Unlocking true customer insight into buying behavior in the digital age has become important to staying one step ahead of your competition. Yet, many organizations today lack people with the attributes, skills, education, and experience which are required to unlock deep and profound customer insights. Many Chief Marketing Officers face this same dilemma with content marketing. Where new non-traditional marketing skills, such as journalism and copywriting, are becoming the new marketing of today. Many Chief Sales Officers also face a need for new skills in operations and processes.
The Rise of Insight
Buyer and customer insight is emerging as a key factor in shaping future direction and strategy. To be effective at gaining insight means answering a question I have often been asked when it comes to buyer persona development. Why use 3rd party qualitative research?
Insight today can help shed light on very perplexing problems and challenges. They are usually strategic in nature as well as high stakes. Using 3rd party expertise can oftentimes help companies gain knowledge about their customers within these challenges. The types of challenges, which lend itself to 3rd party expertise, include:
- Loss in market share
- Significant miss on a new product launch
- New market entry
- No growth trend in customer acquisition
- Customer retention decreasing significantly
- Poor quality in lead generation
- Stagnation in sales pipeline conversions
These are just a few. However, they usually represent a mystery, which needs to be solved in order for a company to project future growth.
Best-in-class organizations I have worked with in the past few years have used third party qualitative buyer research to attain a deeper understanding of their buyers and customers. Solving very perplexing mysteries in the process. For some, it has produced profound shifts in their strategies and future direction. Why they were successful with this choice also tells the story of the valuable reasons why to consider third-party expertise:
When you have become what Tom Peters refers to as “institutionalized” by working at one entity for several years, it is common to develop a set of biases. Biases are a qualitative researcher’s worst nightmare. When not removed, it interjects subjectivity and results could be less than credible. The importance of bias neutrality should not be underestimated. Best-in-class CMO’s and CSO’s recognized their own people would bring these biases to the effort.
Agenda-based buyer persona development efforts can shackle the full potential of gaining profound insights. Too many such efforts are tied to narrow agendas. This is like putting blinders on a racehorse. While the focus is on getting around an agenda track fast, the rest of what is happening in the buyer’s and customer’s world will be missed. In my interviews with senior level executives about the use and value of insights, this is cited as one reason why they are ignored. Agenda neutrality is a path towards deep insights.
Throughout the annals of the social sciences related to psychology, anthropology, and ethnography, many studies have shown human behavior tendency to reveal more to neutral parties. In my previous related answers to the question of Who Should Build Buyer Personas? Marketing or Sales?, I covered the damaging myth proliferating which is buyers will only talk to marketing. The mere presence of vendor personnel, it does not matter what function they represent, can set off buyer biases. Best-in-class organizations, knowing they faced difficult biases and attitudes, chose third party qualitative expertise to get vendor-neutral and unfiltered customer insight.
Conducting qualitative research related to buyers and customers requires understanding of qualitative research techniques. As we are seeing with content marketing in their search for new skills in journalism, publishing, and copywriting, we are finding the same when it comes to customer insight. There is a talent gap. It takes attributes, skills, education, and experience often not found in businesses to not only remove biases but also have the skills to get the deepest revelations. Best-in-class organizations, to ensure neutrality, used 3rd party expertise. When it comes to user personas, I have seen some of the best design and experience firms require a minimum of 6 months apprenticeship, for individuals with degrees in the social sciences, before qualifying to conduct qualitative research.
Third party expertise shines when insight generation and buyer persona development is tied to specific issues and problems. Where the widest scope is needed to solve mysteries related to challenging problems. Best-in-class organizations I have worked with were extremely adept at framing the problem and the mystery, which needed to be solved. Skilled 3rd party researchers can bring new light on why mysteries exist, what the further risks are, and what new opportunities are presented.
When we look at some of the biggest business blunders in history, they can usually be traced back to a lack of validation. New market entry, product ideas, strategy conceptions, and innovations are examples of where third party expertise is highly valued. A third party, skilled in validation research, can bring the objectivity needed to uncover as Peter Drucker well advised us years ago – reasons why not to do something. A case in point – I worked with one President ready to commit $3 million to a new product launch. The qualitative research conducted proved a major behavioral barrier in product adoption existed. This was something not one person in the organization uncovered in two years during development. Needless to say, a costly $3 million error was avoided.
Part of human nature is we learn more when we use all of our senses. Visual senses can be the most revealing. Expert qualitative researchers are skilled in ethnographic field observations, a branch of (business) anthropology. Noticing how cultures work, how processes work, how people interact, how decisions are made, and much more. Field observations and on-site buyer interviews are crucial to getting the deepest profound insight.
There are other good reasons for using 3rd party expertise. Such as a lack of resources and urgency.
The output from third party qualitative buyer research can be an enormous game changer for organizations. My hope is in the future, companies will move to a core buyer and customer insight center. Housing new non-traditional expertise to help keep them informed about buyers and customers. Intel’s corporate research and ethnography center serves as a prime example. For some, an insight center will not be feasible. Thus, the use of third party expertise will always serve as a valuable resource.
(This is another article answering your questions. Answers to the related questions, How Many Buyer Personas Do I Need?, Who Should We Interview When Developing Buyer Personas, Who Should Build Buyer Personas? Marketing or Sales?, and How Does B2B Market Segmentation Differ From B2B Buyer Personas? , can be very helpful. I am available for further help and conversation on how to make optimal use of buyer personas. Please share widely – this will help those trying to solve some very serious mysteries.)
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