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April 29, 2001
So You Think You Know Your Customer?

Better business decision-making through use of customer personae
By Kelly Rupp


Your business is humming. You've got customers and expect to get more. Real companies and individuals within those companies have paid you real money for your products and services. You talk with them, sometimes a lot. You know what they want. You deliver on their needs. Life is good, eh?

Maybe, for today. But as Scarlet O'Hara reminds us in her epic closing line in Gone with the Wind, "tomorrow is another day." Tomorrow will bring change in our customers' perception of us, if only through their experience of living one more day in their lives at work and at home. How important will our business' products and services be in our customers' minds when their tomorrow ends? Will our goals still hold their value proposition then? We can know, as a matter of fact, if we create an accurate persona of each of our customers and make its presence lifelike each day in our workplace.

The Product of Our Dreams

My first experience with business failure was after we lost track of the customer. Fresh out of graduate school, I was eager to join an energizing and innovative company and change the world with new products and ideas. Well, the idea we were working on at Intel was innovative and energizing: database management software in silicon! Our team was tremendously enthused and we eagerly embarked on development after exhaustive research with potential customers as to capabilities of this new product. We proceeded to "hole up" in development mode and "develop". For eighteen months, we toiled. But during those eighteen months, somehow we forgot who we were building this for, and why. We introduced the product of our dreams only to find that the market had changed on us; the customer's needs had vectored far away from what we believed when we entered our development hermitage. Note that I say, "we built the product of our dreams."

Looking back, did I really ever understand the customer? I'm not talking "industry segment" or lists of "target accounts." I'm talking about the person who individually makes the decision to buy our product or service, and the other person who will actually use it, and maybe the other person who will look at what it contributes to the overall business, and finally, the person who our product or service ultimately benefits, perhaps invisibly: our customer's customer.

Check your own understanding:
· What determines "quality" in my product or service?
· What's the "value" in our offerings?
· How is my company's product or service different from its competitors?

If your answers to these questions are not based on what your customers think, how they measure your quality, value, and competition, then you risk severing a connection with reality. Only by understanding your business from your customers' point of view can you ensure that you're working to build the product of everyone's dreams.

Developing the Customer Persona

Perhaps you protest, "We already talk with customers, every day! We know what they want, they tell us. We even survey their satisfaction, regularly. So there!"

Great. Here's a medal. Congratulations on talking "to" (and hopefully "with") your customers. This is important and highly valued. But, are customers themselves fully aware of their own needs? And able to express it? Are we asking and listening to them effectively?

The folks in your company who talk to customers each day do their jobs. Each has a specific agenda when they talk and listen to customers. Salespeople work hard to connect a customer's current needs with the capabilities of the firm's products. Customer Support staff focus on a particular service mission. Management listens for change in the business climate. Employees interact according to the needs of their assignments. The functional nature of each individual's communication with the customer construes the information that is shared and absorbed by both sides. This isn't wrong, it's just the way it is.

Do you know which customers are being talked to? What about non-customers, who either have a relationship with competitors or with no solutions provider whatsoever? What about former customers? What about the individuals in our customers' environment who influence or are affected by your products? And what about the decision-makers or actual end-users? Who is working to understand what compels (or repels!) these people from your business?

Test your own data sources. Select a handful of development staff, salespeople, marketers, and management. Ask for a description of "our customer(s)", as complete a description as they can provide. More than likely, the differences in description will expose glaring differences in each individual's perception of whom you do business with. Engineers often base their development on user models that highly reflect their own capabilities. Salespeople typically (and rightfully!) focus on those individuals who figure prominently in the purchase process. Management often hasn't a clue.

It's not hopeless. We can involve all customer types in our day-to-day "workthink". And we will do so efficiently and objectively. How? Through a "persona" of each customer type, or more precisely, a fictionalized profile of the customer. A persona represents the "average" individual from each class of customer you engage with.

What is included in a persona? A persona includes everything you judge useful to characterize the customer as an individual, as a person. The persona must be as complete as possible to enable us to draw conclusions to hypothetical questions: "What would he think about this?" "What would she do in this situation?" "Is this really important to him?" Our personae are unique, composite descriptions of each type of customer "personality" we encounter in a particular line of business, made up from specific character attributes of the norm of these personalities. Of course, the specific characteristics that are included in each persona will depend in some respects upon the business we're in.

"Hold on," you protest. "Each customer 'personality'? Just how many personae do I need?" We suggest as many as there are individuals in your customer's business that consciously interact with your product or business, plus one. The "plus one" is for an additional persona to represent your customers' customer. Typically, three to five personae will suffice, and seldom are more than seven needed (or valuable).

A persona for your "customers' customer" is very important. All businesses connect with a customer, of either the internal or external variety. Understanding your customers' need to connect with their customer is crucial to creating your own relationship with customers. Ultimately, your product or service will contribute value to your customers' product or service for their customers, and so on with their products and services. How your customers respond to your business will be influenced by how valuable a contribution you make to their own very real need to satisfy their customers.

"Where do I get the data?" Collect inputs from internal constituencies: sales, marketing, engineering, and support. Draw from whatever data is available: customer analyses, support or service database, focus group research, survey results, or sales contact information. Caution: you may believe that the information necessary to create personae is readily available, or even presumed to be "common knowledge" throughout the company. Unfortunately, it is rare that companies collect this data systematically. Expect to dig a little.

Begin first with a sense of identity, complete with name, age, gender, educational background, and perhaps other demographic details. Don't be hesitant about choosing a specific age or gender. Just do it. Personas must be individuals, not groups or segments. Are you reluctant to label this persona and refer to it (excuse me, him or her!) by name in business meetings? Just think about how you would acknowledge a customer sitting next to you in a product planning meeting. Hint: you would address him or her by name. Get over it.

