401-423-2400 Kristin@Zhivago.com

Are you hiding behind your “personas”?

I am continuously amused at the lengths company executives will go to, to avoid talking directly to their customers. They’d rather do their taxes than phone or go face-to-face with a real, live customer.

As a result of this fear, company executives and owners will bet the company on any other data they can get their hands on. They pore over their website metrics. They run web-based surveys. They ask their salespeople (sometimes) and customer service people (hardly ever) what customers are saying. Every so often, they may lurk on an online discussion group.

They demand more and more data from their marketing folks. Every piece of data makes them want more data, because the data they get only raises more questions. Deep down inside, they wonder if it’s all BS.

If they found some backbone and focused instead on actually having a few conversations a month with their customers – and listening to the calls that come in from customers – they’d understand what their customers want them to sell, and how they want to buy.

The rise of “personas”

Over the last few years, the idea of customer “personas” has been finding its way into website design. The basic idea, obviously, is to design your website for the types of people buying your product, so it satisfies each type of person’s preferences and buying process.

While this idea seems like a step in the right direction, and it might get CEOs and entrepreneurs thinking more about their customers, it is really just another way of avoiding direct contact with customers. Worse, unless the persona concept is based on real people, it’s just another way to blow your marketing budget. It’s just too easy to sit in a room and make up the personas – without basing those personas on real people giving real answers in real interviews.

Instead of just guessing about what customers want, the team tells itself that they have already done sufficient research and proceeds to draw up the personas. They are still guessing, in other words, but this time with the conviction of having had a series of meetings based on an exciting new marketing concept.

Meanwhile, the real customers are still scratching their heads when they get a page or two into the company’s website, or when they use a search term trying to find the site.

There’s no deception like self-deception.

It won’t hurt, I promise

Conversations with customers are often fun. If your product is used by intelligent people, they will have all sorts of interesting, informative insights about your product, website, sales force, company, and industry. Occasionally a conversation is bracing – revealing something you really need to know. These conversations will save you from making all kinds of deadly mistakes.

If you’re still not convinced enough to pick up the phone, and call a customer, pick up the phone and call me. I call customers for clients all the time. And they will tell me things that they won’t tell you – because they know they won’t hurt my feelings. Customers are typically too polite to use the same words with a supplier that they’d use when talking to someone else.

In these calls, I always find out the difference between what you think customers are thinking (or what your people are telling you they’re thinking), and what customers are really thinking. What they’re really thinking is what determines whether they buy from you – or your toughest competitor.

After a certain number of calls, preferences, needs, and behaviors are firmly established. These are facts that you can bank on, facts that can drive a spot-on sales support system and website design.

It’s more about answering questions than psychoanalysis

I recently listened to more than 100 incoming calls to a sales force, part of my process of raising a client’s sales conversion rate. When the customers called, they had particular pathways in mind. They had already imagined how their buying process should go – in order for them to end up with what they wanted. They started out on their individual paths at the beginning of each call. The salespeople, quite often, tried to take them down different paths. For example, many customers were looking to purchase an “experience,” while the salespeople insisted on selling a “product.”

Imagine someone who is having a boat built. They’re looking for lights for that boat, to serve as “marker lights” while at anchor. They need small, waterproof LED lights. They call the light manufacturer. The salesperson keeps talking about the product – but the customer keeps asking questions about the experience of owning that light. Is it really waterproof? How can he be sure? Will it be easy to repair or replace if something goes wrong? Is the angular dispersion broad enough? Is it as efficient as similar lights made by other manufacturers? What is the current draw? How bright is the light, in lumens?

More often than not, the salesperson is not equipped with these answers. And, the answers aren’t on the website. This is the biggest mistake that companies make, to varying degrees.

Knowing the “persona” of this person would not necessarily lead you to provide that information, either. You might say that this particular persona has high standards, and cares about the quality of the product. That’s not the same as answering the question – “How waterproof is it? How do you make it waterproof?”

In some ways – online and off – selling is not that complicated. They have questions. If you know what their questions are, and you answer them, you will make the sale. If you don’t, you won’t.

You have to have enough personal contact with customers to know what their concerns are. You have to talk with them. You have to know the questions they ask. You have to have heard them, yourself, expressing their preferences and disappointments.

It’s much less stressful to sit around in meetings, making up imaginary personas using your usual, pre-conceived notions – and then proceed with the rest of your old familiar marketing processes. In doing so, you are missing the boat.

Real customers have specific questions, and if we answer those questions – honestly, intelligently, and in as much depth as they want – they will buy.

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