Help Employees Grok Customers


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As long as I have been kicking around the CRM community, it has been understood that employees are one of your most important weapons in the battle to deliver an extraordinary customer experience. Poorly trained and motivated employees can turn off customers faster than showy ad campaigns can bring them in. Research I did a few years ago identified one of the biggest stumbling blocks is employees who aren’t able to put themselves in the shoes of the customers they serve. How can they become ambassadors for your company if they don’t “get” customers?

Robert A. Heinlein originally coined the term “grok” in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land as a Martian word that literally means “to drink,” In more recent years, grok has come to mean to understand to the point where the concept becomes part of the person understanding it, and changes the way that person views the world and life around them due to the intimacy of that understanding. At Forrester, we see a rise in the use of Personas to help employees to grok customers – to understand and obsess about customer needs.

My colleague at Forrester, Moira Dorsey, tells me that Personas help companies focus on what is important to customers in designing interactions. Personas are models that represent key user attributes, goals, and behaviors. They are presented as a vivid narrative description of a single “person” who represents a behavioral segment. They are based on primary research – typically interviews, observations, or both – to understand users’ goals, attitudes, and behaviors.

Companies have used personas to improve the quality of products ranging from software to Web sites to physical environments. Moira reports firms increasingly use personas to differentiate their interactive marketing and sales efforts as well. For example, as the complexity of their products for small and medium-sized companies went up, execs at Nortel needed a way to help sales reps tailor their approach based on their prospects’ needs. Nortel worked with Quarry Integrated to craft personas that helped them understand the goals and attributes of each prospect. Next, Quarry created “Coach,” an interactive tool that lets sales reps anticipate buyers’ goals at successive stages in the buying cycle and progressively discloses everything from the most relevant product information to recommended closing techniques. The results? Nortel has saved time and money on training and increased sales productivity.

Persona rooms created by the design agency Organic for clients like DaimlerChrysler recreate the living space of target customers, incorporating the media and products customers buy. Giving personas a physical presence helps employees get to know consumers at a visceral level and understand whom they are marketing and selling to. Employees from Organic and DaimlerChrysler agencies even hold meetings in the persona rooms — which means that they are literally surrounded by the car buyer’s crumpled receipts and pizza boxes. This helps marketers quickly pare lists of campaign ideas down to what’s most likely to resonate with target customers.

Don’t let your employees become strangers in a strange land of customers.

William Band
Bill Band is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. He is a leading expert on CRM topics, having helped organizations define customer-driven strategies to achieve distinction in the marketplace for his entire career. Click here to download free related research from Forrester (free site registration required).


  1. Bill: great ideas. I’ve seen personas work as sales tools ever since I read Alan Cooper’s excellent book, “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.”

    As great as personas can be, there are risks to using them. Here are some:

    1) Personas may be needlessly expensive. Some companies use them as “gold-plated” research tools and attempt to be too encompassing using them. Often, inexpensive artifacts such as pictures and other items are sufficient to communicate key customer attributes versus setting up physical rooms and equipment.

    2) Personas may be misused. For example, personas are sometimes used to project future behavior. This speculation is a misuse of the tool because formal research methods are better designed to develop such forecasts. Personas are most effective in representing the “as is” condition. In addition, there are ethical risks. Personas should be identified as such, and not masquerade as real people when interacting with unsuspecting employees.

    3) Personas based on established and unchangable product configurations can result in worthless information, like “The Emporer’s New Clothes.” If a company uses personas to validate attributes that have already been designed and in production, the results will likely only corroborate why those features are good.

  2. Thanks for your insights on this topic. We’ve always referred to it as “personsification” so “personas” is close to home. And, using this tool to assist customer service people in better understanding customers and how to deal witt them should be more universally embranced.

    Like any market research approach there is room for misue but to my mind the benefits far outweight the potential problems. Further, the cost for collecting data leading to the development of personas need not be onerous. More importantly, what can be redeemed in better customer service will certainly off-set the research cost.

    In any event, you have introduced a important apporach to increasing customer satisfaction and, therefore, life-time value.

    Bob Kaden

  3. Personas are a very useful approach, in my limited experience.

    At last year’s CustomerThink Retreat (an annual meeting of our advisory council), we broke into groups to develop personas for the key roles in our community.

    As the groups presented their findings, it became apparent where there were common requirements, and differences, between the different roles.

    We used the insights gained to conduct further research (more systematic online surveys) that helped us develop our editorial calendar.

    It’s not a replacement for other forms of research, but another great tool to use that is quick, easy, and low cost. The results, of course, depend on how well the personas are defined, which depends on the knowledge and experience of the people involved.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom


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