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I was saddened by Radio Shack’s recent bankruptcy filing. Its convenient stores and helpful staff are easy to find in any city I’m visiting. There is even a store in the tiny community where I live.

Radio Shack logoRadio Shack’s 60-year rise and fall is a case study in what happens when a company’s vision isn’t balanced by insight into its customer’s expectations.

When Charles Tandy bought a small-time chain of nine stores in 1963, advances in technology and automation pointed to a future where we would all enjoy lives of leisure, freed of the need to spend eight hours a day at the office. Radio Shack would become a place for tinkerers and hobbyists with lots of free time and a desire to explore the brave new world of technology.

Radio Shack employees were drawn from the same pool of hobbyists, so they were ideally suited to engage shoppers with enthusiasm and knowledge. By the mid-1970s, the citizens band radio craze had made the company incredibly profitable. At it’s peak, the company had 7,000 stores.

But as we all know, technology didn’t give us more free time. In fact, in 1979 the average American worker was on the job for 1687 hours a year. By 2007, that number had ballooned to 1868 hours – adding more than a month of extra work hours every year.

We can only speculate about what might have happened had Radio Shack focused on its origins when it jumped into the personal computer market in 1977 with the TRS-80. This was a time when computers were often assembled from kits, but Tandy chose to sell his pre-assembled in one box. Radio Shack had found success marketing to “do-it-yourselfers,” so why would they not continue to do so with their computers? It’s hard to say, but the TRS-80 is now barely a footnote in computing history, and marked the beginning of the decline for the corporation.

Over the next few decades, the company flailed about, expanding their product selections to focus more on consumer electronics and launching a mail-order catalog business. Their ability to solve a unique problem for their buyers continued to deteriorate, as there were plenty of other players in the consumer electronics space, and the Internet quickly made mail-order catalogs obsolete. Attempts to launch a “big box” electronics chain failed, and the company sold off the electronics manufacturers that made their house brands to focus on third-party products, with disastrous results.

By 2011, stock prices had fallen from $24.33 to $2.53 a share, and in January the company announced they were filing for bankruptcy.

Radio Shack is only one of many market leaders who lost their way as their vision came face-to-face with customer expectations. Similar failures to understand their target buyer and deliver on their specific needs have defeated behemoth companies like Unisys, Digital Equipment Corporation and countless others.

The changes that cause large, successful companies to fail are rarely sudden, which is why they are so easy to dismiss and also why they are so disturbing. Like Radio Shack, most companies have many opportunities to adjust their strategies to align with their buyers’ needs. Radio Shack might well have survived had they maintained their focus on their audience of electronics hobbyists and adjusted their strategies accordingly. Instead, they pursued a “me too” strategy that stripped them of their purpose, steadily reducing their unique product offerings to sell mobile phones and consumer gear that could be purchased anywhere. The hobbyists went elsewhere, and in the end, Radio Shack couldn’t serve any buyer better than some other store could.

It’s too late for Radio Shack, but it doesn’t have to be too late for your company. If you’re developing strategies without understanding your customer’s expectations, consider the possibility that you might be missing facts that will be retold in a story like this.

And beware of the online tools that help you build buyer personas without interviewing real buyers. As the people at Radio Shack can attest, it is incredibly dangerous to recycle your internal mis-perceptions into a new template and rely on your own hopes and vision.

P.S. My new book “Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insights into your Customer’s Expectations, Align your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business” (Wiley) is now shipping.

I’m frequently asked for examples of buyer personas, but my clients never allow me to share their findings publicly. That’s because the insights they discover about their buyers are non-obvious and therefore the source of significant competitive advantage.

So I was astounded when the Wall Street Journal broke the story from travel-site Orbitz that Mac users spend 30% more per hotel night than PC/Windows users.

Orbitz is thrilled that they will now be able to promote pricier properties to the Mac buyer persona, eliminating the cheap stuff that isn’t relevant and providing easy access to the rooms they want. This will result in higher profits for Orbitz and a better customer experience for the Mac user.

But didn’t anyone say, “great job, marketing team, for gleaning this insight. Let’s make those changes to the search function right away and keep this under our hats, as we certainly don’t want Expedia or Kayak to copy us.”

