How To Use Customer Research Surveys To Build Realistic Personas

March 29, 2016 Jessica Mehring

Believe it or not, your customers know a lot about you.

Before they engage with you – before they pick up the phone or write that email – they’re 60% down their buying journey.

Once they engage with you, however, how much you know about them makes all the difference.

This is why buyer personas are so critical to sales teams today. It humanizes the customer on the other end of the line, and gives you a clearer idea of who you’re talking to.

Unfortunately, most sales teams are working off of incomplete buyer personas.

These personas are compiled from personal experience (good), some guesswork (not so good), and maybe some halfhearted customer surveys (detrimental).

Why do I use the word detrimental, you ask? Because bad information about your customers can be worse than no information.

In fact, according to an Edelman study, 51% of customers feel that brands don’t ask about their needs, and 40% of people want a brand to engage in more meaningful conversations with them.

This means that the bulk of sales conversations are leaving customers feeling like you don’t even know who they are.

Put yourself in those customers’ shoes for a moment. It’s easy to do. Just go to your email spam folder. Pick any email in there. Does it feel like it was written just for you? Does it read like the writer actually knows who you are? My bet is no.

How does that make you feel?

When customers talk to a salesperson who has no idea who they are, what they need, what they expect or what their objections could be, this is how they feel. Spammed.

A robust and accurate buyer persona can help you overcome this.

It can help you speak to customers like you know them.

Because you will know them.

Creating a better buyer persona starts with asking the right questions of people who are already buying from you.

Read on to find out how to write survey questions for customer research surveys that actually help sales teams build realistic personas.

Customer Survey Best Practices

Conducting surveys is a critical part of understanding who your customers are, what they need and what they think. Surveys get you inside your customers’ heads and help you base your personas on what they’re actually thinking.

Surveying your customers is easy.

Getting helpful insights is more challenging.

To get a higher response rate, you must keep the survey short and simple. But to get enough information for the results to be useful, you must include more detailed and open-ended questions.

It’s a tightrope.

You can walk that tightrope like a pro if you keep these 5 best practices in mind.

1. Determine The Purpose Of Your Survey

If you don’t have a goal in mind, you’ll end up throwing everything but the kitchen sink into your survey – and not getting insights you can actually use.

The clearer you are about the purpose of your survey, the better your results will be.

So ask yourself:

  • Why are you surveying your customers? What gaps do you need to fill in your buyer persona? Do you want to get to know more about your customers’ lives so you can make a more personal connection? Do you want to know what’s going on in their workplace so you can better understand why they came to you for a solution?
  • What do you hope to learn about them? Do you want to understand what’s keeping them from buying? Do you hope to learn what they love about the product/service they’ve already bought from you?
  • Who do you want to take the survey? People who have already bought from you? People who come to your website in general? People who have downloaded free content or signed up to hear more from your brand, but haven’t necessarily purchased anything yet?

The answers to these questions will narrow down the purpose of your survey, help you ask more targeted questions and produce better customer insights.

Here’s an example from publicity and sales expert Melissa Cassera:

Melissa Cassera 2016

She not only gets very specific about what she seeks to learn about her customers, but in the email she sent to introduce this survey, she states exactly what she’s going to do with the information:

'I use the info that I collect to tailor my blog posts, guides, and training programs so that they’re totally custom-made for what you actually need.'

2. Order The Questions Strategically

Overwhelming your respondents right out of the gate will result in a lower response rate. Pace your questions right to increase the odds that people will complete the survey.

Start the survey with warm-up questionsThese are simple questions, typically with multiple-choice or rate-scale answers, that ease the respondent into the survey.

Then move into more complicated questions and open-ended questions. These types of questions require more time and energy for survey-takers to complete, which can feel like a lot of pressure. This is why it’s so important to warm respondents up to the survey first.

