A customer story is among the most valuable assets you can develop as a marketer. Sure, you can talk about how great you are til you’re blue in the face, but the same story told by a customer holds a lot more weight.
A customer story not only showcases the benefits of your solution, it also provides you a positive association with the core attributes of the customer. For example, if you want to convey that you’re a dependable, scalable solution, a Fortune 500 customer story will do the trick. If you want a feel-good halo effect, a nonprofit, education, or healthcare story is just what the doctor ordered.
So, how do you capture this magic and make the most of it?
First thing’s first: determine your needs
Start with a matrix. What products, verticals, industries, segments, and competitors are you prioritizing as a company? Also, what storytelling formats are most useful to your sales and marketing teams? Everyone will say that their need is the most important, so go straight to the senior sales and marketing leadership and force them to stack rank. Then matrix these needs against existing materials. You’ll likely find that you already have low-hanging fruit covered but gaps in other areas (for example, you’ll probably have more written case studies of small business than video case studies of Fortune 500s).
From there you can make goals. For example, if the retail vertical is moderately important but is lacking stories, you might set a goal to give this vertical two video case studies, four written case studies, and one logo slide for the year (in addition to other non-customer content).
Once you have your goals, you can identify customers that could help you hit those goals. I like to start with the customer success team. They’ll know the most suitable customers who:
Fit a story-telling need – They are from a target vertical, are the right size, have bought the right products, and so forth.
Are generally happy with your service.
Have actually rolled out – Sales tends to get very excited with new deals and want to tell the story right away. Bad news: the customer doesn't feel the same. They want to roll out a substantial deployment for a couple months and make sure they’re happy with the results before they tell their story. And frankly, the story will be richer if you wait. The exception to this is a deal announcement, which you’d bake into the contract in advance and is best reserved for big deals.
After you create a target list, make sure the customers pass the sniff test. I’ve declined potential customer stories due to bad press on the part of the customer. So Google around. You don’t want to put all that work into a story only to have it backfire. And frankly, you don’t want to promote organizations that go against your company or personal values. That said, most large corporations have bad press at some point, so it’s really a matter of weighing pros and cons.
As you make your asks, the matrix should be kept up-to-date. In addition to keeping your customer stories readily accessible to your internal and external audiences (more on that later), you also need to track all of your needs, asks, and content in one place for your own sanity. And note customers who are hard no’s so they don’t get asked again.
Slide note – the sales team
Sales is your friend in this process. While I often relied on customer success to identify the most suitable customers, sales also has tight customer relationships and can be enthusiastic about telling their stories. But this enthusiasm should be managed by you, the storytelling professional. If you’ve created your priorities list in cooperation with leadership, don't get side-tracked by every opportunity that comes your way. Encourage sales to bring you their customer story ideas through a process, such as a Google Form, so you can vet and determine if they are either aligned to your existing priorities or are so cool you’re gonna jump on it even if it’s kind of random. Discourage sales from making promises to their customers about storytelling before you approve as this can lead to awkward encounters when the story isn’t the right fit.
Make the ask
It’s best to go through the customer’s primary point-of-contact on your side instead of cold emailing them. Your sales or customer success colleague who owns the relationship can do a warm introduction. Make sure you give them the wording or they could ask for the wrong thing.
Once you join in the thread there are a couple schools of thought - batch your asks to the customer or do one at a time. I tend to ask for the one or two things I think I can realistically get from that customer, or even just one if it’s really important I get that specific material. If that works, then over time I can slowly ask for more as I, the marketer, build my own relationship with the customer. This just seems more reasonable and thoughtful to me than rolling up with a long wish list.
If they say no, I either terminate the ask entirely (if it’s a hard no) or I modify the ask to something that seems smaller (such as downgrading from a video case study to a sales slide).
Consider how you position the ask. The benefit to your company is clear, but spelling out how it can make your customer seem forward-thinking, innovative, and so forth is also important. And be gracious. An extra “please” and “thank you for your consideration” always helps.
Also, this is the point where you make sure that the customer has permission from their legal and comms teams to move forward. Not later, NOW. The last thing you want is to complete your customer story only to find out that it’s against their corporate policies. Ideally, the customer can put you in direct touch with their teams if there are any questions so you can assure them that the story will only be used in the ways that they approve.
Get the approval in writing. Note that the approval should cover specifically where you will use the story. If you’re going to do a case study video, which will be shared on your blog, social, website, and prospect emails, you should say all that up front. You don’t want to make the content and then the customer says “Oh you can’t actually share that on social media.” Yes, this has happened.
It is also worthwhile to get with your legal and sales teams to put marketing asks directly into the customer contract. I’ve found mixed success here because the customer’s legal team typically strikes it out, and your sales people don’t want to jeopardize the deal by fighting them on it. So it’s good to suss out with sales leadership which deals might be amenable to it and truly worthwhile to co-market, and then work together to keep it in the contract. You can even get cute with your pricing – i.e. this is the price with and without these specific storytelling asks.
