By some cruel twist of fate, I have a restricted diet. No dairy for me, and right now, no wheat. So I have to find alternatives, and often those alternatives are lesser-than versions of favorite meals.
I can have a hamburger, but only without the cheese and bun. You can't really call that a hamburger, can you? I can eat cake, but it tastes odd without conventional flour – and there's no icing!
It's just not the same. I'm left feeling disappointed and unsatisfied.
That's exactly how you may be leaving your prospects when you produce customer case studies without a key ingredient - interviewing the customer.
In a customer case study, the customer interview is, in fact, the icing on the cake - it adds essential flavor, texture and the experience the customer expects.
Why Customer Interviews are a Pain
I get it, it's easier, and sometimes necessary, to create customer stories without customer interviews for a variety of reasons:
(A) The case study will be unnamed anyway, so you're not involving the customer
(B) You don't want to bother the customer with an interview so you source it from internal account reps' knowledge
(C) You're in a hurry to get it done for an event or other need, and an interview and approval will take too long
(D) The customer said no to being featured and/or interviewed
(E) All of the above
So you move forward with a customer story that fills the need, but likely doesn't maximize your message.
Why Your Case Study Needs Customer Interviews
If your prospects take the time to read or view a case study, give them their money's worth. Here's where you may be letting them down...
1. The “before” story: It’s important to highlight the specific “before” experience a customer had, so you can contrast it with the current, better reality. This helps prospects also associate and say, yes, that’s a challenge we’re having too! While account managers may have some insight into this, the rich detail about pains and challenges, and the juicy quotes, can only really come from the customer.
2. The “why”: Why did another customer choose to work with a certain vendor, over other options? Peel back the lid on how others have made decisions, which helps prospects make the decision as well. This has been shown to be one of the most insightful parts of a customer case study.
3. Areas of impact: You may know some of the details about specific outcomes for the customer, but you probably can't name all of them. Countless times, I've gone into customer interviews expecting them to list certain benefits, but in fact, they stress other benefits altogether, or have a much longer list than what the account rep mentioned before the call. If we had relied on internal information only, the story would have carried a fraction of the power.
But what if your situation is A, B, C, D or E from the list up top?
You do your best, but I can tell you from experience that relationships help. During and after delivery and deployment of your products and services, maintain close ties to the customer. With your happiest and most successful customers, establish a mutually beneficial arrangement. The customer can participate in customer reference activities, such as case studies, in exchange for things they value, such as positive publicity for the company’s or individual’s efforts, networking with peers, or the chance to showcase their best practices at events.
It’s literally, a case by case basis on what will motivate a customer to participate and be interviewed for a case study. Find it and speak to that.
It also doesn’t hurt to stress that it will only take 30-60 minutes of a customer’s time – total.
Ultimately, you can't read the customer's mind. For the sake of creating the most meaningful stories for your marketing, don't try! Instead, draw out rich, first-hand information directly from customers. Your prospects will appreciate that additional icing to the story.
At age 16, I walked into my small town's local newspaper and asked if I could write for them. The owner had no staff writers, and she agreed to turn me loose on a story.
I wrote about a local business and went on to write about many more. At the time, I regularly studied good writing, in school and in everything I read.
Twenty-six years later, I still write about businesses, now as a case study copywriter. But while I have been working IN writing, I haven't always worked ON my writing.
Daily writing is only part of improving as a writer. You also need conscious effort and external influences - worthy examples and honest peer feedback - to move forward.
It's just in the past couple of years that I have started working on my writing again. I study how news and feature stories are written. I analyze other copywriting. And I'm taking a writing class this fall.
I also took the step of getting feedback on the occasional case study from a seasoned magazine and book author - and my writing immediately improved. How? I learned I was leaving out a big ingredient that would make my writing more interesting: details.
Mental Pics for Readers
Over the past year, I've written 20 or so success stories on copywriters trained by American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI). In showing the evolution of their writing careers, I discovered countless opportunities for detail.
Instead of saying, "She's been writing since she was a child," I learned to say, "She started writing horse stories in her Hello Kitty notebook in third grade."
I could say, "She did odd jobs to make ends meet," or "She organized shoes at Macy's and spun Blizzards at Dairy Queen."
See how detail takes a statement from "telling" to crafting a picture for the reader?
What about Tech Case Studies?
In case studies about technology, adding detail doesn't mean more technical detail. Leave those in Tech Specs boxes on the website or in data sheets, not within a narrative. Keep a customer case study focused on the customer's experience.
In a tech case study, adding detail looks something like this:
“It took marketing teams days or weeks to pull all the data they needed for a campaign.”
Instead of this...
“Marketing teams were slow to get campaigns out the door.”
“The school upgraded its entire computer lab for one-third the cost it would have spent on traditional PCs.”
Instead of this...
The school upgraded its computer lab for significantly less cost compared to traditional PCs.”
In a recent case study I wrote for a large B2B company, I included numerous details about the featured customer, a sports stadium:
- How many people packed the stadium for its biggest-ever event
- The number of photographers and journalists in attendance
- How slow Internet previously forced journalists to go inside to transmit their photos and stories
- How much VIP guests paid for their tickets
- Who won the game!
It's in the details that stories fully form and remain in readers' minds.
What details can you add to your writing - today?
Last month, we did what we never expected: we bought a fixer-upper home – we, who can change a light bulb but do little else.
Only a few square feet have been updated since our home was built nearly 30 years ago. Ideally, we’d land on some reality-TV show where the renovators would swoop in and fix it all lickety-split while we are on vacation.
I’ll call HGTV. But meanwhile, we’re reaching out to multiple vendors and contractors to tackle a wish-list longer than our block. Yet, we’re barely moving forward.
