B2B and B2C Product Management: Reality and Myth

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While the role of a product manager is largely the same across both B2B and B2C businesses, there are some areas where different approaches are required

There are a range of misconceptions about how product management differs across industries and business models. In particular, one would expect product managers would have very different challenges when working in businesses focused on selling products/services to consumers (B2C), compared to those businesses selling to other businesses (B2B).

We work with both B2C and B2B businesses at The Venture City’s Growth Accelerator, and we thought we’d share some of the realities and myths of working as a product manager in both.

Note that not all “B”s are equal: buyers of business products/services can be sole traders, SMEs, through to large-scale enterprises. In this discussion, the same general principles apply across the spectrum, unless otherwise stated.

More alike than different

First, and probably most importantly, our experience suggests is that the role of a product manager is largely the same no matter whether consumer or business buyers are being targeted. All product managers working in either a B2C or B2B environment need to research their market and competitors, understand their customers’ needs and pain points, develop a concise product vision and associated product strategy, define goals for the product, prioritise features, and build a clear product roadmap.

The rest of this article focuses on six areas where a product manager’s role across B2B and B2C businesses have traditionally differed most.

1. Stakeholders, Audience and Personas

There are many stakeholders to consider when selling a B2B product: Sales, Customer Support, Marketing, Legal, and IT/Engineering, along with executive management.

For most B2C products, however, the buyer, decision maker, and the user are all the same person. There are some examples where this is not the case (e.g. educational software aimed at children, where the buyer/decision maker is the parent, and the user is their child), but overall far fewer agendas need to be considered in the case of B2C products.

That said, if one considers “stakeholders” as “audiences” or “personas”, then the difference between B2B and B2C Product Management is not as large as it may initially seem. A good product manager will develop a value proposition for each of the B2B stakeholders as separate personas (just as she would for B2C target customer segments), ensuring that the product appeals to those needs and communicates the specific benefits clearly.

There is, however, no avoiding that decision-making in B2B environments tends to be more complex compared to B2C: there are multiple factors driving each stakeholders’ decisions across the company, and it is highly likely that there will be conflicting agendas and priorities across teams too.

2. Buyer power

Successful B2C companies (e.g. Facebook, Apple, Spotify) will have thousands, if not millions, of customers.

By contrast, early stage B2B companies regularly have customer numbers in the single digits, which may grow into the hundreds after an extended period.

This represents both opportunities and challenges for a B2B Product Manager. (The implications for a B2C Product Manager are discussed in the next section about Customer Insight).

First, it should be relatively easy to talk directly to a meaningful percentage of the customer base, understand their needs, and then develop targeted solutions that solve their problems.

These conversations will likely be complemented with qualitative customer feedback and competitor insight from the sales, customer support, and marketing teams. However, this feedback is frequently in the format of a long customer feature wishlist (“If the product could to X, Y, and Z, we could easily close the deal!”), and it can be challenging to distil the critical nuggets from these requests.

These customer wishlists can represent the biggest challenge for a B2B product manager. When one customer represents a substantial portion of your revenues (often 40%+), it is hard to say no to a feature request from that customer. The end result is frequently an overly complex user experience for the majority of users, and a higher overhead for the engineering team to maintain custom code.

B2B product managers need to work collaboratively with the sales team to manage customer expectations and avoid having the product roadmap reflecting the needs of just a handful of customers.

3. Customer insight

The disparity in customer numbers between B2C and B2B products also has implications for gathering and delivering customer insights.

With B2C products, thousands of visitors each day means that understanding the motivations and needs of any individual customer becomes practically impossible. Instead, the majority of B2C customer insights are quantitative, in the form of broad averages and trends. B2C product managers develop customer insights by selecting critical metrics (e.g. Acquisition, Engagement, Retention), setting goals for those metrics, and monitoring behaviour. The resulting insights then drive another iteration of the user experience, hopefully improving the outcome each time.

B2B products, on the other hand, have orders of magnitude fewer customers. This enables direct, regular conversations with a large portion of the customer base. Justin Kan (founder of Twitch and Atrium) believes that working with B2B companies is simply more straightforward. B2B customers will tell you what they want: If you can deliver a solution that solves their problem, and the problem is important enough to pay for it, then you’re likely to have a successful product.

This does not remove the need to drive quantitative insights, however. I have had more than one early stage CTO admit that they do not know how customers actually use their software because they do not monitor user behaviour on their website/app. This attitude drives me crazy. While I understand the focus on the sales pipeline for a B2B business, ignoring user behaviour — even with a small customer base — is a missed opportunity.

At the very least, the proportion of contract renewals is always going to be a lagging indicator of customer satisfaction, and unhappy customers will begrudgingly renew a product if they are technologically locked in, or there isn’t a suitable alternative available. In addition, proactively identifying features that are not being used regularly or are generating user errors is an opportunity to more comprehensively solve a customer’s problems and increase the stickiness of the product.

