Every night, I watch the national evening news for a quick summary of what’s going on in the world.
Whether the story’s about swine flu or the weather, the reporters almost always bring in the human element – and lead with that human connection to engage the audience.
How? By featuring people affected by the story’s topic.
The same goes for selling complex technology solutions or consulting services, or anything for that matter. People like to hear about other people, not just about inanimate products or intangible services.
When you read a customer case study or success story without much of a human element, it’s flat and truly less interesting.
Here are 4 ways to bring the human element into your customer stories:
OK, this seems obvious. But surprisingly, there are case studies out there without quotes!
Quotes are the sound bites, the actual voices of the characters in your story.
Ideally, you should feature customer quotes in several places throughout your story. If for whatever reason you cannot quote someone from the customer’s organization, then quote someone in your company or the reseller/partner.
People read quotes when they don’t read paraphrasing, so use the quotes to emphasize the most important points of your story.
Have a Hero
Most customer contacts want to be the hero of your story. They made the solid decision to bring in this winning product or service.
Give the audience a bit more insight into who this person is. Is she a seasoned industry veteran? Is she managing a large global team? What issues keep her up at night?
Spend a little time (not a lot) helping readers or viewers get to know your protagonist in the story.
Here’s where case studies differ from a brochure, datasheet or white paper.
Emotion is a natural part of a good story. There’s frustration before a customer implements your new solution. There’s relief once things are better. And there’s excitement over the impact of a product or service.
Show that range of emotions. Just be careful not to overdramatize too much. It’s a case study, not a soap opera.
Believable stories are not all rosy. On the path to something better, there are obstacles.
It’s sensitive to talk about weaknesses in your product or service. That’s understandable.
But don’t just talk about the customer’s "before" challenges in your story. Show the ups and downs as you go along.
You might mention how the customer and vendor worked through a data migration issue that arose, faced a tight turnaround time, or how employees were initially skeptical about the new solution.
Then when you follow with successful outcomes, they’re sweeter when the audience knows what was behind it all.
What else? How do you humanize your stories?
If asked, will customers submit themselves as possible case study or success story candidates?
From consumer-products companies to B2B to nonprofit organizations, many now actively solicit stories with self-service “Share Your Story” links on their Web sites.
- Apple created a link for this soon after the release of its wildly popular iPhone.
- FileMaker software includes a link to “Tell us your story.”
- Girl Scouts of the USA asks former members to share their experiences for its alumnae program.
- And Toyota Motor Sales gather owners' stories and gets usage permission through an online form.
Does customer self-nomination actually work?
Sometimes. I know it's worked extremely well for Toyota, which has tons of customer experiences on its site.
But some B2B companies have tried the approach with hardly any submissions to speak of.
Are consumers willing to submit themselves more readily than business candidates? Perhaps.
Fortunately, it's something that's pretty cheap to try for while, and pull if it doesn't generate any great story candidates.
Self-Service Story Options
You have a few different options for information that comes through “Share Your Story” links on your website:
- Collect names and customer interest, and then follow up to get the complete story.
- Create a web form that asks for more detail. Then run stories as first-person customer accounts basically verbatim—like extended testimonials. Check for typos, etc. before publishing online.
- Create third-person, professionally written stories from answers that customers provide on a web form.
Be sure to let customers know how stories will be used, and the positive benefits of being featured.
If you choose to run stories based strictly on customer-submitted information, you'll need a way for customers to indicate their permission as they type in their experiences. Toyota has a check box that handles this.
You may also want a way for customers to upload a photo of themselves, if applicable.
In general, but not always, first person (I, we) stories seem most appropriate for consumer companies while third person (he, she, they) works best for B2B.
To decide the best approach for your company, consider your audience, and maintenance and cost considerations.
Have you tried a web form? If so, share your experience in the comments.
Want more tips for managing your case studies?
Customer case studies play several roles - credibility, education, and last but not least, validation.
Prospects need to see the specific value that a product or service delivered. Ideally, that's measurable.
But for a case study to be effective with the intended audience, you have to present metrics in a way that matters to them.
1. First, identify what metrics mean the most to your prospects. Ask some of your current customers.
Once you understand this, craft your interview questions to elicit these specific metrics. Ask before-and-after questions to help customers measure improvements.
2. Decide how to present metrics
Dollar amounts do not carry the same value for all prospects. For example, an annual cost-savings of $30,000 is likely very significant for a small business. But those numbers probably don't impress a midsize to larger organization.
If you're trying to keep case studies versatile for multiple audiences, then it makes sense to represent return on investment (ROI) data in more universal terms.
Instead of $30,000 in annual savings, instead we could say the company reduced its staffing costs by 15 percent.
3. Negotiate with customers
You may have a specific way that you'd like to represent ROI, but your customer isn't comfortable with that. Discuss with the featured customer how they are willing to show their results. That might be in dollar amounts, in percentages or in factors of (twice as, one-third of...).
As with many aspects of a customer case study, it's all about balancing the information you need to deliver to your audience with what your customer is willing to share.
