Most, if not all, companies would like to connect with their customers in hopes of creating more leads and building a loyal customer base. The more you know about them, the better you can better serve them, at least in theory. But sometimes this task can feel daunting.

Like asking someone out on a date.

Say you meet a great lady at a party and feel a connection (at least you thought so). You get her number from a friend, text her and make dinner plans (so far, so good).

You know where she lives so you research the surrounding neighborhoods to find a good spot to meet. You ask a friend about her interests and hobbies so you’ll be well versed on topics that might interest her. You may even think through the best attire to wear for the occasion.

And when you go out, you totally hit it off (hopefully, at least).

The business world is not all that different. You find customers you’d like to attract. You find out where they live/work, what their interests are, how you might cater to those interests. Then you “court” them in hopes of earning their trust. And getting their business.

But let’s back up a minute.

Who are you trying to attract?

Whether your business has been around for a while or it’s just getting off to the races, it’s always helpful to ask:

 Who are your ideal customers?

And not just their name, age and location. Dig a little deeper as if you were going out on that date. Ask questions such as:

  • Who are they?
  • Are they male or female or both?
  • How old are they?
  • Are they single or married? 
  • Kids or not?
  • What are their interests and hobbies outside of work?
  • What do they do for a living? What is their work title?
  • If they don’t work, how do they spend their days?
  • Where do they go on vacation?
  • What do they like to eat for dinner?
  • Where’s their favorite place to shop?
  • What do they read online?

When I facilitate workshops, we carry out this exercise as a group – gathering the opinions of a variety of people across a company. Employees can use stick figures to “draw in” what ideal customers are wearing, holding in their hands, and where they are hanging out for fun.

Collecting and combining the feedback is really useful for…well, the next step.

Create personas.

From the prior exercise, you can write stories that depict your ideal customers, or personas. You may just have one, or maybe as many as five. It depends on your company’s stage of growth and other factors, and there’s no right or wrong number.

If you already carried out research and collected data, your personas may be close to the real thing. If you’re winging it or approaching this exercise for the first time, personas may be completely fictional. Either is fine. Be creative. And have fun with this exercise.

The goal is to turn fiction into fact over time.

But how?

Observe them.

If your customer visits a brick ‘n mortar facility, go watch them! You can mystery shop a competitor or hire others to do so for you. Take notes, take pictures. See, smell and watch. Over the years, I have mystery shopped luxury car dealers, visited break rooms in hospitals, taken photos of grocery store shelves and sat in doctors’ offices just to listen, observe and learn.

It’s amazing how often this enlightening step in research is overlooked – and it’s easy!

Interview them in person.

This step is my personal favorite, as there’s nothing like hearing the story straight from the horse’s mouth. Seeing their expressions. Reading their body language. Qualitative data gathered from interviews is not projectable, but conversations often uncover information that might be missed in a survey.

Interview settings include focus groups, one-on-one interviews and phone calls. While in-person captures a broader range of emotions, it may be more cost effective to conduct business by phone. As this article points out, in-person interviews get pricey (but may be well worth the dollars spent).

Survey them online.

Surveys provide quantitative information that is projectable, if enough responses are gathered. Responses can also be representative of a larger population base if a broad enough sample is tested. With often free or inexpensive survey tools available, it can be very cost-effective to survey individuals online. You can use your own database or “rent” names from companies like Survey Sampling International. Depending on the audience you research and the topics at hand, surveys are quick and valuable way to obtain information to guide product development, customer engagement and marketing tactics.

Track their habits online.

Most companies aren’t as sophisticated as Amazon in understanding buying behaviors, but you can still learn a lot by tracking customer behavior online. You can track who opens emails and which URLs they click. You know if your Search Engine Marketing (SEM) campaign was effective if it drove site visits.

If you run a digital campaign, you can measure who clicked what ads and where. Was your landing page effective? Did you provide a good enough incentive to capture information about your prospects?

You can see what consumers say about your products and services via social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn — as well as follow industry trends and competitive activity. There is a whole host of software platforms to help you monitor media.

Segments or personas?

This article explains the difference between segments and personas very articulately in 60 seconds. Customer segments are generally determined by a quantitative study and yield as many as 10 like groups categorized by qualities such as: demographics, buying behaviors, and preferences. These quantified segments are very useful for marketing and communications guidance.

Personas delve more deeply into the wants, needs and motivations of segments, or the personal details. When created through interviews and other research, they can cut across segments to reduce the number of overall targets. This information, when fully digested, helps you get better (and faster!) at attracting the right audience.

Totally confused now?

Keep working at it.

Without getting too tripped up by terms, the goal is to learn as much about your customers as you can. As you grow your business and expand your product line, your customer’s needs and interests will evolve, too. Watch them over time and collect as much data as possible. Perfect your personas as you move along the learning curve.

Surprise your date – and customers — with flowers, buy a nice bottle of wine and by all means, get her a pretty necklace instead of a blender. The effort you make to win their hearts will be time and money well spent.

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