Finally, wrap up with cool-off questions. These include demographic questions and space for additional comments. When you ease people into the survey and provide them a soft exit in this way, it’s a better overall experience – and it is more likely to result in completed surveys and greater customer insights.

3. Watch Your Phrasing

When a person can’t make sense of a survey question, they have two choices: pick an answer at random or abandon the survey.

Neither one of those choices gives you the insights you need to build a better buyer persona.

So first and foremost, make sure your questions are relevant to the purpose of your survey. If the question doesn't lead directly to the specific insights you’re looking for, leave it out. Make sure the questions you include are relevant to the people you want to take your survey, as well. If you’re surveying people who have signed up for your free content, a question like 'Why did you decide to buy from us?' will probably not get you very far.

Second, make your questions clear. Avoid jargon, slang and ambiguous language. Also avoid inciting language – that is, language that is overly provoking or forces respondents to identify with a stereotype. Example of inciting words are 'conservative,' 'extremist' or 'old fashioned.'

Third and finally, avoid leading questions. Write questions in a neutral way to avoid unconsciously leading the survey-taker to an answer that may not actually be true for them. An example of a leading question would be, 'Do you agree that our service was excellent?' A better way to phrase that would be 'How would you rate our service on a scale of 1 to 10?'

4. Cover All The Possibilities

Remember what happens when a person can’t make sense of a survey question? The same thing happens when a person can’t find an answer that works for them. They are left with two choices: pick an answer at random or abandon the survey.

Make sure all of the possible answers are present.

Provide answer alternatives that cover all the likely responses to a question. Also, include 'other' or 'none of the above' as answer options to account for the unlikely responses, and leave space for the respondent to explain.

Here is an example from Amy Porterfield’s recent survey:

multiple choice

For multiple-choice questions, ensure all the choices are mutually exclusive.

Here is an example of a question with answers that don’t exclude each other:

'How much do you spend each month on shampoo?'

  1. Below $10
  2. $10-15
  3. $15-20
  4. $20-30
  5. $30+

The survey-taker can only provide one answer. What if they spend $15 on shampoo each month? Would they pick #2 or #3?

To make the answers mutually exclusive and enable the respondent to answer accurately, you would change the answers to

  1. Below $10
  2. $10-14
  3. $15-19
  4. $20-29
  5. $30+

Also make sure that the answers are clearly defined. Take this question and answer set, for example:

'How often do you use XYZ software?’

  1. Once a week
  2. Sometimes
  3. Occasionally
  4. Seldom

The definitions of #2-4 could vary from person to person. They’re much too ambiguous and should be rewritten to define specific timeframes.

5. Be Upfront About How Long The Survey Will Take

There’s nothing worse than beginning a survey, only to realize 10 minutes later that you’re not even halfway done with it.

Don’t do that to your customers. Their time is precious. So is their goodwill.

State on the very first page of the survey how long you expect it to take. And be honest about it.

Bonus points if you tell your customers how you plan to use their answers. For example, to improve your product, make your service more beneficial to them, or tailor your content to their specific needs.

Here’s an example from HubSpot’s State of Inbound 2016 Survey:


Ask These Survey Questions For Deeper Insights

The best practices above will work for just about every customer survey you create. But you’re interested in surveying your customers in order to flesh out your buyer personas – so let’s go a little deeper.

To build a better buyer persona, ask questions that will provide insight into three specific things:

  1. Behavioral drivers
  2. Expectations
  3. Obstacles to purchasing

Between 7 and 10 questions should be enough to give you these insights. But you can ask more questions (or fewer), as long as they serve the purpose of your survey.

Suggested Questions Regarding Behavioral Drivers:

  • When did you realize you needed a product/service like ours?
  • What’s your biggest challenge in ___________? (ex: managing your schedule, leaving the office on time)
  • What’s holding you back from _______? (ex: exercising more, growing your team)
  • What are you using this product/service for?