The WSJ story set off a flurry of press coverage, including ABC’s Good Morning America and endless social media discussion. People are arguing about whether Mac users are profligate spenders and PC users are cheap. The privacy folks are concerned that this data was even available to Orbitz. And there was the obvious worry that Orbitz would mark up prices on a hotel if they see that the user is on a Mac. Here’s the company’s response as reported by MSNBC:

“If you carefully read the WSJ, it never says Orbitz charges Mac users more. Because we do not. This story grew out of our observation that Mac users tend to like 4-5 star hotels more than PC users. We make recommendations about hotels along a number of variables, i.e., traveling with or without children. Just as Mac users are willing to pay more for higher end computers, at Orbitz we have seen that Mac users are 40% more likely to book 4 or 5 star hotels as compared to Windows users.  What we are doing is reflecting that insight in our recommendations. Our recommendation module has extremely high levels of consumer engagement, indicating that it is a feature that our users really appreciate.”

Good idea Orbitz. But I’d have advised you to keep this persona insight locked up in the same vault where Coke keeps their secret formula. I’m sure your competitors are happy for your help.

And I’m pleased to have a buyer persona success story that isn’t subject to my customers’ non-disclosure agreements.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) thinks it knows how to solve the problems with sales and marketing alignment. According to a just-released report, within 10 years, marketing will report directly to sales.

“For too long, the trend has been towards separate marketing and sales,” said David Thorp, CIM’s director of research and professional development, in a new “Marketing and Sales Fusion” white paper. “We believe that, in the next decade, more and more companies will see reintegrating marketing and sales as a smart move that brings real rewards.”

Could it be true? I hope not.

Nothing in my three decades of experience in B2B technology marketing suggests that this notion has merit. And since I personally ran a combined sales and marketing organization for five years, I know firsthand that fusion of the teams creates more problems than it solves.

The reason is simple. The marketing function influences markets full of buyers. The sales function influences one buyer at a time. The skills and timing of activities that influence markets have nothing in common with those that influence individual buyers. Combine the functions under one executive, and the focus inevitably shifts to individual buyers for near term revenue. This is vitally important, but when the company’s ability to influence the market is lost, so is its future.

Admittedly, the problems between sales and marketing are real and deserve attention. However, I find it unconscionable that an organization like CIM, which is celebrating 100 years as “the world’s largest organization for professional marketers” would just throw in the towel.

I haven’t been able to get my hands on the full report yet, but the CIM report overview makes their position clear enough:

“Marketing as a discipline has its roots in sales. Over time, due to the ambitions of the new science of marketing, the two became separate and in many cases, estranged. In our centenary year, we believe it’s time for The Chartered Institute of Marketing to say mea culpa and to try and make amends… We feel there’s no time to waste in burying the hatchet so that marketing can evolve from a discrete, some sales professionals might even say elitist, discipline to reunify with sales. There is inescapable evidence why businesses will benefit enormously if we bring them back together.”

Inescapable evidence? This U.K. based organization can’t seem to send me a PDF of the report – I need to wait two weeks for a print copy. So I haven’t seen their “evidence” yet. But I can tell you that during the five years when I was SVP of Sales and Marketing at a technology firm, my marketing team suffered. Even as a career marketer, I found that the pressure to achieve 90-day quotas whittled away at my bone-deep commitment to strategic marketing.

Just a few weeks ago, a speaker at the Sales and Marketing 2.0 conference, Gerhard Gschwandtner (@gerhard20) of Selling Power, forecast that: Of the 18 million salespeople in 2011, only 3.6 million will be needed by 2020.” This radical prediction resulted from a report by the Sales Executive Board that said that buyers are 60 percent of the way to a decision before they ever talk to a sales person.

I’m not sure that I agree with Gerhard’s prediction, but I do know that the shift reported by the Sales Executive Board is forcing companies to learn how to engage buyers on their own terms.

Engaging buyers requires a department or function to be the buyer experts – a feat that can be accomplished only by interviewing buyers, looking for patterns and trends, and grouping buyers into buyer personas according to their findings. Then, this function needs to develop marketing content that those buyers find helpful. I wrote about this role for marketers in my e-book, The Buyer Persona Manifesto.

Frankly, I’ve never met a sales person who wanted this job. That’s because it’s a marketing job.

Then, someone needs to be there to help the buyer travel the final 40 percent of the buying process, answering the questions that are unique to each account.

Now, that’s a sales person’s job.

What do you think? Should sales and marketing remain separate or become one department?

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @buyerpersona and join me on Facebook.

The product marketer I was coaching said he knew his buyer persona — that her top pain points were reducing costs, improving operations, and controlling risks.

Nothing revealing there. Every B2B buyer wants her business to be profitable and to operate it efficiently.

