5 Step Guide to Do-It-Yourself Prospect and Customer Research

February 28, 2018
by Christine Viera

Do you need good prospect and customer research to improve lead generation, content marketing, and sales impact?

I was talking to a good friend the other day. She’s a top-notch product marketing leader. We were comparing notes on how to keep product marketers close to customers. This is critical to a product marketer’s credibility. In my view, the 1st commandment of product marketing is to know your buyer.

But how? What does that mean? What follows is a guide to tapping people and social media for insights into modern buyers.


Are You Clear on Your Targets?

For starters, have your target buyers sketched out. Here are some resources to aid you with that:

As a visual person, I’m also a big fan of simple frameworks. Here’s one for identifying marketing buyer personas. You’ll want something like this in place so that your research covers enough of your personas to be valuable. (You’ll also find this helpful in training new sales reps about your ideal customers.)

B2B Marketing Academy Persona Framework

Get Real with Buyer Research

Beware of the echo chamber. If you target buyers on gut instinct or with tribal input only, be ready for a roller coaster ride. Marketing will be at the mercy of the most vocal voices in your company. And, you’ll likely find yourself guessing at why you win or lose deals.

So, go out and conduct persona interviews. You don’t need a big budget to do it. You just need to carve out about 40 hours of a marketer’s time over the course of 3-4 weeks. Here’s a checklist that you can give to your marketer on what it should take:

  • Design and socialize the survey questions. [2 hours]
  • Identify ideal customer interviewees from your customer list. [3 hours]
  • Recruit help from your sales leader and champions. [5 hours]
  • Recruit participation from non-customers / prospects. [5-7 hours]
  • Invite, schedule, and conduct interviews. [5 hours coordination for 20 calls, 1 hour per interview]
  • Summarize results and post recordings internally for sales and marketing use. [8-10 hours]


Targeting Buyers to Get the Right Mix

You’ll want to have at least 3-5 interviews with each of your main persona targets. More is better. Let’s say you sell to VPs of operations and count on their directors / senior directors to advocate for your brand. You’ll want roughly 5 interviews with VP level buyers, and the same for directors/senior directors.

If you’re a global business, I recommend adding 3-5 interviews with buyers from each major region you serve.

You should consider these four buyer types:

  • Install Base Prospects
  • Net New Prospects
  • Buyer Influencers
  • Win Back Prospects

For customer interviews to be relevant, you’ll want to target customers who are candidates for new products and services. But don’t just interview current customers. You’ll want to include pure prospects in the mix. And don’t forget buyer influencers. These are target buyer’s business colleagues who have a role in selecting or working with vendors like you.

A word on win back prospects. It’s hard to win customers back once they’ve dropped you. So, it’s rare that we’d market to this type of buyer. Mostly, it’s important to know this information, and exclude these buyers from your targeting. If you do decide to target these customers, you’ll want a customized campaign. What’s a better idea is to conduct 3-5 ‘loss’ interviews with departed customers. Find out why they really left. You’ll spot customer experience and messaging opportunities from honest input on what happened.


What’s the Plan?

Here’s a guide to practical, credible do-it-yourself persona research.


1. Craft a 5-7 question survey to use for phone or in person interviews.

Use this with install base, net new, and buyer influencers. Good questions include:

  1. Tell me about yourself. How long have you been at [company]? How did you decide on this career path?
  2. What does a typical day look like for you?
  3. What are your top 3 business challenges today? How has that changed in the last 2 years? Is there one challenge that especially keeps you up at night?
  4. How does digital transformation [or whatever trend is hot in your market] impact you (1) as a business, and (2) personally and professionally?
  5. When you look for solutions to these challenges and trends, what matters the most (1) to you, and (2) to your business partners who are involved in those decisions?
  6. Where do you go to find information that keeps you current in your profession? [friends and mentors, magazines, websites, events]
  7. [For current customers only] How well are we serving your needs on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best? What’s working? Where can we improve?


2. Convince your key sales champions to open the doors with current customers.

Secure the VP / head of sales as a sponsor first. Tie your request to ongoing needs, campaigns, or sales support requests. Execute with 2-4 weeks of that discussion, and then close the loop. Make sure that your surveys cover the chief need or concern that your sponsor raised. Adjust your questionnaire accordingly.

Be clear about how you’ll use the information. It has to be win-win for the customer, your sales champion, and you. Also, have a list of the top 20 people (by role) and accounts to interview. For example, I’d like to interview the VPs of Marketing at REI, Coleman, Patagonia, Outdoor Gear Lab, and… to improve our marketing with the outdoor lifestyle industry.


3. Work with your Service and Support team for 3-5 interviews with customers on the post-purchase and overall service experience.

The post-sale customer experience is critical to a customer’s overall satisfaction with your brand. I believe this is a significant, untapped area that needs marketing support. This is particularly true for the customer onboarding experience. You should know what that experience looks like. Start by sitting in on a few customer onboarding calls.

Alter your survey by adding these 2-3 questions, in lieu of some of the questions outlined above.

  • When was the last time you bought a new product or service from us? How would you rate the way we managed the delivery, training, and installation of that service on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best?
  • Did we provide information and content that helped you learn the solution? How would you rate that on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best?
  • What comments or suggestions do you have to make it easier to buy, install, and use our products?


4. Use your social networks to find some prospects that fit your target buyer profile.

So far, we’ve talked about tapping into internal friends and champions to interview customers. For a truly complete view of your buyers, you need input from people who aren’t customers. They may not even be aware of your brand.

The best way to do this is to tap the LinkedIn or personal networks of your marketing, sales, and service team leaders for candidates. Ask for people with the title and industries that you’re targeting. Ask the employee who knows the contact to facilitate an introduction. Provide 2-3 sentences for them to send via LinkedIn or email. Be diligent at checking back with your supporters on responses from their network.

From experience, most people will say ‘yes’ if a colleague or friend asks them for help. Be sure to keep your sponsor in the loop on the interview. They’ll want to personally thank their friend or colleague for participating.

Another source of prospects is LinkedIn communities. Many professionals take part, and are likely to be open to this kind of opinion-based interview. You may need to offer a gift or money for their time.


5. Schedule a debrief with sales, service, product owners, and marketing teams.

You’ll benefit from getting everyone on the same page; listening to questions and reactions; and gauging support for a broader, funded market research. Whatever the outcome, the shared conversation is what’s key.


Find the Time

So, why don’t more companies do this? A common objection is that there are too many hair on fire marketing demands. You’re busy getting content and campaigns out the door, and products launched.

Here’s my counter. This isn’t low priority busy work that takes away from lead generation. It’s how you get better leads, create more relevant content, and reach prospects more cost effectively. It also serves to unite sales and marketing team members around common views on what buyers want. Last point, the act of doing this work builds the credibility of your team and the marketer that conducts the work. In other words, you’ll have better street cred as a result of this effort.

I hope you found this useful. If so, I invite you to comment on this blog with suggestions.



High energy, inspired B2B Marketer. Lessons learned largely in high tech and communications industries where I've worked with very smart folks, on very cool things, in very dynamic environments. I like helping others navigate people, tech, programs, and problems with vision, courage, and impact. All opinions are solely my own.