Today I’m pleased to share a guest post by Raviv Turner.

When it comes down to it, how well do you truly understand your customer base? Do you understand their motivation, lifestyle, and other attributes that affect their spending habits? Understanding what makes your customer tick can help you hone in on buying behavior and plan everything from ad copy to new product lines. From start to finish, use accurate data to create customer personas. Not taking the time to get to know and understand your customers can doom you to mediocrity.

In 2012, JCPenney decided to launch a dramatic rebrand under the leadership of new CEO, Ron Johnson. The plan was to not only change the look and feel of the stores but also overhaul how the company did business completely. He decided to discontinue lucrative JCP private label brands and replace them with designer clothing. The clothes he replaced the line with were priced higher than the average JCPenney’s customer would budget. He pretty much changed everything about the brand, without thinking of his company’s loyal customers. The rebranding flopped and sales figures fell flat.

Johnson later admitted he had made assumptions about his customers without looking at the data. He told Business Week that he’d believed that customers were tired of all the special sales promotions and coupons. It turned out that the very thing he had cut was what had been driving customer loyalty all along. It was a tough and expensive lesson for the brand.

The problem with many personas is that they are either based on irrelevant data about your prospect, use poorly sourced data, or are based on what is sometimes referred to as “ouija board personas” — customer profiles built from no actual data at all.

Personas are meant to be fictionalized representations of buyers, based on actual existing data. The fiction isn’t meant to be entertaining; it’s meant to provide insight that helps marketers understand their buyers as real people with concrete motivations, desires, and needs. If you don’t understand your customers, you can’t sell to them.

Buyer personas can help businesses truly harness the perception and usefulness of their brand through the eyes of their customer, and it can’t happen too soon.

There’s a failure to thrive among brands that struggle to understand some of the basic motivations their customers have. For example, a Brandshare study recently found that 51% of their respondents are disappointed with the way brands respond to their needs. Only 10% of this same group believed that brands understand and respond well to their needs.

An accurate buyer persona can help you see inside the mind of your customer, anticipate their needs, and develop products to fulfill those needs. It’s a marketer’s dream to get inside the customer’s head.

So how do you get to know your customers, anyway? The answer is data. (Accurate data, to be more specific.) Qualitative research is a great way to start getting to know your customers. You can start to gather this data through the use of customer surveys, telephone interviews, in-person interviews, and focus groups. For each task, make it short and sweet, 7-10 questions designed to give you the best insights based on their behavioral drivers, objections to purchasing, and motivation to buy. Once you’ve got the data, you can start to put a whole image together of your customers and begin creating accurate, insightful customer personas.

Other data-gathering activities such as data mining, social media usage, etc. can come together at a later date, giving you further insight into your customers.

Note: This post was originally published on the Caliber UX blog and is reposted here with permission.

Raviv Turner is the Co-Founder & CEO of Caliber UX, a customer journey mapping and analytics SwaS (Software with a Service). Raviv has been developing custom software experiences for over 15 years in industries ranging from animation, gaming, architecture, marketing, and healthcare. He was Co-Founder at Guerillapps, a social gaming platform. Prior to founding Caliber UX, Raviv was Director of UX at FullContact and VP Product at TapInfluence. He is a Product Design & UX mentor at Techstars and holds a MPS in Interactive Media from New York University.