Shipping Effective B2B Products
Regardless of background, we as product managers are obligated to know how to ship effective B2B (business-to-business) products.
After all, technology continues to evolve rapidly, enabling existing businesses to penetrate new customer segments and enabling new entrants to innovate. As businesses of all kinds expand their capabilities, they look to outside products to enable them to do more with their current resources.
Because technology is creating so many new opportunities, B2B products proliferate at an exciting pace today, and much of the demand for product managers comes from the B2B space.
To successfully ship B2B products, we need to understand the key differentiator of all businesses: process.
We discussed in our previous article why process matters so much in businesses, and how process-oriented thinking affects their decisions when evaluating B2B products.
Now that we have that foundation, in this article, we’ll cover how to account for process as we craft effective B2B products. We’ll specifically focus on process research, user experience, and change management as three of the cornerstone factors of successful B2B products.
Process Research for B2B
Businesses are driven by their processes. As previously mentioned, process is the core differentiator for any business.
Therefore, in B2B, it’s critical to get out into the field and learn about business processes, which are entirely qualitative.
This mindset runs somewhat counter to traditional B2C product management. As B2C product managers, we generally first with the “what” through data analytics, then we get into the “why” through interviews and shadowing.
The key difference is that in B2B, users are already aggregated into businesses. That is, most of the users within the same business are likely going to use the same process. Since each business has their own sizable contract with you, it’s worth understanding nuances at a business-by-business level.
Therefore, each time you meet a new potential customer, dive into their processes for whatever problem area you’re looking to solve.
Document their processes into flow charts. I’ve found that whiteboarding is an incredibly effective technique to ensure that I’m on the same page with the customer. If you don’t have access to a whiteboard but you have a pen and paper, then it should work just as well.
Once you’ve pulled together your first set of flow charts, review them with your frontline champion.
As a reminder, the frontline champion is someone who works on the front lines of the business and is excited about what you bring to the table. They are responsible for making a case to fellow employees that your product offering will make their day-to-day lives easier, more pleasant, and more productive.
The frontline champion is the most likely person to identify nuances in the flows that you’ve pulled together and is most likely to speak candidly about how work actually gets done. They’ll point out the exceptions to the rule, as well as any variants on the process that they’re aware of.
Note: remember that official documentation and actual practices can sometimes vary dramatically! Make sure you and the frontline champion spend dedicated time to walk through the real world of their business - don’t rely just on documents.
Using Process Research to Scope Your Product Offering
In our previous article, we stated that your ultimate goal is to win over two particular personas: the executive sponsor and the frontline champion.
Now that you have a documented set of flows that have been vetted by the frontline champion, it’s time to identify where your current product offering will best fit into these flows. Spend time with both the executive sponsor and the frontline champion to work through this analysis.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect fit. New technologies always introduce new processes. Identify each area of change, and hold each change as a critical milestone to be achieved.
After all, when the customer adopts your product, they must successfully complete each of the identified changes to fully onboard onto your product. Any misses mean that they will not gain the same value as they could otherwise have.
That’s why the more disruptive your product is to existing processes, the less likely it’ll be adopted. Disruptive products cause lots of process changes, which reduces the likelihood that every single change will be completed.
Therefore, where possible, design your product to fully encompass a particular flow in a modular way so that it’s easy to swap into an existing process.
The worst possible thing to do is to ship a product that covers disconnected steps within the existing flow.
For example, say your targeted customer is a call center, and their 6-step process for inbound calls is to:
- Pick up a ringing phone
- Assign a customer representative
- Read through a script
- Take notes
- Log information into a system
- Send an email
If your product only covers assigning a customer representative (step 2), taking notes (step 4), and sending an email (step 6), you’re covering non-continuous steps in their flow.
If this call center were to adopt your product, they’d have to complete the other parts of the flow using their existing set of processes, unless your product is so good that it eliminates all of the other steps in between.
Since their existing processes are built around existing tools, your product scope will cause friction in adoption. After all, they have to go back to their old processes and tools to complete their work for steps 1, 3, and 5 - so why wouldn’t they just stick with what they already have?
Therefore, as you scope out the areas that your product will cover, ensure that you’re covering a continuous set of steps within your product, and/or that you are thoughtfully and consciously eliminating steps in their existing process.
As a reminder: in B2B, you don’t just ship new products - you ship new processes.
User Experience in B2B
Many times, product managers bring a consumer product mindset to B2B products. After all, if consumers like being visually delighted, why not introduce delight to business users as well?
Here's why: in B2B, someone’s trying to get something done on a tight timeline. However, you can check out the opinion of other product experts in the PMHQ community.
