Developing Meaningful Customer Relationships

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Every once in a while, we come across an article that just seems to nail it on the head ever so profoundly.  Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto authored such an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled The Secret to Meaningful Customer Relationships.  For quite some time, in fact the last ten years, I have made the point about buyer personas being based on qualitative insights that lead to a deeper understanding of customers and buyers.  I should have just called Roger.

Roger states: “If our understanding of customers is based entirely on quantitative analysis, we will have a shallow rather than deep relationship with them.”  This does run against the “prevailing view of customer understanding” as Roger notes and it also runs counter to how buyer personas are viewed at times.  When static data is used to create buyer persona profiles, it is an exercise akin to just looking at the quantitative analysis.  Getting at the unarticulated and not-yet-discovered is the art and science of buyer personas because as Roger puts it: customers often struggle to put into words their feelings about products, services or providers, we can watch them do what they really do, rather than what they say they do — and may not actually do. This all enables a much more nuanced view of our customer.” 

The success of buyer persona development initiatives to inform strategy lies in the ability to translate the unarticulated into meaningful insights.  These translated insights then leading to the creation of meaningful representations of buyer personas and the portrayal of their buying processes.   Roger puts it very clearly this way: “But all of that is subject to qualitative judgments on our part. The quality and depth of our relationship with the customer will be a function of the quality of our interpretative eyes and ears. However, unlike with quantitative research where we really have no chance, with qualitative research we have a fighting chance of attaining a deep understanding of our customers.”  The interpretative ability requires a set of attributes and judgmental skills that makes it worth using outsourced experience and expertise to get the quality interpretation as well as the quality relationships with our buyer personas. 

Attaining a deeper understanding of customers and buyers does not mean throwing out quantitative analysis.  What qualitative insight in a buyer persona development imitative can do is help illuminate existing quantitative analysis.  Additionally, qualitative insight can uncover new market opportunities that quantitative analysis can further illuminate and validate.  Buyer persona development is the means of communicating the translation and interpretation that leaders can use to rally an organization to act upon.  Very much counter to the prevailing view of buyer personas being a profiling process only.

The qualitative and investigative process of buyer persona development do give us “a fighting chance of attaining a deep understanding of our customers” as Roger elegantly states.    If we want to develop meaningful buyer persona relationships, we need heed Roger Martin’s final words in this article: “if you want a deep relationship with your customers don’t spend your time talking to them through the vehicle of quantitative research tools.”

I say – Roger that!

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