Understanding Buyer Personas
- Founder's Corner

Understanding Buyer Personas with Adele Revella

It’s not enough to know your buyer – if you want to influence your persona’s buying decision, you need to thoroughly understand the choices they make at every step in their journey.

We sat down with Adele Revella, author of Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insights into your Customer’s Expectations, Align Your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business.

The best way to understand what people want is to get to know them. Businesses are beginning to re-embrace this truth and realize that Big Data reveals only part of the customer’s story. Marketing surveys have indicated that, within the next couple of years, at least 80 percent of all marketers will be using buyer personas to define their audiences and guide business strategies. Those who have already tried the technique have been amazed by its ease and value, yet, for many, buyer personas are still not translating to increased business.

Our discussion explores the need for buyer personas, developing them, and ultimately how to use them to drive business growth.

(edited for publication)

Good morning! Welcome to Understanding eCommerce. We are pleased to have us, Adele Revella. She is the author of “Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight Into Your Customers Expectations, Align Your Marketing Strategies And Win More Businesses.” Welcome, Adele. How are you?

I’m great, Mike. Thanks so much for having me. It’s my favorite topic. Absolutely!

So we all understand, at this point, that we should be doing this, but we don’t. Can you sort of explain to us why this is important?

Yes. The purpose of “buyer personas” is to get inside your customers’ buying experience and understand, at the moment in time, when they’re searching for a product or service or solution like yours, what they are thinking about. When and what do they need to know. And what do they need to experience before they’ll trust you and want to buy from you? And so this is why it is important. Because most of us have competitors out there, and we’re trying to differentiate ourselves as a company, and, you know, it’s not enough. Companies can rarely be different exclusively based on their product or service.

The fact is that the competitors’ services and products look a lot alike to buyers, and so the whole idea of understanding your customers’ needs when they’re buying is just what my book says. It’s about winning more business because we put ourselves in the buyers’ shoes, and we understand what we need to deliver to help them buy; to have their trust that we’re the provider they can count on to deliver the outcome they expect.

Most marketers make the mistake that they try to push whatever they’re selling without taking the time to understand what the customer needs or the pain point that they’re trying to solve and are willing to buy a product for it.

Yes, but it’s not just about taking the time. And this is why I wrote the book. I know a lot of people want to write a book. It was the worst year of my life writing a book. I never wanted to write a book. But, still, there’s been so little understanding about how to build ”buyer personas” and how to get inside your buyer’s head, and, unfortunately, a lot of people are just profiling buyers. They’re just making up a story about their buyer the person, such as are they married and do they have kids and two dogs and do they go to yoga and what are their hobbies; instead of really getting inside that moment in time when buyers are trying to make a decision. And as a provider, we can be a resource to them and win their business and even differentiate ourselves as a trusted resource for that buying decision. Or we can talk about our products, and everybody else is talking about their products, and we can fight over price or a little scrap of some differentiation: ours is purple, and theirs is green. But the buyers even care about color, so it’s really getting inside. So I really wanted to come out and say forcefully that “buyer personas” are about personas that are buying. They’re not about just describing the person. They’re about describing buying something that we are marketing, so it’s a source of insight into what those buyers need when they’re buying.

So, before we begin to build these, what do we need to know before we start.

Well, I think, first of all, not as much as you think. When we do these studies, we go into every discussion, every study with very little knowledge at all. Because what we really want to go in is to be curious about what buyers have to tell us. So, we need to have what to do. We need to know. We need to know the people we want to interview because this is based on interviews, so it’s good to sit down with some of your audience. Maybe a solopreneur and may not. It may just be their own knowledge, but if you have even two or three people or more on your team: 5, 10, 15 or 20, sit down as a company and think about your target audience, and what defines the buyers that you want to reach, because this is a trap to say, “well, we want to sell to everybody.” Everybody wants to sell to everybody, but it’s about getting pretty focused on the types of buyers with which you’re most likely to be successful.

