The Framework For Developing Customer Success Personas

09-Feb-2016 18:14:23


In the UX, marketing or product management space, the concept of “personas” or “buyer personas” are common. In essence, personas are a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer.

UX teams or product managers use them to ensure they design products that solve real problems and develop a narrative of how someone might use their product. Marketers and sales teams use personas to ensure their campaigns and content are appealing to the challenges, needs and wants of their intended audience.


What about customer success?

Despite the prevalence of personas they’re not written about or put into practice much in the CS space. From speaking with others, one of the reasons is that we often assume marketing or product have already figured out their personas and we can just rely on them.

Unfortunately that is far from the truth. Customer personas are different to buyer personas. The problems customers have pre-sale are typically much more high level than the day to day reality of using your product or service.

How will customer personas help me?

There’s a few benefits of developing customer personas:

  1. Ensuring a common language across the CS team

  2. Providing a framework and playbook for individuals to adjust their style and approach

  3. Helping customers reach their goals and see success by understanding their motivations and challenges.

Steps to develop your customer personas -

The below process works well in B2B scenarios. If your operate in a B2C space the method will apply with some nuances 

1) Do your research


Before diving into creating your personas you should spend a lot of time listening to customer calls and speaking to others on the team. Try not to base the persona profiles on specific customers, as tempting as it can be. You can use many of the questions below to help structure your listening and conversations. This should be a collaborative process and not in the hands of one specific individual who might bias these personas.

2) Develop your persona cheat sheet

The goal here is to develop a detailed one pager on each persona that can be easily referenced by the team.

The headings I use to structure this cheat sheet are: i) Role, ii) profile, iii) goals and motivations and iv) red flags. Of course this could vary to your specific needs but I find these headings are open enough to get some good data on.

i) Role

What position do they occupy in the organisation? This is not always the person’s job title but the true part they play in the company.

For example - the CEO of a small business that’s existed for 20 years would have completely different goals and motivations to a CEO of a startup. It’s likely that a small business CEO cares about stability and making salary rather than massive growth rates and experimentation that a startup might have.

The goal here is to document a list of all possible job titles or roles they might have. The nuances of that role should be expanded in their persona profile.

ii) Profile

The next step is crucial - document the persona profile. My advice here would be to focus on the personas background, outlook, company context and method of working. Here’ some examples of factors to outline in their profile -

  • Learning style - visual, written, conversational, self learning, hand holding?

  • Level of technical ability

  • Level of experience with your product area - has this persona used a competitor product before? Are they subject matter experts in their industry?

  • Openness to advice - some people like prescription and to advice. Others are the complete opposite and prefer to lead conversations and like to feel like they know everything already

  • Background - taking the example of the CEO from earlier - what did they do before? The motivations and style of a CEO from a sales/finance background would be completely different than a CEO from an engineering background.

  • Level of turnover - I’ve written about this before. In CS your main points of contact leaving can impact retention so it’s important to know how often your personas move jobs

  • Scope of responsibility - in many roles (especially in small companies) people wear multiple hats. If you are working with a customer this knowledge is crucial as it provides more context when results or work isn’t achieved

  • Level of autonomy - true customer success often requires change and trying new things. Does this persona have the flexibility to move across the organisation and try things on their own or do they require sign off for everything?

  • Operational context - this is similar to autonomy but more specific to the type of organisation they work in (bureaucratic, traditional) and the size of the teams they are on (individual, small large, cross functional)

  • Where do they spend most of their day? In some roles people spend large majorities of their day in meetings or on calls. In others they strap on headphones and focus at their desk for the whole day. In the first scenario it can be challenging to get customer to execute on your success plan if they spend the entire day speaking instead of doing

  • Buy in - typically how involved was this personas with the decision making and sales process? Are they on board with using the product/service or has it been a mandate from above?

  • Who’s their boss? - a persona’s job could be completely different depending on who they report to. A direct manager, senior executive or project manager could all have different expectations and level of exposure to the product/success plans you are working on.


iii) Goals and motivations

  • Expectations of results - when do they expect results? Is this person ok with ambiguity or do they need to see concrete milestones along the way?