Include the right elements
While the story will vary depending the format, there are some things you want to make sure you capture:
The customer – How do they describe their company and the value they provide their customers, how big are they, where are they located…you know, the basics.
The problem – What problem(s) was the customer dealing with that led them to your solution. What solutions were they using before that weren’t good enough – nothing, something homegrown, or your competitors.
How you fixed it – What product(s) did they deploy and to how many users, what features or experiences have been particularly valuable, how was the experience working with your team.
The results – This is the really important part. How has deploying your solution(s) changed their company for the better. This might be big picture stuff like greater efficiency, costs saved, company culture bolstered, revenues increased, etc. Or, it might be more personal but still compelling, i.e. “I hated having to start my day answering 50 IT tickets about our old service. I felt like I was letting my colleagues down. Now I get high fives in the hallway and an award from our CEO!” This stuff matters to your buyer. They want to be a hero in their company too. Also, the more numbers the better - “We’ve seen sales increase since deploying your solution!” is not as good as “We’ve seen a 3x growth in revenues since deploying your solution a year ago.”
Pick your format(s)
So, assuming you now have customer permission, you should milk this story for everything it’s got. Here are some examples of how to tell a customer story:
Written Case Study – This is a classic. Write up the story and post it on your website. Ideally it’s available as PDF and HTML versions – that way you get the printable PDF for old school folks and the SEO benefit of having all that content as text on your website.
Video Case Study – Considering the time and expense, use video for your most compelling and important stories. If you have the resources, I’d shoot for one a month. These should be no longer than two minutes and should be sliced into shorter versions for social media.
PR – Ok, this one is controversial. The PR person in me is screaming “Announcing a new customer won’t get media coverage so why on Earth would we make it a press release?!” But there can be other reasons to do a release on a new deal. For example, your sales team can forward the PR to their prospects as a “Hey, did you hear?” touch point. If you’re a public company, your releases can trigger notifications to anyone following you on the Yahoo Finance app, so it actually gets a lot of eyeballs. You can even pitch it to vertical publications, with the caveat that it may not be successful, and you’d want the customer to participate in interviews Consider if you can just use a customer quote to bolster another press release – for example, a beta customer saying they’re excited about a new feature – or publish a blog instead of a press release. All I’m saying is, weigh your options.
Sales Deck – This is a natural fit. Their logo and a few key lines about how you helped their company on a slide and boom: you have an asset. You can have a set of these available for salespeople to choose from, depending on the prospect’s industry, geography, product interests, use cases, etc. Or collect a bunch of logos from one vertical or geography into a single slide.
Their logo on your homepage – or any of your targeted pages.
Tell their story live – This is a hidden gem. Often enterprise customers can’t provide written testimonials for their vendors, but the rules for speaking engagements tend to be looser. Additionally, your champions at these customers may want to build their own profile to advance their career, so they're happy to do it. You can invite them to speak at your own user conference, at smaller prospect events, or at your sponsored sessions at third-party conferences.
Give them an award – Another hidden gem. Again, many enterprise customers shy away from traditional customer story devices. But an award? Baby, no one can resist an award.
Get it out there
It’s not enough to produce the story, you’ve got to share it far and wide. This starts with solid internal distribution. You should have several ways that you funnel your new stories over to campaign marketers and customer-facing teams. There should be formal mechanisms such as internal knowledge bases, as well as less formal activities such as regular appearances at team meetings to highlight new materials. Ideally you also have a searchable external-facing database of stories (such as this).
Launch each story with a campaign – website and blog, social posts, customer newsletter, executive speech or interview talking points, slide for sales, internal alert, and so forth. Try to repurpose or share each major story in at least five ways.
As your company grows, you will need to professionalize the customer storytelling function. A small dedicated team can track requests and materials, strategize on the best way to build customer relationships and make requests, and work cross-functionally with content producers and distributors to make sure you are capturing the most valuable stories and making the most of them. An early customer stories team (often called customer advocacy) needs at least two or three people depending on how complex your customer base and needs are, as well as dedicated advocacy tools that integrate into your CRM.
Side note – customer references
I have not managed customer references, i.e. when a prospect wants to speak to a customer as part of their buying journey, so I don’t have in-depth knowledge here. That said, make sure that the reference is relevant, happy, and not overtaxed. I recommend setting up fields in Salesforce to track customers who are willing to be referenced (and by what means) and when was the last time they were asked, and possibly professionalizing this with a role in your sales enablement team. Here (happily) ends my reference knowledge.
Go forth and get those customer stories! The most important thing is to be gracious and thoughtful in this process. These are your customers. Make sure they feel excited and respected in this process. Their yeses and nos should be adhered to and well documented. They should get ample notice to review materials. They should be celebrated and encouraged to share when their story goes live. And above all, they should be thanked.