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Help emerging companies build credibility – and sales – with case studies

by Casey Hibbard

April 2005

Early-stage companies face challenges from every angle, not the least of which is establishing credibility in the marketplace for their products and services. Though these firms may have convincing marketing materials, prospective customers, partners and investors ultimately want the peace of mind of knowing a business can deliver what it promises.

Testimonial-based marketing is one of the most effective ways to back up what a company boasts in its marketing materials. Since the advent of advertising, businesses have used customer testimonials, one- or two-sentence blurbs that capture a customer’s satisfaction. But for products and services with higher price tags and greater risk, buyers need more information than a short testimonial provides.

That’s when customer case studies, or success stories, can be a particularly powerful addition to a company’s marketing, sales and public relations mix. Case studies are detailed descriptions of how customers have benefited from a product or service, describing exactly how a company helped a customer save time and money, increase productivity, gain competitive advantage or serve customers more effectively.

‘One of the most valuable selling tools available’

Many of the nation’s leading companies, such as Microsoft, IBM, Accenture and Cisco, use case studies in their marketing and public relations efforts. In fact, these companies’ Web sites often have searchable databases of hundreds of case studies. Businesses of any size can benefit from customer case studies, however. Communicating credibility is perhaps even more important for small, emerging companies.

XAware, a software company that graduated from the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator, in Colorado Springs, Colo., always has used case studies in its marketing, sales and public relations efforts. With each new customer success, the company captures the details and leverages those stories on its Web site, as content for its newsletters, in pitches to trade publications and in presentations to investors.

“Case studies are one of the most valuable selling tools available to companies,” says Rick Cloutier, vice president of marketing at XAware. “It’s the power of referential selling. If you can prove that you’ve done it before, then you remove the obstacles to getting a second, third and fourth customer by an order of magnitude.”

While customer case studies are a marketing staple of smart technology companies, other industries have recognized their value, too, including financial services, consulting and business services companies.

“We have to continually compete against insurance carriers with bigger budgets,” says Marc Ver Straate, senior product marketing manager with Great-West Healthcare, an employee benefits and insurance provider in Denver. “By using case studies in our integrated marketing approach, we have the opportunity to show prospects how our current customers have benefited from our unique funding and plan design offerings.”

Steps to compelling customer case studies

When you suspect a client company could benefit from using case studies in its marketing and sales efforts, you’ll want to advise the client on what types of customers to feature and how to create the most effective cases possible. (And don’t overlook case studies as a great way to market your incubation program, too.) Following are some tips to help you and your clients create winning case studies.

Strategically select featured customers. First, entrepreneurs need to carefully select customers to profile. Understandably, early-stage companies may only have a handful of customers, so they will simply want to capitalize on those initial successes.

As a business grows, it should consider several factors when selecting customers to feature: name recognition of the company (the bigger the better); whether the company fits a key vertical niche; strong, specific return-on-investment details; a unique story about how the customer uses the products and services; and finally, a company that doesn’t have a policy against publicly endorsing specific products.

Interview the best spokesperson. Different contacts will see different kinds of value in a company’s products and services. For example, an information technology professional will focus on implementation and ease of administration, while managers and those in specific functional areas will focus on gains in their business processes. The interviewee should be in a similar position as the person expected to read the case study.

Entrepreneurs should then ask the appropriate people if they are willing to be interviewed. If the contact agrees, make sure he or she receives company permission to proceed – before getting started. While a key contact may be more than willing to go on record, some companies have policies against featuring employees in case studies.

Create effective interview questions. Interview questions should cover every subject area that’s important to prospects – the goal is to provide readers a clear understanding of how the product met a customer’s needs.

Entrepreneurs will want to ask customers about some of the specific challenges they face in their industry or company, the issues or needs that led them to look for a solution, how they went about their selection process, and why the client’s product or service stood out. They also might want to ask about implementation or the experience of working with the company’s representatives and tech support staff.

