What are buyer personas?
Buyer personas are profiles of the types of individuals a company typically deals with during an average sales process. Your buyers all have a few things in common and when you ask them specific type of questions, designed to elicit information about how they made their purchasing decisions, themes will emerge from their responses that can serve as important insights.
There are typically a small variety of personas that result from a buyer persona development effort, usually centering around three almost universal roles: the technical buyer, the financial buyer and the key decision maker.
The technical buyer is the person tasked with researching solutions, typically a more junior member of the team. Despite not often being a key stakeholder in the process, the technical buyer is often the most important to sales efforts because they serve as the gatekeeper and can either facilitate or limit access to the key decision-makers.
The financial buyer is typically a CFO or another high-ranking leadership position on the finance team. Their motivation is to mitigate risk, increase revenues and cut costs. Not much else matters to these folks and they typically aren’t growth-minded so the messaging used to reach them is often quite different than other personas.
The key decision-maker is, though having the right to make the choice on their own, typically relies on the input of their influencers and other stakeholders in the decision. This role functions more as “judge and jury” than as a champion. When the conversation reaches this level, the other personas and the teams behind them have already made their choice and the key decision-maker gets involved to vet the vendor (in this case you) and put contract terms through the paces.
Usually these three personas are sufficient to represent any B2B buyer’s organizational structure well enough to engage them in a sales process. In situations where these 3 personas feel incomplete or limiting, consider creating a set of these 3 buyer personas for each of your lines of business. You may actually be selling to different customers that won’t all fit within one buyer persona profile.
So what does a buyer persona look like?
Buyer persona example:
In the image above, only the summary page of the buyer persona profile is visible. As you can see from the other tabs at the top of this image, the profile includes data on 5 categories of buying insights as well.
The goal of this summary page is to provide an at-a-glance reference guide on this persona (one of the three we discussed), their role and reporting structure in their company, their responsibilities, priorities and influences.
Real feedback from buyers and lost prospect are included on the subsequent pages that dig deeper into motivations and the criteria they used to make their decision. Themes that arise from their comments is synthesized into statements that accurately represent their state of mind and we call these statements buying insights.
These insights are the real value in undertaking a buyer persona development project. The at-a-glance data is great for describing your buyers at a high-level, role-playing scenarios with your sales team or assessing the tone and message of marketing materials; but the buying insights are critically important when planning your overarching marketing and PR strategy.
How do you build buyer personas?
Buying insights are mined from conversations with real buyers (as well as prospects who went with a different solution), which often uncovers fascinating and very useful bits of information that can help you close business more effectively.
But there’s a right way to approach buyer persona research so that you don’t muddle the data with assumptions or subconsciously direct the course of interviews and skew the results.
- Select a small group of your top sales people and executives that you feel understand your typical sales process well and spend the most time interacting with customers.
- Select approximately 15 new customers and 15 lost prospects (as recent as possible) to interview for buying insights.
- Determine what person in your organization (or if you’ll be contracting this work out) will be conducting the interviews. You want this person to be as neutral and dispassionate as possible. The less they’ve been previously involved the better…
- Interview the internal team members first, for general context and perspective on your company’s buyers. Ask questions that the team members will be able to answer legitimately based solely on their one-sided perspective.
For example, “How does the typical sale progress from introduction to either closed won or closed lost?”, or, “What are some of the questions prospects typically ask you during the sales process?”.
Or my personal favorite, “How do you know when a buyer is ready for you to ask for the sale?”.
- Next interview the recent buyers and lost prospects with probing questions about how and why they came to their decision (again...remember to be neutral and dispassionate).
Never limit yourself to a particular line of questioning. Rather let the interview develop and flow from question to question opportunistically. First try to get them to open up with open-ended questions and then once you’ve discovered something potentially interesting, play “the why game” until you’ve mined all the relevant insights from the topic.
Open, for example with some broad questions, “Appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today, we learn a great deal from conversations like these that helps us grow and improve as a business.”
“How did your organization become aware that it needed a solution like ours?”
“Once the need was established, how did you come to be involved in the search for a solution and what were you tasked with related to that process?”
“Who else was involved in the search and how did you work together as a team?”
“What sources did you use to find potential solutions?”
“How many solutions did you review and how did you narrow them down as a team?”
At which point you’ll start getting to the meat of the conversation. Then go deep with your questions, honing in on the precise details behind why your product was or was not chosen.
