Interviewing customers down the value chain
  2. Discovery Interviews (Step 2)
  3. Interviewing customers down the value chain

3. Practical tips for exploring your value chain

2 Cases when you shouldn't interview down the value chain... plus 4 tips when you should.

Most B2B suppliers should conduct customer interviews and tours not only with their direct customers… but with their customers’ customers as well (and possibly their customers). There are two exceptions where the B2B supplier need not explore the value chain beyond its immediate customer:

  • Exception 1: The supplier can only impact their customers’ processes, not products. Imagine the B2B supplier provides valves to an oil refinery. While the refinery process could be improved, it’s unlikely the product—refined gasoline—will be impacted by their valves. So there’s no point in moving further down the value chain.
  • Exception 2: The customers’ customers are end-consumers. It’s wise to explore the last business in the value chain, but might not be worth doing expensive end-consumer research… especially if a) this last business is willing and able to share market intelligence, and b) the B2B supplier contributes a relatively small portion of the end-product value.

Consider these tips for effectively exploring the value chain in your target market:

  1. Interview direct customers first. In some industries, you’ll upset your direct customers if they learn you’ve been talking to their customers. They don’t know why you’re doing this and what you’re discussing. So start by interviewing your direct customers. You might include some questions they don’t have answers to… but their customers will. At the interview, mention you’d like to get these answers. Perhaps they could suggest who to talk to? You might offer to return to them later with this intelligence you’ve gathered. They’ll likely be more comfortable with you talking to their customers if a) they understand your purpose, and b) see some benefit for themselves.
  2. Interview the entire ecosystem: Don’t limit your interviews to just customers and their customers. Consider others in the “ecosystem” that influence buying decisions, e.g. regulators, co-suppliers, specifiers, architects, industry experts and others.
  3. Do market research for your customers: When you interview down the value chain, don’t limit yourself to qualitative Discovery interviews. Also conduct quantitative Preference interviews. It’s quite likely that you’ll be able to show your direct customers hard evidence (e.g. a Market Satisfaction Gap chart) that reveals you have market insights about their customers that they lack. Now that’s a valuable supplier! 
  4. Consider process vs. product: To the point above, it would be nice if you had a Market Satisfaction Gap chart for your direct customers and another one for your customers’ customers—on the same 10 outcomes. But you can only do this if your outcomes relate to the final product. In other words, you might ask your direct customer about their processes, and that’s fine. But recognize that your customers’ customers don’t care at all about your direct customers’ processes. Conversely, both your direct customers and their customers should be interested in final product outcomes (or processes at the customers’ customers).

For more on the last point--process vs. product customer benefits--see the BlueHelp article, Improving B2B customers' products and processes.


Keywords: B2B customers, customers' customers, value chain, interview down value chain, exceptions to value chain interviews, process vs. product improvements, direct customers