B2B marketers often think of customers as rational decision makers seeking to maximize value, reduce costs, and save time. But a study of 2,128 office workers across the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy found that B2B customers prefer interactions that complement their psychological needs. – even if they require more time or cost more money. Viewing customer service through the prism of three primary psychological needs – autonomy, relatedness, and mastery – opens up many opportunities for enhancing service.
Researchers have long understood that all people, regardless of gender, age, and culture, are motivated by three psychological needs: an ingrained desire for choice (autonomy), connection with others (relatedness), and experience that grows their skills (mastery).
While the universality of psychological needs is well established, they are largely ignored as a tool for growing consumer loyalty and reducing churn. Recently, my team at fire80in collaboration with the customer communication platform, Beforesurveyed 2,128 office workers across the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy whose role included working for B2B companies.
Our findings It has been shown that B2B customers prefer interactions that maximize their psychological needs – even if they require more time or cost more money.
We began our study by identifying respondents who had the authority and budget to select workplace vendors. 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 wanted from a service provider:
a) that there is a problem that can be solved with a solution, or
b) offered several solutions and asked to choose.
Although the first option (having a problem solved with a solution) takes less time and ensures that the issue is solved, 58% of respondents prefer the opportunity to make a choice. In other words, the experience of choice is viewed as desirable even if it does not provide additional utility and comes at the cost of additional time.
Customers prefer human connections over speed.
Customers are not only willing to sacrifice time to experience the selection – they also prefer trading time for human connection. We asked respondents what they wanted:
a) “talk” to a chatbot and solve their problem in a total time of 5 minutes, or
b) talked to someone and solved their problem in a total time of 10 minutes.
Although waiting for someone took twice as long and provided no additional utility (in both options, participants were sure that their problem would be solved), waiting twice as long was preferred by dul -an of three-quarters of the participants (74%).
The desire for human connections shows up in our study in many other ways. For example, we asked respondents to rate the effective and ineffective service providers they dealt with at work on various characteristics, including whether the vendor knew them personally. Among vendors who provided “poor” service, only 33% of respondents reported that the vendor knew them personally. In contrast, among vendors who provide “good” service, respondents indicated that 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 quick fixes.
Next, we asked customers if they would prefer a service provider that:
a) solve a problem for them, or
b) teaches them how to solve the problem independently, without having to contact the service provider.
Sixty-one percent of customers prefer to be taught how to solve a problem independently.
The desire to learn is particularly expressed by young respondents, the group that invests the most in building their skills. Among Gen Z respondents, more than three-quarters (76%) chose a service provider that teaches how to solve problems independently. In contrast, among Baby Boomers, a slight majority (51%) prefer to be taught solutions rather than simply solve the problem.
Use These Insights
Viewing customer service through the prism of psychological needs opens up many opportunities for enhancing service by empowering customers to experience autonomy, connectedness, and mastery.
1. To fuel autonomy, don’t fixate – collaborate.
While customers appreciate a vendor’s expertise, that doesn’t mean they want to be told what to do. Customers prefer to be offered several solutions to a problem and asked to choose, rather than having one problem solved by one solution (58% vs. 42%). The takeaway: Even if you have an effective solution in mind, give your clients options to remind them that they are in control.
2. For fuel relatedness, connect wisely.
Our data shows that customers value salespeople who help them do their jobs more effectively. When we presented respondents with a number of relationship-focused actions a vendor might take and asked whether they would improve or detract from impressions of the vendor’s service, the actions with the highest ratings includes 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 know that customers don’t think much of marketers who embed GIFs in emails or send them a friend request on Facebook.
The takeaway: Don’t force the relationship. Focus on ways to make your clients better at their job, paving the way for the development of a real relationship.
3. Work hard to empathize.
Our study also included some interesting findings about empathy. Expressing empathy, a common way to increase connection with our friends and family, can backfire when customers perceive it as disingenuous. Often, service providers script empathetic customer interactions, believing that this is what customers want to hear. That’s wrong. Our research shows that customers prefer a service provider who responds with knowledge than one who “feels their pain.”
4. To encourage expertise, develop the expertise of your clients.
As humans, we all have an innate desire to learn new things and improve our abilities. That’s especially true for younger B2B customers, who value skill development in their work roles. Instead of just solving the client’s problem, look to share insights that inspire their mastery experience.
We always think of customers as rational decision makers looking to maximize value, reduce costs, and save time. The results of this study highlight the limitations of this view. When it comes to choosing service providers, the desire to satisfy psychological needs can be as important as the desire to save time and money.