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Fictional Characters Can Help You Know Your Customers so You Don't Waste Time, Money


By guest contributor Jack Harwell, Business Adviser, Kansas Small Business Development Center at Johnson County Community College


Think you know your customers? If you haven’t developed customer personas, you may not know who’s buying your product or service. Here’s why that’s vital to the success of your business.

Reality check: Not everyone will want to buy what you’re selling. In fact, without a customer persona, you could be wasting marketing dollars directing the wrong message to the wrong crowd. And every business should know their customers, so they can design the right message that resonates with the right audience. 

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This isn’t marketing fluff. Defining who your ideal customers are will help you focus your time on those who are most likely to purchase from you. So unless you have infinite time and money and don’t care about wasting both, listen up: To figure out who your ideal customer is, you’ll have to do some research. And that research will help you understand customers’ wants because it’s not so much knowing about your product or solution; it’s about understanding their problem.

So how can you talk to customers, not just at them? The customer persona can help you do that.

The business advisers at the Kansas Small Business Development Center at Johnson County Community College can help you build your own customer persona though the Business Basics in a Day course. Looking for something else? Call KCSourceLink at 816-235-6500 or drop us line, and we'll show you the next steps you should take.

What Is a Customer Persona?

A customer persona is a fictional character who represents the essential characteristics of your ideal customer. The persona is described using information about the ideal customer’s age, sex, education and other demographic information. To really understand the customer persona, you should also include psychographic information, like how they’re feeling, where they’re going and what’s important to them.

Most companies today use customer personas in their marketing—and many of those companies have more than one. When I worked for RadioShack, the company had five personas. One was a 50-something man (I called him a curmudgeon) who likes to spend hours in his basement soldering electronic gadgets. His name was Bob. Another persona, Sally, was a young mother who spends most of her time taking care of the children and her household. She picks her children up at school, drops them off at after-school activities and uses the latest technology to help her keep up with her hectic schedule.

We had life-sized, standup posters depicting Bob, Sally and the other personas. They were in the marketing conference room while we debated the details of our next great marketing campaign. Questions like, “What would Bob say?” or “Do you think Sally will go for it?,” were common as we refined our message. Now, you don’t have to make life-size replicas of your personas, but the point is the team would often realize we weren’t ready to run with our plans because they didn’t quite resonate with the right persona.

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Do Your Homework

It’s important not to make any assumptions here —your persona should be based on facts. Ask your customers for those details if you don’t already know. You should regularly talk to your customers anyway, so just add a few directed questions that will elicit insights you can add to their persona.

If you haven’t started your business yet, you should put extra effort into defining who will be your customer. Because you don’t currently have a customer database to learn from, you’ll need a different approach. Start with identifying your unique selling proposition—your secret sauce. Then research your competitors to understand how you differentiate your product/service from the others. This should tell you what will compel your new customers to do business with you, which will help create your customer persona.

The customer persona built on the assumptions of your business model will also need to be validated. Experts recommend conducting primary research, such as customer focus groups, competitor observations and conversations with employees, vendors and others in the market. The more you can verify that your customer persona works for your business—and the market has plenty of these customers—the more solid your business plan.

Your core persona should represent most of your customers. This is the first and maybe the only persona a business needs. But, again, some situations might require more than one.

Start with Your Core Persona

If you’re already in business, to create your own customer persona(s), pick a few of your most valuable customers — customers who buy the most, are your best advocates and seem to enjoy doing business with you. Start building your core persona by describing what sets them apart from your other, less productive customers.

An effective persona identifies the following:
  • Basic demographics: What is their age, education level, marital status, occupation, household income, etc.? How many children living at home? Do they have grandkids? Do they rent or own their home?
  • General psychographics: What are their goals and challenges what is busiest part of their day, when is the best time to relax, when do they shop, what keeps them up at night?
  • Industry-specific preferences: What is their primary pain point you are solving, how do they use the product/service and what do they expect from customer service?
  • Shopping behaviors: What’s their favorite social media platform or favorite shopping experience? How do they learn about products/services before purchasing? What’s the relative importance of price-quality-availability? Do they consider online reviews before they buy?

Multiple Personas

If you have a complex purchase process, serve more than one customer base or want to launch a new product or service, you may find you need more than one persona.

If your customers are businesses, several people might be involved in the sales cycle. I once had a client who served Medicaid patients under a contract with the state. It turns out that the customer persona we were looking for was actually a trio: the administrator of the Medicaid provider contracts, the physician’s assistant that referred clients and the end user. All three customer personas were needed for this business to effectively market to all their customers.

If you are planning to launch a new product, you should confirm that the product will resonate with your core customer persona. If not, and that is your growth strategy, you should develop a new persona to reflect the new market you are targeting.

And if your growth plans include appealing to a new type of customer than you’ve traditionally served, then an aspirational customer persona might be in order.

Share Your Persona

The customer persona is not something you relegate to the desk drawer when you finish it. It is one of the strategic cornerstones of your business and should be integrated into how your business runs.four people look at a smartphone

Use it as a touchstone to validate all interactions with the customer and to design a product or service process that will thrill your customers. Use it to train all employees — not just those who interact with customers. Most background processes can ultimately affect the customer either positively or negatively. With your customer persona looking over their shoulders, employees are more likely to get it right.

You should also share your persona with your marketing team (if you have one) because all social media messaging should be directed toward your customer persona. This is especially true when you outsource some or all your marketing.

When your customer personas are in the business plan, the reader (that could be a lender you’re trying to convince to loan you money) will see that you’ve done your homework and you have a good grasp on the market you're entering.

Tweak Your Personas over Time

The customer persona should not be a static document. It should change over time to reflect changes in the market or your business model. When you notice trends in your customer profile, when you launch new products or services or if you notice a decline in the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns, you should conduct a full review of your customer persona to make sure it still reflects the realities of your market.

Learn More

To learn more about your persona, get a few customers in the room and ask them to share how they are feeling, where they are going and what is important to them.

Jack Harwell, Kansas SBDC at Johnson County Community CollegeJack Harwell is a consultant for the Kansas Small Business Development Center at Johnson County Community College. Jack leverages his more than 30 years of experience in manufacturing, distribution, logistics and all things supply-chain to assist clients. Jack spent 10 years with RadioShack in a unique role that involved him in marketing, store operations, product management and other retail business processes that rounded out his strong supply-chain background. Jack has a BS in mathematics and an MBA from the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as CPIM and CSCP certifications with APICS (which he is certified to teach).

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