Jen Berkley Jackson on Win Loss Interviews

I have known Jennifer Berkley Jackson of The Insight Advantage for the better part of  a decade. I met her at a Breakfast for Management Consultants and have stayed in touch ever since. She wrote a great blog post last year on “Win/Loss Analysis, Your Secret Weapon for Success” and we recently sat down to discuss win loss interviews in more detail. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Jen Berkley Jackson on Win Loss Interviews

win loss interviewsSean: Jen, can you talk a little bit about the kind of consulting projects you do at The Insight Advantage?

Jen: I work with companies to make sure that they understand their customers better than their competitors do.

I help companies better understand what customers want from their products, how satisfied they are with their products, and where they think the products should be going. I use a lot of different tools including telephone interviewing, web surveys, and the odd focus group.

Basically, if people have a question mark over their head about what do customers think, that’s when I can come in and help.

One common request I get is for help with win/loss interviews. I have conversations with people who bought a product or service from my client–that’s the “win” half. And I talk to people who started an evaluation but did not buy—that’s the “loss.” I try to understand what happened in either case.

Sean: What are some of the reasons a firm would go outside for help on win/loss interviews?

Jen: I can discover things that can be difficult for the field to find out. I am a third party who wasn’t involved in the sales process so the customer–or potential customer–does not have to worry it’s another sales call, and they don’t have to worry about hurting my feelings.

They can hate the product, even hate the company and I still follow a very methodical process to understand what happened. My objectivity helps people feel more comfortable sharing their perspective.  This is especially true on the loss side, where many sales people would prefer to look forward.

One recent client called me in because he had been looking at what his sales people had recorded in as the reasons that they had lost an account and realized that it was usually very cursory: pricing too high, missing key product features, etc.. He knew that there were deeper insights to be gained from some really in-depth conversations, but that an experienced outside interviewer would be more effective.

Sean: What do you normally discover? How do your clients act on it?

Jen: Real answers to why folks buy—or don’t buy–is illuminating to companies. They now understand what drives people to look for their type of product or service, why now versus some other point in time. Sometimes it was a weakness in a solution they already have in place, other times there have been specific changes in their business.

My findings and analysis make their salespeople much more knowledgeable about the triggers to look for in other companies.  I have a detailed process I follow that enables me to understand how the  purchasing process works inside their company, who the decision makers were,  what their criteria were, and then ultimately, why they chose or didn’t choose  my client, and how my client was perceived versus their competitors.

Just learning whom the prospect saw as the real alternatives helps broaden my clients’ understanding of whom they are really competing with. It’s not uncommon at the start of a series of win/loss interviews that a new client is only tracking a subset of the real competitors they are being compared against.

Sean: I think the amount of detailed information available on-line—not only on your own website but on third party sites–can complicate your understanding of who  your real competition is. A lot of the buying process in B2B has become self-service.

We work primarily with early stage firms, teams of two to five engineers or scientists who are bootstrapping. Often one or more of the founders is in charge  of sales–they don’t have a dedicated sales person—and when they get the first contact from a new prospect, that prospect has already gathered a lot of information. They learn to treat e-mails and web form inquiries the same as an urgent phone call because the prospect can be pretty far along in their decision making process.

Do you see the same things going on ?

Jen: My approach is designed to understand the customer’s whole evaluation and buying process. I explore not only their direct interactions with my client, but also as much as they are willing to share about what drove the decision to buy from my client—or not to buy.  I always explore how they found my client, which can be very illuminating. It’s usually very much based on web research. They’re looking for experts in the ecosystem that are doing objective evaluation of the competitors in the field. That’s huge.

Sean: So they may actually start with third party content: trade journals, industry magazines, trade shows, or analysts?

Jen: Yes. They look for thought leaders in the field who have done evaluations of the solutions, that’s golden to people. Like you said, they’re doing self-service.

They want to make sure they’ve done some vetting before they cast the net out too wide. And I think that’s the other thing that’s different, is that they don’t cast the net very wide.

You know, once they’ve done vetting using some of those sources that we’re talking about, they’ve got it down to maybe 3 to 5 vendors they’re going to talk to, which really streamlines their process. Versus ten or fifteen years ago when they might have gone to 15 people, and had this big spreadsheet…

Sean:  They are telling you they establish a category set of 15 vendors or so and then winnow that down to 5 through web research and third party research. So many firms may get knocked out of the competition without ever getting contacted; they may never know that they were under consideration.

Jen: Oh, yeah. If a vendor doesn’t get good buzz from those people we were just talking about. You know, the researchers, the thought leaders. If they don’t have some good street cred with those people, they will get eliminated.

Sean: What are some examples of information you uncover that the client finds surprising?

