What Your Customers Really Think About You

Are new innovations selling points? What if your customers don’t see the benefit in them?

Do flashy brochures help sell scientific products?

What makes you a trusted resource to your customer? And what makes you just an unwelcome interruption?

Should you be upfront with your pricing?

What is the customer experience really all about?

On all these questions and more, four scientists spilled the beans in a uniquely revealing customer panel chaired by the Life Science Marketing Society. And they didn’t hold back – with either their glowing praise or their damning criticism.

In this episode, we review our findings from this customer panel, entitled “Brands We Like, And Why We Like Them”. We conclude that life science marketing and sales teams need to be paying far more attention to what their customers actually want. And we give you a frank and forthright insight into their world.


Announcer: Welcome to the Life Science Marketing Society Podcast, bringing you best practices, advice, and insight from marketing experts from across the life science industry and beyond. To get more insights from the Life Science Marketing Society please visit www.lifesciencemarketingsociety.org and grab your free membership.

Harrison Wright: Hello and welcome to the Life Science Marketing Society Podcast. I’m Harrison Wright.

Kenneth Vogt: And I’m Kenneth Vogt, and today we’re going to be reviewing a podcast. We did a customer panel that was entitled Brands We Like and Why We Like Them. On this panel we had four different kinds of buyers out there that buy life science equipment and services and products really across the board. And I’m gonna name the four of them just so you can hear the variety of their backgrounds.

We had Dr. Kenneth Mitton who’s associate professor of Biomedical Sciences at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. We had Dr. Patricia Basta, who’s clinical assistant professor of the Department of Epidemiology and director of the Bio-specimen Processing Facility at the University of North Carolina. Then we had Dr. Patrick Reeves who was team lead for the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. And finally we had Adrienne Huntress who is a research associate of Stability Studies at Novozymes.

So we have universities. We have hospitals. We have industry. We have professors, and we have people that are leading teams and people who are at the bench on this single panel. So it made for a really rounded view of what kind of buyers are out there in the world, and each of them had things to say that may surprise you – things you might not have anticipated would be true.

I’m really glad we had Adrienne Huntress on there because she’s the one that’s not Dr. Adrienne Huntress, and she’s “just” a – I put in air quotes – research associate. And yet she was a big part of buying, and the doctors weighing in on that same subject too, that, “Yes, we’re always going to the people at the bench and asking them what they want us to buy.” And in many cases they’re just saying, “Here, let me train you on how to get through the purchase orders in the purchasing department, so you can do this so I don’t have to mess with it.”

And somebody mentioned that often their staff people are spending 15 to $20,000.00 a year themselves just on reagents and consumable products. And that’s just for that stuff. We’re also talking about people that are buying half a million dollar pieces of equipment and the process that they use for that, and it’s very collaborative. Their team is deeply engaged. In fact, they often go out beyond their own team because these industries are relatively small, and everybody knows everybody else.

And so they’re talking to their colleagues in other universities and other hospitals and other companies. So there’s no real way to hide. You can’t silo these people that you’re talking to to buy. They are very collaborative and very social about how they buy. Just as a thought, as a general concept, to think in terms of how social your buyer is is an interesting idea. Maybe there’s something that stood out to you Harrison, so let me let you get a word in.

Harrison Wright: There are actually so many things, Kenneth. It was such a revealing conversation to listen to. Of course you were there at the time. Listening back to it, so many things that all four of them pointed out that you’d think would be obvious. But it’s clear that a lot of the time we’re not doing the things that are necessary to, especially, win the trust that’s going to get you in the door and ultimately get the sale. The end point of this is with sales, but it starts with marketing.

Kenneth Vogt: Sure.

Harrison Wright: One of the things that really, really, stood out to me was when Dr. Patrick Reeves was talking about when they were looking to buy a new confocal – really expensive equipment, big purchasing decision. They’d been in talks with this unnamed company for about three months. The machine that they had was by far their preference over anything else, but they wanted to try it out. They wanted to see how it worked, and they refused to send them a loaner, and they refused even to fly them out to Munich – for what, $700.00 – to test the equipment out.