“What factors most influenced your decision as a team -and which was the most important at the end of the day?”
“How close was the decision and what were the best features of the second favorite?”
“How long did it take your team to reach a decision, from project start to finish?”
“Was there general consensus or did one person influence the decision more than others?”
“Which team member or members did the research and who had the final say on the decision?”
You can see how quickly these insights become specific, strategic and actionable. It’s these nuggets of gold we’re mining for in these interviews and they’re the real value behind developing buyer personas.
IMPORTANT: You absolutely have to record these interviews. Taking notes while interviewing is rookie mistake. Don’t do it. Record the interviews and then have them transcribed.
- Next you’ll need to aggregate the data, which is ALL of the answers to every question from every interview, into a spreadsheet grouped onto different tabs by category.
Group all the answers within these five categories (which are referred to as the 5 Rings Of Buying Insights):
1. Priority Initiative: why your buyers prioritized finding a solution instead staying with the status quo.
2. Success Factors: what do your buyers expect to change after implementing a solution?
3. Perceived Barriers: why don’t some prospects consider your solution to be the best fit?
4. Buyer’s Journey: which roles in the buyer’s organization are involved and how do they interact throughout the buying process?
5. Decision Criteria: what factors influenced their evaluation process, in what priority of important and why?
- Finally, comb through this document looking for themes within the answers, shared experiences and similar priorities. Synthesize these themes into formal insight statements by blending and paraphrasing similar answers together from within each category.
The result is a set of highly specific buying insights based on corroborative interview data that, once put together in a formal buyer persona report, represent the body of work from your buyer persona research project.
Click here to download a sample buyer persona report, complete with (anonymized) data from a real buyer persona project the agency I work for executed for a client in the B2B tech space.
But I know my customers already...why can’t I just describe them?
Most of the work in building a buyer persona profile is spent connecting with buyers and lost prospects in search of those rare and elusive moments of sudden clarity provided by speaking directly with the people who’ve experienced your sales process from the other side.
There is no substitute for direct feedback from customers and lost prospects. Full stop. Believing anything else is simply listening to the wrong voice in your head.
Your salespeople and business leaders are very likely smart, capable and well-informed about an audience they’re already doing business with now. No argument.
However, your salespeople and business leaders are not your customers. They do not live the buying experience firsthand -and this inevitably introduces blind spots into their perspective.
Moreover, good salespeople make a habit out of abandoning the sales that don’t turn into deals quickly. That’s a good practice for closing deals opportunistically, but if you don’t stop to ask why those other conversations with prospects didn’t work out you’ll never be able to grow your market share.
If everyone is being honest with themselves, the desire not to prioritize interviewing your recent wins and losses comes from a place of fear. Salespeople will never be excited about reviewing their lost sales with the marketing team because it makes them feel vulnerable. And you can certainly be empathetic...I am.
I feel that pain. But you have to push through it to learn from past mistakes which are (most likely) not the fault of any one person in your organization anyway.
When do we get to the good part? The results...
Let’s say you’ve done your research correctly by interviewing internal teams, buyers and lost prospects dispassionately, documented all the responses into the five categories of buying insights discussed above and then synthesized high-level statements from each category.
After presenting your buyer personas report to your leadership they will inevitably ask you this question. After allowing you to poke and prod their customers, ruffle the feathers of their salespeople and then present what will undoubtedly be surprising and uncomfortable buying insights -what do they get out of all of this?
From the rich details you now know about the influencers, gatekeepers and key stakeholders in your prospects’ organizations you can craft a robust buyer’s journey filled with relevant answers to their burning questions that deeply resonates with your buying audience.
The buyer’s journey becomes a blueprint for acquiring, nurturing and converting new prospects which, thanks to your buyer persona research, you can identify and influence effectively.
To put your new personas to use, read my article on “How to plan content for your B2B buyer’s journey”.
Personas will need to evolve over time as the dynamics in your marketplace change, your offerings are updated and your business priorities shift. The process is the same, but you needn’t conduct as many interviews unless your organization has undergone radical changes.
Buyer persona research is, by majority, a one-time investment that, with a little maintenance, will continue to serve your organization for years to come.
Dedicate time up-front to developing buyer personas and then leverage them when planning all your marketing activities and you’ll spend less time optimizing your content and more time converting new customers.