Jen: Sometimes it’s competitors they either didn’t know about or had discounted. When I mention a supplier that their customer considered they will say “We don’t compete with them. We’re different.” Sometimes it’s what customers say about what their differentiators are. They’re usually pretty aware of what’s wrong with their product. More often than not though, they are surprised by comments that can become good marketing positioning and talking points for their field.

For example, one of my clients has a software client product that Electronic Arts licensed. Well, Electronic Arts is a very different workforce than the standard tech company. They’re a lot of millennials, a lot of gamers; they’ve got a whole culture that’s very different.

My client’s software solution was going to touch a large majority of their employees. They won the business because their solution was a good fit with Electronic Art’s culture. It had gamification, it had social media aspects to it, and it just felt cool. Instead of looking like an old solution that had been prettied up.

When my client heard that, we talked about the fact that this could be a differentiator for them. That they are in tune with supporting the new workforce and engaging these millennials that are so elusive to engage, and everybody’s trying to figure that out. That was an insight for them.

They had no idea. They just knew that they’d taken a different approach to the problem with their software, but they weren’t connecting the dots in that way, that they are really good for certain kinds of cultures that have certain kinds of employees.

Sean: What can a client find it difficult to believe or appreciate about what you learned?

Jen: The hardest thing for them to hear is that the customer thinks their baby’s ugly.

Interface and usability can be so subjective: you can win on usability in one case and lose in the next one. For me, that’s the hardest territory to get into, because it’s so subjective. I’ve had salespeople argue with me, and say, “Well, wait a second, people love our interface and said that other one’s worse, but you’re saying that they won because of their interface!” I had to say, “It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.” Interface and usability can be very subjective.

For example, an interface that is perceived as too simple or less sophisticated by some people is appreciated for its simple elegance by others. For B2B software there is often an administrator interface and a user interface and I will explore both.

Sean: Do you distinguish between a loss and a no decision?

Jen: Yes I do but my clients usually don’t have really good data on their “no decisions.” I’ve been given cases that were called losses that I find out were no decisions, so I make sure they know.

Those end up being leads again, too, because just the process of my client hiring a third party vendor to intelligently converse with them, that puts a little bit of a halo effect on my client.

Most times, more often than not, they end up re-engaging with my client. “Oh, I wondered where my salesperson went, it’s been a while. We should talk! Things have changed here!” But the salesperson, they didn’t get any immediate gratification, so they wrote it off as a loss.

Sean: So what do you think prevents more firms from doing this? What do you think the barriers are? What are the typical objections that you hear when you suggest that they consider win/loss analysis?

Jen: So there’s always budget. Budget and “we don’t have good enough database to tell you who we lost to.” The latter is becoming less and less of an argument with Salesforce, though. But I’m still surprised when it comes up.

Then there’s “We already know why we’re losing. There’s nothing you’re going to tell us that we don’t know.” I think there’s often an unstated objection: the field doesn’t want people fooling around with their contacts. Trust is never really overtly stated, but it can be an issue.

Sean: What do you to do earn their trust and ensure that you are treating their trust with appropriate care?

Jen: I think there are two key things: I have reference clients and I am systematic. The reference clients can share the results I have achieved and I have an explicit documented process that I share with them to explain how I will work with their customers so that I ensure the results are repeatable.  The latter is also important because I will often get a list of 50 win/loss customers to contact each quarter from a client.

Sean: When you get a list of people to contact what kind of participation rates do you see? Any tips for improving participation?

Jen: I recently did an analysis of the participation rates, because I’ve done enough of these that I can see some trends. We get about 75 percent of the wins to participate, and I think that’s goodwill, you know, they’re glad you’re asking. They want to help with the process. We get about 50 percent of the losses to participate, which is still pretty good, but we offer them an incentive. It depends upon the audience, but usually it’s about 100 dollars, either as an gift certificate, or a donation to their favorite charity. And a lot of people go with the charity.

We are clear to the losses that “This is not a selling conversation.” And they can look at my website and see that I am really an independent researcher, I am not on a commission. I think by having an independent identity it increases their willingness to have a conversation. I think connecting with 50 percent of the losses is pretty good.

We have an executive from the company send an email to them first, to legitimize the process and the project, so they know that a third party is going to be calling, but they know that the VP of sales or the CEO is behind the project.

Sean: Other comments or remarks you’d like to make? Any closing thoughts?

Jen: Win/loss analysis is such low hanging fruit. You can get people to participate, and it’s a really good way to get an objective view of the marketplace. A new client that I started work with has got very high level information in Salesforce, so my efforts really leverage that and I am just scratching the surface. I think any established company should be having regular conversations with their customers; it’s a unique and private source of insight on the pulse of the marketplace.

Sean: This has been great. Thanks very much for agreeing to discuss this.

Jen: You bet! Thanks for giving me a chance to talk about one of my favorite topics.

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Photo Credit: Els Vanderpalen: “Owl Eye”

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