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How does the buyer persona affect the product management process?

End users ultimately decide the worth of an enterprise product, but not before products pass a buyer persona first.

Scott SehlhorstScott Sehlhorst

In [this presentation], you identified failing to address a buyer persona's needs as a potential root cause of failure. Can you explain what you mean by the buyer persona and give some advice on meeting business needs?

When you are creating a product, you need to think about your customer as really being either two people, or one person playing two roles. One is the user -- the person who realizes value by using your product to solve their problems. The other is the buyer -- the persona who represents perceived user interests and ultimately makes the decision to purchase your product. For a product to be good, it needs to help users realize value. However, if the buyer persona is not convinced that your product is the right product, the user will never get a chance to use it.

In business-to-consumer (B2C) markets, the buyer and the user are usually the same person, and in business-to-business (B2B) markets, they are usually different people. Exceptions exist in both markets, but you can think about the problem in the same way for either market.

When you are a B2C customer, making a decision about what to buy, you are making decisions based on your perception of the suitability of the product for helping you solve your problem. You're making the decision before you get the opportunity to find out how well it works for you. After you start using it, your opinions will be based on how effectively you realize value, but until then, your decisions are based on perceptions.

There will usually be a mismatch between your product's capabilities and the buyer's perceptions, and there are two ways to address this.

In B2B markets, there is usually a buyer who will make purchasing decisions on behalf of the users. That buyer will never be a user, and will always base their buying decisions on perceptions.

The buyer has a mental model of the problems the user is trying to solve with your product. That mental model is imperfect; it may very accurately depict the problems the users face or it may be grossly inaccurate. To convince the buyer persona that your product is the right one to purchase, you have to convince the buyer that your product addresses the buyer's perceived needs of the users. There will usually be a mismatch between your product's capabilities and the buyer's perceptions, and there are two ways to address this.

First, you can educate your buyers, helping them improve their model, so that they have a better understanding of what is important for users and your (presumably good) product better matches their perceptions. Second, you can modify your product, adding capabilities that buyers perceive to be important, even if they don't actually help users.

Unfortunately, many product managers take the second approach -- and many sales environments encourage this. Think of the checklist and feature comparisons that exist for many product areas. They tend to encourage a "more stuff is better" view of products.

Imagine a checklist for shoe laces. If your shoe lace aglets don't glow in the dark, but a competitor's laces do, then the checklist shows your competitor with a happy green check mark and you with a sad empty box. Many product managers will add glowing aglets to their backlog in order to compete, pragmatically recognizing that users will never discover that their laces stay tied better if they don't buy them first.

This work is done at the expense (think opportunity cost) of not improving the realizable value of the product. In a way, this is the "cost" of playing the game. The other approach -- which involves educating buyers and helping buyers make better decisions, thereby allowing you to invest your resources in making better products -- is better for everyone.

There is also the concept of buyer enablement. Even when the buyer is convinced that your product is the right one, it may be difficult for him to make the purchase. As a simple example, a purchasing manager may be required to negotiate a ten percent discount for any contract he signs. This manager could purchase a product which is not as good and costs twice as much, as long as he gets a discount; however, he would be unable to purchase your cheaper and better product if you don't offer discounts.

To meet your buyer's needs, you have to not only demonstrate that you address the buyer's perceptions of the user's problems, but also enable the buyer to purchase your product.

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