The resounding consensus among both respondents to our recent survey who described themselves as “very effective” in using buyer personas and B2B buyer persona experts is that the most valuable insights for persona development come from qualitative, one-to-one interviews with buyers.
So what is the best way to approach this specific kind of research project? Here are ITSMA’s observations and recommendations:
In-depth, one-to-one interviews are essential. The form these buyer personas interviews take can vary: it depends largely on available time and resources. They can range from 20-minute phone calls to all-day work shadowing. Start with what is easy to accomplish in the first iteration and take it from there. Remember that the idea is to understand buyers in their own environment and context.
You don’t necessarily need a lot of them. Ten qualitative interviews is a good start, and may prove sufficient. When you start to hear – and anticipate – the same answers from one interview to the next, you probably have enough. Keep in mind that your interview pool should include both customers who recently bought from you and buyers who went elsewhere. You won’t get everything you need from customers alone.
They don’t even have to be your customers. Sometimes it is difficult to interview your own customers. Customer databases may be woefully out of date (not your database, of course!). You might know who is paying the bill, but not who was on the selection committee. I am always surprised to hear how possessive sales can be, preventing even their own marketing department from talking to their customers. Approvals can seem to take an eternity. If you face any of these hurdles, don’t despair. You can glean first-rate insights from interviews with buyers who match the characteristics of your target audience. You just want to be sure that they recently (last six to 12 months) evaluated a purchase for the types of services and solutions you sell. In many cases, recruiting interviewees outside your customer base will reduce the timeline for buyer persona project completion.
Interview technique is key. Taking initial answers at face value probably won’t generate the kind of insight you’re after. Keep asking follow-up questions to get at why they make the decisions they do. What are their thoughts, fears, goals, and objectives throughout the buying process? Who else is involved? How do their goals and concerns differ?
Create an interview environment on their terms. People often prove surprisingly open about their experiences and emotions in the buying process when someone takes an interest in understanding their perspective. This is easy to accomplish if you exercise your skills as an open, neutral listener. This is the main reason why salespeople should not conduct these interviews. Interviewees want assurance that they won’t be sold to during the call and that they aren’t undermining themselves in any future negotiations. It’s not a question of sales lacking the skills, but one of interviewee perception.
Get outside help. While we strongly support the idea that the skills to develop and apply personas should be core to B2B marketing departments, getting support and learning from experts dramatically smooth the learning curve. Rather that plowing through the frustrations of trial and error, learn best practice approaches from the start. Furthermore, if you decide to go the route of recruiting interviewees outside your customer base, you will want to hire a professional recruiter.
Get the interview aspect right and you’ll strike the kind of gold that would make any forty-niner proud!