And I know there’s this idea of an ICP or ideal customer profile, but I’m not really fond of that term because sometimes that idealistic point of view doesn’t really align with what’s going on in the reality of the market. So, it’s more just aligning with salespeople or anybody in a sales role, or customer-facing role, who can tell you why people come to us and when we’re most likely to win. This is what defines them. So that we’re not out there trying to boil the ocean and talk about every possible person on the planet who could buy from us, and then, as we grow, we can certainly expand that net and target more people. But, still, it’s really good to get very focused at the beginning on who we are going to market to. And those are the people we’re going to need to study when we interview them about their buying decision.

And when you’ve interviewed these people, have you found in the past that either a) “we’ve focused on the wrong group” or b) “we should be looking elsewhere.”

Yes. We don’t find that in the interviews, but what happens in the interviews is it’s different because you’re going to find out right away where you have a mismatch between what the buyers want and what you have, but fundamentally that’s what this is about. It’s about a simple Venn diagram. We have a circle on the left. Here’s everything the buyers want when they’re buying a solution like this, product, or service, and then, on the right, is everything we can do. And what we’re looking for is to find a good match, to have as much of an overlap with those circles as possible. And, yes, sometimes when we come back and tell a client what the buyers want. They go, “oh, holy cow, we’re missing too much of that product or service even to win that business ever.” But most companies, and especially again, if you’re sitting down with your sales organization or sales team; if you’re the only person in your company and you’re selling, think about the characteristics of the buyers who you got an excellent chance of being competitive and winning that business. And that’s the purpose of this; to get really focused on who our buyers are and what they need.

And would you advocate doing this process before the product development?

Well, I could advocate for that, but that would be a really idealistic point of view. I mean at least going through this exercise to understand your customer better. The problem that a lot of times what we’ll see is somebody will build something and then go out to the market to find who wants it; as opposed to going to market looking for that unmet need and then building a solution to that. From a perfect academic point of view, that would be ideal. We go out. We have an idea. We go out and interview the buyers, and then we develop it. The reality for most entrepreneurs is they probably have built, at least, and sold this to somebody before they even have the time and confidence in their business model to go start to think about marketing, but here’s the time to do this. So, yes, that would be perfect, Mike.

We have some clients who are big companies, and before they start into a new market area, they’ll do that, but for your audience, try the real thing. They’ve had some success, they’ve got some business, they’ve grown somewhat, and now they want to figure out: how do we grow more? How do we scale this business? How do we begin to think about marketing and getting a message out there that will appeal to a market full of buyers? Because when a company is young, and this is the third company I’ve started three companies. I’ve been there. Done this. You tend to have an idea that maybe you’ve sold to a few people, who even came to you and asked you, “please do this for us.” Or you just had a vision based on your own experience, and now you’re at that point where you want to make it bigger. That’s the time to do this because when there’s no better way to understand a customer’s needs than one customer at a time. The time to build “buyer personas” is when you can’t scale your business because you’ve got to go do marketing, or you’ve got to go talk to a market full of customers. So, as long as you can do one customer at a time, and that’s working for you, you’re probably not going to do this work. But it’s about how to grow your business.

And what I was going to ask you is, when we make these assumptions, and then through this process, we validate whether we’ve made the correct assumptions?

The only thing you’re assuming about is the demographics of the people we want to interview. So, again, without a particular business, but you mentioned home remodeling before, so, we know that we need people who have lived it in their own home and have an income above a certain amount because they could afford to spend money to remodel their kitchen, and we have this. So, we know that and think that if there’s a decision-maker around this, that’s probably the husband, or it could be the wife. It could be a combination thereof. So, those are the only assumptions you make, and then the next step is to find people who have recently decided to remodel their kitchen; and ask them to tell you how they went about it; which contractor was going to do that for them.

Let’s assume we’re the contractor who does the remodeling, so we ask them to tell their story. And I’m going to give you the one scripted question to kick off these interviews: “take me back to the day when you first decided that you might want to remodel your kitchen and tell me what happened.” And I don’t care if we’re talking about remodeling a kitchen or installing solar panels on my roof, or buying a car. I don’t care what it is. It’s “take me back to the day when you first decided you might need to do this, to buy this to solve this problem and tell me what happened.” And what that does is it makes us think of market research.

