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It’s no secret that buyer personas can help B2B marketers put a face to their customer base by enabling them to create more relevant and valuable content for their audience.

There are many secondary research sources available to help define the demographics and psychographics of customer profile. However, for providing the kind of true insight that can lead to marketing breakthroughs, there’s no substitute for the personal interview. By following a few simple guidelines, you can reap the benefits of these conversations for your organization.

Why conduct a personal interview?

While marketers have used buyer personas for nearly two decades, only recently has a focus been placed on reaching out to the buyers themselves, as opposed to researching them from a distance. While a business may already have (or think they have) all the hard data it needs to create a persona on-hand, a personal interview with a real client provides something a report cannot – a clear understanding of the customer’s point of view, the mental and emotional journey that led them to the point at which they were ready to make a decision, and the influencers who played a role in the selection. Each buyer has his or her own specific expectations and a story that data alone will rarely tell. When these stories are merged into one ideal buyer, marketers gain a more holistic understanding of their customer base and what does and does not work with their current strategy.

Who is a “buyer?”

In preparing for a personal interview, the first question to ask is naturally “who is the buyer?” Interview candidates can be either those who chose to work with your firm, those who considered your offering and chose a competitor instead, and even those who considered a purchase before deciding to delay or cancel the process altogether. Each type of buyer offers unique insight into the strengths and shortcomings of your business’s current marketing strategy, and you can benefit from interviewing them all. Additionally, in the world of B2B a single person rarely makes purchase decisions. It’s important to include those who have influence over the decision in the interview process as well as your primary point of contact. This might include board members, financial officers, operational managers and procurement professionals.

The recency of the decision journey should be taken into account as well. As a general rule of thumb, buyers who have made their purchase decision within the last six months should be the focus, and the more recent the decision, the better. The longer the time between the selection and the interview, the less likely it will be that the interviewee will remember important details.

Dos & Don’ts for Conducting the Interview

There are few rules of the road when it comes to buyer persona interviews. Conduct the interview in a quiet, distraction-free area. Bring a pen and paper to jot down any important phrases and keywords and consider using a tape recorder if you don’t think you’ll remember all the details – just be sure to obtain permission from the interviewee in advance. Explain the purpose of your interview and how the customer’s feedback will directly impact your strategic decisions going forward so they have an incentive to be candid.

Keep the number of prepared questions limited. You should always have control over what gets covered during an interview, but don’t be afraid of letting the interviewee direct the conversation.

Open the interview by asking the buyer about the event or events that caused their business to recognize its need for your product or service, and the path that they took to evaluate their options. Ask direct follow-up questions, incorporating the language that the buyer uses where possible to show you are listening. Don’t be afraid to prompt the interviewee about their choice in language. Why was one option “frustrating?” How was the current system “inefficient?” Doing so will often reveal information about what the buyer was looking for that they may not have thought to say.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to use silence to your advantage when you get the feeling that more could be said on a subject. Sometimes a simple “Okay” or “I see” can prompt the buyer to elaborate without being asked. After all, your interview should feel like a conversation, not an interrogation!

Hone in on the aspects of their search in which they are the most engaged, and don’t press them where they are not. Avoid interrupting with questions, asking directly about the product or service, and assuming competitors’ names. Keep the conversation friendly, and the interview focused first and foremost on the buyer’s experience. In a similar vein, while a member of your company can conduct the interview, it can sometimes make customer feel less inclined to be candid. Consider engaging a third party with expertise in conducting these types of interviews. This can put the interviewee at ease while also signaling that your company takes the process and their feedback seriously

The Bottom Line

Buyer personas are meant to have personalities and characteristics that resemble real people. By better understanding the experiences of real buyers, marketers can ensure that their profiles are realistic and reflective of the internal processes that lead their customers to their purchase decisions. Keep personal interviews friendly, conversational, and most importantly, personal, and avoid sticking to a script in order to win the trust of your buyers and gain key insight into the buyer’s journey.