That’s because we’re trying to wade through a sea of potential vendors who can help, most immediately, with floors and doors. We want to buy but distinguishing one vendor from another is tough and time-sapping.
You know what would help? Some juicy customer stories showing how a vendor provided a positive experience for other homeowners.
But website after website show no sign of the customer’s voice. It’s all “we can do this and that for you.”
Sure, we have sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List, but often, those free-form reviews are not answering the primary questions we have.
What’s it like to work with a vendor? Are they responsive? Are they professional? Are they knowledgeable? Do they do quality work?
Don’t Compete on Price
A vendor-produced customer case study gives a business the unique chance to showcase a customer’s positive experience – and answer the most common questions that potential customers have.
This is how a business competes on something other than price.
Every business needs customer case studies, but I know they compete with other budget dollars. Why not make them part of the website plan? Give the customer’s voice real estate on the website just like you’d design every house with a living room.
Because what the customer says about you is way more credible than what you say about yourself.
How Do You Get Started?
1. Start small - If you’ve never captured the customer’s voice before, start small. Approach three happy customers about being featured. Set realistic goals at the outset, such as creating story-based testimonials or short success stories – maybe just three paragraphs.
2. Follow the story format – Keep interview questions simple and follow the standard format of covering the challenge (what the customer was trying to solve), solution (how YOU solved it), and results (the positive outcomes of working with the product, service or company).
3. Get approval – Write your testimonials or customer stories and send them to customers for review, edits and approval.
Now, get going. Help customers buy from you!
It’s been 15 years since I wrote my first case study. And year after year since then, I hear the same challenge from organizations as the main reason they don’t create more case studies.
"We can't get customers to agree to do them!"
You may be a customer's best, most beloved vendor, but for various reasons, the customer just can't or won't say yes...
• Larger organizations often have policies against endorsing vendors
• Some don't want to reveal competitive secrets
• Others simply don't want to spare the time
The truth is, you have to sell the idea to the customer. With nearly anything – and especially with harried business people – it's still about WIIFM (what's in it for me?).
But you have to know who you're selling to and tailor the benefits accordingly:
1- The company
At the company level, organizations that say yes might be motivated by the positive publicity, a chance to showcase their best practices, the prestige of showing they work with an esteemed brand or hot technology, among others.
But many case studies move forward because of greater motivations of the individuals involved. Maybe the person who chose the vendor and led the successful project internally wants to showcase his or her professional accomplishments. They want to document that in a case study, speaking opportunity or award entry. Or they might be moved by activities in tandem with a case study such as the chance to network with peers on your customer advisory board.
For both companies and individuals, monetary motivators are questionable. Most references – if not hindered by a corporate policy against participating – are willing to be featured or serve as a reference without monetary incentives.
You want true customer advocates to be featured – not because they get a discount on software or services.
Donate to Their Charity of Choice
But there’s another option that may motivate both companies and individuals. What about appealing to their sense of altruism? How about donating to the company's or individual's charity of choice as a thank-you for sharing their story? The amount may vary based on your budget, but probably set it at at least $25.
I recently met Ryan Sorley of DoubleCheck Research. His company conducts win-loss interviews for organizations. Essentially, he uncovers why an organization chose – or didn't choose – to buy a product or service. Ryan isn’t creating customer case studies, but in gaining the interviews he needs, the challenge is similar; participation is voluntary.
For every interview he does, Ryan makes a donation to the contact's charity of choice. He has many to choose from so individuals can select the one they feel most strongly about. Not every person he contacts says yes, but it does contribute to a pretty high rate of success in getting win-loss interviews.
Customer case studies are similar. A charitable donation on the customer's behalf may not sway the most ardent dissenters but it can possibly get a few off the fence – and appeal to their desire to do good.
A few years ago, high on the belief in the power of customer success stories, I set out to create some of my own.
I'd already created hundreds of case studies for others, so why wouldn’t I create my own to show the value of working with me?
The "why not?" became immediately apparent when, during phone interviews, I unexpectedly felt uncomfortable asking my own clients about their experiences with me.
Sure, I was inquiring about their positive experiences, but still, it was strange for both of us. And I believe they were less forthcoming with quotes and information than they would have been if I'd partnered with a writer friend to do this for me.
I might as well have said, "Tell me how great I am!" No one likes to be a part of that.
I went on and wrote the case studies, but vowed never to interview my own customers again.
Get Some Distance
Case studies are not objective pieces of journalism. They are clearly produced by a vendor to showcase a positive experience.
But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't engage a neutral party to interview and write your case studies. A third party adds a critical measure of distance between the vendor and the customer, and encourages the customer to open up and share in a way they wouldn't with someone they are closer to.
Many of us are more willing to pay for the chance to tell a therapist more intimate information than we would tell our closest friends.
And in the case of case studies, giving and receiving praise directly makes some of us shift in our seats.
Get Over Hang Ups
I understand why many organizations - and often those closest to the customer – interview their own customers:
1. They know the customer's background and the solutions being featured.
2. They want to protect valued relationships.
3. Third parties cost more than using internal resources.
I get all those reasons, but believe the value that third-party interviews provide outweighs them. Someone else can learn the customer's background and subject matter well enough to interview and write about them. Client relationship "owners" can still sit on customer interviews if they really choose, but customers open up more if they don't. It's just 30-60 minutes of time, and reps can be part of the rest of the process.
It's true that a third party costs more than using internal resources for interviews, but the payoff is usually in more candid interviews. At a minimum, get a marketing contact within the company to conduct interviews – not sales or account reps.
So back away from your customers – at least when it comes to conducting case study interviews!