Turn Your Dry Case Studies into Compelling Customer Stories

Turn Your Dry Case Studies into Compelling Customer StoriesWhat makes for an effective marketing story—the kind that is fun to tell, interesting to hear, and persuasive?

We are learning more and more about the importance of good storytelling. Many companies rely on published case studies as a primary means to create and share stories and carry their sales conversations. One client has nearly 500 case studies on its website, many of which run well over 2,000 words. That represents a lot of work from the marketing team and a treasure trove for anyone who talks with customers!

The problem with those case studies, as is the case in many companies, was that the sales and customer-service teams weren’t using them.

Case studies, when used as part of customer conversations, can help prospects understand the value of your offerings and lessen the perceived risk of buying your stuff. They also demonstrate internally that the marketing team is working to craft tools that directly affect the sales effort. Most case studies I’ve seen are full of information, stay true to brand messaging guidelines, and are professionally produced (they look great!). The bad news is that case studies absorb resources, are typically committee creations, and can read with all the pizzazz of an unflavored rice cake.  

The bones for an engaging customer story are in those case studies, whose common sequence of (1) Situation, (2) Problem, (3) Approach, and (4) Results is on target. Yet the content is often dominated by references to the selling team and granular details of the products and services the customer bought. The conversational version of that same story should have prospective buyers on the edge of their seats—bringing the audience into the emotions of the situation and leading them to root for the protagonist.

Here’s an example. A company in the flash-storage business had developed a set of case studies that illustrated its advantage in speed. One story described a customer in rail-shipping logistics who needed faster batch-order processing in order to optimize shipments. After deploying the new solution, the intended increase in processing speed was indeed realized. The case study described the what, why and how of that success with the equivalent of, “We installed the Batchinator 3000X and processing time was decreased, saving money and improving customer service.” Nothing wrong there, except that the story was not translating to customer conversations.  

I asked the person who actually sold that deal to tell me more about how the customer came to believe his problem was lack of speed. In quite vivid language he described the general manager’s frustration. “He would arrive at the office early, and then his people would come in but they wouldn’t start doing anything. They’d be at the coffeemaker or the water cooler.” The data center responsible for overnight processing of the previous day’s data was often overwhelmed. Until the system could catch up and produce schedules, no one could begin their day’s work. “The GM was thinking his people were lazy or distracted. ‘They’re not showing up ready to work!’ he would say, and then stomp around the office.” I could visualize that manager looking around and seeing 100 people wasting an hour most mornings. I could practically feel the churn in his stomach.

Now it’s easy to share the underlying emotion in this story—the frustration at the problem, and the relief once a new solution was in place. The sales team learned how to share that story, not with the presenting problem—outsourced batch processing to an overloaded resource—but rather with a manager starting most work days with stress and frustration. Then they could show how the problem wasn’t the people; the problem was the system.

To find the conversation-starters in your case studies, look for the pulse. Someone is trying to get somewhere, achieve a goal, in the face of difficult obstacles. What’s the gap between the starting point and landing point? Which emotions (both positive and negative) are involved? What were the surprises along the path?

The published versions of case studies are still valuable. In my experience, they are best used as preparation for a conversation or as a follow-up (to provide detail) rather than as a substitute for the conversation.  

Your customer stories won’t actually be shared around a camp fire…but could they be?

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