B2B sellers often think of customers as rational decision-makers who seek to maximize value, reduce costs, and save time. But a study of 2,128 office workers across the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy found that B2B customers prefer interactions that fuel their psychological needs — even if they require more time or cost more money. Viewing customer service through the prism of the three core psychological needs — autonomy, relatedness, and mastery — opens up a wealth of opportunities for elevating service.
Researchers have long understood that all humans, regardless of gender, age, and culture, are fueled by three psychological needs: an ingrained desire for choice (autonomy), connection with others (relatedness), and experiences that grow their skills (mastery).
While the universality of psychological needs is well established, they have largely been ignored as a tool for growing consumer loyalty and reducing churn. Recently, my team at ignite80, in collaboration with the customer communication platform, Front, surveyed 2,128 office workers across the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy whose role involved working with B2B companies.
Our findings indicate that B2B customers prefer interactions that fuel their psychological needs — even if they require more time or cost more money.
We began our study by identifying respondents with the authority and budget to select vendors at work. We then presented this group of respondents with a series of questions about their preferred experiences. We found that:
Customers prefer choice over problem-solving.
We asked respondents which of the following they would prefer from a service provider:
a) having a problem solved with a single solution, or
b) being offered a few solutions and asked to choose.
Although the first option (having a problem solved with a single solution) takes less time and ensures the issue is resolved, 58% of respondents preferred the opportunity to make a selection. In other words, the experience of choice was viewed as desirable even when it did not provide additional utility and came at the expense of extra time.
Customers prefer human connections over speed.
Customers aren’t just willing to sacrifice time to experience choice — they also prefer trading time for human connection. We asked respondents which they prefer:
a) “speaking” with a chatbot and having their problem solved in a total time of 5 minutes, or
b) speaking with a human and having their problem solved in a total time of 10 minutes.
Although waiting for a human required twice the time and provided no additional utility (in both options, participants were assured their problem would be solved), waiting twice as long was preferred by nearly three-quarters of participants (74%).
The desire for human connections showed up in our study in a number of other ways. For example, we asked respondents to rate effective and ineffective service providers they deal with at work on a variety of attributes, including whether the vendor knows them personally. Among vendors who provide “poor” service, only 33% of respondents reported that the vendor knows them personally. In contrast, among vendors who provide “good” service, respondents indicated the vendor knows them personally more than twice as often (70%). The experience of close connection and impressions of good service, therefore, go hand in hand.
Customers prefer growth over a quick fix.
Next, we asked customers if they prefer a service provider who:
a) solves a problem for them, or
b) teaches them how to solve the problem independently, without needing to contact the service provider.
Sixty-one percent of customers preferred being taught how to solve a problem independently.
The desire for learning was especially pronounced among younger respondents, the group most invested in building their skills. Among Gen Z respondents, more than three-quarters (76%) preferred a service provider who taught how to solve problems independently. In contrast, among Baby Boomers, only a slight majority (51%) preferred being taught solutions over simply having the problem solved.
Putting These Insights to Use
Viewing customer service through the prism of psychological needs opens up a wealth of opportunities for elevating service by empowering customers to experience autonomy, relatedness, and mastery.
1. To fuel autonomy, don’t fix — collaborate.
While customers value vendor expertise, that doesn’t mean they want to be told what to do. Customers prefer being offered a few solutions to a problem and being asked to choose, over having a problem solved with a single solution (58% vs. 42%). The takeaway: Even when you have an effective solution in mind, provide your clients with options so they’re reminded that they’re in control.
2. To fuel relatedness, connect intelligently.
Our data show that customers value vendors who help them do their job more effectively. When we presented respondents with a number of relationship-focused actions a vendor might take and asked whether they would improve or damage impressions of the vendor’s service, the highest-rated actions included 1) reaching out to see if the client needs help with any projects, 2) checking in to see how the client is doing, and 3) sending a monthly newsletter with useful information. But we also found that customers think less of vendors who embed GIFs in emails or send them a friend request on Facebook.
The takeaway: Don’t force the relationship. Focus on ways of making your clients better at their job, paving the way for the development of an authentic relationship.
3. Empathize sparingly.
Our study also included some interesting findings around empathy. Expressing empathy, a common way of increasing connection with our friends and family, can backfire if customers perceive it to be disingenuous. Too often, service providers script empathy into customer interaction, assuming it’s what customers want to hear. That’s a mistake. Our research indicates that customers far prefer a service provider who responds knowledgeably over one who “feels their pain.”
4. To fuel mastery, grow your clients’ skills.
As humans, we all have an inherent desire to learn new things and stretch our abilities. That’s especially true for younger B2B customers, who value developing mastery in their roles at work. Instead of simply solving a client’s problem, look to share insights that fuel their experience of mastery.
We often think of customers as rational decision-makers who seek to maximize value, reduce costs, and save time. The results of this study highlight the limits of this perspective. When it comes to choosing service providers, the desire for satisfying psychological needs can be just as significant as the desire to save time and money.
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