OKRs & B2B Companies

Posted on June 12, 2023.
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When teaching and coaching OKRs with teams I have to come up with examples that illustrate the concepts in an understandable way. This usually results in OKR examples in B2C environments. Immediately, I get these responses:

Well, that’s great for B2C but I work in a B2B environment. Our customers are big corporations. 

We don’t have access to the end users of our products since we don’t sell directly to them. 

The only “behavior change” we care about is sales and revenue. 

These are valid reactions. They are not, however, valid detractors for the use of Objectives and Key Results. 

Your customers aren’t “corporations”

In B2B environments your target audience may indeed be companies within specific industry verticals. However it is the humans inside those organizations that are buying, implementing and using the products and services you sell. It may be true that Big Corporate Bank buys your identity verification software service. However, it’s the CTO and CIO who are ultimately your buyers and the software developers, product managers and designers within Big Corporate Bank that are the users of the software. They’re the ones who have to integrate it and present it to their customers in a useful, usable and meaningful way. 

Leaving the persona conversation at Big Corporate Bank ignores the humans running that company along with their needs, goals and motivations. Understanding those specific user personas – regardless of how much more difficult that might be than the end user persona – ensures your teams are building services that provide value along the entire B2B2C value chain. 

Sales is a lagging indicator

Your bosses may push you to drive revenue from your B2B clients but sales is a lagging indicator. What can you observe that is a leading indicator of sales in your B2B clients? If you’re delivering a SaaS product to them you can look at things like how quickly your client can implement the software, usage of the service as a measure of end customer interactions, broader implementation of the service across your client’s various verticals as well as number of support inquiries or time spent onboarding new clients. 

These are all measures of behavior of your customers, not their end users. In fact, you shouldn’t connect your OKRs to the behavior of your customers’ end users. There are far too many variables that are outside of your control to hang your team’s success on those metrics. You are not in control of where your service is implemented, how it’s implemented, how it’s priced or supported. All of these choices that your customers make impact the efficacy of their deployment of your product. The best you can do is get them up and running quickly, supported continuously and advised of best practices. 

Here’s a different example to illustrate this last point. Let’s imagine you make a Learning Management System. Your customers are school system administrators and heads of IT for schools. Your goal is to help them get the system up and running and integrated into their various other tools. How they do that is ultimately up to them. How they make their teachers, parents and students aware of the system is also up to them. And, as much as we’d like to believe that our LMS helps make learning more effective, we have no control over the content populated within it nor the teachers teaching it. Students’ grades are also out of our control. The best we can hope to measure (other than renewed subscription which is also a lagging indicator) are our customers’ behaviors like the ones mentioned above. 

OKRs work in B2B environments

There’s no reason OKRs shouldn’t work well in B2B environments. We have goals we want to achieve and humans whose behavior we want to change. We might have to work a bit harder to think about who exactly those humans might be while at the same time deliberately not tying our success to the “easier” personas to identify, the end users. Our teams should commit to goals they have direct influence over. In B2B environments we rarely have direct influence over the end users. Focus on your buyers and implementers instead. 

P.S. – This is not to say that we should completely ignore the end users. The better we know our customers’ customers the better we can tailor our offerings to those needs. It also empowers us to speak more credibly to the value our service provides.