I was looking for the insights that would help me see his solution from his persona’s perspective. Focusing on the problem that his solution addressed, could he tell me what approaches she had already tried? Or what obstacles she thought his solution would need to overcome to deliver the benefit we were claiming?  What did he know about her positive and negative attitudes towards his company’s current version of this solution?

Silence. But then this is hardly unusual.

While many companies think they know their buyers, their knowledge is usually limited to the obvious information anyone could assume based on the buyer’s job title and functional role. And now I’m seeing people who think that a buyer persona is simply this “knowledge” plus disturbingly irrelevant information about the buyer’s personality or hobbies.

Here’s why I’m worried.

Buyer personas are only useful when they communicate the insights I need to build and execute a competitive marketing strategy.  This requires information that is both unexpected and not easily available to competitors. It also means that no one who has a really good buyer persona would ever publish it as an example.

So I’m very interested in changing the industry’s perceptions about the contents of buyer personas and I can’t publish great work when I see it. What to do? I’m taking the next best step I can think of and making our buyer persona templates freely available (no registration). Please let your colleagues know too. We need to educate as many people as possible about the content of complete buyer personas or they will lose credibility, and we’ll be back to guessing which strategies would compel buyers to choose us.

Be sure to download both the Product Persona Connection and the Core Buyer Persona templates. If you don’t have the time or resources to capture insights for both parts of the buyer persona, focus on the Product Persona Connection, as it reveals the most immediately actionable information. And if you think that the sections in either template aren’t clear, let me know so I can continue to improve them.

The core message and URL for the Microsoft Dynamics CRM (customer relationship management) campaign are right on target, but IMHO Microsoft missed a step (or two) when they built the content at EveryoneGetsIt.com.

The site is organized around five videos, one for each of the buyer personas that influences the CRM  decision. Launch the video associated with Lisa and she introduces herself as a “typical marketing manager” and tells you all about her problems. Throughout this dissertation she wiggles and gestures. If the body language isn’t bad enough, she complains that she is struggling to justify her “fictional spend” (please, somebody, tell me that I heard this wrong). Then she sums up her whole list of issues by telling us that solving them is “worse than yoga.”

Say what?

I know a lot of smart people at Microsoft who “get it” about personas, and I know that their CRM offering looks just like Outlook, which would get my attention if I were looking for a solution right now. But I’ve seen several thousand marketing managers in the Effective Product Marketing seminar over the last seven years. Fully half are men, and none of them would last a minute in their jobs if they behaved or talked like Lisa. So my first complaint is that the people who built EveryoneGetsIt don’t get it about the marketing manager persona.

Of equal concern is the way this site uses personas. Buyer personas are a tool for use inside the company. Lisa’s persona write-up may include the fact that she finds yoga challenging, but only if that fact will help the site’s designers and writers find something compelling to say or show to Lisa. We are asking too much of buyer personas when we expect them to tell their story to the real people they represent. Everyone is unique, and no example can ever match the way any individual thinks or speaks. Even professional impersonators fail to impress the people they imitate.

I absolutely recommend the use of buyer personas as an internal tool for developing web content. If you need detailed guidance on the topic of personas and web content, Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg at Future Now “get it” about how to do that. Steve Mulder gets it too – you can read his book “The User is Always Right, a Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web”. And I know there are people at Microsoft who know about personas — maybe one of them will help the people at EveryoneGetsIt to get poor LIsa.

I love it when I find a simple answer to my problem.

I couldn’t get my Stihl weed eater running this weekend, so I took it to the repair shop. I have this problem at least once each year and knew what would happen next. The guy at the counter easily starts the machine but agrees that something must be wrong if I’m having trouble. He tells me to come back in two weeks to pick it up. Now I feel like a pansy, I’m spending $60 to fix something that might not be broken, and the weeds will be rampant by the time I get it back.

Only it didn’t turn out that way. Rather than mutely passing the device across the counter, I told the sales person what was bothering me. First, I said, I’m doing everything you guys told me last time – setting the choke when it’s cold, pulling firmly on the starter cord, blah, blah, blah. But sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and it is completely random! Plus when I get too near a rock the cutting line cuts off inside the spool.  I have to stop the machine and take the “head” apart, a fussy project that requires three ungloved hands and a screwdriver. Then I have to start the machine again (return to the first problem). I hate this thing!

