Buyer Personas: Sales Won’t Let Us Interview Customers

PropelGrowth Blog - Financial Services Marketing and Content Strategy
Tips for marketers to get better buyer persona interviews.
Marketers can’t always get access to enough customers for buyer persona research. But all is not lost. Here are three other interview sources that give even better insights to help you flesh out your buyer personas.

Recently, one of our subscribers mentioned that he has difficulty getting access to commercial real estate professionals to interview for buyer persona research, because Sales won’t agree to give Marketing access to customer.

This seems to be a bigger problem at larger companies. In smaller companies (up to around 200 people with 2-5 people in marketing), Sales and Marketing work together more closely, so Marketing seems to have less difficulty gaining access to customers.

Happy Customers Are Not Your Buyer Personas

Most marketers assume that buyer persona research must focus on interviewing existing customers. There are four problems with this:

  1. These customers are also being called upon to do reference calls, and Sales won’t want to make too many requests.
  2. They’re no longer involved in the buying process, and if they’re early customers, they didn’t follow the same process that new, marketing sourced leads will follow.
  3. If you don’t have many customers yet, or if you’re marketing a new product/service, you won’t have customers to interview.
  4. Many of your customers are probably using a limited range of your product’s functionality and can’t speak to the broader needs you may be trying to promote.

I actually find three other audiences much more useful in buyer persona research.

Recent Losses Make the Best Buyer Personas

My favorite interview subjects come from recent losses. If we reach out to a recent loss soon after they notify Sales of the decision, they’re often more willing to take an interview. Often, by this time, there is some level of relationship built with the vendor, and they feel bad about saying “no.” They may be willing to help, since it’s a kind of quid-pro-quo for the effort your team put into the sales process.

If we can reach a lost deal soon after their decision, they will tell us how they surfaced vendors to evaluate, developed their shortlist, evaluated their options, and made the decision. They want you to know it was a fair evaluation, so if you dig, they’ll generally tell you what you need to know. I also always ask these people what was missing from our company’s content. I get far more important and valuable insights from the loss interviews than I get with happy customers. Here’s an example of a real loss analysis I did for a client.

Two caveats:

  1. Make sure they know you won’t try to change their decision. If they think this will be another sales pitch, they’ll decline.
  2. Have someone who was NOT involved in the sales process do the interview. I recommend a neutral, external third party. This removes the fear that the interview will turn into a sales pitch and also allows the interviewee to be more negative about your sales and marketing approach without worrying about hurting the interviewer’s feelings. If there is any negative feedback, you need to hear it in order to make needed corrections. So the fewer filters on that feedback, the better.

Non-Customers Matching Your Persona Profile

Another place to source interviews is on LinkedIn. Search for candidates who match the profile of your persona, but who are not current customers. Position the interview as market research on specific issues that you product addresses. For example, I recently reached out to 10 interview subjects who were compliance officers at sell-sides and exchanges to discuss the current state of real-time surveillance technology. I’m clear about the purpose of the interview, and most of them agreed to a 30-minute phone call. I make it clear to them that this is NOT a sales call.

From these people, I learn how they approach buying from a general sense, how they find information, and what kinds of issues they tend to look for vendors to help solve. To get more detail, ask them about a current purchase process or one that they just recently completed. These interviews also give me an opportunity to test our messaging, asking them for feedback.

Marketing Qualified Leads Matching the Persona

A third place to source interviews is from the leads that Marketing has generated and that Sales either rejected or that haven’t made it to the qualified sales opportunity stage yet. Call them up before they’re assigned to Sales. It gives you an opportunity to gauge how they found you, what they’re looking for, and how they articulate their problem before your sales people have shaped their thinking. Again, make it clear that this is not a sales call, but that you’ll be happy to direct them to resources if they request it.

Reference Accounts Make Poor Persona Interviewees

Generally, your happy customers make good references, but are the worst persona interview subjects. They have been around for a while, and their memory of the buying process is vague. We humans also have a tendency to re-write our memories as we get further from events.

For example, one of our clients found Phil’s profile when she used LinkedIn to search for “financial services content marketing” and gave Phil a call. We know this, because it was the first thing we asked when she called us. At the time, Phil asked her if she knew me. She said “no.” She was not familiar with the fact that I’ve been heavily involved in the FIX Trading Community and that I ran a tech firm that competed with her company a few years earlier. Those new facts did help us win her business, but only AFTER she found us via her LinkedIn search.

About a year after we started working with her firm, we talked again about how she found us. But her memory of the events had changed. She said she knew me from the FIX Trading community and as a former competitor. If we had relied on a buyer persona interview with her at that point, once she’d gotten to know us, it could have seriously skewed our marketing strategy.

This client’s story is not unusual. Nearly all our clients forget how they found and evaluated us within a few months after they start working with us. By then, they’ve been subscribed to our blog, have connected on social media, have met our colleagues, and know our history. So their memories get overwritten (hopefully with dozens of positive interactions.)

What to Do Next

If you need some help getting started on developing your Buyer Personas, here’s a template you can use for the interview. If you’re interested in getting some help with your persona-based strategy and research, click the button below to book an appointment with our lead strategist:

In addition, here are some other articles about developing buyer personas:

B2B Buyer Personas – No Shortcuts
Buyer Personas for Radically Relevant Marketing
Developing Buyer Personas For Financial Services

Ardath Albee is a good friend of mine, and she publishes a lot of materials on how to develop buyer personas.

If you’re interested in getting some help with your persona-based strategy and research, call me at: +1 970.300.2280.

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