What nobody tells you about creating customer success stories (but should.)

BY Joel Klettke
August 13, 2020

“Creating customer success stories—how hard can it be?”

If there’s a painful lesson I’ve been forced to learn (repeatedly) in life, it’s that any time you ask “How hard can it be?” — you’re about to find out.

This is why I can’t help but smile every time I see marketers underestimating the challenges, workload, and unexpected games of whack-a-mole that come with putting together customer success stories. After all, it’s just “Challenge, Solution, Results” right?

How hard can it be?

Well, buckle up. I’m about to show you.

Here are just a few of the unexpected things the team at Case Study Buddy and I have learned after tackling hundreds of these for clients ranging from Fortune 50 companies to individual coaches.

Lesson 1: Get your cardio in—you’re about to do a lot of chasing.

If the hardest part of getting a case study is asking customers to take part (and getting them to say yes), the second toughest part might be project management—specifically wrangling revisions and final sign-off.

The chain of events goes like this:

  1. To write a customer success story, you need the customer to be involved.
  2. The people you interview are likely to share two things in common: they’re busy, and they care about their reputations.
  3. To protect the customer’s reputation and your relationship, you need to secure their approval on the asset.
  4. To secure their approval on the asset, you need them to review the drafts/outputs.
  5. To get them to review the outputs and provide feedback, you’re going to need to follow up.

Could you skip this process and leap right into the writing bit?

Sure—if you’re OK running the risk of causing massive damage to a client relationship or getting a cease-and-desist notice. You might assume that a customer who has gone to the trouble of being interviewed will be a shoo-in for a quick sign-off.

And while sometimes that’s how things play out, more often than not you’re going to need to chase up. Content creators and companies alike chronically underestimate the time, effort, and art required to get a client to confirm.

(And for you content creators out there, having your payment tied to final confirmation means you’re going to be waiting a looooong time to get paid.)

Case Study Buddy has multiple steps we go through to minimize the risk of a client ghosting you—some I’ll share, but most of which I’ll keep to myself. (It’s part of why people hire us, after all!)

Some high-level advice:

  • Make sure your client expects this step and understands its importance.
  • Allow customers to provide feedback in the format they prefer.
  • Be prepared to follow up patiently for months.

Lesson 2: Too much of a good thing is a decidedly bad thing.

This one is going to sound a bit like when someone in a job interview says “My weakness is that I’m too punctual…”

But the honest truth is that if you…

  • Go in with a strategy, and
  • Know how to capture detailed insights from your customers

You’re going to wind up having too many great quotes, details, and metrics to pack into one focused story.

My team deals with this all the time, and we’ve learned that one of the worst things you can do is try to cram it all in. It’s like baking with every single ingredient in the cupboard: you’ve got to be selective, or the whole thing is going to taste awful.

And frankly, it’s unlikely your audience wants to read a 5,000-word piece full of endless praise for you (unless you’ve got a lot of prescriptive “how-tos” and takeaways in there that they can learn from.)

This is where having a case study strategy makes a ton of sense.

Before you start putting together a piece that highlights every win, remember…

  • You should be trying to reach a specific audience, with a specific pain, desiring a specific outcome.
  • That audience will care more about some things than others.
  • Trying to put the spotlight on EVERY win means none of them shine brighter than the rest.

One of the hardest parts about creating customer success stories is being ruthless about what you cut, highlight, and include.

Lesson 3: That story you just wrote? It’s already outdated.

Publishing a new customer success story is a GREAT win and something to be celebrated!

But while case studies can make for great evergreen assets, “set-it-and-forget-it” isn’t the ideal way forward. There’s power to be had in regularly following up. Not only will you keep studies fresh with the most current stats and wins—you’ll also have a natural reason to keep the conversation with your customer going.

Not to mention the credibility of being able to say “Last updated on _________” and have that date fall within the same calendar year.  It’s rare enough at this point that it’s a real differentiator. 

Importantly, doing this doesn’t happen by accident: it means implementing a system for consistent follow-up.

Speaking of which…

Lesson 4: Companies who communicate (regularly) clean house.

Ever made one of these excuses for not doing customer success stories?

  • “We can’t get anyone to agree to be featured”
  • “We’re not sure what wins our clients have.”
  • “It’d be awkward to reach out and ask at this point.”
  • “The win happened over a year ago.”

The reality is that your company’s success with customer success stories begins long before the work with your clients does, and you may have a broader customer communication problem:

  1. You’re not doing enough of it, or
  2. Your team is doing it in an unstructured way where ownership over customer success, happiness, and retention are unclear.

A big cause of the second issue? Data silos.

Marketing fails to pass on customer acquisition history. Sales fails to document and share the customers’ core pain points, questions, and expectations. Customer success executes a one-size-fits-all approach, never revisiting shared benchmarks or checking in for meaningful wins. Success as a whole remains broadly undefined (or at least, your customer and your team don’t share the same definition and urgency on it.)

The companies who prioritize and systematize client communication have a much easier time getting customers to take part in case studies at scale. It’s WAY easier to get customers to take part in case studies when they feel like communicating with you about how things are going is the norm.

Like Lesson 3, doing this doesn’t happen by accident. You need to be deliberate about the way you onboard, define KPIs, and check in. It’s more than just setting a schedule: it’s knowing when and how to press in.

Lesson 5: Not every big win is worth a story.

You’ve closed a big client—a real household name—and now you want to show that relationship off!

Careful.

Traditional thinking goes like this: the larger the client, the better the study. Well… not necessarily.

The larger the client, the more red tape you’re likely to contend with on the legal front, and the more chasing you’re likely to have to do. Not only that, but even after all the work you do to rope that story, your “big” clients might not be your best success stories to share in the first place.

Yes, showcasing the sexy logo will feel like a huge credibility booster. It can absolutely open up doors for you.

But:

  • If your “big” client doesn’t reflect your ideal client, you may ultimately be alienating the audience you’re intending to convert.
  • In a similar vein, if you’ve made a HUGE impact for a client who is in a space you aren’t fond of serving, publishing that study may lead to bringing in more of the clients you don’t want. It’s a nice problem to have if the study also brings in other leads, but a problem nonetheless.
  • Your big clients still represent ONE client with one set of pain points and desired outcomes. You’re going to need more studies to cover the breadth of the challenges you’ll face on the sales front.

I’m not saying case studies with large clients are bad. I’d just encourage you to reconsider the idea that you should ONLY do studies on your big clients. When developing your approach to customer success stories, you ought to be considering…

  • The niches you want to serve
  • The roles you need to convince to buy from you
  • The problems you want to prove you can solve (and that your customers will care about)
  • The desired outcomes your audience will come looking for

Lesson 6: It’s addictive.

This one usually catches our clients by surprise, especially since customer success stories tend to get back-benched by busy companies.

But it’s true: once you’ve experienced the dopamine boost of not only hearing what a great customer has to say about you, but turning it into a sales asset that nets you MORE of those great customers, it’s sort of hard to stop. Most times, customers who come to us for one study find themselves scrambling to find more candidates (often with our help.)

Here’s hoping we get to prove this one true for you.

Ya, you like that? Well, there’s more where that came from!

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