How to plan and write a compelling customer story
As all salespeople know, the customer’s voice is a powerful tool for convincing other customers about the value of your products or services. Presenting this in the form of a ‘customer story’ is a common tactic for many marketers, but how do you actually go about planning and writing one? Here are 10 tips for success that I’ve gleaned in the years I’ve been writing these pieces for science-focused B2B companies.
The customer’s voice
Customer stories go by various names – case-studies, testimonials, success stories, or customer references. But whatever you like to call them, their aim is to convey a message about your products from the customer’s perspective.
That involves listening to your customers’ experiences, and then relaying to the reader the challenges they faced, the options they considered, why they chose your product, and the benefits it delivered for them.
In doing so, you’re presenting an alternative, independent, and (most importantly) unbiased point of view – a form of ‘social proof’ if you like. This might be all that your next customer needs to cast any lingering doubts to one side, and pick up the phone to book a demo or place an order.
Customer stories can engage with your audience in a way that is difficult to achieve with regular sales literature – so long as they’re planned carefully and done well.
But customer stories can seem daunting to prepare. Let’s assume you’ve got a name of a customer who is willing to help with a customer story. What do you need to think about before you contact them? What questions do you ask them? How do you decide on the structure of the piece? How do you refine the details to include, and those to leave out?
All these points (and more) can be critical to making a success of your customer story. So here’s my top ten tips on best-practices to employ – and pitfalls to avoid. If you can put these into action, then you’ll be well on your way to writing a compelling piece that will boost the ability of your salespeople to close their next sale.
#1: Think carefully about who should be involved
Preparing a great customer story hinges on ensuring that you get the right people talking to each other. As a general rule, the fewer that are involved, the better – juggling the requirements of more than a couple of stakeholders can make the task difficult and protracted.
With luck, the key person at your customer’s organisation will already have been suggested by your sales team. Hopefully, they will have:
- Substantial first-hand experience of your product or service.
- Dealt directly with your staff during the sale.
- Plenty of enthusiasm, and be available to talk!
Similarly, you need to give some thought to who’s going to ask the questions and write the piece (and yes, these tasks must be done by the same person). Whether you have in-house capability or prefer to bring in an external writer, they’ll need to be:
- Comfortable with the subject matter (it doesn’t matter if they’re not an expert, and in fact it helps if they’re not – they just need to be able to understand what the customer is saying, and write about it in a clear, jargon-free way).
- Able to make independent decisions about what to include and what to leave out.
- Be adept at taking a complex jumble of information and weaving it into a clear, compelling narrative.
- Be tactful, responsive, and a good listener.
With the key people identified, you’re ready to proceed. Assuming that you’re taking on the task yourself, what’s next?
#2: Do the research
An essential aspect of writing a customer story is preparation. Before talking to the customer, you need to find out from your salesperson as much of the following as possible:
- What’s the job title and role of the person you’re going to speak to?
- What were their requirements, and what was the process leading up to the sale?
- What results have been generated, and what do they think impressed the customer the most?
Gather as much information as you can before you contact the customer – it means you can cut right to the important points when you discuss it with them, saving them time
Doing all this might seem unnecessary if you’re going to talk to the customer anyway, but it makes it a lot easier to dive right in and talk to them on their level. Not only that, but you’ll avoid wasting their time by going over the basics in detail, and they’ll be impressed by your understanding of their situation. As a result, they’ll be far happier talking to you!
#3: Narrow-down the subject matter
What are you going to talk about? In many cases the answer to this question will be obvious – the product that’s just been sold, or the service that’s just been received.
However, for long-term customers who have purchased numerous products from you over a number of years, it can be tempting to cover everything. But be cautious – such pieces can end up being a bit rambling, and you may be better-off focusing on the most interesting/exciting development, and merely mentioning other products in passing.
#4: Talk to the customer
The single biggest stumbling block to getting a good customer story is thinking that it can all be done by email. It can’t. On no account should you agree to prepare a customer story without having the opportunity to hear that story direct from them.
I agree that email is great for getting across the facts, but it’s rare to find anyone who can convey off-the-cuff opinions and informal enthusiasm through a keyboard. I’ll give you an example. Late last year, I prepared a case-study for a scientific instrument manufacturer. The customer I spoke to on Skype told me that, at the end of the training they’d received about how to use the instruments, their team “felt like experts!”.
That was a great quote that I used prominently in the write-up. Would I have got that in answer to an emailed question such as “how would you rate the quality of training you received?”. I don’t think so.
To prepare a good customer story, you must speak to the customer directly.
So a call with the customer is essential. I like to record the call (with permission), transcribe it, and then sort out all the comments into an order that makes sense as a ‘story’. But that’s just my preference, and different writers will have other approaches that work for them.
#5: Focus on key facts and opinions
When you talk to the customer, your main aims are to:
- Establish any key facts that reflect well on your product. Maybe they doubled throughput, reduced processing costs by X%, or uncovered new research insights. Aim to put precise figures and/or dates on these if you can – it makes them all the more believable.