Surveys are lovely because they’re easy to launch, and you can get a lot of data back pretty fast, but that’s not what this is about. This is qualitative research. Surveys are quantitative; 75% of people in this market category will do this if you do enough and get statistically valid findings. That’s not what we’re doing here. What we’re doing is getting qualitative research, which is about the quality of the data, not about the quantity of the data. And it’s about getting those people on the phone or in-person if you’ve got a chance to do that, or on zoom; I don’t care; and just ask them like a journalist, not a researcher. So, don’t be afraid; this is like a journalist saying, “I want to hear your story, and I want to start at the beginning of your story, which is for me the day you thought you might ever possibly need this. And then tell me what happened on that day.” Because what we’re looking for is the buying trigger. Why was now the time to remodel your kitchen, or install solar panels, or do whatever it is you wanted to invest in; and how do you go from that trigger point to there could be months in between the time they decide to do this and when they actually do something.

So, how do you move along that timeline?

We wanted to tell the story, so we get them at the beginning of their story, and we’re interviewing people who have completed that decision or are close to completing it, and we walk them through it. So, we might spend five or ten minutes just finding out why they decided that. By the way, when you ask people to take you back to the day when they decided to remodel their kitchen, they may say to you, “Well, we needed more. We needed more room for cooking, or we needed more. We wanted to expand the footprint of the kitchen, or my neighbor just remodeled her kitchen, or we really needed to get a room for more cabinets and storage space.” But that’s not what triggered it, so now we’d say, “but wait a minute. You must have always needed more countertop space or cabinetry or whatever.  What changed to make that a priority right now.” And we might spend five or ten minutes just getting inside that trigger moment because if we’re going to go out to a market full of customers and understand how to reach them, we need to really understand what that driving moment is.

What makes this a priority to do this now because everybody should have, and probably wants, more counter space than a dishwasher and so forth. So, what really changed to make it a priority right now? And by the way, we record these interviews, do a zoom call, record them on your phone, and so you can go back and listen to them later because you’re going to want to be intensely curious about that story and not having to take too many notes, and then you say, “Okay. So, once you decided that this was the time to remodel your kitchen, what did you do first to understand your contractors?” So, we’re just trying to understand which contractors might be able to do that for you; and so now you’re moving them down their timeline; their journey, so we went and talked to our neighbors, or we knew some friends that had remodeled their kitchen, or we did a google search, or we did whatever we did.

So, you’re going to find out how they researched providers like yourself so that you can learn where you need to be so the buyers will find you. And you keep asking them, “well. That’s really great. You asked your neighbors. What else did you do?” So, the first answer to any question is never an insight. Surveys kind of don’t tell you anything because you ask a question, and you move on, but the next question is great. When you talk to your peers, or when you did that google search, or when you went out on Yelp, what were you trying to learn? What did you need to know? What did you learn? What was hard to find? What was easy to find? What really stood out for you about the companies that you decided to consider at that point? And so now we’re at sort of phase two of the buyer’s journey, and now let’s take them to the next stage: “So, how many providers were you thinking? Well, we had three. There were three different contractors we talked to. So, what did you do next? Well, we had a phone call, we had a meeting with each of them, or we sent plans to them, and we asked them to come out and talk to us, whatever.” By saying “what did you do next “and now here’s where the money part of the interview comes in. Now you say to the people, “well. When you got it down to the final provider, what stood out about them? What got the other companies eliminated? You thought they were really responsive to you and, so, that’s interesting. What was it that they actually did to have you develop the perception that they were more responsive? And what did the others fail to do?” And you want to spend time drilling into what they’re telling you.

This is why it takes a couple of notes so that you can say you know because the people will be talking and talking, and I usually write words like “responsive” “the website looks great.” I’ll write those things down so I can go back and probe on every one of those. “And tell me more about the website. That was helpful. Was there anything you recall from the site that really made that one stand out?” Do you see how this is like gold? Now we got to the end of the journey, which is okay. “Great! So, what did you do to come to the final decision that this was the right company? Who was involved? Did your husband have to get involved? Was your wife involved? Was your partner involved? Were your kids involved? What did you do next actually to wrap that up?” When you do a number of these interviews.

How many?

We recommend 10, at least eight. You can then begin to find patterns in what buyers are telling you in five areas, which you’re going to find out, and these are on our website at buyerpersona.com.  So, if you’re listening in the car – some of you have to write these down – you can go to buyerpersona.com, which is easy to remember, and the five categories that you’re going to look for are patterns around buying triggers. What did they tell you changed? And by the way, it’s not one thing; you’re going to have three or four or five different buying triggers that cause buyers to want to remodel their kitchen.