And because of that, even though the machine on paper was by far their preferable purchase choice they decided not to take it any further. They actually went elsewhere. And I wonder, having been in that sales position before, sometimes you might think, “Well, this guy just wants a free ride. Are we being taken advantage of here?” And maybe that is the case sometimes, but it clearly wasn’t the case here, and that was a huge missed opportunity. I wonder how often things like that happen.

Kenneth Vogt: I thought about that too. If you’re not gonna bother to spend $700.00 to make a half a million dollar sale, I don’t know what you’re thinking. I just couldn’t understand that. And they must have been gob smacked when these folks walked away from the purchase. This is who we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with scientists. These people are data-driven. They are rationalists, and we have to give them the information they’re seeking.

Marketing has a huge opportunity to get that stuff done up front and to establish, “Hey, we’re really everything we say we are,” if we bother to give them that kind of information that they’re looking for. One of the things that came out of this conversation that really struck me is so many life science companies think that they are so important and that they are so well known and so well respected that they don’t have to market and to sell ’cause, “Well, everybody knows we’re the best.” These folks don’t think that way.

And it’s not like they hate everybody or they distrust everybody, because they did talk about companies that they were impressed with. But they also named by name companies that think that they’re impressive, and they’re not impressed. That’s really something. Just the example of Dr. Reeves talking about a half a million dollar microscope – anybody who’s selling a half a million dollar microscope believes that they have a great reputation. Well, their reputation didn’t carry the day. That’s really telling, so we have to give them what they need.

One of the ways this popped up too that struck me was the people who are buying, they have budgets. They’ve got a grant. They’ve got a specific budget. They know what they can spend. And one of the things they brought up is they want to hear about prices earlier in the conversation, and we often are reticent to do that. We don’t want to give a price right away, because we haven’t established value yet. But for them they’re not buying on price. They’re just trying to fit it into the budget, and if they’re gonna get an unpleasant surprise that the price is out of budget they want to know that earlier.

Because if they have to get more budget they want to have time to do so. It’s to our advantage too. If we are talking to them, and they’re all sold on the product, and then they realize, “Oh, I can’t afford it yet,” now we have to sit and wait while they go figure out how they’re gonna get more budget. And it slows down our sales process. If they could have started that at the beginning of our conversation we could have got our sale closed sooner. So what do you think about that, Harrison?

Harrison Wright: This is the only thing that got brought up in the whole conversation that I wouldn’t say I disagree with –that would be unfair – but that I think there’s two sides to the story here. And the question of price transparency – on the one hand you can say everyone on the panel was in agreement that they want to know the price of things up front, alongside other things. But they wanted to know the price up front, what they’re gonna have to pay.

And usually if you look at some of the other things that were brought up here that you covered or will cover – how service is important, how data is important – they’re things that if it’s in their interest to have that, as long as your product actually does what you say it will, it’s in your interest to provide it to them as well. I’m not sure that’s always going to be the case when it comes to pricing information. Could it be that a conversation happens around a particular instrument? “What does it cost?” “Well, it costs this.” “Oh, we can’t afford that.” Doors slam shut.

Could it be that conversation could have taken place about a different instrument or a different solution to the problem that that company also sells, but that door is closed because they asked for the price first, and the price didn’t meet with what they had in mind? Or they didn’t have time to consider the benefit of what that price would give them. So I’m a bit on the fence with it, actually, but I think it’s a worthy point of discussion, and it depends on the situation.

Kenneth Vogt: Fair, and what’s important about this is to hear the other side of the experience. Because we know that we can get stopped if people hear a price and just have sticker shock, because they don’t know the value yet. But the fact is unless our prices are really out of line they’re gonna have that same sticker shock with anybody. This notion that if I say a dollar amount, they don’t like it, that they’re going to be offended, and they’re going to hang up on me … no, these are professionals. They’re gonna say, “Wow, okay. You’ve got 60 seconds to give me a reason to keep talking to you.”

But it’s not gonna be, “Go away and don’t ever call me again.” So we have to consider the experience from their side. That was the whole point of this customer panel. Are we only thinking about it from our perspective? Can we think about it from theirs? They can have a bias just like we can have a bias, but hearing their biased perspective is still really useful to us. We can understand where they’re coming from and figure out how to deal with it.