- Find out their opinions about the product or service. After all, it’s the emotional side of customer stories that makes them compelling. Construct your questions carefully to elicit answers that you can use to convey why the customer loves the product, and why they are impressed with your service.
Make sure that you use the time on the call with the customer wisely. Have everything ready, and make sure you get answers to all the questions you have. You’re unlikely to have a second opportunity to talk to them, so don’t waste it.
#6: Ask about attribution
One difficulty that’s often not anticipated at the start of a collaboration on a customer story is whether the customer is willing to put their name in the piece. If they are, then that’s great, and you should reassure them that they’ll have final sign-off on everything that’s said. But some organisations – such as government agencies – prefer not to allow their staff to endorse a particular company or product.
This is by no means a deal-breaker, although it makes it more difficult to achieve impact in the writing. Attributing quotations to the “Senior Technician” or referring to the company as a “major food manufacturer” isn’t quite so convincing as mentioning specific people or companies.
Anyway, the point is that it helps to know this upfront, rather than have to amend the piece at a late stage when you find that the customer would prefer to remain anonymous. So make sure you ask the question before you confirm arrangements with the customer, and certainly before you start writing.
#7: Keep the customer informed
Throughout the whole process of planning, writing and review, it’s vital to keep the customer informed. For example, at first they may be puzzled as to why they need to talk to you at all, when they’ve already given their feedback to the salesperson. They may be uncertain about how they’ll be expected to contribute, what the timeline is, and how approval will work. So explain these things, to put them at their ease.
It’s also worth being clear about what the final piece will look like. Customer stories can take many forms, so show them an example of what you’re aiming to produce, so you avoid any misunderstandings.
Importantly, demonstrate that you appreciate their time. As a customer, helping with one of these pieces is a gesture of thanks for the effort put in by your company’s staff. So show that you understand that, and that you’ll make every effort to keep the process quick and hassle-free.
#8: Pick the right structure
How should the piece be written? This can be tricky to judge – there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling different topics, customers and products. But in summary, the three main structural options for customer stories are:
- Challenge–solution–results: These are ideal for straightforward messages – “we bought product X to do Y, and we got Z results”.
- Journalistic: This is my preferred format for many B2B technical topics, where more complex stories need to be told.
- Interview-style: These work better where the success is primarily down to one person’s hard work or research insight (assisted of course by your product). Such pieces tend to be well-suited to academic researchers.
I’ll cover more about structures in a later blog post, and you can do a lot with subheads too (as well as captions and boxed text). But the message is that the structure should adapt to the story, not vice versa.
On the point of length, I have a simple rule – it should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. If a story is simple and can be expressed in 400 words, then don’t pad it out to fill three pages. If on the other hand, the story is complex, then don’t cut out interesting or relevant points to make it fit some preconceived idea of how long a customer story should be.
#9: Make the most of your effort
Don’t forget to make the most of the time and effort that you’re putting into the piece, by considering the following ‘extras’:
- Can any of the comments that you’ve used in the piece be adapted into stand-alone quotes on your website or in marketing material? Of course, they need to be short, provide enough context for the comment to make sense, and be properly attributed. If so, then it’s a good idea to check these with the customer at the same time as the main text.
- Are there any technical results that the customer would be happy to share? If so, then consider whether these could be included as part of the piece, or maybe even form the basis of a separate technical note.
- Does the customer have any photos that could complement the writing? Some form of imagery is essential in a customer story, and if possible you want to avoid resorting to stock imagery or your usual studio shots of products. Pictures of the customer’s premises, the equipment in-situ, and examples of them in action can all lend authenticity to the piece.
- Will you want to prepare a short video, to boost engagement with the full customer story?
#10: Get the right perspective
Finally, the most important point of all – whatever way you approach customer stories, you need to have the right perspective. Customer stories are not a platform for you to say how great your products are. Instead, they throw a spotlight on the customer, allowing them to say how great your products are. Your company then benefits indirectly, by showing how you contributed to their success.
So in writing a customer story, you should allow the customer to say what they achieved, how they did it, and what that success has meant for them. Don’t put words in their mouth – just help them to express their opinions clearly. That way, your customer story will sound genuine and believable, be engaging to read, and be of maximum value to your sales team.
In customer stories, the spotlight is on your customer… and you benefit indirectly, by showing how you contributed to their success.
Conclusion: Customer stories are well worth the effort
If doing all the above sounds like a lot to consider, then you’re right! In particular, writing from an independent perspective isn’t always easy for in-house staff used to promoting their company’s point of view, which is why many companies turn to external writers to help out.
But whoever you ask to write your customer story, you can be confident that it’s time well-spent. In fact, 47% of respondents to the 2019 Content Preferences Survey said that customer stories were the most valuable type of content – ahead of all the other categories, including videos, webinars and white papers.
Personally, I find writing customer stories is one of the more complex tasks I work on as a writer. But by following the guidelines above, I find that it all falls into place remarkably easily – making it a rewarding exercise. Not only do I get to talk to satisfied customers working on interesting projects, but I help them to express their enthusiasm in words, and of course help my clients generate more sales!