Over the past few years as a business-to-business (B2B) product manager, I’ve learned when it comes to the success of a B2B product, process matters far more than technology does.
What, exactly, do I mean? I mean that the way in which users accomplish an outcome is much more important than which tools they use to accomplish the outcome.
Businesses with stellar processes and subpar tools will generally beat out businesses that have subpar processes and stellar tools.
This learning is counterintuitive. After all, with consumer products, “if you build it, they will come,” regardless of the user’s existing processes.
That’s because consumer products have the freedom to set entirely new processes and behaviors.
For example, let’s look at Facebook. Before Facebook, people usually learned about how their friends were doing through phone calls, emails, online group forums, and physical reunions.
Then, Facebook introduced the newsfeed. Suddenly, people shifted their behavior towards reading their newsfeeds to learn about their friends, rather than maintaining their old processes.
Therefore, many product managers feel that as long as their product is well-designed, they will find product/market fit - without taking into account whether their product is B2B or B2C (business-to-consumer), and therefore forgetting to consider the role that user processes play when it comes to product adoption.
So why does process matter so much for B2B products?
Why Are B2B Products Different?
Before we look at B2B products, let’s establish a stronger understanding of B2C products as the baseline.
B2C products are generally geared towards creating net-new behavior.
For example, let’s look at Instacart. The Instacart product is meant to drive new customer behavior. Rather than driving to a supermarket, just order your groceries through the app.
Or, let’s look at Instagram. Instead of taking pictures for yourself, you now share pictures as part of a narrative that you broadcast to your followers.
Therefore, B2C products focus on novelty: delightful design, subtle cues, friendly interactions. B2C is all about introducing new use cases and behaviors.
In B2C, users are open to changing their behavior.
But with B2B products, your user base is not interested in changing their behavior. They’re trying to run a business as their main priority.
The most successful businesses aren’t successful because of a particular technology that they’re using. They’re successful because they’ve built the best process around whatever technologies they’ve chosen.
Let’s dive into why that’s the case.
The Role of Processes in Businesses
In B2B, the customer’s mission is to operate the business, and the customer’s goal is to get to a specific outcome.
Most of the time, B2B products are productivity products. The goal of the product is to enable a particular set of users to accomplish a particular outcome in a more efficient and effective way than they were doing before.
Let’s talk about QuickBooks as a classic example of a productivity product.
All businesses need to deal with accounting. As long as they can stay on top of their finances, they’re happy. I’ve seen many successful businesses use paper ledgers or Excel spreadsheets rather than using QuickBooks.
I’ve never seen a business beat out competitors simply by virtue of using QuickBooks, or by virtue of using any particular tool.
If that’s the case, then why is QuickBooks such a successful B2B product?
It’s because QuickBooks enables businesses to adopt more efficient processes than their previous ones.
Having a robust, automated, well-integrated accounting system can be far more effective than using pen and paper. However, that only matters if there’s a strong process in place to take advantage of that system.
Process is the core business differentiator. A business that has strong processes is one that can simultaneously delight existing customers, attract new customers, reduce costs, and enable internal collaboration.
Maturing businesses build processes because processes reduce cost which frees up resources to invest in differentiation and delight.
Processes reduce training costs and reduce the likelihood of errors. Processes also reduce variability in both the quality of the output and the expected time needed to achieve the output.
And businesses build processes around whatever technology they have on hand.
Here’s a familiar example. Some still don’t accept credit cards. They only accept cash, and you still get your receipt from an old-school cash register. They don’t want to switch to a terminal that accepts credit cards.
Why is that the case? Because those have already built out a strong, proven process around cash transactions. They don’t see the need to introduce a new process around credit cards and debit cards, because introducing new processes creates headaches.
No matter what, business users are trying to get something done, and they’ve built entire flows around whatever tools they’ve currently got on hand.
Innovation and Disruption in B2B
Say you’ve created a new B2B product. Your B2B product is designed to remove lots of inefficiencies, make users much happier, and provide the business with higher customer satisfaction.
Yet for some reason, no one’s adopting your product. Why is that?
