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

by Jeannie Walters

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Does Your Organization Agree on Who Your Customer Is?

My workshopping and consulting leads me to work with a wide range of clients with all sorts of goals. Often these goals are focused on updating and improving existing customer experience policies, but sometimes I get to work with clients on an enormous goal:  Redesigning their customer experience from the ground up.

It’s always exciting to think about the possibilities when starting from scratch. The first step of such a large endeavor is for me to meet with many leaders from the organization, as well as the project leads.

Typically I’ll start with broad questions. Tell me about your customers. Who is your customer? Who is this experience supposed to delight?

Too often, I’ll  hear these types of a bunch of responses:

  • Our customers are young… and old.
  • They are long-term, loyal customers… but also new, fickle customers.
  • They are happy, for the most part… except when they’re really unhappy.
  • They have leadership roles… Except for those who are working in the field.
  • They are eager to use technology… except for those who are totally uncomfortable with it.

I bet you see the problem.

I ask more questions. What does the data tell us? What do we know? What have they told us in their feedback? What was their main goal in using the product?

I’m sure you can guess what those answers usually are too.

In most organizations, each individual person believes they understand their customer. And you know what? They might. But each employee tends to define the customer in their own, unique way.

  • Some base their understanding of all customers on a single customer they happen to know.
  • Some project their own preferences and biases onto their customers.
  • Some just confidently guess.

Knowing your customer might be one of the hardest parts of customer experience. Growing companies struggle with their lack of data. Large companies struggle with having too much data they have to sort through for real insights.

Every customer's journey is driven by very different needs
Source: Customer Experience Journey Mapping Course from Linkedin Learning and Jeannie Walters

Defining who your customer is, along with what customers you want, is a key step in designing the right experiences for them.

But what if you have many different types of customers? What if you have different buyers and end-users, as many B2B organizations do? What if different products have different customers?

Well, you have to start somewhere. Begin with the customer you serve the most, or the customer journey you’re trying to address. Then you can establish best practices around identifying and defining your customers. Use the right persona for the right journey.

Here are some tips to reduce the overwhelm and get you started.

5 Ways to Better Know Your Customer

1. Create a persona.

Personas are fictionalized archetypes representing your customer. They help everyone in your organization identify who this person is, instead of relying on collective data that dehumanizes the customer.

A customer persona outline typically consists of one page of both an image and high-level bullets about your customer. Sometimes they include quotes and additional information about the goals of your customer. Some sales teams rely on “buyer personas” to understand their prospects. I much prefer identifying them as customer personas, because examining not just what makes them buy but what makes them stay is what customer experience is all about!

Personas can be built using a variety of methods. The important thing is to start somewhere. A common method is to identify a “typical” customer:

  • Review the last 100 interactions or the last 1-2 years.  (Or whatever time frame suits your industry.) What patterns do you see in your customers? Do they have similar demographics, backgrounds, professional roles?
  • Review customer surveys. What data and qualitative insights have customers shared?
  • Talk to your team. What can your customer-facing employees tell you about your customers? Ask your sales people, service agents, account managers, cashiers and others who deal directly with customers who they think their customer is. What do they think customers have in common?

Once you have an idea of the demographics, insights, and common traits of a typical customer, begin building out a more complete picture:

  • Consider the REST of your customer’s life. Customer interactions are one part of their life – what do you know about the rest of their lives? What products and services do they also use and like? Do they have challenges to accessing your products, like slow Internet speeds or cash flow?
  • Personas often include different sections like: professional information, demographics, customer goals for your products, frustrations, challenges, etc. I like simple ways to add humanity to the persona, like using “I” statements to describe their goals. Quotes that express personality traits can also help.
  • It’s ok to base a persona on a real customer. But ensure that individual truly represents the typical customer or ideal customer you’re looking to represent.
Example of using an I statement
Source: Customer Experience Journey Mapping Course from Linkedin Learning and Jeannie Walters

Even though your persona represents a group of customers, you’ll want to think of it as a single individual who is representative of that group:

  • Name your persona. You can do this with basic names or descriptive names. I’ve seen persona names like “Hannah-in-a-Hurry” and “Go-Getter-Gary” to help identify who the customer is quickly. B2B personas often identify the industry or the role in the persona name, like “CEO Chris.” Teams can also avoid genderizing personas with initials or more universal names like “A.J.” or “Alex.” This can also help your teams align with the goals of the defined persona.
  • Add a photo or graphic to represent the customer. Photos have certain limitations to consider, because a photo might represent a certain demographic, gender, or cultural representation that isn’t truly representative of the customer. Use caution when using stock photos for this reason.

Use this information to create a persona you can share with your organization. Ask for feedback, socialize and communicate about how the persona is there to help everyone align on goals and keep the customer at the center of the brand.

One persona is almost never enough. Let every session be a learning experience and keep building and improving as needed.

2. Lean into the data you have.

Your customers might not share much about their lives, but you probably have access to data about their behaviors, actions and engagement with your brand.

Data comes in both formal results and informal, unstructured landscapes. Use both to understand your customers.