I've personally found that the key to shipping effective B2B products is to retain familiar user experiences. In other words, the fewer new visuals you introduce, the better.
For example, through existing processes and tools, a particular user group might be used to clicking on a large square button that says “Add New Record”.
If your product represents “Add New Record” with a small circular icon with a + sign, you’re going to cause confusion.
Your users are not looking for a +, nor are they looking for an icon. They’re looking to add a new record. They come to the task with set expectations of what they must do to complete the task. Don’t violate those expectations.
Never modernize existing interaction patterns just for the sake of visuals. Only do so if it meaningfully improves the user’s workflow and drives tangible business results.
In B2B, most existing products are stuffed to the brim with functionality. B2B users expect lots of visual noise in their products. Therefore, they’ve trained themselves to ignore anything that is outside of their expected flow.
In fact, I’ve had users tell me that they never found a new feature I introduced because it was outside their expected flow. It doesn’t matter if it’s a different color or if it has an animated arrow next to it - if it’s not expected, the new feature is going to be ignored.
To get adoption of new features, you need to reset user expectations from outside the product.
To be honest, this challenge is one that I’m still learning how to overcome.
I’ve found that having the executive sponsor and the frontline champion talk about the new feature in an all-hands meeting has driven some amount of adoption. I’ve also found that emails and videos outside of the product are moderately successful in resetting user expectations.
My point is that new features in B2B will rarely be found organically, because when people are going through their critical day-to-day flows, they’re too focused to see your new feature.
They’re trying to get critical work done. Remember, they don’t have time to be distracted.
Designing for Change in B2B
Your B2B product doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s an enabler of a process. Therefore, you need to actively design for process changes, so that your product works for the customer.
When designing for process change, sometimes you don’t even need to make enhancements to your product. Rather, you need to introduce processes that sit outside of your product.
I realize that this sounds somewhat abstract. Let me illustrate with two examples: one regarding onboarding new customers, and one about teaching existing users how to use new functionality.
When onboarding new customers, you need to teach their users in a way that they will accept. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made bad assumptions before when designing onboarding.
I’ve created a ton of in-product documentation, for example, without realizing that my end user is never going to read it - because they’re trying to get a job done, and reading is not part of the job.
A more effectively designed onboarding process is to visit the customer on-site and actually show end users how to use the product, step by step, through specific relevant business scenarios.
Note that effectiveness is different from scalability. Customer insights aren’t scalable, but they drive process change much faster than documentation or webinars do.
For our second example, let’s talk about teaching new users about new functionality. For a particular customer segment, I delivered a particular feature that would cut down the number of steps they needed to take to complete some task.
Yet, I found that once I shipped this feature, my users couldn’t figure out how to successfully complete the flow. No matter how many times I iterated with design to make the feature easier to understand, my users still could not adopt the feature without our intervention. In fact, the users who tried to use my new feature wound up needing to take more steps than the users who didn’t use my new feature.
I was mystified. I asked a customer executive to let me visit them in person. Once onsite, I saw that nearly every user was using the feature in the same specific unintended way. When I asked them why they were doing it that way, they told me it was because of how they were being trained by their managers.
I asked the executive why they were being trained in that way. The executive told me that they assumed the feature was meant to do a particular task, because of a particular word that was part of the product copy.
They told me that that’s how they use that particular word in their corporate vocabulary, and had assumed that it must be the way that my feature worked.
And that wasn’t the intent of the feature at all!
So, my key takeaway: as part of introducing this new feature, I needed to define our product vocabulary so that executives and users understand what it is, and what it isn’t.
Could I have changed the copy in the product? Yes, but different businesses do things differently. I was unable to find copy that resonated universally across customers without intervention, nor was I able to introduce robust configuration that could change the copy on a customer-by-customer basis.
Therefore, to mitigate, I ensured that each new feature came with an introduction email and a phone call to the customer executive to define key vocabulary in the product.
Note how I made my product more effective through process, not through product. That’s the charm and the curse of working in B2B product management!
In B2B, your product enables a process change. This process change is meant to make users’ lives easier, and to make the business more productive.
To start, identify the existing process. Show how your product will change the process, and how that process change will make life easier while also improving key business outcomes.
If your product covers only parts of a flow, consider either reducing your product scope so that it covers a continuous set of steps, or making your product broader so that it fully covers the flow.
Business users are busy getting things done. Introducing new features within the product is generally quite challenging, and requires outside intervention.
When designing for change in B2B, think not just about what you can do with your product, but what you can do through change management processes - for example, on-site visits, emails, and phone calls to key customer stakeholders.
As a B2B product manager, you’re shipping both a product and a process. By being mindful of your customers’ existing processes, you’ll set yourself up for success.
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