“Customer stories open doors to big accounts,
expand opportunities with existing customers, help organizations land financing
or grants, secure stories in major trade media, teach sales reps the value of
solutions, reinforce for employees why their work matters, and support hiring,”
writes Casey Hibbard in her new book
Stories that Sell: Turn Satisfied
Customers into Your Most Powerful Sales and Marketing Asset
. In the book,
Hibbard introduces an approach she calls Success-Story Marketing to guide organizations
through the process of creating and capitalizing on their customer stories.  I spoke with her recently
to learn more about her system and the payoffs it can deliver.

What’s changing in today’s marketplace that places
a premium on these stories?Casey_hibbard

There are a couple of things going on.  For one, the nature of trust has changed. Now,
so much of what we do happens online and we are less likely to see the customers
face to face.  It’s a lot more
global.  It’s more competitive. And people
are more skeptical of marketing messages. Buyers are now looking for real
experiences. That’s what they trust above all else. If there is no real experience
to back up your marketing messages, then it’s a hard sell. Finally, the
challenges in today’s economy make it even more important to help buyers
validate their position for purchases.

So
they want to validate their investments to a greater level.  This always happens in downturns, of course.
There’s greater emphasis on justification and validation.

Exactly.  You always need to do it but it just seems
that, if anybody is going to invest in anything right now, they have to know
that the investment will ultimately pay off and they’ll get something in
return.

What do you think are the chief hurdles that have prevented companies from
fully capitalizing on their customer success stories?

A
couple of them. One is just the fear of asking customers to participate in the
creation of a success story. They don’t want to ask their customers because it
seems like a favor.  Or their customers say
no. They’re not willing or able to participate. 
But I think most of the time marketers are not approaching it from a
win/win perspective.  They tend to ask
their customers, “Would you be willing to do a case study for us?  We’d really appreciate it.” What they should
be saying is, “We have this great joint-marketing opportunity.” You have to
make it clear to customers what’s in it for them. “We’ll highlight you for your
best practices,” you might say.  “You
could be featured in a trade publication.” 
You have to sell it to them based on what they consider important.

Why haven't marketers put more effort into capitalizing on their success
stories? It seems like the payoffs would be pretty obvious.

That’s
a good question. I’m not sure I know the answer to it.  Some marketers continue to think of the case
study as asking the customer for a favor. 
I think they don’t necessarily want to take the time to come up with an
individualized approach.  It takes time
to develop that individualized approach with each customer. You have to
determine what’s in it for them. You have to determine how to make them look
good and identify an angle that will do just that.  I’ve seen some real savvy companies do this.
They take some extra time. They ask themselves what each customer will value and
determine how they can increase the chances that they’ll say “yes” and really
get excited about participating.

It
strikes me that maybe we have an immature understanding of the exchange of
value in today’s B2B markets…We think it’s, “We’ll build a product.  We’ll market the product.  They’ll buy the product.”  End of story. 
Whereas what we’re providing and what the customer offers is much more
expansive than that.

True.  It’s a relationship really, an ongoing relationship.  There’s something interesting that happens
when a customer gets involved in the process. 
They sometimes are validating completion and they’ve never done that
before.  And it reinforces in their minds
that this is a good decision and even becomes documentation that they could use
to say, “We need to continue to invest in this product or service.” It’s making
us look good at the same time that we make our customers look good.

I’m
wondering what you think some of the steps are that marketers are failing to
take regarding success story marketing?
 

The
key step is that companies don’t use their customer stories enough and they’re
kind of short-sighted with their approach to customers. They say to them, “We’d
like to feature you in a case study and we’re going to put it on our website.”  That’s not a whole lot of enticement for the
customer. But the companies that I work with that are active with public
relations might say, “We’re probably going to pitch this to a trade
publication.”  They are far more likely
to be successful if they can say, “We have a plan to use it for PR.  We’re going to blog about it.  We’re going to submit it for an industry
award.” They might even have the customer speak at a conference, which gives
the customer greater exposure. So I think the pitch tends to be too
short-sighted.

I
was intrigued that some of the companies you mentioned in your book have
salespeople or former salespeople very actively engaged in this approach.  In other words, they’re very good at
positioning the success story and developing a value proposition around why the
customer should participate.