And one answer to that might be when somebody says, “How much does it cost?” and we say, “Well, that’s like asking how much does a car cost. I don’t know. Are we talking about a Kia? Or are we talking about a Tesla.” But you know what, if you don’t know you can say, “Well, it’ll cost somewhere between $20,000.00 and $100,000.00, but we need to talk more to figure out where it falls in there.”

And there’s actually some advantages to being able to present things that way because if they can’t handle your low number you want to know that early so that you can get out of the conversation – or so that they can reset their expectations and go find the budget. And by saying the high end number, now it’s been said, and so it’s out there. And so when it comes up later that what they really want is the high end of what you have to offer, well, they’ve already heard a number, and they’re not gonna be shocked when they hear it a second time.

There are advantages here, and it might take a little reset of our own thinking to be afraid to mention the cost of whatever it is we’re selling. The thing I was getting from this is they’re not price buyers – not usually. They’re value buyers because they’re looking at a lot more than the price. And often these are things that either they’re going to use for a very long time or they’re going to keep reusing for a very long time. They wanna have a relationship with you. That’s a dream come true from our standpoint as marketers. There’s nothing we want more than to establish relationships with people. So they’re on board with that, but we’ve gotta work with them.

Harrison Wright: I think you bring up a great point there, Kenneth, about the experience and especially about getting to understand the customer’s point of view and where they’re coming from. And if I think back to all the services I’ve personally bought over the years – whether they’re business services or otherwise – I can think of several cases where this guy has done so much for me. And he’s provided so much value – sometimes even before there’s been any transaction take place. I want to give them money. I want them to succeed. I want to give them a case study. I wanna help them out.

It’s because they’ve got round on the same side of the table as me. And yeah, we’re talking about selling products here, but we also talked about – or the panel talked about – how important it is the service and maintenance and support component and a relationship. It’s not just about the instrument. It’s not just about the reagents. It’s about the entire experience. And the Nirvana here is if you can get on the same side of the table as the customer and be on their team.

Kenneth Vogt: Well, and that points out something too that really applies to marketing. Are we only talking about our products? Are we spending as much time talking about the service and the follow through and the training, ongoing repairs and loaners? Is that part of our marketing message? “Hey, we’re the full package here. You’re not just buying a great instrument. You’re buying a great experience.” And we need to talk about the whole experience they will have in our marketing materials.

Harrison Wright: Exactly, and I wanted to double back to the price point for a moment as well. One of the things that got brought up in the panel was we’re talking about an academic or government buying setting here, which is very different from a lot of other B-to-B purchase processes. They have fixed budgets. They’re really a collection of departments that have got limited funding. They have a certain piece of the pie, and it’s usually not that negotiable.

So I’m wondering if – going back to what we were talking about, about being up front about pricing – it might be that that makes sense as a policy when you’re selling to academia or you’re selling to government. Maybe it’s very different if you’re selling to pharma because their system works in a whole different way, and it’s more up for debate what they’re going to spend and on what kind of project and on what sort of budget.

Kenneth Vogt: Right. I like the way Dr. Reeves put it. He said, “You think you’re selling to a Fortune 500 company, but what you’re actually selling to with us is a loose confederation of small businesses scrapping to stay alive.” That really changes your perspective. You can’t just look at them and go, “They’ve got millions, billions of dollars. This should be easy.” No, they don’t – not the person you’re talking to, not the person who’s gonna be your buyer. They are not thinking in terms of the entire corporate budget. They’re thinking in terms of their budget.

Harrison Wright: Exactly, exactly.

Kenneth Vogt: So one of the things that popped up more than once was the way we use data in our marketing and how much they hate us for it. They hate cherry-picked data. They hate seeing the same individual successful experiment touted in brochure after brochure after brochure. They wanna know about all the data. They wanna know what they can actually replicate. They wanna know they’re gonna get the results that they expect. And if they don’t know what’s fully there they can’t have proper expectations. They realize that we’re dealing with an imperfect world – and more than most.

It’s what they do all day, and so we can’t spin information. This ties into something that’s near and dear to my heart and something that we talk about at the Life Science Marketing Society all the time – that we need to bring best practices into life science marketing and that best practices from other industries are very, very important. But they pushed back on something, and it clarifies what we actually mean by that. They said they see a lot of marketing that looks like B-to-C kind of marketing.

