How to Build Customer Personas That Make Your Startup Customer-Centric

If you are trying to build and sell a product, whether you know it or not, you’re already using personas. You may not be sure exactly what their titles are, or where they hangout, or what’s their biggest source of professional advice, but you know them.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that personas are the work of a robust marketing team, and that defining personas is more of an exercise of categorizing customers once you have them or targeting ad-spend once you have that kind of budget. This perception is a missed opportunity!

Great businesses know that their personas are cross-functional. Have you thought about your user interface? That’s personas. Do you have sales materials that you send to prospects? You have personas.

By ingraining the essence and understanding of customer personas into your team from the start of your company, you’ll be able to build a culture where every team member deeply respects and understands how their work impacts the customer. You’ll build a customer-centric team from day one. It’s time to get started!

What are Personas?

Personas are patterned profiles that are built over time, growing in resolution, specificity, and examples, that provide a shared definition of who each of your customer types are.

Personas can include a role type, personality traits, priorities of that role, challenges that person faces in their job, things that motivate this person, demographic details, and context about the rest of this person’s life and where they hang out, what they read, what conferences or events they go to, what their professional development looks like. Complete personas will answer these questions:

  • What are their biggest challenges?
  • What are their biggest concerts as it relates to the product?
  • What are their goals?
  • Where do they shop?
  • What channels and tech do they use?
  • What other interests might be relevant?

Personas are the complete pattern of the type of customer you are looking to communicate with. Most organizations will have 3–5 customer personas that they tailor their communications and marketing materials for.

Who Creates Personas?

Think of your customers as your diamonds. You spend all your time trying to figure out how to find them, how to win them, how to keep them, and how to make products that make them evermore valuable. Everyone on your team, whether they are building software or making sales calls, has insights from their day-to-day work that reveal specific details about what’s working for your customers, and what is not. This is why it is critical to recognize that everyone has a seat at the table when it comes to defining personas.

Often the work of building and maintaining personas is owned by marketing. While this is a great place to start, personas developed by a cross-functional team with representation from all aspects of the customer lifecycle become a shared foundation for the entire company. This is a much better situation.

Most interactions with customers happen in one of four key functions:

  • Marketing — Do they have the problem we solve?
  • Sales — Are they ready to buy what we sell?
  • Product — Does what we sell solve their problem?
  • Customer Success — Does what we sold them continue to add value to their life?

Getting people from each of these teams involved will give you a well-rounded perspective into the needs of customers at each stage of their lifecycle. Include in your working group at least one person as the lead stakeholder from each perspective of marketing, sales, product, and customer success.

How Do You Build Personas?

Once you’ve recruited a team of cross-functional stakeholders in marketing, sales, product, and customer success, it’s time to get together. You’ll need to block several sessions over a few weeks to define them. A session outline could be:

Kickoff Session

  • Identify a list of 10 customer stakeholders that you already know are involved
  • Take the list down to the 3–5 most important in how your product exists today
  • Pick the one that you all as a group know the best or the most about
  • Work through all parts of that one persona template together
  • For homework, assign the remaining personas to different people for the next session

Session Two

  • Come together again as a team and pitch each other how you have defined each of the other personas
  • Each team member should add key points from their perspective to each persona
  • Package the personas in a way that can be accessed by other team members who were not part of the working group

Session Three

  • Make a journey map of how each persona interacts with the sales process
  • Identify opportunities to create content or resources that would support that persona’s decision making when purchasing your product
  • Commit to creating that content and mapping it into each persona when it exists
  • Commit to presenting this work to the rest of your team and getting them involved and aware of how this tool can support their work

For your sessions, there are tons of great templates and resources out there to help you get started building personas with your team. A few that we recommend include:

Whatever template you choose and however you modify it for your company’s specific needs, you’ll find that over time you’ll continue to refine and evolve each of your personas with details from new customers and conversations. Make a plan to update your personas at least quarterly and reconvene as a working group.

Why Personas Drive Great Decision-Making

Once created and committed to by representatives from across your team, personas become the guide for everyone’s decision making.

  • Should we write this blog post? No, this topic doesn’t communicate meaningfully with any of our personas and doesn’t align to our customer’s decision making process.
  • Should we build this feature set? Yes, it aligns directly with how these two personas are using our product and will be a market advantage for the sales team to use with this persona.
  • Should we go to this conference? Yes, both our personas that buy our product and influence user adoption within companies attend. This could help us get new qualified leads in our pipeline, and help our customer success team understand internal expansion opportunities in current accounts.

Personas help you make the decision to resource or not resource initiatives across your organization. They help you say “Yes” with confidence and enable you to say “No” with reason.

Being a customer-focused team isn’t about making customers happy — it’s about having your customers at the center of all you do. Building personas from the start, maintaining them as a cross-functional team, and using them to guide decisions across the board will keep you true and treat them like the diamonds they are!


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