Entrepreneurs should ask specifically how the service or the product enhanced the customer’s business practices. Though it’s not always possible to elicit specific return-on-investment information from an interview subject, companies should try to get approximate numbers by asking very specific questions. For example, how much time does the product, feature or service save a person or team on a daily, weekly or monthly basis compared with the previous method? The responses to detailed questions like these will help build effective case studies that sales people will use again and again.

Tell a powerful story. Everyone loves a great story. Engaging case studies paint clear pictures of a company, its needs and concerns, and how the product or service filled those needs. Entrepreneurs will want to match the details of their case studies to the questions their customers will ask when making purchasing decisions. Strategies include peppering the case study with real quotes from real people, breaking out business benefits with bullets, and using captivating headlines and digestible subheads.

The writer of the case study, whether in-house or on contract, should be able to write in a way that’s clear, engaging and doesn’t lose the reader in a lot of irrelevant technical description. Entrepreneurs will want to make sure the writer fully understands the product and service benefits as well as the intended marketing message before interviewing and writing.

Secure approval. Next, the entrepreneur should send a clean draft of the case study to the customer for review and approval, incorporating requested edits until the customer feels comfortable. Many companies have a legal release form that indicates the customer’s approval, while others keep an e-mail record of the approval.

Design an attractive case. With an approved editorial case study, it’s time to enlist a designer to create a professional layout. Entrepreneurs will likely want to brand it with their company’s logo and perhaps the customer’s logo. It’s helpful to create a clean design that works in print and on the Web and that can be used as a template for future case studies.

With an attractive, engaging case study, companies are ready to begin sharing their customer successes to build credibility with all their audiences.

Casey Hibbard is president of Compelling Cases Inc., a full-service case study development firm that is a client of the Santa Fe Business Incubator in Santa Fe, N.M.

Eight Ways to Leverage Customer Success Stories

Once your clients have invested in creating customer case studies, how can they take full advantage of them? Following are eight effective ways to use case studies.

#1: As a powerful public relations tool. Since the Internet bubble burst, true accounts have perhaps taken on an even greater importance in public relations, according to Judy Schramm, founder of JMR Consulting, a firm in Alexandria, Va., that specializes in marketing for small software companies, including incubator businesses.

“So many editors were burned by writing about things that didn’t exist,” Schramm says. “A case study is proof a company can deliver what it promises, which is confidence editors and customers need.”

#2: Wisely on the Web. A Web site is an obvious place for publishing case studies. But instead of separating case studies in a section by themselves, companies should feature product-specific cases among other product information. When prospects visit the page for a product, they should be able to choose from a range of materials from which to learn more, including case studies.

#3: As features in a customer newsletter. Many companies regularly mail or e-mail newsletters to alert clients about new products, services, events and more. To drive home the benefits of what a company offers, it can reprint abbreviated versions of case studies in its newsletters sent to prospects and clients.

#4: To punch up sales presentations. Companies can integrate case studies into their sales presentations. PowerPoint slides with anecdotal highlights from clients add interest and credibility to presentations.

#5: As ammunition for awards. Winning awards can generate an enormous amount of exposure for a company. Customer success stories, whether in the form of case studies or retold to fit award criteria, are frequently used to land awards.

#6: To give reference customers a break. Most businesses rely on a handful of their best customers as references for prospective customers. But if called enough by inquisitive prospects, even the most satisfied customers can grow tired. Instead, companies should capture those stories in case studies, allowing prospects to understand the specifics of how another company benefited without a first-hand reference.

#7: As a leave-behind for prospects. Some companies put their written case studies on CD-ROMs that are searchable by product or industry. In face-to-face sales meetings and presentations, or in response to inquiries, companies can provide prospects with the easily searchable CD-ROM instead of asking them to go online or leaving behind a stack of papers.

#8: As punchy feature quotes in sales materials. Companies can also leverage the quotes featured in case studies on other marketing materials, including Web sites and brochures.—CH

Keywords: marketing and promotion, marketing/sales

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