If you're making full use of a customer's success story, you're telling that story in multiple places - case studies, success stories, press releases, videos, webinars, white papers, and more.
Most likely, more than one person is involved in creating content with the customer's story. If you're not careful, the customer will be asked the same questions again and again.
That's why it's critical to approach the customer in an organized way with the goal of minimizing the customer's time. Ideally, that means one "power" interview to get all the details you need.
Right now, I'm working on a case study project where the customer will also be featured in a white paper. Instead of two separate interviews, the white paper writer and I are teaming up for a single interview to collect all the information we need for our respective projects.
The alternative - two separate interviews in a single week, with duplicate questions - would likely be very annoying for the customer.
To take best practices a step further, retain the raw transcript, audio or video for any future uses of the customer's story to ensure you don't need to engage more of the customer's time unless absolutely necessary.
In short, always make sure you're gathering the customer's story with an eye toward broader usage. When possible, knock it out with one power interview.
For other ways to keep customers happy during the case study process, check out Michele Linn's great recent post, Handle with Care: 10 Tips on Interacting with Case Study Customers.
Today I'm pleased to bring you a guest post by Stephanie Tilton, the principal of Ten Ton Marketing (www.tentonmarketing.com), and founding member of and regular contributor to the Savvy B2B Marketing blog (www.savvyb2bmarketing.com). She's also a very experienced case study and white paper writer.
Issues throughout the case study development process can derail - or at least complicate - a project.
The following four examples involving a fictitious customer contact named Lucy highlight common pitfalls and ways to circumvent them.
1. Fail to understand the customer's satisfaction level
When you get on the phone to interview Lucy, you probably expect her to speak favorably about your company and its offerings. It seems reasonable enough - after all, Lucy agreed to participate in the case study.
But you just might find yourself blindsided if you don't do your homework.
Before a case study interview, touch base with the account manager or review your customer relationship management database.
It's possible that Lucy - or someone within her organization - had a poor experience using your solution or working with your company between the time you scheduled the call and the day of the interview.
If that's the case, you - or Lucy - may want to reschedule the interview. At the very least, discuss the situation with the account manager to determine the plan for moving forward.
Though not as likely, Lucy might have had a bad experience the day of your call and not yet reported it to your company. In fact, you may be the first to hear about it.
Offer to mobilize the appropriate resources to address the issue and suggest that the call be rescheduled once the issue has been fully resolved.
2. Expect the customer to rattle off project details and metrics
You probably expect Lucy to know everything about choosing and using your company's offering. But that's a poor assumption for two key reasons:
- The person who originally evaluated, chose, implemented, or used your solution may have left the company.
- Lucy might know only a portion of the story, while someone else in the company knows the remaining details. For example, perhaps Lucy knows the technical details while Joe in finance understands how the solution has benefited workers on a daily basis.
Minimize the chances of a frustrating interview by giving Lucy insight into the types of questions you'll cover on the call. Don't think it's sufficient to send a questionnaire as an email attachment - Lucy might not look at it before the call.
In the email, summarize the key questions you'll ask. Be certain to highlight the types of quantitative results you hope to capture.
This heads-up will give Lucy a chance to find the answers - or invite the appropriate people to join the call.
3. Get sidetracked during the interview
Everyone is busy these days. So when you ask Lucy to set aside 30-60 minutes for a call, be sure to respect her time. Lucy expects to be discussing her experience implementing and using your solution.
Don't distract her with questions that aren't directly related to the case study, such as how you can improve your offering.
With a set amount of time for the interview, asking irrelevant questions can mean you don't get everything needed to write the story. The last thing you want to do is bother Lucy with additional questions after the interview because you took up too much time asking tangential questions!
<4. Pressure the customer to review the draft quickly
Want a rapid turnaround once you send the case study to Lucy for review? Then make sure you get the draft into her hands as soon as possible after the interview.
If you take your time sending the case study to Lucy, it's not fair to expect a quick review.
Even if you do send the draft right away, remember, Lucy has her own busy schedule and priorities. The customer review process is out of your hands.
While you don't want to badger Lucy, there are a few things you can do to try to keep the case study top of mind for Lucy. Here's what Casey Hibbard suggests in Stories that Sell:
- Call in reinforcements. Identify someone within your company who has a strong relationship with Lucy. Ask him or her to bring up the case study during the next conversation with Lucy and find out what needs to happen to move forward.
- Help out the customer. If you find out that Lucy is trying to chase down people in her organization to review the draft, offer to take over. You can become the person who persistently follows up to shepherd the draft through the review and approval process.
- Send a thank-you gift. Many organizations send a small gift as a token of their appreciation for the customer's participation. If you follow this practice, consider sending the gift before the case study review process is complete. In this way, you can tap into the powerful urge that people feel to reciprocate when someone gives them something. (You can read more about this in Robert B. Cialdini's book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.") Lucy will likely be more motivated to guide the case study through to completion.
Have your case study initiatives been derailed for other reasons? Do you have other suggestions for ensuring a smooth case study process? Please share your experiences and thoughts!