The sales person was busy and just wanted to check in my machine, but I made him listen. Turns out he had the perfect solution – a trade-in on an “E-Z start model” plus an optional head that allows me to replace short pieces of cutting line without disassembling anything. Incredibly, this wasn’t a brand new innovation — when I asked he told me that these options have been available for a few years.

It seems that Stihl (and my repair shop) have at least two different buyer personas – “beefy guys” who use power gardening tools in their jobs, have no problem starting machines with pull cords, and want a full spool of line. Then there’s me, the part-time gardener who has a different idea about value. Stihl has had a great answer to a problem that has been driving me crazy, but I couldn’t find out about it.

When the sale was complete everyone won – the repair shop made their margin on the new tool, they have a used tool that they can rent or sell to a buyer who doesn’t want to pay full price, their overworked repair shop can fix something else, and the manufacturer sold another unit to a now happy customer. But it only worked out because I interrupted the sales person’s standard process and asked him to solve my problem.

I wonder whether the marketing people at Stihl have invested anything at all in identifying the process I just described and thinking about how to reach each of their buyer personas, or if they’re happily doing their “checklist” marketing. They must know about my problem since they built a tool that is meant just for me, but have they thought about the best approach to reach me and deliver their message?

If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you market a complex solution to B2B customers, consider this. According to Marketing Sherpa’s 2007-08 Technology Benchmark Study, 80% of technology buyers had a problem and went looking for a supplier (the remaining 20% responded to a marketing program). I hope they can find you without a lot of trouble.

There are few topics as fraught with passion and controversy as the debate over who “owns” particular roles and responsibilities. In fact, this is among the most frequently asked questions during the Effective Product Marketing seminar, perhaps because no role is more ambiguous than marketing. While many factors contribute to the confusion, the matter of customer “ownership” is near the top of the list.

So this “Who Owns the Customer Relationship” post from Liz Roche caught my attention. Liz says that companies should name a Chief Customer Officer to oversee this role, since the relationship with the customer cuts across all of the disciplines in the company. She questions whether marketing could “credibly influence/direct activity in segments” such as Customer Service. I agree with Liz about the scope of the function, but disagree emphatically with her conclusion. I wonder how she would describe the marketing function in her hypothetical organization.

Why not define marketing, at the highest level, as the group that listens to the customer, thinks like the customer, and influences the customer? Aren’t all of these activities inextricably linked to one another? If this were its charter, wouldn’t the rest of the company relate to Marketing as the experts on customer strategies? And perhaps most importantly, wouldn’t this reinforce the need for Marketing te develop real insight into customer segments?

While scanning the latest issue of Dwell Magazine this morning I saw an interesting CaesarStone sink that might work in our new bathroom. So I went to the advertised web page to find the "all-new Embellish collection". Nothing. I saw the CaeserStone in a store last week and they didn’t have this new kind. I really want more info. Hmmm. If it’s "all new" maybe there’s something in the "Latest News" tab. Nope. So I click on the "Products" tab. Still nothing about Embellish. I see that there’s a toll-free number in the ad, but it’s the weekend and tomorrow I’ve got other things to do.

I know how this happens. Launches are checklists of independent activities executed by people who rarely talk to each other. The agency people did some interesting creative and submitted the ad before the print deadline. Check. The web people built a page that shows the new product. Check.  If anyone at CaesarStone had been thinking about me, the target customer, they would have built a web landing page that took me through the next step in my process. Plus the company would have had at least one way of telling if their ad was effective.

What a waste, and yet so common. If I had a penny for every company that does "checklist" marketing, I would never have to look for an affordable sink.

Websites are popping up to teach basic skills that I was sure everyone learned from Mom. I’m obviously wrong, because several very popular new sites are delivering videos on subjects like how to brush your teeth or use the shower. Wait, don’t rush to click through, the instructor for the shower video is the fully-clothed 79-year-old man who started the site, VideoJug, when he couldn’t remember how to change a flat tire. But don’t dismiss him as some crazy old coot either. How to fold a t-shirt in two seconds has been viewed 76,000 times.

This might be a real business. ViewDo is a similar site that went live in June and already counts Panasonic among their paid advertisers. Plus the story made page 1 of the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 15, 2006 (sorry, you can’t see the full article online unless you’re a subscriber).

Is there a moral to this story? If you’ve had trouble reaching buyers, remember that you are probably not the buyer persona. There are markets full of people who are nothing like you. Start thinking like your buyer persona and the ideas on how to market to them will be obvious. The personas who read the Journal may not need to learn how to boil an egg, but they do manage businesses that buy ads.

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