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How to Use Your Sales Team to Create Better Buyer Personas


Buyer personas, which model the personalities, behaviors, motivations and pain points of potential customers, can be a useful tool for shaping your company’s marketing strategies. Many B2B marketers, however, either haven’t developed personas, or have ineffective ones that aren’t being used. So, how can you create buyer personas that actually work?

Your sales reps spend most of their time interacting one-on-one with customers and prospects, gathering important information and insight. When seeking buyer information, where better to turn than your own sales team? I spoke with experts in the field to discover how sales and marketing can work together to create better, more effective buyer personas. Here’s what I found.

Buyer Persona Checklist3

Get Input From the Front Lines

Your sales team spends every day on the front lines of buyer interaction. Sales reps get a firsthand look at what’s working for buyers about your product or service, and what’s not—giving them unique insight into who your target buyers really are.

“[My former mentor] said something that stuck with me: always remember that attempting to sell and market your product to people who would never buy it is completely irresponsible and a waste of shareholder money,” says Gary Brooks, chief marketing officer at Urjanet (a firm that provides “Big Energy Data” services).

For this reason, determining who your target buyers are is vital, he explains, “and the sales team [has] the greatest visibility into not only the behavior of a buyer, but the ideal characteristics.”

Your best sources of information are your sales team’s top performers, because they are “the most tuned-in to your most willing buyers, and they know how to connect with those individuals,” says Alex Pence, account manager at brand marketing and design firm Design the Planet. “They pick up on the small details and ‘tells’ that the marketing team isn’t exposed to… the things that take face-to-face interaction and feeling to understand.”

Indeed, sales reps “develop a deep understanding of the people they are speaking to, and [recognize] patterns in their questions, concerns and interest levels,” says Mark Organ, founder and CEO of advocate marketing software vendor Influitive (and founder and former CEO of Eloqua).

“Great sales reps also know how to handle multiple people on the buying committee, and when to use different pitches to match a situation,” he adds. This knowledge can inform a whole range of buyer personas.

Ask Your Reps the Right Questions

When you sit down with your sales reps, there are specific questions you should ask them to uncover the information that will help you build accurate, effective buyer personas. These questions include:

Who are you selling to?
First and foremost, says Marisa Kopec, SiriusDecisions’ vice president and group director, you need to make sure sales and marketing are aligned in perspective. “The first question to ask sales is, who are you selling to? What meeting[s] are you trying to get with which job roles in which functional areas? The reason is that, many times, what marketing considers the ‘buyer persona’ is not who sales is selling to,” she says.

Kopec notes that you should also talk to your product department, if you have one, as they may have “longer-term product strategies targeting buyer personas.”

What are some common characteristics of buyers?
Naturally, after asking sales reps who they’re selling to, your next question should be: Who’s buying? Your reps can describe characteristics of not only the ideal customer, but also of customers who are actually purchasing your product, says marketing research firm Demand Metric’s Chief Analyst, Jerry Rackley.

Ask reps what reasons buyers give when deciding to make a purchase, as well as those they give for not buying, in order to identify common factors in buyer decision-making.

How do buyers prefer to communicate?
Another important insight sales can provide is what form of communication buyers respond best to, says Louise Armstrong, marketing coordinator at inbound marketing firm Zizinya Web Solutions.

Salespeople typically use a variety of methods for reaching out to prospective buyers, from phone calls to email and social media. Tracking how buyers respond to various channels can inform your buyer personas as well as your marketing outreach efforts.

What questions are buyers asking?
Of course, the key to creating a buyer persona is understanding exactly what it is buyers are looking for. Ask your sales reps about the questions customers are asking them. These questions, says Brooks, typically include such basic information about your product or service as:

  • What does it do?
  • How much does it cost?
  • What are the system requirements or technical details?

When you know what your persona is seeking, you can create marketing materials that preemptively answer their questions.

What pain are buyers experiencing?
Generally, buyers seek new products or services when they have a specific problem they need to solve. Pierce Smith, communications specialist at sales productivity software vendor SAVO, says sales should help marketing answer the questions, “What pain are customers solving with our product?” and “How do they speak about this pain?”

A familiarity with buyers’ challenges and the language they use to describe them can provide insight into how best to deliver value, he says.

What are the buyers’ journeys?
Organ recommends digging into customer behavior by asking your reps about the buyer’s journey, or “the path that buyers take to becoming customers.” He says your salespeople should be able to tell you about:

  • The different stages involved in this journey for different types of buyers;
  • What influences buyers at each stage, and either accelerates or decelerates their path to becoming a customer;
  • What criteria are most important in a buyer’s decision to purchase a product or service; and
  • What solution they were using prior to your product or service.

What kinds of companies do buyers work for?
Not only can your sales team help you answer questions about buyer behavior, says Brooks, they can also typically provide details about buyers’ organizations.

Such details include company size and revenue, number of employees, the number of facilities they have and the amount of their budget that’s allocated to your area of interest (Urjanet, for example, wants to know how much companies are spending on energy).

