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.
In the world of customer stories, "legal" just might be our arch nemesis.
Where marketers look for strong, absolute endorsement statements from customers, legal reviewers at vendor and customer companies prefer muddier terms.
The language legal likes isn't the clean and action-oriented phrasing marketers and copywriters have been taught to use.
It's understandable. They don't want it to appear that stellar results can always be expected.
Unfortunately, it's the culture we live in.
This varies from company to company. The larger the vendor or customer company, the more likely legal reviewers will go to town with the "Track Changes" feature of Microsoft Word.
What does that mean?
One company in particular I've worked with has its legal sensitivity meter set extra high. If you want to work with them, you've got to shift your language from absolute, action words to kinda, sorta, maybe terms.
Here's your guide to creating a case study legal will love. Substitute the "before" words with the following "after" phrasing:
Drives is intended to drive
Builds helps buid
Enables can enable
All campaigns some campaigns
Pays off can pay off
Increases is intended to increase
Analyzes can analyze
Automates is designed to automate
Triggers can be used to trigger
Wow, huh? That really takes the punch out of a customer case study or testimonial.
This mostly refers to the paraphrased part of your stories, not actual customer quotes. But at times legal will question customer quotes as well.
While this example maybe be more extreme, now you know how to get a story past the most persnickety legal gatekeeper - when you have to. But always start out with your strong, absolute language until you know it's not going to fly.
Then you can kinda, sorta, maybe tone it down as needed.
Any stories to share in your battles with legal?
What's the biggest unknown in any case study or success story project?
The customer's review and approval time.
As we've said, customers can turn a story around in a day or take months.
You have to find a middle ground of being persistent but stopping short of pesky.
Some people simply need specific targets. Or, to put it more bluntly, a deadline.
Typically, I don't give customers a deadline right out of the gate, when they first receive the story for review. I tell them that I'll check back with them later in the week or early next week - usually giving them 3-4 days.
The only exception to this is when there's a specific need driving a very fast turnaround - such as a PR opportunity or event. In that case, it's best to communicate about the tight approval cycle before the project even begins, and get the customer's commitment that the dates are doable.
But for typical projects, I reserve deadlines for those that are lingering a little.
A recent project reminded me that some people really respond best (and only?) to deadlines. When the project lingered, we let the customer know that the company needed the case study for some specific upcoming opportunities.
In turn, the customer responded with edits and moved the story to the next step.
It doesn't always work so well, but for certain types of people, it's the right motivator.
Of course, whatever deadline policies you adopt in regards to customer approval, always be flexible and aware of what's going on with the customer. Are they traveling, out sick, stressed with other work?
Adjust and work with the customer as needed - keep their experience as pleasant as you can.
Maybe offer to work directly with the customer's legal or PR team for final approval so your contact doesn't have to project manage.
So what's your deadline protocol when it comes to customer approvals, and what works best?
Sales and marketing are fast-moving functions of any business. The faster the case study is completed, the appointment made, or the press release out, the quicker you just might make a sale.
Enter the customer. Your customer has objectives and deliverables all its own.
Your case study, while it might be important to the customer, is likely not the top item on the customer's list.
At times, that makes for long waits...
...in obtaining permission to feature the customer
...in getting the interview on the schedule
...in securing the customer's approval
How do you cope?
Enter the 2 must-haves of the customer-story waiting game:
This week, a customer canceled his phone interview for a case study for the third time. Each time it was scheduled and he canceled shortly before or just didn't show up.
Now, it's scheduled for the fourth time. Crossing my fingers...
It's hard to be patient, but essential. Never let the customer see your frustration, or they could decide to bail on the whole project.
In this case, my client is driving the rescheduling because they also need the story for PR purposes.
However, in most cases, after two cancellations, I might ask if the customer truly has time for this project right now. If not, how about in a week or two, or when?
By asking about their availability, you open the door for them to tell you that now is just too busy and get realistic - so they don't keep missing appointments.
Whether you're trying to get an interview or secure approval, being persistent - in a nice way - is the only way.
That means contacting customers regularly and leaving friendly messages regarding your request.
Take those opportunities to remind the customer what's in it for them to participate in the story - the value to them of the joint promotional opportunity.
Sometimes you might even ask, "how can I help make this easier for you?"
Beyond patience and persistence, it's always important to set expectations with customers as the project kicks off. But even that doesn't guarantee a smooth ride.
What strategies do you have for dealing with the inevitable delays in case studies projects?
Or, if you've ever been on the customer side of a case study project, any tips to offer to vendors and writers trying to capture your story?
A case study has been saved. It was close.
Here's how it went down:
We created a case study that my client really needed, the first one on a specific mix of products used together by one customer.
Everything went incredibly smoothly until the signoff phase. Our main customer contact sent it up to his legal team, who said effectively, "No, we don't like your release form, so we can't agree."
From there, we engaged the company's PR contact, who was frustrated that legal shot down this free PR opportunity.
The PR guy let legal know the case study was important, getting legal to take another look.
We compromised with some modifications to the legal release form and the story got through.
It's a lesson in not taking "no" for an answer. If you understand the reasons for case study rejection, you can often work through them successfully.
All's well that ends well.
Lessons learned: Let legal see the release form before starting a customer story.
Find more tips on clearing roadblocks to customer story signoff in Ch. 8 of Stories That Sell.