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CEOs- Are Your Buyer Personas Just a Figment of Your Imagination?

Posted by Carole Mahoney on 8/26/12 9:30 PM

As you develop your ideal customer profile, how do you know if it is realistic?

I have to admit, the most nerve wracking part of what I do is this question that is always on the forefront of my mind. It must be how professional matchmakers feel when they set people up.

"What if I was wrong about them? This could be a disaster for them both. It is a huge responsibility!"

"How do we know that these customer personas are based in reality?" I was recently asked this by a client, and I was glad they brought it up. Had they not, I would wonder if they really understood what we were doing together (and I would feel compelled to tell them).

Then I spoke with a prospect who has been developing content for their start-up for over a year and are out of ideas or perspective and numbers are flat. Their conversion rates are lower than they expected or wanted. When I asked them about their personas their response was; "Well we have a cardboard cut out in the office now." A few questions later the prospect said, "We need a more scientific, learning enabled way, to develop our personas." This is how you really understand how to approach your buyers based on how they will find you.

For many the idea of buyer personas is something they do once and forget. That is no better than a strategy that sits on a shelf.

The answer to "Is my customer profiles an accurate depiction of how their buying process will effect my sales process?" is a common answer from consultants.

"That depends." (On how they were created.)

What is the Best Way to Create Buyer Personas for Your Company?

Ideally, a company with customers, or access to those customers, would just ask. This can be done focus group style (if you believe those are objective), or interview sessions.

You could just ask your current sales people, but most of us know that buyers lie to sales people. (It's ok, we all do it right?)

Some assert that prospects and customers don't lie to marketers, and marketing just needs to learn to ask the right questions. (which is a sales function, so why not just teach sales and marketing to ask the right questions so that you can align them together? too efficient?)

You might be able to pull it off yourself if are a marketer with a journalism background.

What if you don't have customers yet to interview for your buyer persona development because you are trying to get into a new market? What if you are in an industry of constant disruption (who isn't anymore?) that has your buyers just as confused as you are? What if you are innovating to solve a problem in a completely new way for buyers? What if you know that your prospects are lying to your sales people because they do not know how to sell consultatively and see what is really happening? What if you know that your current marketing is out of touch with the customer you want to attract for a new product or service that has yet to be launched?

Your customer likely has many modes, or behavior patterns. The customer persona modes you need to identify is the one that they are in when they are faced with the buying decision for their perceived problem in context of the given the industry environment, the risk to them, the emotionally motivating personal benefit, how easy is it for them to buy, and what they believe they are buying. When you can identify their emotional approach, you can learn how your sales and marketing need to approach them and discover why they want to buy.

Is there a Scientific Process to Developing Customer Persona Behavior MODES?

I meant to capitalize modes because it is a mission-critical distinction, especially if you are a 21st century startup. Ultimately, you want to understand how and why your customer buys to create the marketing content that gets found by and attracts your ideal prospects.  But you also need a sales process that sells consultatively.

The Lean Start-Up is a great book to help you understand why and how to test your buyer personas (it refers to persona modes as customer archetypes). You could waste a lot of resources (time, money, people, choosing the wrong tech, designing a bad website, creating the wrong content) because you build it all without ever questioning how well you really know how your customer buys and how you will find out.

Even if you are able to objectively and effectively interview your buyers, you should treat everything as an assumption until you are able to test and prove it's merit. This is how you continuously learn more about your buyer's mindset.

Can You Apply the Lean Start-Up Methodology to Buyer Persona Development?

A core premise behind the lean management and lean business process is do you know enough to test? By applying a validated learning process you shorten the buyer persona development cycle. As you gain valuable customer feedback from your consultatively trained sales and marketing teams (or if a garage style start-up just you!) you deepen your understanding of the buyer mindset through scientific experimentation and iterative persona mode updates.

Assumption(s)- What initiatives are they trying to satisfy? What happened to cause their awareness? Where and how did they look for a solution? 

Hypothesis- What did they try? Why didn't it work for them?

Test- Is what they believe they are getting by buying what they are actually getting?

Result- Did they buy? Did they refer others to buy? Are they delighted with the experience?

Learned Answer- Yes, no, and why? Knowing how to consultatively ask the questions is key at the beginning and at the end of this process. Throughout the real time process of developing your customer personas, the key is being able to ask the best questions.

Topics: customer personas, customer profiles, buyer personas