The complete guide on how to create customer personas for business-to-business organizations including; where to start, sample customer persona templates to download, and scoping questions.
Identifying customer persona(s) is a strategic building block that shapes your organization. If you don’t understand the customers you’re attempting to serve, you’re doomed. Maybe quickly or perhaps even slowly, but still doomed. At best you’re living on luck.
A customer focused framework is useful for articulating customer needs. When working to understand customers, the most common weakness is sliding into focusing on your technology, solution, favourite (or favorite for those West of the Atlantic) communication channel or sales tool. A framework helps guard against this tempting slope.
“When customers ask about XXX, in this case it’s not about the technology.” a client said recently.
My response: “It is never about the technology.”
Where groups of customers are involved, customer persona development provides a framework to conceptualise and put your customers’ needs in context.
Firstly, you need to consider the broader ecosystem within which your customer persona find themselves. Then the more immediate context, the 3Rs of responsibility, risk and reward for a given persona. Finally, now that the scope is clear, you can go about understanding customer needs.
Before diving in, let’s be clear what we mean by customer personas by starting with a definition.
Customer Persona Definition
Customer personas are composites, archetypes representing market segments, a group of individuals with commonality, not unique individuals. A customer persona represents a cohort with similar needs.
It follows, then, that those with different needs represent different customer personas. Another way of articulating this same concept, is market segmentation. Different market segments have, by definition, different needs.
Using customers personas helps keep the person in focus rather than the relatively academic market segment. Customer persona development involves creating a fictitious representation with sufficient depth and colour so that teams can relate to. Customer personas are often named in a catchy way; it’s easier to relate to “Data Center Debbie” and “Facilities Frank” than the descriptive but colourless ‘data center operations manager’ and the ‘facilities manager’.
A key aspect of customer persona development is figuring out core differences.
Both ‘Data Center Debbie’ and ‘Facilities Frank’ care about the delivery of electricity to the data center.
Only Debbie cares about installing new servers.
Only Frank has knowledge of the building management system.
(We’ll see why below.)
The specific differences for your customer personas will emerge from researching and answering the questions outlined in this article.
The macro customer persona question is:
how do customers’ needs differ?
A word on persona terminology.
‘User persona‘ is frequently, and usefully, used in software development as the archetype for those actually ‘using’ the product. As we will see there are different influencers in B2B sales, only one of whom may be the actual ‘user’.
The term ‘buyer persona’ is also used: but focusing just on ‘buying’ doesn’t do justice to the different needs of customers. It narrowly suggests the most important aspect is where the money transaction takes place, or that just one person makes all the decisions from choosing to using the product. Neither of those is true for B2B customers.
So I choose ‘customer persona’ as a more appropriate term.
Getting Started With Customer Persona Development
A good way to start scoping your customer personas is to consider the ecosystem within which they operate. It’s typically fast and easy to get started by using this step. It also helps you develop a ‘systems boundary’; what’s in scope and what’s beyond the reach for this aspect of your market place.
The Customer Persona Ecosystem
The purpose of working with customer persona is to see the world through a customer lens. Your customer personas operate within an ecosystem which influences, and constrains choice. To understand what your prospects are dealing with, it’s imperative to have a sense of the context into which your offering, organization and marketing communications must fit.
Externally to their organization, what does this context, their operating environment, look like? Consider first the wider picture within their industry as well as market trends (i.e. what is changing in the environment).
What thought leaders are articulating and influencing industry changes? It may be appropriate to specific influencers, be they analysts, researchers, journalists or the tech savvy daughter. Perhaps these influencers belong to industry organizations, Fortune 500 companies, universities, competitors or even your own organization.
Who are their existing suppliers and channel partners?
What are the needs of their customers? What competitors and alternative offerings are they dealing with?
Internally what does their organization look like? Critically who else is involved and has influence? Research in both the Harvard Business Review and from IDC indicate that B2B decision making teams have 5+ influencers. Mapping the internal influencers may reveal an additional customer persona with different needs, or an influential channel partner whom you need to consider a separate persona.
Debbie is responsible for operating the data center. At the moment cooling, required to keep servers operational, comes from the building cooling.
Frank is responsible for managing buildings and facilities. That includes the cooling to keep people comfortable on hot days. The same cooling is also used in the data center.
Customer Persona Ecosystem Template
In this customer persona ecosystem template (download at the bottom of this article), aspects closer to the central customer persona have a more visible, stronger or more apparent impact on the customer persona.
Generally items towards the top of each circle are more visible to the reader, so it’s helpful to have items that hold more sway towards the top. Position elements that influence each other, or are related, together.
Use the customer persona ecosystem template together with the customer persona template (below). As you move through the process and as your market changes evolve the ecosystem map based on new learnings.
