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Creating Customer Personas: Solutions to 4 Common Challenges

Creating customer personas is an important part of any customer journey mapping exercise or really any customer experience management program.

But what are they, really? How are they created? And how can you overcome the obstacles that tend to keep organizations from creating truly great, useful personas?

That’s what we’ll tackle today.

What is a Customer Persona?

A customer persona is a visualization of a representation of your customer. Customer personas can be as detailed or high-level as you need them to be, based on your goals and usage of them. A customer persona helps humanize the customer to the point you might refer to them by a fictional name.

You’ll notice I didn’t call this a consumer persona or a buyer persona. Personas are often used in marketing and sales efforts, and those names apply to those types of personas.

We develop personas for specific activities around customer experience management. They are extremely useful when it comes to:

  • Customer Journey Mapping
  • Customer Service Blueprinting
  • Designing customer feedback strategies
  • Prioritizing improvements along the customer journey
  • Aligning the right Customer Success Manager or Customer Service Representative with the right customer

In business-to-consumer (B2C) organizations, customer personas are typically about the main shopper or buyer of the product. In business-to-business (B2B) organizations, personas often focus on the professional role the customer has within the client organization, including their likely title and department.

I prefer a one-page persona that includes information about what triggers the customer emotionally. It’s helpful to have a photo or an image that represents your customer in the persona documentation.

Personas are often based on research, including customer segmentation and market research data. They can also include what your own customer data shows you, including what customers say in feedback and share with customer-facing team members. The best personas include a mix of data types to provide a holistic view of the customer you’re serving.

How Do You Create a Customer Persona?

There are four basic steps to creating a customer persona:

  1. Decide on the goal of the project. What will these personas be used for? What is most important to know? For example, if you are embarking on a customer journey mapping project with a specific scope, like signing up for a mobile app, then you’ll want to know about the customers who use (or are likely to use) that mobile app.
  2. Tap into the research available to you. This could include demographic information, customer feedback, information from customer-facing teams like customer success, and wherever else you have information about customers. You may want to supplement this existing data with additional research like customer interviews or specifically designed surveys.
  3. Define and consider the specific points of interaction between each customer persona and your brand. This is where you might outline use cases, customer roles (like buyer versus end-user in B2B), and where they interact along the customer journey.
  4. Use a common template to create all your personas. This will help limit the urge to include too much nuance and help your teams refer to personas in a consistent way.

Let’s talk a bit more about that last step — using a common template. These templates might include similar features like:

  • A photo or image, along with a name or initials, as well as life information like family or education details
  • Their decision-making process, like what media or content they consume, as well as what influences them
  • Their challenges and celebrations – how they define wins and losses
  • Their emotional and attitudinal relationship to your industry
  • Quotes that help personify their real-life experiences
  • Their goals with your brand

Related: Personas, Interviews, Data & More: How to Know Your Customer

While these steps seem easy enough, there are some common challenges for anyone designing and developing customer personas. 

Let’s look at a few challenges I see often — and how to overcome each.


Four Challenges to Creating Customer Personas — And Four Solutions

Challenge # 1 – What information is most important?

It’s easy to feel like there’s always more to know about our customers, so we should keep researching and learning to include as much information as possible. 

But these personas are simple representations of complex human beings. They will never truly encapsulate the way humans interact or make decisions or feel things. No matter how much information we collect, our customer personas will be helpful but imperfect guides to understanding our individual customers.

Resist the temptation to delay building or using a persona because the research itself is so time-consuming. Waiting for the next report, the next survey, the next set of interviews might be the right thing to do when you really don’t have enough information. But often it’s a form of “analysis paralysis” and delays getting a persona to use.

Like other tools, personas can be changed and updated as you learn more about the marketplace, your customers, or your organization. After all, your customers will have shifting expectations and your organization will release updated products. Personas need to adapt no matter what. 

Perfect is the enemy of done. And done is not final forever. Don’t get hung up on the many ways to define a person. Focus on what you need to achieve your goals on behalf of the customer you are serving.

The Solution: Define Your Goals.

Don’t shortchange Step # 1 above – Deciding on the goal of the project.

What will these personas be used for? What tools will help you achieve your CX outcomes in the best ways?

If your goal is to be more customer-centric during the onboarding process, then it helps to consider what actions you will take to achieve that. Is it realistic to plan a big overhaul of the onboarding process, or is this really about incremental changes for now? If it’s the latter, including your customer’s favorite color might not really be that important.

Determine what others in your organization need to know to really connect with the person who is your customer.

In B2B, sometimes it’s important to include attitudes about career paths, like what will prompt a promotion. In B2C, sometimes it’s important to include where and how a customer will be experiencing specific steps along the journey in their real lives, like using a mobile app while using multiple screens.

