Helping companies to understand their buyers has become an industry in and of itself – one that is growing in both size and importance.
In 2016 B2B marketers predict that understanding buyers will be their #1 job responsibility – and for good reason. As buyers change, organizations are working to stay on top of shifting trends and customer preferences. At a deeper level, customer research can reveal what’s going on in the minds of buyers, giving companies critical insights that can guide strategic decisions.
Getting to these insights is like running a marathon – there are few shortcuts, training is important to get it right, and there are plenty of hazards along the way that can trip you up. Keeping with this metaphor, many marketers choose to enlist the help of a personal trainer when it comes to buyer persona or related customer research.
These consultants have led the evangelism of buyer personas for years now – in fact, two of the industry’s best are on our board of advisors as we build technology meant to better enable buyer understanding.
Whether you’re taking on customer research internally, or you’re working with an external consultant or agency partner to guide and augment your efforts, consider these 5 tips:
1. Understand the difference between a well-developed, well-researched persona, and a sketch.
Cintell advisor Ardath Albee noted in a recent conversation that there are harmful misconceptions in the industry about buyer personas. She is often called in to help clients who may have preexisting personas created often from one of many free templates available that only skim the surface of buyer insights.
While the spirit of this free content is celebrated, the results are shallow persona insights that do not serve as a reliable bedrock upon which to make decisions. Personas created from these templates often ultimately need to be redone, re-thought, and re-created to become useful, actionable tools.
Ardath made the difference clear, saying “when you consider the information included in some B2B personas, you ask yourself, why does it matter that they drive a red corvette, are married with two kids, and live in an apartment in the city?”
Cintell advisor Tony Zambito encourages companies to ask whether they’re focused on true qualitative research with customers, or rather trying to hurry-up and “create” a buyer persona as fast as possible. Then, evaluate whether you have the right in-house capabilities to perform unfiltered and unbiased research with customers and prospective buyers.
2. Be wary of segmentation hazards when doing your own research.
Collating opinions and the received wisdom within your firm with the intent of creating personas can come with it’s own distinct hazards. Speaking with Glen Drummond and Richard Hill of buyer experience agency Quarry, we learned of three segmentation hazards that may occur when organizations attempt to do persona research. These are factors that anyone doing personas needs to be mindful of:
- Hazard 1: Zombie segments are mental models of the customer that were created in one set of strategic circumstances, but were not modified when strategy, competitive context or marketplace reality changed. Peter Drucker describes a vivid example of this problem in his HBR article The Theory of the Business. In that article, Drucker describes how adherence to a segmentation model based on demographics blinded GM in the 1970s to strategically relevant marketplace trends in lifestyle and attitudes. Zombie segments – it’s not just that they are strategically brain dead, it’s that they want your brain.
- Hazard 2: Phantom segments are views of the customer that are constructed based on what data is easiest to lay hands on. Glen attributed this label to authors Michael Raynor and Clay Christensen, who wrote:
“When managers define market segments along the lines for which data are available rather than the jobs that customers need to get done, it becomes impossible to predict whether a product idea will connect with an important customer job. Using these data to define market segments causes managers to aim innovation at phantom targets.” 
- Hazard 3: Shadow segments are concealed personas that are hidden in the shadow of an existing segmentation strategy. For example, Quarry client John Deere saw a consistent problem plaguing one area of their market over a number of years. After studying the market, they learned there were people who existed with power to purchase, but were concealed by the existing segmentation model. It was not possible to see through to their motivations, purchase intent, and more that would make them an addressable target, because the prior segmentation perspective was so strong.
3. Customer research is a skill set.
In a recent study by Forbes, SAP and gyro, it was discovered that today’s CMOs have differing backgrounds. While approximately one third (35%) of CMOs have a marketing history, 29% have an operations background. Other work experiences include sales or customer service (19%), technology (9%), and finance (5%). (Read more).
Tony warns that often, in-house marketers and other functional areas can lack the training or skills needed for true qualitative research. He said in a recent conversation, “it is analogous to injuring you hand and shoulder during a pick up game of basketball – you will look for an orthopedic doctor or surgeon and not a dentist. Buyer persona research requires in-depth interview and observation-oriented qualitative research.”
Read more on this topic from Tony, “Why Should We Use Third-Party Qualitative Research for Buyer Persona Development?”
Ardath has seen many marketers unable to step away from what they think they need on a tactical level. For example, they may create a questionnaire that resembles more of an interrogation than a path for a natural conversation. Asking “do you read the Wall Street Journal? Where do you go for information?” may be intended to guide the execution of a campaign, but limiting research to this style fails to reveal what truly matters to the individual. She finds that the most important part of this research is getting a solid understanding of how the persona sees the business problem, how they talk about it, words they use, the impact it has on their careers, on their company, and more.
4. Consider the role third-party help can play.
Depending on the level of engagement, agencies and consultants can play an important role in the research process and the development of the resulting insights.
Glen observers that it is easy to discern differences between customers, but “doing so is slipping the answer for an easier question into a place that should be reserved for the answer to a harder one: What are the differences between customers that make a difference?” He continued, “there’s a risk to accessing the intuitive mind with assumptions rooted in a fading business model. That’s a barrier to customer engagement and innovation. A professional consultant can provide some guidance to an organization about how to not create harm. A persona is a delivery vehicle aimed at the intuitive mind, and custom-built to drive around the rational and analytical filters. It’s best not to fill such a vehicle with stale-dated insights. “
As part of her practice, Ardath explained, “I don’t create personas and hand them to my client and walk away. I work with my clients, showing them how personas actually become actionable so they are driving the strategy – and that’s what a good persona should do.”
Richard added, “When a marketer wants to do buyer ethnography right, it involves meeting customers in their location – not in a focus group. We say, ‘on-site is insight’ and we feel strongly that to do personas right, you need to meet personas in their environment.”
Ardath continued with, “Often, clients want to change personas after they’re delivered, because they remember the last conversation they had with a customer. One key thing many need to learn is that it’s about the commonalities across the role – not individual quirks. Personas represent not a single person, but rather a group of people. The guidance of an outsourced partner comes from their ability to step away from this one-to-one experience with a customer.”
5. Be mindful of who you select for this work.
Like any vendor, it’s important to qualify the person or agency you’re looking to hire to help with customer research. Our experts recommended asking how your potential vendors go about creating the persona. Find out what is involved, and be sure primary research is part of the equation.
Richard referenced a statistic overheard at Content2Conversion this year that only 15% of B2B marketers used research in the development of their personas. “That’s not good enough. The choice to work with a partner on this must involve a commitment to involve primary research. If the agency waivers on that, I think it’s time to move on and choose another agency.”
It’s also important to find out what components are included in the final output. Think about what you need in order for these personas to drive strategic program development – it can be a real challenge.
Glen says, Quarry’s broad focus is helping organizations move from product-centric to a customer-centric business model – a long and difficult journey. “Our belief is that personas in their best application represent a “conceptual infrastructure” resource that the CEO provides so that people all across the organization can work together in concert, producing a coherent experience for the customer across all brand touch-points.”
Here at Cintell, we’re building technology to enable better buyer understanding – and whether you choose to embark on this journey in-house, or seek to work with a third-party expert, primary research is a critical component to understanding your customers.
 Christensen, Clayton M.; Raynor, Michael E. (2003-10-09). The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth (p. 88). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition