By Bob Leonard published May 17, 2011

How One-On-One Interviews Can Reveal What Your B2B Audience Really Wants

What do B2B decision makers and purchase influencers care about?  Reducing risk!

They want to make a buying decision that will enhance their careers. They want information that will help them make the best business decision possible – a decision that will result in cost savings and/or increase top line revenue.

Sounds easy enough.

Just deliver the information that tells them why your product or service will make them the hero of their company, right?


That path results in overly salesy materials that will turn off your prospects.  Instead, you first need to understand their perceptions about the business problem that your product or service solves. One of the best ways to uncover this information is through qualitative research, which can help you develop the strategic B2B content that potential buyers of your product or service are interested in. It’s the first step in continuous marketing improvement.

Market research that digs deep

One of the primary reasons to do market research is to understand why people behave and think in the way that they do. The best insights can’t be obtained by conducting hundreds of interviews or by monitoring and analyzing social media mentions. These insights come from deep but loosely structured interviews with a small number of highly targeted individuals.

Qualitative research methods rely heavily on the skills of the interviewer to interact with the interviewees and to dig deep into their motivations and experiences. Such methods are defined as qualitative because they seek quality information over quantity. Qualitative research is exploratory.

So, how do you do qualitative research?

I like the methodology outlined by Kristin Zhivago. Kristin is a revenue coach who helps CEOs and entrepreneurs increase their bottom lines by understanding what their customers want to buy and how they want to buy it. I have ‘borrowed’ Kristin’s qualitative research methodology (which she outlines in clear detail in her books) to elicit the information I need to develop content marketing strategies for my B2B clients.

Kristin eschews the use of focus groups and instead recommends one-on-one interviews. People in focus groups are either surrounded by peers from within their company or from the competition. So, they may provide careful answers that don’t reveal the whole truth. Or, they’re wary about disclosing too much.

Aim for completing about 10 personal interviews to start. Depending on the quality of responses, you may be able to scale back, or you may find that you need to conduct more.

How to conduct one-on-one interviews

Kristin recommends conducting interviews via the phone instead of face-to-face. In her experience, people are more forthcoming over the phone because they’re sitting in their own environment, and they are alone and relaxed. I prefer phone interviews because they’re easier and cheaper (no travel).

Let participants know why the information you collect is important to you and your company. People, even busy executives, are willing to spend time with a vendor who is going to use the information gathered for an important purpose.

The two most important factors for these interviews are selecting the right people and asking the right questions.

Find the right people: Your best target interviewees are current customers. You want to select people who made the buy decision, people who influenced the decision and people who are using the product/service. You want happy customers and not-so-happy customers. If this is a brand new product launch, you’ll need to find appropriate prospects, which is more difficult to accomplish, but doable.

Ask the right questions: Here is the kind of information you want to gather:

  • What questions did they need answered  at the different phases of the buying cycle?
  • What objections did they have? How were those objections overcome?
  • What compelling content did the competition deliver?
  • What land mines were placed by your competitors?
  • What information did they have trouble finding?
  • At what point did they feel ready to talk to a salesperson?
  • What helped them sell your product or service internally?
  • Now that they’re using your solution, what didn’t they know about it prior to the purchase?

Finally, ask them what question you should have asked but didn’t.

The key: Really listen

During the interview, LISTEN.

Your interview subjects may go off on a tangent. Let them. That’s often when the most valuable information is uncovered.

The resulting information, once organized and analyzed, will give you a good sense of what your content strategy should be. You’ll know which topics need to be covered at what points during the buy cycle, what information specific titles/roles customers are interested in and what will be the best vehicles to deliver the information.

Author: Bob Leonard

Bob Leonard is the Managing Consultant at acSellerant. Over a 20 year period, prior to launching acSellerant, Bob held individual contributor and management positions in Corporate Marketing, Field Marketing, Sales and Sales Support at EMC, GTE, Interleaf (document management), and Digital Equipment Corp. acSellerant is a content and social media marketing agency focused on the B2B market place. Follow me on Twitter @acSellerant.