Because your product is disruptive.
I don’t mean disruptive as in “this changes an industry.” I mean disruptive as in “this product introduces new headaches for users, for their managers, and for decision-makers.”
The business’s best alternative can never be to do nothing. Their best alternative is a process that is proven to work. They’ve used their current process for years, and they’re still in business - so clearly they’re doing something right.
How are you going to go in there and change the process with your product?
I’ve seen many B2B products open their pitches with “you’re doing it wrong.” On the surface, this isn’t a bad tactic, since it’s so attention-grabbing.
Yet, I generally find that these products get little long-term traction through such a pitch, because their targeted customers have so much evidence to the contrary.
After all, their targeted customers are still in business. Why fix something that isn’t broken? That is what the PMHQ community is all about.
Process and Change Management
In B2B, you don’t just ship products. You ship new processes.
There are entire books written on how to change processes and how to get buy-in to do so. You can read more about change management here:
My point is not that you need to master change management on your own, but rather you need to work with people who know how to change processes within your targeted customers.
Who are the best people for driving process changes? There are two specific personas you should focus on.
The executive sponsor is someone on the management team. The frontline champion is someone who works on the front lines of the business.
The executive sponsor will make a case to other executives that they will get much stronger returns on investment by using your product offering than relying on their existing processes.
The frontline champion will make a case to fellow employees that your product offering will make their day-to-day lives easier, more pleasant, and more productive.
Without getting buy-in from these two people, you cannot drive process changes. And remember - it doesn’t matter how great your product is. Your product only matters if people are using it.
Therefore, when you’re selling B2B products, you have 2 main missions.
First, you need to identify your product’s business benefits to the executive sponsor, and you need to identify your product’s human benefits to the frontline champion. This education can come in the form of conversations, documentation, customer references, or collateral.
Then, you need to work with them to create a new set of processes that will achieve these particular benefits, with your product as an irreplaceable part of this new set of processes.
Let's talk about Salesforce, for example. They're one of the most successful B2B products out on the market. Why is that?
Because they're great at identifying the executive sponsor and the frontline champion, then arming them with the appropriate tools needed to drive process changes.
Is the CMO (chief marketing officer) looking for a way to drive omnichannel marketing campaigns? Then Salesforce will provide white papers geared specifically at the CMO on how to adopt new processes as part of leveraging Salesforce, and what ROI that drives.
Not only that, Salesforce will then come on-site to train the frontline champion - the marketing manager - on how to make life easier for all of their marketing colleagues through Salesforce through robust lead capture and rules-based automated marketing campaigns.
Is the CIO (chief information officer) trying to get to a single source of truth? Then Salesforce will pull together its deep list of integrations and send it over to the CIO, to show them how they can run all of their business's analytics in Salesforce.
Not only that, Salesforce will then come on-site to train the frontline champion - the analytics manager - on how to pull data into Salesforce and ensure that there's only one single source of truth, and how that reduces confusion and increases efficiencies across the .
Salesforce understands that their product is so flexible and so robust that it's nearly impossible for anyone to adopt from of the start. That's why they put so many resources into adoption, specifically centered around particular kinds of executive sponsors and frontline champions. And that's why they're a dominant platform.
Businesses succeed due to process, not due to technology. Technology simply enables them to adopt better processes.
Even when a B2B product can provide a better process, that product will inevitably introduce painful process changes in the businesses that buy them.
Product managers who can help their customers effectively navigate this process change are more likely to succeed with their products. On the flip side, product managers who fail to account for process changes are almost guaranteed to achieve subpar results.
In our next article, we’ll dive deeper into how to ship effective B2B products. We’ll discuss how to appropriately scope B2B products, how to design B2B products, and how to enable customers to change their processes more effectively as they adopt your product.
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around processes and B2B products? Chat with other leaders around the world in our PMHQ Community!
Clement Kao is Co-Founder of Product Manager HQ. He was previously a Principal Product Manager at Blend, an enterprise technology company that is inventing a simpler and more transparent consumer lending experience while ensuring broader access for all types of borrowers.