4. Sales cycles

By far the majority of consumer sales are highly automated. Online reviews, comparison shopping, and recommendation engines mean that few (if any!) consumer purchases require the assistance of another person. Adding items to a cart — even expensive purchases like a car — is fairly straightforward. It is a B2C product manager’s responsibility to ensure that thousands of customers can register, find and select an item, pay, and then have it delivered, as quickly and as easily as possible. It is unlikely that a B2C product manager will be involved in the details of any one sales transaction.

On the other hand, B2B sales — particularly at the enterprise level — are more complicated. The sales process typically involves multiple people on both the seller and buyer side, and frequently takes some weeks to agree a deal across the range of stakeholders. The complexity of this process tends to increase exponentially with the size of the organisation.

There is, however, an interesting trend in the B2B space: as people become accustomed to the self-serve purchase experience in their lives as consumers, they increasingly expect a similar experience in a business context. Many SMEs now expect to be able to purchase products directly and deploy these themselves. This is a win-win for both sides: lower sales costs and quicker implementation.

This trend is starting to appear in the enterprise space too: SaaS-based applications, along with the emergence of microservices and containerisation (e.g. Docker, Kubernetes), have significantly simplified and accelerated the integration and rollout of new software. As this trend grows, there will be less of a distinction between the roles of B2B and B2C product managers.

5. Release cycles

Consumers have come to expect regular updates of their favourite websites and smart phone apps. B2C product managers in an Agile environment will generally schedule code roll-outs every two to three weeks, even if these are just bug fixes or minor updates.

While “Move fast and break things” (Mark Zuckerberg) may be a great mantra for B2C products, most enterprises are significantly more risk averse. In particular, they value a product that is stable and robust, and they do not appreciate frequent changes to their business operations, particularly when this requires additional training and communication updates. The implication is that B2B products have substantially longer release cycles than B2C products.

Consequently, B2B product managers need to find a balance between releasing too frequently (and frustrating customers), and having extended release cycles (which reduces innovation, creates opportunities for competitors, annoys developers, and eventually frustrates customers too). B2B product releases and updates work best when they are done with regular cadence (e.g. once a month), where the business has sufficient time to review the release in advance, and where the release is supported by an appropriate communication strategy and documentation.

6. Revenue Models

B2B revenue models include B2B commerce (e.g. Cisco), subscription fees (e.g. Salesforce), transaction fees (e.g. PayPal), marketplace fees (e.g. eBay), and advertising (e.g. Facebook) (among others).

B2C companies also use these revenue models; however, a business model unique to B2C involves giving away the core product for free while generating revenue from ads, in-app purchases/upgrades, premium services, and/or monetising the data collected about users.

This means B2B and B2C product managers may need to think differently about product design. For example, the goal of an enterprise workflow tool could be to improve efficiency, and the software provider would be evaluated (and paid) based on achieving that goal. On the other hand, a core success metric for a B2C product could be the number of ads seen and clicked on.

7. User Experience

There is perhaps the one exception to the above examples: it is a common myth is that value trumps user experience in a B2B environment.

User experience is absolutely critical for a B2C product. Even small changes to UX can result in a significant improvement in engagement, while other UX changes regularly infuriate users (Instagram, Spotify, Snapchat, Google, Facebook). In the B2B space, however, improving productivity or cutting costs tend to trump considerations about user experience.

I vividly recall a due diligence discussion with the CEO of a company in the B2B data analytics space. He explained that because their product was B2B, they “didn’t have to worry” about the user interface, suggesting that users wouldn’t understand how to modify the algorithm appropriately anyway.

This was a missed opportunity: First, while it is true that the intricacies of a machine-learning optimisation algorithm would intimidate most users, developing an interface which helps retailers visualise the impact on their core metrics (e.g. CAC, LTV) would demonstrate the algorithm’s value and ultimately increase subscription renewals. Second, allowing retailers to make tweaks to the algorithm themselves would help them feel empowered, improve their satisfaction, and reduce customer support costs.

It is ironic that user experience is still considered a low priority for enterprise software. Multiple studies over the past 20+ years have shown how sensible UX in enterprise software leads to increased user productivity, decreased user errors, decreased training costs, and decreased user support.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that buyers of enterprise software will ever care about a pretty interface if the product doesn’t fundamentally solve their problem(s). However, when one considers the challenges of working with large data sets, complex workflows, and interfaces based on user roles/permissions, the benefits of a good UX should be obvious. Slack is an excellent example where a great user experience (particularly around transparency and centralisation) drove favourable word-of-mouth reviews among SMEs, growing the business to over 10M DAUs, over 85,000 organisations, and a $7B+ valuation.

It is clear that both B2B and B2C Product Managers need to prioritise a great user experience with any of the products which they build.

Conclusion

While the role of a product manager is largely the same across both B2B and B2C businesses, there are some areas where different approaches are required, particularly at the enterprise level, namely: stakeholder management, buyer power, customer insights, sales cycles, and release cycles. It is highly likely that these differences will remain for some time to come, despite changes in industry expectations and technology trends.