And then, the second pattern you’re looking for is “success factors.” What did buyers tell you were the outcomes, the benefits? And you’re usually going to get this from the very first question. So, for example, while we were remodeling a kitchen to get more counter space, it would get better, such as the dishwasher fitting in or having more storage.

The third category of patterns you’re looking for is perceived barriers. Again, these are the objections: “we eliminated these contractors because they couldn’t do this, or because they didn’t do that or because, etc.”

The fourth category is decision criteria, which is, as you’re walking those buyers through that journey, and they’re telling you what they needed to know. But, the decision criteria, all the questions the buyers were asking when they were on your website and talking to the providers.

And then the fifth category is the journey. The buyer’s journey is just documenting the process the buyers go through and the resources they trust. Did they go on Google? Did they ask their peers? Did they go to Yelp? And then identifying who was involved in that journey; once you’ve been through this process.

How often should you revisit this?

Believe it or not, Mike, this is the best news because I know this sounds like a lot of news so far. This is like a lot of work. It is a lot of work, and that’s why I say the real thing is you’re only going to do this when you’re ready to invest in real marketing and go out and scale your business. You don’t have to change this hardly ever; changes, I mean. People think that love changed everything. I mean, it changed everything for everybody individually. We were all impacted. You can’t think of anybody who wasn’t personally impacted by this, but it hasn’t changed things that much about buying decisions and how people make those decisions.

And once we’ve been through this process, what can I take from this so that I can start to develop my marketing plan?

Well, again, that Venn diagram is crucial. So, you’re going to have to look at those patterns and, typically, in a pretty high consideration of buying decision, where buyers spend weeks or months evaluating their options. So, we’re going to have about 35 to 40 different needs for knowledge and experience that buyers have, and now we match that against what we do, and we look for the center of that Venn diagram. And we’re looking to really center in on the five things we recommend that are the best match between what your buyers want and what you deliver.

So, I’ve been in marketing for many decades, more than I’m going to admit right now. And I’ve sat in countless rooms trying to reverse engineer our benefits, based on our product capabilities: our product is this, so the benefit of that is this. We sell drills, so buyers need holes. We sell grass feed, so buyers need lawns. I mean, you can do that until the cows come home, but buyers today are more sophisticated than they ever were. They’re much less dependent on vendors to get the knowledge they need. They’re going to their peers. They’re going to online resources to get the knowledge and, by the time we have a chance to get our message in front of them. Their needs for knowledge are much more sophisticated than “we deliver holes. We deliver lawns.” And, honestly, buyers hate that stuff, and it doesn’t differentiate you at all.

Our buyers tell our clients, tell us, that this is almost like cheating. We’ve given an exact list of the 35 or 40 things they need to talk to buyers about. We’ve helped them find the best matches to distinguish themselves, even if what you do in the center of that Venn diagram isn’t unique. It probably isn’t, truthfully, but it’s just the fact that you have the depth of insight. That’s what buyers need to know, and that you make that information so upfront and center on your website, or in your sales calls, or your marketing outreach. That in itself is a point of differentiation.

And how important is it to incorporate the buyer’s language?

Well, yes, absolutely, but I would say people get really hung up on the language and like words, and that is what you’re getting out of these quotes. That’s why you’re recording these interviews and pulling out the quotes that speak to these needs. So, you want to watch where most of our clients are in tech and, oh my gosh, its acronym soup. It’s almost like a secret handshake like you’re not a part of the club if you don’t know what DHCP and DNS and DDI and all these things mean.

So, yes, that’s what I mean when I say the buyer’s language, but this is more, this isn’t a copywriting issue. It’s much more foundational than just copywriting. And how long would one expect this to take? Is it weeks? How long does this take?

Well, I mean if the reality is that the people doing this have other things to do, and the one question you haven’t asked me, that I’m going to go ahead and insert here because it’s so crucial, is how do you find people to interview? Because it’s related to how long it takes for the typical company that does this. It’s probably going to take about six weeks or so to find people to interview, but if you’re doing this on your own, you’re going to have to fit this in.