Formal data can be reviewed at both the individual and organizational levels. Individual customer data like…

  • Purchase histories
  • Customer service requests
  • Usage data like how often an app is used

…can help paint the picture of who your customer is and how they engage on their customer journey.

Related: To Improve Your Voice of the Customer Program, Focus on These Three Things

Informal data like customer anecdotes, open-ended feedback on surveys, and comments on social media can also help you stay connected to who your customer is.

3. Interview your customers.

I love talking to customers! Interviewing customers, former customers, and almost-customers is a great way to really listen to the people who actually traveled through the customer journey.

Interview customers to ask about their needs, expectations, disappointments, and wishes. Find out how they felt about the experience with your brand AND other brands. Did they shop the competition? What can you learn from that?

Customer interviews should be customized for the unique brand, industry and situation. But once the questions are designed, gather the feedback in one place to review the patterns and outcomes.

Some companies do this in conjunction with “follow me” research, in which Experience Designers or researchers literally go to where the customer is and observe how they use the actual product in their actual lives. This can also be done in virtual environments and user testing. This type of research is rich with understanding the product usage and can shed light on who customers are.

Many organizations simply don’t have the resources to do this on an ongoing basis. If you don’t have the resources to directly observe customers, then interviews can help bridge the timeline between these types of in-depth research programs.

No matter what industry or situation, I like to end interviews with two questions and let the customers talk:

  • If you could wave a magic wand, and there were no limits, what would you want from this product/service/brand?
  • Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you want to be sure I hear?

Once customers have enough trust in the conversation, they are apt to come up with some amazing ideas and insights! And if you listen closely, you’ll hear exactly what challenges and goals they have.

4. Create anti-personas.

There’s one thing about knowing our customers. We focus on those who love our brand. Our promoters love us and we love them back!

It’s easy and comfortable to stay in a happy place where we believe all our customers are like the ones who can’t wait to hear from us, give us rave reviews, and tell all their friends about our brand.

But that means we’re often missing valuable information about who our less-than-sunny customers are. The detractors, complainers and nay-sayers are important to understand as our customers, too. We should get to know them!

Related: Bad Feedback is the Best Feedback. Are You Listening For it?

Anti-personas are great ways to explore this customer. Explore the data around customers who canceled. Look for the worst social media comments and dig into who those customers are.

The persona around “No-Patience-Perry” might help your teams design to improve that experience in ways that improve the experience for all customers!

Don’t be afraid to explore your competitor’s customers, too. That can be rich with information on ideal customers or even identifying those you DON’T want.

5. Stay curious!

Curiosity is a key ingredient in creating great customer experiences.

Your customer will evolve, just like we all do. It’s on your team to keep up!

There are many ways to interact with customers, listen and learn. Today, there are tools like interactive journey maps, virtual focus groups, customer advisory boards and more that can help you stay connected to your customer. Leverage these techniques on an ongoing basis to really know your customer.

When reviewing customer data — especially complaints — it can be easy to develop a cynical approach. I encourage you to be curious without cynicism! Humans are complex, nuanced, emotional and irrational. That requires a lot of judgment-free listening and learning. I know that sometimes this is easier said than done, but that’s all the more reason to stay ahead of it. Challenge your team to call each other out on dismissive comments when listening to customers.

Let’s recap:

5 Ways to Better Know Your Customers:

  1. Create a persona. They help everyone in your organization identify who this person is, instead of relying on collective data that dehumanizes the customer.
  2. Lean into the data you have. Data comes in both formal results and informal, unstructured landscapes. Use both to understand your customers.
  3. Interview your customers. Gather the feedback in one place to review the patterns and outcomes.
  4. Create anti-personas. The detractors, complainers and nay-sayers are important to understand as our customers, too.
  5. Stay curious. Your customer will evolve, just like we all do. It’s on your team to keep up!

We can create personas, study data, host a few interviews and be tempted to put our customer squarely into a box. But a persona will never provide all the information that makes up a human. Data will never tell us exactly why people make the decisions they do. Interviews won’t always get to the important backstory that led a person to where they are today.

Yes, it’s important to know our customer and agree as an organization on who that is. But, no, we’ll never get it completely right.

Challenge your teams to go beyond the basics. Be curious and humble. Humans are each unique, which is amazing! We need to remember to celebrate that with our curiosity, too. Personas are moving away from traditional demographics, gender, and even experience in professional journeys. This is one way we can allow for more diversity and inclusion.

Related: A Call for Representation in CX

Your customers might share similar job titles or hobbies, but they make decisions based on emotions, like we all do. Aim to understand your customer’s goals, needs, challenges and desired outcomes. Then keep learning about them as people. You’ll be glad you did, and your customers will thank you for it!

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Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the CEO/Founder of Experience Investigators, a global Customer Experience consulting firm. She has 20 years of experience helping companies improve loyalty and retention, employee engagement, and overall customer experience.

Jeannie is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP,) a charter member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA,) a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, a Forbes Coaches Council Member, a C-Suite Network Advisor, a LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com instructor, and a TEDx speaker.

Learn more here.

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