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Customer Personas and Ideal Customer Profile

To understand in detail who the users and buyers (which may or may not be the same) of your product are, define their customer personas in detail.

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A customer persona is a multi-dimensional description of your customers' needs, pain points, motivation, profile, information sources and other attributes. It will initially be a hypothesis that you constantly have to verify as you get to know more users.

Aspects to cover in a customer persona definition

  • Give them a name. This will make them more likeable and easy to remember. Instead of "Finance Person", call them "Finance Freddy".
  • Define their typical general background: Industry, job role, demographics, education, experience level, other relevant attributes (e.g. technical vs. business)
  • Identify their goals in their job role, e.g. increase profitability
  • Name their challenges and pain points
  • Describe their desired solution: Does the customer have a particular solution approach in mind? Have they tried to solve it differently, e.g. with in-house tools?
  • Identify the solution fit: How will our product help them solve their problems?
  • Spell out the right messaging: How do we need to talk about our product to this persona? See also product marketing and messaging.
  • Anticipate objections: What will be the typical objections that this person might have?

How many personas should you have?

Of course most startups sell to more than one type of customer. For B2B products in particular, there are typically multiple people involved in a buying decision. It is important to understand the needs and objections of these different types in detail.

In a B2B buying situation, particularly for more expensive enterprise-level products, you will typically face the following relevant roles:

  • End users of the product
  • Economic buyer: The person who owns the budgets and makes the final buying decision
  • Recommenders and Detractors: Other internal stakeholders that might support the product or be against it
  • Procurement departments: Lead pricing negotiations and sometimes have the power to block a deal if it doesn't match their criteria

It is important to note that economic buyers are often not the end users of the product and will have entirely different needs. For example, a great user experience matters to end users, but not to an economic decision maker who is buying the product for his department.

For B2C products the situation is typically less complex. However, even there you might have influences beyond the actual end user, e.g. family members who might support or oppose a purchase.

In general, you should try to optimize to have as few personas as possible, but not lose granularity. A range of 3-6 is typically best. More than that, and things get noisy.

How do you verify personas?

A persona starts out as a hypothesis. The startup team will define it based on their best information about what customers need.

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A persona hypothesis has to be verified and adapted over time. Particularly in dynamic markets, it can change, or new personas will emerge.

There are several ways to verify and develop personas:

  1. User interviews: These should ideally be in-depth interviews with typical representatives of the persona. The interview should be structured, but also leave space for open-ended questions, since these often provide the deepest feedback.
  2. Sales feedback: The sales team should be tasked with providing frequent feedback about their prospect conversations to the product team. In particular, communicating the objections that the sales team hears is crucial and will point out weaknesses in the value proposition and messaging. Since sales teams are busy, this will not happen automatically and has to be organized by the product team in close collaboration with sales leadership.
  3. Customer success feedback: Similarly, the customer success team should give detailed feedback to the product team since they experience typical customer problems most closely.
  4. Listening tours: The product team should never be isolated, but should have direct customer contact frequently: Listen in to sales calls (with the prospect's permission of course). Go to conferences where your customers are. Reach out to existing customers (both satisfied and unhappy ones) to get their feedback directly.

How to use personas

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Everybody (and that really means everybody) in the company should be aware of your customer personas.

Talking about "Finance Freddy" and other persona names should be short-hand for expressing a wide range of persona characteristics that will influence product, sales, support and marketing decisions.

Everything should be looked at from a persona point of view: If we implement this feature, which personas will be affected and how are they going to feel about it? Does this marketing idea resonate with our key personas? Etc.

Ideal Customer Profile

The Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) is a close relative to personas, or more specifically, a prioritization of personas and their most important attributes.

The reason to define an ICP is to focus your efforts in product development, marketing and sales. While all personas are relevant to some extent, the ICP should be the persona that matters most for your product's success and therefore gets the most resources in terms of product development effort, marketing budget and sales attention.

For example, you might have three different personas who all will find your product useful and worth paying for. But one of them might be a higher willingness to pay because they find the most value in your product. They might also be more loyal and have potential for revenue growth in their account. This would be a typical candidate for an ICP.

ICPs typically have:

  • The quickest sales cycle of all personas because they have the strongest need and understand potential solutions.
  • The highest retention rate because they get the most value out of the product.
  • Often the highest willingness to pay

Note that the ICP can change over a startup's lifecycle. That's a normal process as the product matures, the addressable market grows and customer needs change.

Useful Resources

Donoghue and Newell: Envision Product

A focused guide on how to get user experience right for startups

Hubspot Blog: Ideal Customer Profiles and Buyer Personas—How Are They Different?