Use Data to Flesh Out Personas

A complete persona, says Armstrong, includes data on a variety of aspects about an individual, including:

  • Professional roles and responsibilities
  • Company information
  • Goals
  • Professional challenges
  • Personal and professional watering holes
  • Personal background
  • Shopping preferences

While interviewing your sales reps is a great way to get this sort of information about buyers, reps may not have all the answers. However, they can likely connect you with other valuable sources of data to fully flesh out your buyer personas, such as:

Primary research
Kopec says that while the sales department is a good place to both start and finish crafting buyer personas, at SiriusDecisions, they “advise clients to conduct primary market research to interview people in the job roles who represent target personas.” Going directly to the source is a great way to verify the trends and observations your reps have picked up on.

Tom Martin, president of digital marketing strategy firm Converse Digital, also suggests going to the source: he recommends marketers get out in the field and participate in direct observation with sales reps.

“Do ride-alongs if it is outside sales [e.g. visiting clients on-site], attend sales presentations and meetings in a shadow role and listen to real-time calls,” he says. “This removes the sales bias by giving the marketer direct access to the insight they really need.”

Wins and losses
Using marketing automation and/or customer relationship management (CRM) tools, you can track those activities that correspond with “won” vs. “lost” sales opportunities. “Doing this, you can develop an understanding of how an ‘ideal’ buyer will act prior to, and during, a sales engagement,” Smith says.

Brooks agrees that analyzing win-loss data is critical, and recommends reviewing this data on a quarterly basis. For each successfully closed deal, Brooks says, his marketing and sales teams look at why they won, and what things in particular their customers liked about their solution or methods. (They follow the same process for losses.)

Sales force and marketing automation reports
Sales force automation (SFA) and marketing automation software systems offer reports that can provide insight into prospective buyer behavior. Data on qualified lead-to-sales conversion rates and length of sales cycle can help you understand when and why interested customers decide to pull the trigger.

Organ recommends looking at two SFA reports in particular (his company uses Salesforce): “Incoming leads that are accepted by sales, and contacts [qualified leads or people you are otherwise in business with] that are tied to opportunities [sales events].” In these reports, he says, you should look for patterns in job titles and industries, and compare them to see if there are any disparities.

“You may be bringing in IT Managers as leads, but all your opportunities have CIOs [chief information officers] as purchasers when they close,” Organ says. “That would indicate you have two distinct personas for the buying process: IT Managers and CIOs, both with different purchase roles.”

Sales can help you create a model of your ideal customer, Brooks says, “both by understanding their behavior and understanding their demographic DNA. Then, you can go find other companies that are ‘look-alikes,’ or those that demonstrate very similar behavior.”

Finding these look-alikes can help you predict, based on the personalities and patterns of similar buyers and businesses, how your target buyer will react to different sales and marketing initiatives.

Case studies
One great way to get in-depth insight about what works and what doesn’t for buyers, says Izabella De Souza, marketing coordinator at software vendor Appeagle, is to have your sales team gather the names of satisfied customers who are willing to be interviewed about their experience with your product or service. These interviews not only provide valuable insight, they can also be used to create case studies that you can refer back to for future buyer persona research.

Customer surveys
If you don’t have access to customers for in-depth interviews, you can still gather data directly from buyers by having sales reps administer customer influence surveys. “Asking new customers to distribute 100 points amongst the criteria that were most influential on their purchase often provides very trenchant insights that can be used for persona development,” Organ says.

Always Be Improving

After creating a buyer persona, Kopec says, have sales validate your findings to ensure that your conclusions seem accurate. Once your personas are complete, make sure you’re working with sales on an ongoing basis to continually improve their effectiveness. Buyer behavior is not static, and you must regularly review and refine personas to reflect changing trends and preferences.

Kopec notes that personas are a “means to an end”: since you can’t directly measure their success or failure, you need to measure the effectiveness of the content and campaigns that are created as a result. In her experience, she says, persona-based initiatives are typically more successful than those not based on buyer personas.

“When buyer personas are accurate, you will see improvements in the conversion rates all through the sales funnel—you’ll see a more efficient buyer’s journey,” Organ explains. “Everything from email open rates to sales-qualified opportunity conversion rates will often double after an effective buyer development exercise, so the same reports used to track conversions and buyers’ satisfaction also measure the success of personas.”

In addition to maintaining constant communication with sales, Smith says, SFA and marketing automation tools can be used to track the success rates of marketing materials to see whether messaging is resonating with buyers.

“If a persona is accurate, and the assets based on it are of high quality, you should expect to see higher conversion rates and faster sales cycles,” Rackley says.

By working with your sales team to develop better buyer personas, you can increase the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns—and, in the process, boost your company’s bottom line.

Personas” created by Nicolas Nova used under CC-BY.

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Holly Regan

About the Author

Holly Regan is the Content Editor for Software Advice. Her work has appeared on many notable sites, including The New York Times, PRNews and oDesk. She has also contributed to works on top-tier publications such as Entrepreneur, the Wall Street Journal and Business Insider.

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