18 months) and for that reason, different from the headquarters.
Our client had an immediate business opportunity in sandwiches, and their innovation strategy needed to address both longer-range snacks and shorter-range sandwiches. The two perspectives complemented one another.
Gathering these three perspectives requires discipline, time and resources. The findings may seem to contradict one another at times, so it is helpful to carefully consider the timeframe and role of the decision maker who gave input. After the insights are vetted and in hand, the next step is to align and decide where to focus B2B innovation efforts that will capture demand over the relevant horizon (one to five years, three to five years, etc.). The findings should illuminate clear areas of opportunity for innovation and demand capture that the organization can use for resource planning. This process is very effective for developing innovation strategies implemented by many of my B2B clients.