In the following example, let's assume you are part of a fictitious software company selling web development tools to medium size businesses. We'll begin to develop the persona for an individual we'll call Weaver, probably the primary prospect that we engage with in selling our software.

Name Weaver
Age 30
Gender Male
Education Bachelor's degree, Computer Science
Work Experience Six years. Three jobs since graduating from college: the first, as an entry-level web programmer and the second, an assistant webmaster position. Currently responsible for web operations and supervising two junior web programmers. He's been in this role for one year.
Title Manager, Web Operations
Manager Val, the VP/Operations
Supervises Graham, a junior web programmer

How is success in Weaver's job measured? What unique pressures, concerns, or issues are important to Weaver today? What else about his role is significant to understanding his motivation for working with our company's products?

Success measures:
· 99.9% uptime for the corporate website
· Integration of web-based purchasing operations with the corporate sales database
· Satisfactory service of web update requests by department staff

Issues and pressures:
· Proper management of online customers' privacy data
· Preventing infiltration of secure databases by hackers

Other Related Issues:
· Weaver is new to management responsibilities, including purchasing and budget processes.
· Self-describing sound-bite "I feel like the rabbit in a greyhound track, I run nonstop around a circular track just ahead of security and operations threats."

How does Weaver interact with our business? Buyer, User, Manager? All three? What kind of person is he, really? How does he think?

Experience with company's products and business:
Weaver is an experienced user of our first-generation software tools and knowledgeable about this class of software (including competitors' products). Weaver has done business with us before and is considered a "satisfied" customer.

Weaver is responsible for researching and recommending technical solutions; he makes purchase recommendations to Val, who ultimately approves. Weaver's technical knowledge far surpasses that of senior management, who rely largely upon Weaver's recommendations on product and service purchases.

Personal Style:
Weaver is technically competent and "up to speed" on the latest products and technology available for web operations management, database management, and Internet security. He is analytical in thinking, avoids confrontation but speaks his mind on issues that he is technically comfortable with. Average communicator.

Who else in the organization do you need to develop personae for?

Executive Purchaser Val, VP/Operations (Weaver's boss)
Actual User Graham, web programmer (directly supervised by Weaver)
Customer's Customer Fitz, VP/Finance (Weaver's customer, who, although another employee of the customer, is the chief beneficiary of Weaver's secure website and integrated order fulfillment project)

Taking Ownership for the Personae

Once developed, customer personae must be validated for integrity. It is foolish to presume the credibility of your personae without ensuring that you've accurately captured the true and complete elements of each "composite profile". Collecting feedback from internal constituencies is the first step: test the personae for credibility with Sales, Customer Support, and other functional teams that routinely interact with prospects and customers. Don't stop here: talk directly to customers, former customers, and customers of competitors. Show them the personae you've developed and ask for their feedback. Look to challenge the composite characteristics crafted for each persona, not merely to rubber-stamp the original draft. Learn whether you have truly described an accurate profile and not a mere fiction of how you "want" the world to be.

When each persona is validated, prepare a dossier of the collected personae and broadcast the customer profiles throughout the organization. Include a snapshot (of an appropriate individual) as well as a paragraph summary describing each persona. Reference the real-life companies and titles from which the composite personalities were drawn. Consider laminate summaries and posters to post prominently and distribute widely.

Responsibility for the personae's integrity must be assigned to whatever corporate function is prepared to champion the strategic business interests of the enterprise. This may be the marketing department, business development staff, or even a special cross-functional corporate team. Whoever takes on the responsibility to develop and maintain the personae also accepts responsibility to introduce them into company workgroups. Used effectively, the various customer personae become part of the company's work culture and most certainly become virtual members of its various sales, marketing, and engineering workteams. Personae become vital contributors who show up in spirit each time the discussion involves a potential of interaction with customers.

o "What would Weaver think of this capability?"
o "Would Graham be able to use it?"
o "Is this value proposition sufficient for Weaver to justify the purchase to Val?"
o "This would help Weaver meet Fitz's requirements, right?"
o "Whom were you talking with just now?" "Oh, she was a Weaver, and "

As noted earlier, customers' perceptions about their world, their businesses, and their needs will evolve. Faster for some industries, slower for others. A robust set of personae will stand the test of time but will require review and validation every few months. It is likely that the specific "individuals" from each persona will not change but their issues, background, and perhaps their competencies will. Vigilance to these changes will be rewarded by ongoing and expanded use of personae throughout the corporation, resulting in better decision-making and stronger customer focus by all employees.

Caveat: No Substitute for the "Real Thing"

"It lives! The Creature lives!"
- Dr. Frankenstein, upon giving "life" to his composite creation
(from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein")

Personae can provide an invaluable proxy for customer feedback and, leveraged effectively, will become pervasive within the corporate consciousness. Especially for company staff that infrequently meet customers, personae help "bring to life" the often-vague notion that real people use our products. And for planners, developers, and custodians of your business strategy, personae become a vital compass in day-to-day decision direction.

However, personae should not grow so powerful that you neglect the "real thing": visits with customers on their turf, in their environment. If you become mesmerized with the fictional composite of your own creation, you risk clear-headed business thinking. Not that your customers are likely to let you grow too dotty! After all, they, not your personae, place the orders for your products and are on the phone with you for support and service, right?

Personae provide you unique value in how to characterize the normalized viewpoint of your customers' perceptions. They help channel feedback from the daily buzz of customer interactions and the conflicting, often contradictory, messages that these may send. Integrated judiciously with direct customer feedback, personae provide your company's workteams an accurate, complete information bridge to connect what you do with what our customers need, now and in the future. For as Scarlet said, "Tomorrow is another day!"

Kelly Rupp is Managing Director at Lead To Results, LLC -
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