It’s flashy, and it’s pushing impulse buys, and it’s cherry picking information, and it’s putting the best possible spin on things, and they don’t like that. But if we think in terms of the best practices in marketing among B-to-B companies, they don’t play that game. And I say game. That’s almost unfair to it. It’s not appropriate in this setting is what it comes down to. It’s entirely appropriate if you’re selling laundry soap, but it’s not appropriate if you’re selling reagents. So you’ve gotta think in terms of B-to-B, and yes, bring best practices in but bring the right best practices in.

Harrison Wright: That’s spot on there, Ken, and I think this brings up a much wider point here, which is, “How does this end up being the case that you get some flashy marketing materials that look like they’re advertising perfume or something like that in life science?” If we really think about this, what that says to me is that a lot of companies in the market are far too siloed. They don’t have a feedback process.

If you really think about it, what you’d expect to happen would be that sales would be continually feeding back to marketing what people want, what their concerns are, what they’re interested in, why deals did and didn’t happen, and what really motivates their customer base at a personal level. Marketing would be using that information to more tailor the messages. Product development would be using that information to tailor what’s coming out of their own labs.

A lot of this coordination should be the job of product management. In order for that sort of brochure to come out that’s completely out of line with what the customer would want or need, clearly that chain of communication can’t exist, and it needs to.

Kenneth Vogt: Exactly. There’s a place, obviously, for salespeople ’cause they’re talking to the actual buyers out in the world. But marketing is still closer to the customer than R&D and manufacturing are, often. Now obviously, when you get down to the service side the same thing happens. But there’s all this opportunity for information to feed back, and if nobody ever talks to the marketing department, if you never hear from the service personnel, if you never hear from the salespeople, you’re not gonna have the right message. And you could say, “Well, that’s on them. They should be telling us stuff when they find things out.”

And yeah, they should, but are we asking? And are we pushing our upper management to pay attention to the collaboration between departments? “Hey, we need input from these folks. We need you to tell them to talk to us.” And then you’ve gotta establish your relationships there too. Here we are in marketing. It’s our job to help establish relationships with customers. Are we establishing relationships with our own company departments so that we can gather the information we need to put the best case together? And not just the best face but the best case for someone buying our products or our services.

Harrison Wright: Exactly. It brings to mind a fantastic example for me – again going outside of what was discussed in the panel. There’s a fantastic book that’s called The Challenger Customer. It’s a follow up to The Challenger Sale, which you might have heard of, and I highly recommend that book, by the way – certainly The Challenger Customer more so if you’re in the marketing side of things. But one of the case studies from that book was about Dentsply, a dental instruments company. And they came up with these new dental instruments, and they were – in their own words – they were amazing.

They were cordless. They were lightweight. Essentially they were better and higher spec than anything else that was on the market at the time. They thought, “This is amazing. We’ll just go out there and tell people about these fantastic new instruments. Our sales will be off the chart.” So they start sending their reps out. The reps go in there, talk to the dentists about these amazing new instruments. And the usual response they were getting was, “Oh yeah, I agree with you. These are the best instruments on the market, but I don’t need new instruments. Our current ones work fine. I don’t need to replace them.”

And so they went back with their tail between their legs. “Well, fine.” But then they did some more research, and they thought of, “How can we actually solve problems for dentists?” And what they realized was that there’s a huge, huge problem in the dental industry of hygienists or dental assistants constantly being off work because they’ve got repetitive strain injury, or they’ve got carpal tunnel. It was a recurring problem – over and over again. And they actually joined the dots, and they realized that it was being caused by dental instruments that were unergonomic.

They were too heavy, them being attached to a cord all the time and them using them day in and day out for hours every day it was causing these problems. And it was a happy accident that they already developed a product that solved that problem. In an ideal world you’d do it the other way around. You’d identify the problem and then you’d solve it. But when they sent the reps back in, to not have conversations about these shiny new instruments we have but about how we can solve the problem of assistants being absent from work for extended periods of time.

And before that even clarifying and amplifying that problem and showing the true impact that it has on the dental business – how much money it’s costing them in time – suddenly they were selling truckloads of the instruments because they linked them to a problem that the customer had. And I think that’s just a wonderful example of what the product is really for. And we were talking about buying services versus buying products earlier, but at the end of the day, if you really think about it, everything that gets sold is a service in one way or another.