Customer Persona Personal Context – The 3Rs of Relevance
People don’t care what you do. And they don’t care why you do it.
They care about their 3Rs: responsibility, rewards and risk.
What people care about are their own responsibilities, risks and rewards. Using this framework provides a context for why this customer cares. Answering the following questions helps you to build a picture of the world according to your customer persona.
Not all of the individual questions / ideas will be relevant for your situation. Your solution or rather the problem you trying to solve does not take up all the mindshare of your target market. Stay grounded in the context of their role.
Customer Persona Responsibility
- What is their role within the organization?
- What does their job description look like?
- What are their skills?
- What do they do (or what) happens daily / weekly / monthly?
- What’s the trigger for seeking a solution?
Customer -> Company -> Team -> Self
– a mindset for prioritization, a context for responsibilities.
Data Center Debbie, the Data Center Operations Manager, cares about the cost of operating the data center (particularly the electricity expense), spilling coffee on the servers, as well as deploying servers quickly. It’s not just about upgrading the data center cooling so they can add new blade servers.
Facilies Frank has people in downstairs offices complaining that they are too cold. And someone keeps leaving the heating on in the conference room. The building management system is meant to cater for people comfort and an appropriate operating environment for Dan’s growing data center.
Customer Persona Rewards
Understanding needs allows you to understand the criteria for success.
- How will the individual and the organization ‘win’?
- What does winning mean?
- What’s the basis for judging success?
- What key performance indicators are impacted?
Debbie’s key metric, the most important thing, is keeping the data center up and running; that means no frantic IT users nor frazzled colleagues overloaded on the helpdesk. That’s what the CIO expects her to do.
Frank is under pressure from everyone he meets in the corridor to get the temperature in the building comfortable. And the electricity expense is sufficiently large to have visibility with his boss, Dan and the CFO.
Customer Persona Risks
“No-one ever got fired for buying IBM.”
Risks are both personal and professional. Solutions need to align with values, as well as meet organizational and personal approaches to risk. FUD: fear, uncertainly and doubt are what human concerns. Solutions and communication to customers need to allay these concerns.
Trust plays a large role in developing relationships and choosing with whom to partner. The ecosystem template, as it evolves through learning, considers who influence risk and allay concerns.
- What may get in the way of success ?
- What can and does go wrong?
- How well is the problem understood? What pot holes might catch them unawares?
- How well are potential solutions understood? Has the complete lifecycle of the solution been considered? Maybe getting started is easy but what about post-sales support or scaling.
For Data Center Debbie, new cooling equipment introduces a risk of downtime as she learns to use the new system, and means she can add those new blade servers (hurrah!).
Frank is not sure he wants to separate cooling system for the data center. What will that do to “his” electricity bill? A separate bill for Debbie might be good.
Consider the Johari window analysis technique;
- known knowns; what are the things they know they know? The available information; the ‘told you so’s.
- known unknowns; what are the things they know that they don’t know? The unanswered questions.
- unknown unknowns; what are the things that they don’t know they don’t know? Those elements we can but dream of, or stumble across. Like landmines.
Articulating Customer Needs
Now you have a context for your customers’ ecosystem, and the 3Rs of responsibilities, risk and rewards. For simplicity the term ‘needs’ is used here for all three. You should use the verbiage your customers use.
Your customers may articulate the 3Rs as:
- a need they have to fulfill,
- a problem they are trying to solve, or
- an opportunity they want to take advantage of.
The User Story Framework
From Agile Development, this simple and practical framework couples the customer need/function together with the underlying customer need. Similar to the 5 ‘why’s’, it remind us to keep looking for ‘real reason’.
- I <want to goal> in order to < benefit>.
Jobs To Be Done
This short video from Clayton Christensen is a nice articulation of customer needs as ‘jobs to be done’.
Customer Persona Images & Layout
To be useful, customer personas need to be embedded into the strategy of your organization and the day-to-day working of your teams.
To ‘keep it real’ it’s best to use actual imagery of customers and their environment. Take your own photos (with permission) if you can. Professional photos do not have the same raw sense of the reality. Customer personas are internal tools for your teams so imagery won’t be seen publically.
Similarly these are working documents and as such, evolve and need to be kept up to date. Please task someone who represents the customer, such as a product manager or business analysis, with keeping your customer persona fresh and relevant. If you have easy access to graphic design skills to make it pretty, great, but don’t let that become a barrier.
Customer Persona Template
Customer Persona Development Toolkit
- Download Customer Persona Ecosystem Template PowerPoint
- Download Customer Persona 3Rs Template PowerPoint
- Sources of B2B Market Research Data
This approach to customer persona development is influenced by the TQM, and more specifically ‘Concept Engineering‘ as developed by the Center for Quality Management (CQM), Cambridge, MA, USA, Gary Burchill and MIT.