One of the things I want to encourage is that you interview your losses, not just your wins, and that’s how you’re going to find people to interview. It’s from people that come to you, and we pay them to talk to us, and I’m going to encourage you to do that. We pay people up to $250 to talk to us for 30 minutes, and it’s worth it; so worth it. Just because you’ve got to have a reason for them to talk to you and your losses are where you’re going to get the most insight.

From your wins, you’re going to get people, and this is a lot of people interviewing their customers; and I’m not opposed to doing that because you’re going to find out what people perceived as your strengths. It’s a good thing to do, but where you really learn a lot is from the deals you didn’t win. The people who perceive this isn’t true in their own minds, but they somehow believe that your competitors had a better solution. So that’s what you really want to find out.

How did they come to that conclusion right? Because, as you said, typically it’s not that the products are that different, but maybe it’s how they felt they were treated or whether they think it’s whether they got the knowledge and experience; whether they had easy access to the knowledge and experience that they needed to have to trust that you were the right solution. That’s all. That’s what a “buyer persona” is for. So what is that knowledge and experience, and then drill that into your salespeople, your marketing, everywhere, your website, every place people go.

It needs to be those that best match in that Venn diagram between what your guys’ buyers want and what you guys can deliver, then you can use that to differentiate, hopefully, from your community.

Exactly, because we never want to differentiate on price, so, anything else but the price. We’re happy to work, and what the thousands and thousands and thousands of interviews we’ve done, we have never once had a customer tell us that they bought the lowest cost solution. That is what customers tell the salespeople because they’re trying to negotiate with you, but, in reality, if you can have this kind of unbiased conversation, you’re going to find out that it’s valued, right? We all know this person buys on value, not price, but what you’re learning through the interviews is how they established that value in their own minds.

And just to sort of go back, the people that didn’t hire you, as you said, those are valuable resources. How likely are they to speak to you when they went somewhere else?

Here’s the key thing, especially if you’re like you told me, a lot of the people on this call might be small businesses. The person, who can never get these interviews, is the person who was part of the sales cycle. So, if they’re probably not going to talk to you no matter what. If you were the person trying to sell them, here’s what I’d encourage people to do if you’re a very small business, and there’s nobody in your company who can do these interviews, find a college intern. Find somebody to do these interviews for you because I don’t care what it says on your business card if you were a part of the sales cycle, you’re the salesperson, and they’re not going to be open and candid with you because they’re going to think you’re going to try to resell them, or you just might be polite. The last thing you need is people to be polite. I mean, this is not a polite conversation.

And what do you think your clients find is the biggest takeaway? Once they have the personas.

Well, people are shocked at where buyers are. We work in tech a lot, so that’s probably going to be a bias, but mainly people are in our client base and are shocked at how they think their buyers are more advanced than they are. They believe that every buyer is out seeking the most leading-edge technology, and they sort of believe their own press releases. So it’s really kind of shocking for them to learn what buyers actually care about in terms of this decision.

In our experience, what we found is a lot of the things that caused the “buying” are nothing to do with the product. Instead, it was their experience with the salesperson. It was how the store was laid out.

They’re making it, as you said earlier. They’re making the decision; whether it’s blue or green, they’re making the decision – I’ll underline that Mike – because in almost over 80 percent of our interviews, buyers said that they eliminated providers from consideration, who they knew had a good product, simply because the sales experience was so poor.

And how many people will say they don’t feel like they were listened to?

That’s what they’re talking about. They weren’t. Nobody. They don’t usually use the word “listen to.” What they’ll say is: “the salesperson didn’t understand my needs. We told them exactly what we wanted, and they came with a canned demo or presentation. They couldn’t answer any of my questions.” They didn’t. We called customer service just to test what it was like, and nobody called me back in a reasonable amount of time. That’s how they talk about it.

So, the word listen to is probably just since we’re talking about language.

Yes, that’s not it, but it’s fundamentally what it is. I’m just more precise.

Yes. How do they present it, right? Well, Adele, we very much appreciate your time today and your insights. We will include the links to Adele’s website and, please, check out the book. Again, we very much appreciate your time today. We look forward to talking with you in the future, and have a great day.

Thank you. Thanks for having me, Mike. Absolutely!

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