"Buyer personas don't work if you make stuff up," Adele Revella told me during this week's episode of Marketing Smarts. "They work if you listen to customers first."

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That the creation and use of robust buyer personas can play an important role in the development of effective marketing programs is widely accepted. But having the conversations necessary to actually build such personas, let alone continuously improve them, isn't as easy as you might think.

To gather real, actionable customer intelligence, you need to talk to actual customers. That can be challenging for two reasons.

1. Sales Owns the Customer

On the one hand, especially in the B2B context, the sales folk generally own the relationship with the customer. That means you can't simply go into your CRM, find the most interesting accounts, and start calling people (as I once found out the hard way). Instead, you have to partner with salespeople, work with them to identify the customers you would like to interview, and enlist their aid in setting up the actual interviews.

Which is not to say that this particular challenge can't be overcome with relative ease: It can and, frankly, you will rarely find salespeople who refuse to let you talk to their customers at all (and if that happens, you may have bigger organizational problems than the lack of good buyer personas).

Nevertheless, it is a reminder that, as marketers, we do not always have immediate access to customers and must therefore actively collaborate with our colleagues to gain access.

2. Conversations Must Be Unscripted

The second challenge inherent in the persona creation process is much bigger because it calls for a reversal of marketing's propensity to talk to the market, rather than with it.

Indeed, while our marketing traditionally consists of crafting and putting out messages based on what we believe we know about our buyers, the process of creating personas forces us to acknowledge that there are important things we don't know about our customers.

In other words, the aim of these conversations with our customers is to uncover things that we don't already know.

The problem is, you can't just ask people to tell you something you don't already know.  And that means you can't, generally speaking, follow a script to gather the information you need.

Unfortunately, however, a script is what a lot of marketers are looking for.

"Whenever you ask people to go have a conversation with someone," Adele told me, "the first thing they want is a script—'Send me the questions I should ask.'"

"We learned long ago," she continued, "that when you ask someone a direct question, it's very rare, I'd say almost never, that you get an answer that you've never heard before."

Uncovering the Unsaid

Of course, the answer you've never heard before is precisely what you're after, because therein lies true insight, which Adele defines as "something that really changes things for you."

As an example of such an insight, Adele recounted, came when she was consulting for a company that had developed software designed to handle demurrage claims (a rather arcane aspect of the shipping trade). After talking to a number of customers about how they dealt with demurrage issues, it became clear that her client's product "didn't have a prayer." She told her clients what she had found out and they killed the product, saving themselves a lot of time, effort, and money.

Now, that's not always the outcome you are hoping for (no one designs a product with the intention of killing it). But whether you are trying to figure out whether your product has a prayer or you are trying to refine your message and go-to-market strategy (in hopes of giving it a prayer), the goal of your conversations with customers is to replace your assumptions with the reality of what customers really think... but might not tell you outright.

Be Curious 

How do you do that? Well, to begin with, you need to be curious. You ask questions and you listen. Don't assume you understand what they mean when they use certain words ("flexible," "reliable," expensive," etc.). Probe. Ask your customers to clarify and explain. Engage them. Challenge them.

Because these conversations call for you to closely attend to what customers are saying and to ask thoughtful, followup questions, they can't be scripted . 

For, if the conversation could be scripted, you wouldn't have to have it in first place. 

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Adele Revella, you may listen or download the mp3 above. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode! 

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