Bloggers miss the point of buyer personas
The most important component of buyer personas is missing from much of the discussion I'm seeing in whitepapers and blogs. Personas can't make a credible impact on sales and marketing strategies if their description is limited to information about demographics and pain points.
The most important insight about a buyer persona is the answer to this question — what prevents this type of buyer from choosing us? We need to interview real people to capture information about the attitudes and beliefs that cause this buyer to walk away from the product, service or solution we hope to market to them.
Buyer persona interviews don't end when we hear an answer like "its too expensive" or "too hard to use" or "missing "X" capability". These are the answers that sales people are likely to pass along about why they lose deals, but personas need to go much deeper into what real people have to say about these issues.
If a feature is causing lost deals, I want to interview the types of buyers who are reporting this problem. If I can convince them that I'm not in sales and not trying to resurrect a lost sale, these interviews give me great information about what the buyer could do better if they had the missing capability. Those of you in product management may think I'm trying to impact the next release, but I'm only using this opportunity to get the buyers talking about the details of their problems and how they determined that we couldn't address them. I may find a different way to position the product to solve the problem, or may use the interview to gain deeper insights into the importance of the problems we can address with current capabilities.
If the buyers tell me the product is too complex I ask them to talk to me about how they assessed its ease of use. I want to learn about the buying process and what sales input or tools they relied upon to make that determination.
If they tell me it's too expensive, I ask about the outcomes they would expect to achieve with a product like this. I'm trying to get the buyer talking about the results they value most so that I can assess the tools we've built to communicate the impact we'll make.
The information gained through these interviews will not all be great news — there may be some types of buyer personas we simply can't win over given the status of the product. But this is exactly what I need to know to improve the ROI on my marketing budget and my ability to train sales people to target the most receptive buyers.
I suspect the problem with much of the discussion on the blogosphere is that personas are a popular topic for web designers and others that focus on the early stages of the buying and awareness process. Perhaps the simple information they describe is enough for marketers who only focus on the top of the funnel. But this focus is dangerous in business-to-business marketing. While many people believe that marketing is all about lead generation, even highly qualified leads won't result in revenue until the sales people have the training and tools to overcome the resistance they're going to face later in the sales process.
Marketers complain that sales people don't follow-up on their leads, even those that are highly qualified. But who can blame sales people who have various ways to make quota for choosing to sell products where they can anticipate the buyer's reaction at each step in the sales process. Marketing needs to step up its game, using buyer personas to deliver the training and tools that drive sales funnel conversions.