Suggested Questions Regarding Customer Expectations:

  • What problem does our product/service solve for you?
  • What would you like to see more of?
  • What are you looking for that you’re not finding?
  • What’s your preferred method of ______? (ex: communication, learning)
  • What was your biggest frustration or problem finding the right product/service?

Suggested Questions Regarding Obstacles To Purchasing:

  • What doubts or hesitations did you have before buying?
  • How has your experience been with our company?
  • Were you interested in buying?
  • What stopped you from making a purchase from our company?
  • Did you consider buying any alternatives to our product/service?

Your customer survey can evolve over time, too. If a question isn’t resulting in the insights that you’re after – change it!

How To Use Survey Results To Bring Personas To Life

If you’ve already got a buyer persona created, keep reading. If not, start here with this template.

Now, with your basic persona in-hand, let’s use your customer survey results to flesh it out and bring it to life.

First, look for commonalities in the survey responses. Group the common answers together and organize it into a manageable format. An Excel doc usually works well for this.


Through this exercise, you might even discover that you have more than one clear buyer persona.

Second, align your survey results to your quantitative data. Quantitative data can be gathered from Google Analytics or whatever analytics system you use to track your metrics. Does the demographic and website usage information from your quantitative data give you any other insights when combined with the customer survey answers?

Finally, think through what the survey answers and quantitative data could mean about a person. What really matters to them?

For example, say you’re selling a new SaaS product that helps small businesses manage their budgets.

Say you asked the question 'When did you realize you needed a product like ours?'

Say many of the answers were along the lines of 'We blew through our first-quarter budget in the first three weeks and had no money left to complete a planned project.'

Say your Google Analytics show that most users visit the website an average of 3 times before they buy.

You can infer:

  • This persona is not watching their budget very carefully.
  • They’ve likely blown their budget more than once already (because they’ve been to your site 3 times).
  • They have projects they want to complete – and they don’t have the money to complete them.
  • They’re willing to spend money to get control over their money.

This can help you paint a more colorful picture of your target buyer.

Let’s call your target buyer Fred.

Fred is 55 years old and owns a small business. He loves to talk to people about his product. His annual revenue is $500k, and he has five employees – but no salesperson, because Fred prefers to handle all the sales himself.

What can we add to this, given the four bullet points above?

  • Fred trusts his account manager to watch the budget – but that person doesn’t do a great job of it.
  • Fred would rather spend money on budgeting software than try to handle the budget himself (or hire a new account manager).
  • Fred is open to starting new projects – he just needs to get control of his budget to make sure he has the money for those new projects.

Fred is a people person. Not a numbers person.

Knowing this, would you approach him from a numbers standpoint?

No! You’d approach him as a fellow salesman. As someone who loves to talk about the product he’s created and all the good it has done for his customers.

This is the difference a fully fleshed-out buyer persona makes for you and your sales team.

Your Turn

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to download this buyer persona template. It will give you a head start to creating your next buyer persona. If you have already created your persona, you may find some interesting prompts in there to make your persona a little more robust.

Keep surveying your customers and honing your buyer personas with the insights you get. The more you get to know your customers, the better relationship you’ll have with them – and the more sales you’ll make.

Featured Image Source: Online Survey Icon by Tungilik CC0 1.0 Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

Jessica Mehring

Jessica Mehring combines sales-focused copywriting with long-form content creation to help her clients turn white papers, guides and e-books into clients and revenue. Follow her on Twitter at @horizonpeak and connect with her at

Follow on Twitter More Content by Jessica Mehring
Previous Article
How To Skyrocket Your Sales By Mining Your Email List
How To Skyrocket Your Sales By Mining Your Email List

If your company is creating high-quality lead magnets to capture email addresses, you’re probably picking u...

Next Article
The Future Of Email: Is There Anything Better?
The Future Of Email: Is There Anything Better?

For many of us, email is a frustrating necessity of life. For others, like John Pavlus of Fast Company, 'em...