Customer Personas: What They Are (and Why They’re Indispensable)

by | How To...

Need help finding customers? Not sure who they are or where they hang out? Your first step is to focus on identifying your target customers, and part of that process involves creating something called a customer persona.

If you’ve never heard of it, not to worry. I’ll explain everything. But if you’re thinking that it’s simply an imaginary customer you dream up — you’d be wrong, and you should keep reading.

What are the wants and needs of your target customers?

Let’s say you have a great business idea and you’re ready to bring it to life. Who is your target customer? Are they really willing to spend their hard-earned money on what you’re selling? If so, why?

Understanding your customer is the single most important element in building a successful business.

No matter how much funding you have and how life-changing your widget is, without customers (paying customers) you’ve got nothing. Once you know what people are looking for — what they want and what they really need — you’ll be ready to get to work building a company that meets those wants and needs.

How to get the data.

There’s a secret to learning the wants and needs of your target customers. Talk to them! That means you’ve got to get out of the building—your house, your office, your classroom — and interview them. (This is known as field research.)

Speaking directly to your target customers gives you the kind of insight and feedback that is essential to the success of any startup. Every decision you make about your offerings should be considered through the prism of information you gather from real people — real potential customers.

Nowadays, this is referred to as human-centered design or design thinking. But regardless of what it’s called, the result is a more successful, more profitable business.

It’s all about product-market fit.

Ultimately, customer personas help you develop what’s called a “product-market fit.”

This is where your product (or service) is so well-matched to the wants and needs of your market that it will sell like gangbusters. (Another perk of a great product-market fit is that not only will people buy your product — they’ll end up selling it for you by telling everyone else about it, too.)

When you use these personas effectively, you can adjust, tweak and improve your product or service to better match what your target customers actually care about.

And that leads to greater demand.

This is why I say customer personas are “magical” — when you develop them the right way, the results you can get are quite literally transformative.

What customer personas ARE.

At the end of the day, a customer persona is simply a tool that helps you accurately understand the goals of your target audience. It helps you distill the information you collect from your interviews, and apply it to a framework that helps you shift from what you think your customer wants to what your customer actually wants or needs.

Customer personas…

  • ARE research-driven empathy.

    In other words, they offer a way to understand your customer’s thoughts, actions and feelings by stepping into their shoes.

  • ARE focused on customer goals.

    It doesn’t matter what you want—what matters is what the customer wants. What are they trying to accomplish? Why is it important to them? How do they define achieving that goal?

  • ARE grounded in research.

    They are created based on field research (interviews). You can’t truly learn about your customers only by sitting in your office talking on the phone, sending out surveys and researching on your computer.

What they ARE NOT.

Customer personas…

  • ARE NOT personal opinions.

    As pointed out earlier, they’re based on research—what the customer tells you they want, think or care about.

  • ARE NOT fake people.

    They do not come from your imagination, so you can’t simply think them up. Inventing a composite will miss critical details that won’t match up with customers in the real world.

  • ARE NOT the same as demographics.

    Demographics are about statistical data, whereas personas are about the thoughts, feelings and behaviors relating to a particular aspect of customers’ lives.

But aren’t demographics important?

Demographic data has its own value, but it doesn’t tell the whole story about what your customers are really like. People with different demographics may have the same goals… and vice versa (those with the same demographics may have different goals).

Imagine a set of twins who live in the same home, with the same parents, etc. When it comes to their favorite desserts, one may love chocolate ice cream while the other loves pistachio — or hates ice cream altogether — and loves cake!

Demographics are background research you may want to have before conducting your interviews. Then again, it may be better to wait until after your interviews since research can inadvertently introduce bias or assumptions.

Remember, demographics are simply facts and figures about who people are — something you can add after you’ve completed your interviews.

Personas with DEPTH get better results.

The key to a great customer persona—one that helps you really understand your target audience—is detail. When you’re talking to people, you want to get the story behind the things they tell you.

Here’s an example:

When a customer describes some aspect of their life as being “inefficient” that’s not good enough.

You need to dig deeper.

Are they talking about “hours wasted waiting on line?” or “too many clicks to make a purchase?” Those are two very different situations.

Here’s another example:

What is the customer’s personal life like?

Describing them as “married, 2 kids, lives in suburbs” isn’t good enough. It’s much more valuable to know “they’ve been working 15 years, been in the game for a while and know how to get the job done.”

Ultimately, a valuable customer persona teases out the reasons why a person acts or behaves in a particular way. The deeper you dig, the more accurate your information will be.

Customer personas truly are a magical tool.

While you’re certainly not required to develop customer personas, you’ll be limiting your chances of success by skipping them.

If you want to build a growing, thriving business, personas are invaluable when it comes to truly understanding what customers actually want and need.

And let’s be frank, knowing your customer is the single most important ingredient in building a successful business. If you’re wrong on this, you’ll be “digging in the wrong place” — and if that goes on long enough, you’ll sink your business.

In my next post, I’ll map out how you can find out what your customers really want — including the five questions you need to ask for a great customer interview.

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