Blue question mark
Blue question mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past year, I have been getting this question asked more frequently. To be honest, it actually is a very disturbing question to me.

Before I explain why, I would like to start with two trivia questions:

A. When buyer personas were first launched in 2002, which group was the biggest advocate of this research and development process?

B. Which corporate group put up the most resistance to this new concept?

If I could see a bunch of hands go up in the air at this moment, I would bet many of you answered question A with marketing and question B with sales. Incorrect.

When I first created the buyer persona development concept and methodology, the two biggest proponents were Presidents and senior heads of sales. They grasped the value of gaining deep insights into their buyers. Grappling with significant issues. Such as loss in market share, a changing buying group, the Internet as a new force, and shifts to new business models.

The biggest resistors, at the time, were the marketing group. Surprised? This was a time when direct mail was rampant, there were no metrics to speak of, marketing dealt in the intangibles, brand was king, and advertising was marketing. The fear of the unknown was overwhelming. The unknown of whether anybody actually read direct mail. Or, if customers or buyers liked their advertising. Basically, the unknown of whether they had it all wrong in the first place.

Wrong Assumptions

I started out with this trivia bit to highlight there are several wrong assumptions which can be harmful to the movement of buyer personas in general. And, it is why this question disturbs me. Let me explain and be helpful.

First and foremost is something I learned early on. By working with several Presidents, I learned buyer persona development is an organization and strategy charter. It is not specific to a domain of marketing or sales only. During the past couple of years, with the rise in popularity around content marketing, buyer personas are being categorized as only a marketing tool for messaging. This narrow scope means organizations lack in the true full potential of the methodology.

The word “build” implies we build buyer personas like Lego sets. Using templates and follow instructions for parts A, B, and C. The more accurate question is: how should we research and develop buyer personas for the organization? Today, there is far too much Lego building of buyer personas lacking in sufficient qualitative research and understanding.

An Unhealthy Myth

A myth has been proliferating during the past two years, which implies marketing should do buyer personas and sales needs to stay out. The argument is based on the premise buyers will not talk to sales. This is a very faulty and harmful assumption. It perpetuates stereotyping of sales as well as buyers and widens the marketing and sales alignment divide. This is a false assumption of believing buyers will only talk to marketing. Only revealing their inner most truths and secrets after sales has done their job of selling via win/loss interviews. I do not see this as true nor do I see the format of win/loss interviews as optimal qualitative buyer research.

Let me offer different perspectives for you:

Last year, I was privileged to meet with the President of a $2B million west coast company for lunch in his conference room, accepting my request for an interview on behalf of a major supplier. Here is what he had to say about this supplier’s marketing:

“We perceive their marketing as incompetent. It is clear to me at least, and several on our team, they do not get branding or new marketing. We get constant emails, which are not read. What we use to go to them for, we have hired our own. They offer no value. So, we continue to explore our options for the future.”

In this case, I am sure this $2B company will not be revealing their inner most thoughts to a marketing representative. I share this not to knock marketing, but to show there is no perfect view of marketing – as there is no perfect view of sales.

In my dozen years since launching buyer persona development, I have had the honor of watching several SVP, Sales lead the effort to research buyers, develop buyer personas, and drag the rest of their organizations kicking and screaming to adopt a buyer focus. This does not mean sales people did the actual qualitative buyer interviews. These SVP, Sales saw the value of third party objectiveness. They were not afraid of the truth through 3rd party qualitative buyer research and wanted to know it.

In some cases, a sales representative has earned a true trusted advisor status and can be extremely helpful. A case in point. I desired a coveted interview with a senior manager inside Apple. The sales representative, who was highly trusted and respected, secured me an interview. My intuition told me to have him come along. We wound up meeting with 3 senior level managers. At the start of each interview, he stated to please not hold back and candidness was appreciated. Here is what he had to say afterwards:

“I never knew about some of the things they shared. But that is not a biggie, I get it why. I am just so honored they shared in front of me. It lets me know I have built a good relationship over the past 5 years.”

I recently wrote about a credibility issue, which is beginning to emerge. It is directly related to the proliferation of content. Content which is turning buyers off. Buyers know content originates from marketing. With up to 70% of buying processes conducted without a sales rep present, who is the target of discontent? Marketing. What is interesting about this perspective is marketing can get lumped into the same stereotype as sales. It will make no difference if a title says sales representative or marketing representative.

One for All

In closing, it is important to stress this question is an unhealthy approach and heads folks in the wrong direction. The real question is: how should we research and develop buyer personas so we help all facets of the organization? I have always strongly recommended third party qualitative research expertise. It is the truest form of objectiveness.

It is not to say there are other options. I have seen buyer personas researched and developed outside of marketing and sales departments – by market research, corporate strategy, sales enablement, and operations. And, I have seen marketing do this very well. It is highly dependent on an understanding of the issues organizations face and the goals they are attempting to accomplish.

Let us do one thing though because I care about the future of buyer personas helping everyone. Let us not make it about marketing versus sales. It is the wrong question and the wrong argument.

(Answers to the related questions, How Many Buyer Personas Do I Need? and Who Should We Interview When Developing Buyer Personas, can be very helpful. I am available for further help and conversation on how to make optimal use of buyer personas. Please share widely – it will help both marketing and sales to reach a common understanding.)