Are Buyer Personas Sabotaging Your Sales?

By Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer

November 7, 2019

buyer personas in B2B sales and marketing

One of the most popular “best practices” in B2B sales and marketing is to create buyer personas.

These fictional characters usually have names, and they embody all the traits of your ideal prospects. Typical buyer personas include a character sheet full of your prospects’ demographics, challenges, goals, and KPIs. The idea is that if you understand your buyer’s specific position within their organization, you can better focus your message to resonate with them.

But for all the good intentions behind them, the typical model for buyer personas might actually be sabotaging your efforts. Here’s why.

Over the last decade, the B2B buying process has only become more complex. In 2015, an average of 5.4 people needed to formally sign off on each purchasing decision. Because of this, salespeople are commonly pressured to get familiar with the personas of several different decision-makers, and tailor multiple messages to each person’s specific needs.

While this seems like a reasonable and responsible premise at first blush, you can see how crafting, learning, and delivering customized conversations to nearly six different people with varying roles and responsibilities quickly becomes unmanageable.

And it gets worse.

Today, Gartner reports that “the typical buying group for a complex B2B solution involves six to 10 decision makers, each armed with four or five pieces of information they’ve gathered independently and must deconflict with the group.”

In other words, there are more decision makers involved in the buying committee than ever before, and they’re all being targeted with highly personalized messages. Because of this, buyers are suffering from what Gartner calls a “crisis of confidence.” They’re feeling overwhelmed with high-quality information from vendors. And it’s causing deals to stall or shrink in size and scope.

So, what can you do?

First, you need to understand that prospects won’t change their status quo because of who they are, their demographics, or their job characteristics. Rather, prospects react more powerfully to whether or not their current situation is putting them at risk, and whether they’re convinced that they must do something different to preserve their best interest.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The decision-making science that backs this up is called “Fundamental Attribution Error.” This means that humans naturally tend to overestimate the effect of a person’s disposition on their behaviors and underestimate the impact of their situation.

For example, when you’re driving on the highway and someone cuts you off, your immediate reaction is to assume that the person is a jerk. You’re more likely to attribute that driver’s behavior to their personality, or disposition. But it’s more likely that the driver’s situation is to blame for their erratic driving behavior.

They might be late for work, and this could be the last straw with their boss. They might have a medical emergency. Or they might just desperately need to find a restroom. It could be any number of situations that’s motivating their behavior, rather than their inherent disposition.

The same can be said about basing your sales and marketing messages on personas. You can put all your time into tailoring your messages to each individual’s disposition—their title, responsibilities, and KPIs. Yet this information won’t motivate them to change and do something different.

Buyer Personas Don’t Create Urgency to Change

Most of the information in buyer personas has very little to do with whether there’s actually an opportunity to create a sale.

For example: You’re responsible for selling marketing automation software to help manage a company’s marketing campaigns, social media presence, and demand generation efforts. You build personas for each of the buying influencers in the deal. Starting with the marketing executive, you identify their key performance indicators, such as:

  • Increasing lead generation volume
  • Expanding marketing-sourced contributions to pipeline
  • Improving quality and conversion of leads to close business
  • Ensuring ROI of marketing investments

However, according to the concept of Fundamental Attribution Error, urgency to change exists in the buyer’s context, not in their character.

If you build and tell a story based on the KPI of improving lead conversion to closed business, you might spark your prospects’ interest level, but the real connection point—the urgency to change their status quo—is created when you show them how their current approach (situation) is putting them at risk relative to their desired outcomes.

Our recent research on executive-level selling backs this up. In the study, executives were far less likely to take a sales meeting when approached with a known business initiative, compared to a disruptive sales message that de-stabilized their current approach.

A Better Approach to B2B Buyer Personas

It’s only in connecting to the gaps or flaws in the prospect’s current approach that you provoke opportunities and the urgency required to build a buying vision.

To ensure your messages hit the mark, we recommend using a “Status Quo Profile” as the starting point. Clearly define your prospect’s status quo, learn it inside and out, and use this knowledge to create effective messaging that moves your prospect to make a change.

To build a more effective buyer persona for your sales messaging, answer the following four questions:

1. How are prospects addressing the challenges your product or service can solve today?

Even before they come across your company and solution, your prospects think they are already doing something to solve their problems and meet their business needs. So, to change their perception, you need a precise understanding of what your potential customers are currently doing to solve their problems.

Your messaging will have to take aim at dislodging an incumbent, so knowing your opponent is essential.

2. Why do prospects think their current product or service is great?

Remember, prospects live in their story—not yours. Prospects were doing something a certain way before they chose the way they’re doing it today, and they assume they already have a better solution than the one they had before. Therefore, chances are that you’re sending messages to people who don’t even think they have a problem. Or, at least, they still remember the benefits they based their last decision on, and assume they’re still getting that same value.

3. What issues, challenges, threats, risks, or missed opportunities have surfaced since prospects purchased their current solution or implemented their current approach?

Remember, not everyone is a prospect for your solution. Your real prospects are those buyers who have a certain “installed” approach that can cause limitations because of a changing business environment.

You need to focus on the ripest opportunities for change, so document the things that are changing in your prospect’s industry, including changes in environment, competitive space, the global marketplace, or anything that the current approach may not have taken into account, or is ill-equipped to handle.

4. What oversights in your prospects’ current approach will keep them from avoiding potential problems or capitalizing on new opportunities?

When you present challenges to prospects, they’ll first react by seeing whether their current approach or solution can be “stretched” to overcome the challenges you identify. Therefore, you will have to identify and amplify clear omissions in their current approach that will prohibit them from resolving those obstacles. Those gaps need to lead to your unique strengths or capabilities.

Creating gaps that are too wide to cross with your prospect’s current solution—their status quo—is essential for crafting messages that will compel your prospects to change.

Speak to Your Buyer’s Situation, Not Their Disposition

The real drivers behind behaviors and behavior change are the challenges within your buyer’s situation, not their professional disposition.

You don’t need to focus your sales messaging on your prospect’s title, position, or persona. Instead, speak to your prospect’s situation. Help your buyers realize that their current approach is so limiting that it puts their strategic objectives and/or their desired outcomes at risk.

Want more tips like this to improve your sales skills? Read our collection of research-backed selling techniques.