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  • Don Metznik

    The value of one-on-one interviews can’t be underestimated. I enjoy the challenge of listening, analyzing, and then synthesizing the input. Your list of “the right questions” is a great tool.

    • Bob Leonard

      Thanks, Don. I just took a look at your website. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your ‘Transformational Marketing’ methodology. I agree that it’s Marketing’s time to be driving the corporate bus.

  • David Drickhamer

    “The resulting information, once organized and analyzed, will give you a good sense of what your content strategy should be.”

    Organization and analysis that leads to strategy, action and change can be very difficult. This one-on-one customer interview approach echoes “voice of the customer” efforts to identify what constitutes real value in customers’ eyes. The challenge is using the intelligence gathered to change entrenched processes and priorities. 

    • Bob Leonard

      David – I think we’re all singing from the same choir book (I apologize for the cliche’). As I mentioned regarding Don’s Transformational Marketing methodology, these insights gathered from the “voice of the customer” must be entrenched into the business “processes and priorities”. 

      Although I didn’t mention it in the blog post, Kristin Zhivago’s ‘Roadmap to Revenue’ also explicitly makes this point.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Michael Selissen

    If time (and budget) permits, it helps to get a 360-degree perspective that includes one-on-ones with sales, field engineers and product management.

    • Bob Leonard


      You’re absolutely right. I was remiss in not including this facet. It belongs in the Research step. Sales, Field Engineers, Product Management (and I’d add Customer Service) will all have valuable insights into the informational needs of prospects and customers. I’d also add that to achieve the process and priority changes that Kristin, David and Don espouse, this needs to be a two way street. The market intelligence that Marketing gathers should be shared with these other departments. An ongoing (endless loop) of information transfer should be established.

      Good catch.


  • Scott Frangos

    Hi Bob – great article.  I like  how you are encouraging colleagues to ferret out the motivation behind decisions.  So often I find clients focusing only on rational arguments with bullets, etc.  But, to speak to the motivation of prospects who will “make a buying decision that will enhance their careers” — you have to reach the level of emotion.  In fact, most good advertising people recognize that emotions drive sales, and we rationalize them later.  I think the approach you outline will bring out emotional keys for content marketing.

    • Bob Leonard

      Scott – thanks for the comment. Yes, I think it’s important, in B2B, to remember that it’s still people who are making the purchase decisions. And people, even left-brained, logical business executives are influenced by their emotions. This is where qualitative research beats quantitative (where it’s a numbers game so the feedback must be contained/limited).

  • Richardhurn

     You are absolutely correct. Appreciate your leadership on this issue, have been following precisely these guidelines for 20 years, yet consistently find the key challenge to be the OD (organizational development) inertia that avoids the labor & intimacy of client interview engagement – despite the proven payback. Here is my attempt to advance this key issue & would enjoy your critique this 13-slide deck as a knowledgeable co-conspirator –

    • Bob Leonard

      Rich – I have no critique. We are in total agreement. It’s obvious we’ve both walked the same path. I’d love to have a dollar for every time I’ve said to a client, “Let’s take a step back. Spend a little time. Do a little research…” Your slide deck covers all the bases (to extend your baseball metaphor). Let’s keep in touch. Next time I’m in CA, or if you’re ever down in FL, we should get together and discuss. Looking forward to it. Thanks for the comment.


  • Tien Anh Nguyen

    This is a great and timely post. Many B2B businesses do not realize that conducting regular in-depth customer interviews are extremely important to their understanding of the marketing, the customers and their needs. They could have learned a lot from B2C brands, who have over the years developed sophisticated techniques and tools for such in-depth research. At OpenView Labs, we conduct a lot of market research for our portfolio companies, which are mostly B2B businesses, and encounter the same challenges. Our team has written a number of articles on this topic (please check them out at (, but it is really nice to see how others concur as well.

  • Naomi McElynn

    The truth of the matter – while you all have excellent points- I think we are all in agreement.  Hands down, face-to-face is the best way to understand your client’s needs and also the way to best serve them. Everything that leads up to that point is necessary but when we can look each other in the eye and figure out how to increase ROI?  There’s no better feeling!