Your sunglasses do you the service of being able to see without squinting when it’s daylight. An instrument gives you the service of being able to get your research done efficiently and reliably. So what problem are you solving? And how are you gonna communicate that?

Kenneth Vogt: Yeah, that’s beautiful. Something popped up, and it was kind of a sideline point that you were making. But their original approach was to sell something that they weren’t looking for. The buyer was saying, “I already have that problem solved. I like what I have now.” That’s a big deal. We really have to make sure that we are promoting something actually valuable to them. It’s not just about new bells and whistles, and this instrument’s prettier than the old one. It’s gotta actually be an innovation from their perspective, and we have to present it that way.

There was another thing that popped up too that somebody said, and this caught my attention too. We look at them as our buyers, ’cause we’re looking for buyers. So they are our buyers. It’s really, really important to us. The fact that they are a buyer is not as important to them because they’re not professional buyers. There are people that have that kind of job, but it is just an incidental part of their job. They’re professional researchers who have to buy things. So we think that, well, anytime we’re coming to them it’s ’cause we have exactly what they need to do their job.

They see it as, “It’s just a necessary part of our job but not the main part of our job.” So we have to realize that we’re coming in there and we are interrupting what they consider to be more important in their lives. So we’ve gotta be respectful of our actual status as far as they are concerned. If we overblow our status … they’re surrounded by egos all the time. There’s a lot of ego in science, and we show up with our egos too. “Man, you are nobody to me. You are not important.”

Whereas if we show up there, and I’m here to serve you, “Well, that’s more like it. That’s what I’m looking for.” We’ve gotta get our heads in the right place. We’ve gotta get our messaging in the right place about that. We can’t walk in there and say, “We are Whiz-bang Science Corporation, and you should know that we’re wonderful.” That’s not gonna work.

Harrison Wright: I’m pretty sure I’ve used this quote before in this podcast, but I’m gonna use it again anyway. Zig Ziglar, “If you just help enough people get what they want you can have everything you want.”

Kenneth Vogt: Yeah, and if only you would pay attention to what they want. It just amazes me how often marketers never even bothered to ask the question, “What do they want?” Just ask it. It’s okay. It’s not gonna hurt you to find out what they want. And these folks definitely told us a bunch of things they want, so I think it was a great presentation.

Harrison Wright: Definitely, definitely. Even if we’re looking at this from the higher level angle in terms of what we’re talking about, what we’re promoting, if we look at it in an online marketing context, how many companies out there are just deciding, “Oh, we’re going to develop this new product for the range ’cause that’s what we want to develop. Or we’re gonna write this kind of content because that’s what we want to write about”?

When you can spend $100.00, run a massive AdWords campaign across thousands of different keywords – spend literally $100.00 – and find out what people actually want by the volume and location and so one of what they’re searching for. There are so many ways you can listen for these signals, whether it’s in person, whether it’s through your sales reps, or even through using things like AdWords for data collection instead of getting clicks.

Kenneth Vogt: Sure. Well, I would say then don’t take our word for it – all this stuff we told you. Go listen to the people who are actually in the labs, actually making the purchases, that are on this panel. I’m sure you’re gonna hear a lot of things that we didn’t lover.

Harrison Wright: Absolutely, and you can get that. You can watch the full presentation by going to the Life Science Marketing Society website. The direct link for this presentation is bit.ly/lsms.cpanel1. So that’s bit.ly/lsms.cpanel1, and that’s the letter C. You’ll have to register if you already registered, but it’s a free membership.

It’s really simple to do – takes about ten seconds if you’re lucky. So you’ll see the whole presentation there. You’ll also be able to access all the other presentations from the extensive library you’ll find. For now we’re gonna sign off. I’m gonna sign off from being in rant mode. I feel I’ve been doing a little much of that on this presentation. So this is Harrison Wright.

Kenneth Vogt: And I’m Kenneth Vogt. This has been a review of the customer panel entitled Brands We Like and Why We Like Them. Thank you for listening to the presentation, and we hope to see you again soon at the Life Science Marketing Society.

Announcer: To get more insights from the Life Science Marketing Society please visit www.lifesciencemarketingsociety.org and grab your free membership.

[End of Audio]

Photo Credit: Dan Moyle

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