  • Personal or company motivations - if you are struggling to get customers onboard with your success plan sometimes it’s helpful to understand how this can benefit them. For example the project you are working on might make them look great to their boss or on their resume. Helping them see progress here can help you reach the true goal in the en

  • Long term versus short term thinking - we all know focusing on short term results only is dangerous but some people struggle with seeing things from a long term perspective. For them it’s often better to speak in the short term quick wins but in the background use this to progress to the longer term outcome

  • Bottom or top line results - this is similar to long term versus short term. Does your persona respond better to more superficial results like a nice design or vanity metric or are they completely focused on the bottom line financial results. Both extremes of that scale can be dangerous

  • Desire to learn new things - some people respond well to new theories, concepts or ideas. Others need things explained in the context of what they already know.

  • Solution focus - a solution focus is generally a great thing but sometimes people can get sidetracked by complex or technical solutions. If you enjoy solving problems or working on technical things this can be distracting from real priorities and lead success plans off course

  • Why versus how - I wasn’t exactly sure how to phrase this one. Does this persona usually need to know the details and reasons behind everything or are they more concerned with diving straight in and executing first?

  • Level of perfectionism - is done better than perfect? Some personas need things to be absolutely perfectly planned before they will execute. Others will be more open to experimentation and an agile method. Your approach might differ greatly depending on these ends of the spectrum

    iv) Red Flags

In the context of customer success red flags are any qualitative indicators of churn. The goal here is to document changes in behaviour that would be worrying for the specific persona group.

Many red flags are incredibly specific to your persona, product or industry but here’s some examples of red flags I’ve pulled from my customer personas -

  • Your customer thinking they can do it all alone  Usually this is a signal of lack of buy in or misconceptions about level of investment necessary.

  • Talk the talk - does this persona talk a big game and sound bought in but struggle to execute?

  • Bad relationship with other departments - this is an indication of lack of buy in or potential turnover of your point of contact

  • Declining enthusiasm - this is obvious but if someone started off strong and has become less engaged it’s suggestive of a larger problem either with your plan or their internal context

  • Constant objections - objections and push back are natural in customer success and handling these objections is a big part of the job. If it feels like your persona is actively seeking out problems to point out then this would be a red flag

  • Focus on features and not solutions - some customers obsess about that one feature you don’t have but there’s often workarounds or other ways to reach the goal that feature is meant to help with. If the conversation is heavily features based then it’s a sign that the bigger picture goals are not in focus for this persona

  • No contingency - if your point of contact has nobody to take over the project if they move on then this is definitely a red flag. This is especially important if you are working with third party consultants, implementations partners or project managers.


3) Develop your playbook for each persona -


Once you’ve defined your persona cheat sheet it’s time to document the suggested approach for dealing with each group. Similar to reg flags the playbook for servicing each of these customers varies heavily depending on your resources, engagement with a customer and a whole host of other factors.

I’ve already given some high level approaches above but here’s some rough ideas to structure your playbook around -

  • How should you teach and advise them?

  • What examples should you use?

  • Should you be more proactive or reactive?

  • Should you focus on quick wins or spend time on strategy?

  • Should you use similar companies as benchmarks?

  • What communication style is appropriate?

  • Do you focus more on theory or practice?

  • Project manage tasks or leave things high level?

  • Decide if it’s more beneficial to speak to decision makers versus “do’ers”

  • Give lot’s of process and frameworks or let them come to you with the strategy?

  • How do you balance of offline/online or face to face communication?

  • Introduce new concepts or ideas or work within their current initiatives

  • Balance of encouragement versus pushing back and holding them accountable

4) Add, subtract and develop your personas over time

The customer success persona process is never really complete. As your product, team, market and customers evolve, so do your personas. It should be a regular exercise to come back to you personas and add more information or change things based on experience. I’ve found that keeping your personas in a collaborative tools like Google Docs can be helpful.


While the concept of personas is simple in theory at lot of detail can go into their development. I would recommend anyone working in customer success to go through this exercise. The process forces you to think deeply about the people you are working with and allows your teams to help customers see greater success with your product.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has done a similar exercise and heavily uses personas in CS practice.

Topics: customer success

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