Yes,
Amdocs offers a good example. That company develops a sales approach and spends
a lot of time thinking about it before they ever talk to the customer. They
have a meeting. They say to themselves, “Okay, this customer is using eight
different Amdocs products or services. 
We can’t really feature eight in a case study.  So, which ones are going to be the most
valuable right now for our sales team? 
So pick the three that we’re going to feature, and go after that.” They
ask themselves: “What’s going to motivate that customer? What’s going on in the
customers’ environment that’ll actually motivate them right now? Are they
trying to move into a new market? Is there an individual trying to gain greater
career exposure?” It’s just a very conscientious and sales-minded approach.

Any
particular tactics that you would highlight as far as getting customers to
commit to participating in success stories?

What
seems to make a difference in some cases is mentioning the possibility of a
case study by saying, “We expect to deliver so successfully for you that you
could be one of our success stories. 
That’s our goal.” It’s kind of impressive for the customer to hear that.

That’s
interesting.  So you position it as
something they would really value.  That
it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because you’ve set that expectation. It’s
something they should want, something
they should want to obtain.

Right.
You’re kind of making a promise that this will be a success.

So
you’ve coined this term “success story marketing.” What’s the objective?

The
objective was to come up with a way of describing how companies leverage their customer
stories in their sales, marketing and PR efforts. Ideally, the company would
have a success story marketing strategy that enables it to use customer stories
at every opportunity possible.

What
motivates marketers to engage more deeply in success story marketing? How do
they justify their efforts?

I
was getting feedback from one of my clients recently. This firm doesn’t have a
big marketing budget but felt like it was an investment that’s really paying
off because it opens the door to some bigger companies. To be able to say, “We’re
working with X,” makes it more likely that they’ll be able to get in with company
Y. They are able to show the actual return on investment with other companies and
that has made the difference for them.

You
mention in your book several companies that are deriving success stories from
their customer reference programs. Do you see these programs as a further
extension of success story marketing?

Definitely.
I don’t know a lot of companies that have reference programs. But having some
reference function is important – even just tracking happy customers and what
they’re willing to do, even if it’s not a case study. Are they willing to do a
press release? Participate in reference calls with prospects? It’s important that
customers are not abused. But I encourage companies to have some sort of
reference management activity going – even it’s just an Excel spreadsheet that
tracks activities with happy customers.

Let’s
talk about ways to leverage customer stories. You point to several elements of
leverage in your book including branding, marketing communications and sales. Tell
me about the impact of success stories on marketing campaigns.

It’s
important to reinforce customer success in your campaigns. Success stories can
be particularly helpful in lead generation. Many companies, for instance, run webinars
featuring their successful customers. But it’s something that you need to be
using throughout all of your marketing: online, in print, in conversations, and
in live presentations. You need to make these stories available the first time
that someone comes in contact with you.

What
about sales support? Can you give us some perspective on the success story’s
impact on sales?

Well,
people ask me, “At what point in the sales process can you use a case study?”  I think the answer is, “Throughout the entire
sales process.”  It’s a door opener.  It also can protect reference customers.  I talked to someone recently who said they
don’t really have any reference calls anymore because they could use their case
studies instead. Their customers are just so much happier about that.  They’re happy to be references but they really
don’t want to take the time to do those calls too often.  So by having the case studies in place they
protect their customers from endless calls and, most of the time, that’s fine
with the prospect.  The prospect is
satisfied with the case study.  It’s
enough to validate. So, from early on as a door opener all the way through to
validation, success stories are very effective.

With
regard to the sales process, I thought it was interesting that a lot of companies
fail to ensure there’s a strong, quantitative element in the case study.  They tend to lack persuasive numbers – or any
solid numbers at all. What do you make of that?

It’s
kind of surprising that there’s not more of an effort made to address this
challenge.  Quite often, there may be a
competitive reason that the customer doesn’t want to quantify the impact. They
really don’t want to let their competitors know that they’re saving $100,000 through
your solution. So then you have to try to negotiate with the customer on what
they can say, whether it’s a cost reduction or shortened cycle, a percentage or
an absolute number. It may not be ideal but the numbers you get can be very
helpful nonetheless.

So,
looking ahead, how do you see this playing out in the coming years? What kind
of trends do you expect with respect to success story marketing? 

What
I am hoping is that companies – from independent consultants all the way up to
global corporations – will be actively integrating the customer story into
their marketing and sales efforts, letting the customer speak for them. This
trend has been building for the past ten, fifteen years.  It started with technology companies but it
really seems to be expanding. Technology companies were the first ones because
they have complex products.  They need to
educate their customers and validate the impact of their products.  But more and more companies are now engaged
in these efforts. The number of industries taking this on is really expanding.