Tap into what’s most necessary for leaders in your organization to understand how the customer is really feeling and interacting with your brand.


Challenge # 2 – Demographics in today’s world

This is a challenge many organizations are grappling with today. What do we do about gender identity, or gendering personas in general? Are there details in the persona that are influencing how our teams think about customers in terms of race, culture, or even region that might lead to being less inclusive than we should be?

It’s common for teams to assume they know their customers and include details like age and race without thinking much about it. The challenge is how these personas can actively exclude future customers without intentionally doing so. 

If your buyer today is a corporate leader who is white, male, and 60 years old, that doesn’t mean your buyer of tomorrow will be. The world is (thankfully) changing to become more inclusive, and there are real efforts around diversity in hiring. That means personas should zero in on what is important to customers around how and why they need your product or interact with your brand. 

This also is important to consider when serving customers in various regions. Behaviors and attitudes are different from place to place, culture to culture. Be aware of respecting cultural awareness in ways that are inclusive. It is important to bring in diverse team members and others who can help navigate these cultural nuances.

The Solution: Avoid gender roles and use generic initials instead of names to avoid Euro-centric or gender-specific identities. 

I’ve been adopting this approach for the last few years and have found it can be a great conversation starter about what it means to be inclusive, too. To do this, use initials like “C.J” and refer to pronouns as “they.” Watch for gender-specific wording. Use “parent” instead of “Mom” for example. 

There are some cases when it makes sense to include specific information about gender or culture, but think hard about if that is an assumption based on what’s happened and may be excluding others in the future.

Consider ways to be inclusive around accessibility, as well. Your personas ideally include customers with different abilities to help leaders understand and design experiences for all.


Challenge # 3 – The Fantasy Customer

I’ve seen a lot of personas that paint an absolute picture of the perfect customer. They include quotes that express undying loyalty to the brand, and attitudes like “picky about brands but loves ACME!” 

These are not even close to real people. It’s easy to fall in love with the fantasy of the ideal customer. But that won’t help you design better experiences for the real-life customers you do have. 

Watch out for leaders who want to “correct” the research or feedback you’ve found. They are well-intentioned but misguided. They often assert that the customers they talk to regularly are dedicated and loyal. While that might be true for a few customers, it’s not the case for most customers. Designing and delivering great experiences means making personas that serve many customers, not just our favorite ones.

The Solution: Focus on Real Life, Not Fantasy

It’s important to review each persona with an eye toward your customer’s real life. That means including their everyday frustrations and real-life obstacles along the customer journey. 

And while a persona for those loyal customers could serve your purposes for a specific loyalty program or VIP service initiative, remember those loyal customers have real lives, too. 

Some personas include two quotes that reflect the ideal and the disappointing experience a customer may have. It’s a good reminder that their experience is based on what is actually delivered!


Challenge #4: Creating too many or too few personas.

One persona is probably not enough to really personalize the experience for your customers. The whole idea of personas is to represent different customer types and create more meaningful experiences based on who they are, what they care about, and how they want to do business with you.

Yet it can also be tempting to want to have personas for each subset of every category within each segment! This is especially true in B2B organizations, because there can be multiple customers within that journey. 

When you break out culture, region, different product purchases, and other factors, it can be a long list of personas to create. 

This comes back to defining what your goals are. 

The Solution: Refer to Your Goals

Let your goals be your guide, and remember you can always add a persona later. The usefulness of personas shouldn’t be delayed to include every layer of an org chart for your business customer. Instead, start with what you know is your “main” customer and then build from there. There is often overlap between customer groups and you can leverage various pieces of the persona from one to the other.

The nuance of each persona should be focused on who they are and how you serve them, not how many details you can cram on the page.


Remember: Personas are Only Representations of Customers

Personas are powerful because they help us translate data into humanity. Leaders need to connect to the emotional realities of customers, and dashboards and data simply can’t do that alone. As a CX leader, you need to develop the right personas for your defined CX goals and outcomes. 

Personas serve an important function in helping leaders and teams understand the human being who is affected by the customer experience. But those very humans are nuanced, complex and emotional.

While personas can help, we must also remember that every customer, regardless of what category, segment, or persona they fit, is an individual with unique challenges and opportunities. And that’s what makes customer experience design so compelling, challenging, and important.

What challenges have you faced when designing personas? What challenges do you think we’ll see in the future? Send me a tweet.

About Jeannie Walters, CCXP, CSP

Jeannie Walters CCXP CSP small square photoJeannie is an award-winning customer experience expert, international keynote speaker, and sought-after business coach who is trailblazing the movement from “Reactive Customer Service” to “Proactive Customer and Employee Experience.” More than 500,000 people have learned from her CX courses on LinkedIn Learning, and her insights have been featured in Forbes, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and NPR

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