Who Should We Interview When Developing Buyer Personas? (Find Out Who Matters)

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Tony Zambito

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When it comes to buyer persona development, recruiting and interviewing the right people matters.  I get this question frequently.  It may sound like an easy question to solve.  It is not and has a way of raising more questions.

Avoid the Easy Route

Typically, I have heard the response of getting started by going to sales and sourcing for recent deals won or loss to recruit buyers.  This is usually the wrong place to start.  Putting a box around a win/loss approach and calling it qualitative buyer research is loaded with peril.  While recent wins and losses can be a source for insight, they are less than optimal for deep profound buyer insight.

Problem Statement

Recruiting interviewees is highly dependent on the problem statement attempting to be solved.  This is usually glossed over.  Let me buff it up and help you understand.  There are usually issues driving the need for deep buyer insights.  They can be related to poor revenue performance, big misses in new product projections, less than stellar customer experience ratings in an industry, and a host of other problems.  The problem statement will be an important factor in answering this question.

Important Groups

Depending on the problem statement, selecting the right buying groups and segments open to qualitative buyer research becomes important.  Groups you should consider when seeking deep profound buyer insights for developing buyer personas:

Early Adopters: This group can be very insightful.  They are curious, push the envelope, and might make you feel uncomfortable.  Early adopters are your best critics and do not mind getting into why.  What I have seen in my buyer interviews with early adopters is a futurist mindset.  You want this.

Defectors: This group usually leaves a giant question mark on a piece of paper.  The departure is abrupt.  Now you see them, now you don’t.  And, they are quiet about it.  Either they have defected as a customer abruptly or dropped abruptly out of a pipeline – never to be heard from again.   Not returning phone calls or email messages.  This is a very difficult group to recruit and learn from on why they defected so abruptly.  A case where third party qualitative research expertise can be very valuable.  Mainly because they are not talking to you.

Non-Retention: This group fades away.  This is a critical buying group in subscription-based businesses where getting a handle on retention means survival.  Another difficult group to recruit and may need third party expertise.  They have forgotten about you and/or there is a hidden reason why they have faded away.  In one case of helping a B2B company, the most important profound deep insights came from ex-customers who had not done business with the company in two years or more.

Support: Walk over to customer support.  They will tell you who calls frequently.  And, regal you with stories.  This can be a very good source of buyers to gain deep insights.  They are engaged and trying to solve something.  If they are complaining loudly, there is usually a good reason for it.

User Groups: In some businesses, user groups can be very strong communities.  Depending on the problem statement, they can be a rich source of deep profound buyer insights.  They can influence purchase decisions more than you think.

Target Accounts: B2B organizations usually have a target list of companies they would love to have as their customers.  A top 20, top 100, or a global 1,000 list exists.  This is treading carefully territory.  Some are active in a pipeline and some are entrenched with a competitor, which has a stranglehold on them.  Highly recommend use of third party qualitative research expertise.  I have seen many an internal effort blow up and a very angry sales department marching down the aisle.

Prospects: Beyond the target account list and depending on the problem statement, prospects can provide robust deep buyer insights.  As with target accounts, is a territory to tread carefully.  It may require different A/B type testing on approach.  I have found this to be fertile ground for deep and profound buyer insights when the marketing or sales agenda is absent.   And, interviews are conducted within the framework of third party qualitative buyer research expertise.  In my experience, this is one of the buying groups which can provide profound insights into perceptions and attitudes towards your organization.

Loyalists: Sometimes, and sometimes is an important word here, your most loyal customers can be revealing.  We can easily take for granted loyal customers and forget why they are so loyal.  It takes very skillful contextual-based interviewing to get beyond glowing praise and into the heart of why with this group.

Recent Wins/Losses:  As stated above, this group is less than optimal.  However, they can yield insight if skilled third party qualitative expertise is used.  This group can be problematic due to these following factors – especially when a company representative is present, which skews authenticity:

Wins: the power to justify and support their purchase decision is overwhelming.  This mindset is a filter by which buyers will communicate.  Making it less than optimal to get authentic insights.

Losses: once again, a powerful mindset interference.  There is a need to justify their choice.  In addition, there is the need to be careful not burning bridges.  And, in general, people like to be nice.  Usually, they will tell you your organization was a close second and everyone did a good job.  I need more than two hands to count how many times I interviewed “losses”,  which indicated to the organization they were a close second; only to find in one-to-one on-site interviews they were ranked 3rd, 4th, or 5th in choice.

The Who Matters

When it comes to answering the question of who should be interviewed, the “who” matters very much.  It is not an easy jaunt down the hall and asking for a recent win/loss report.  For Chief Marketing Officers and Chief Sales Officers, this is an important question.  They themselves must have a handle on the exact problem statement, which affects the selection of interviewees.  It will make a difference in how well they will be informed, with deep buyer insights, on future strategies.

(My answers to the related question and article, How Many Buyer Personas Do I Need?, can be very helpful.  This is often a tough question to figure out.  I am available for further help and conversation on how to identify the right buying groups to interview.  Please share widely – there is someone right now trying to identify the right group of buyers.)

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