Crafting Compelling Customer Success Stories—Asking the Right Questions
Customer success stories form an important subset of an effective marketing content library. They offer significant utility—they provide social proof/validation (important for crossing the ol’ chasm, because no one wants to be the first penguin in the water), they can address buying barriers, they’re very shareable, they can be transformed for use almost anywhere and in multiple formats—while being relatively easy to produce.
The activities involved in producing success stories, and the insights gained while doing so, can create greater customer intimacy while simultaneously providing important data to inform your marketing and sales enablement activities.
Moreover, the activities involved in producing success stories, and the insights gained while doing so, can create greater customer intimacy while simultaneously providing important data to inform your marketing and sales enablement activities.
To download a Success Story Worksheet that’ll help you keep track of details and information needed to write effective success stories, check out our resources page.
In short: they’re worth doing, and worth doing well. But you probably already knew that.
So let’s talk about the how.
Five Things to Keep in Mind
Before we get to the questions you’ll need to ask, I want to briefly present five things you should keep in mind while researching and producing your success stories.
It’s very easy to get into the weeds, but it’s tremendously worthwhile to think a little bigger
It’s very easy to get into the weeds, but it’s tremendously worthwhile to think a little bigger—it’ll lead both to better outputs and to broader benefits for your organization.
First, your customer (or partner, or some other subject) is the hero or heroine of this tale—whether as a company or as an individual. Not you. Sure, that sounds simple enough, but given time and review cycles, putting yourself in the spotlight has a tendency to creep in.
Your customer (or partner, or some other subject) is the hero or heroine of this tale.
I always found that it helped to put myself in the mindset of acting like I’m an agency hired by the customer to tell the story, rather than of a vendor looking for my own glory—focus on your customer’s success (say, solving an important operational issue, or delivering better service to their own customers), rather than your own (but congrats on the sale!).
Second, no matter what the final output/format is (e.g., short video, webinar feature, two-pager, more extensive case study, etc.), you’ll basically be telling a story in four parts:
Keeping those parts in mind helps us come up with the questions we need to ask.
Third, as I said previously, researching and producing success stories can lead to greater customer intimacy and can reveal important insights that help you with (in particular) marketing and sales. For instance, you’ll learn about unexpected buying barriers, you’ll better understand what your customers really value, you’ll gain a more complete appreciation of their motivations, you’ll find out why they really chose you, and so on.
For more information about buying barriers, check out How to Boost Your Business by Overcoming Buying Barriers.
So please think about the exercise in broader terms than just bragging to the world about something you did.
Fourth, your output—again, in whatever format—needs to check the three boxes of Aristotelian rhetoric:
- Emotion: trigger a response in your audience—frequently, your goal is to have a prospect who reads this story feel a strong kinship with the subject and imagine their own success
- Credibility: demonstrate that you’re a credible source, which is often achieved by showing that you truly understand customer and market problems, and that you have a real, proven solution
- Logic: show how everything’s connected (link problems to solutions, trace benefits back to features, etc.) by using clear structure and language
Fifth, the questions you ask (generally) need to be open-ended and broad (it’s OK to ask for specifics when necessary, but avoid questions that lead to “yes”/”no” responses). Leave plenty of room for the customer to interpret your meaning however they want and respond accordingly—it’ll lead to a more authentic story and better insights.
Leave plenty of room for the customer to interpret your meaning however they want and respond accordingly—it’ll lead to a more authentic story and better insights.
OK, it’s question time!
Asking the Right Questions
I’m going to assume your customer is actually willing to answer questions (if not, then you might want to reconsider them as a success story!).
Whether they’re legitimately happy to spend time answering your questions, or they’d prefer to keep things short, your job is the same—you want to get good information, but without taking up a tonne of time.
Depending on what you have in mind for the output media, you can ask these questions through email, via chat, over the phone, in a Google Form or other survey, or even a full-on sit-down video testimonial session.
Do what you can to put them at ease, and be adamant that you’re really just wanting to hear their own story in their own words.
Be sure to get permission before using direct quotes (and you can offer to run the finished product past your customer before publication—but beware, this step can drag on, especially if approval from ‘legal’ is needed).
Since we’re telling a four-part story (with our customer as the hero/heroine!), we’ll put our questions under those four headings.
Part One: Situation
You can find some of the basics yourself by going to your customer’s web page, their LinkedIn profile, their public filings, etc., so don’t waste their precious time on that stuff—instead, really get into their head to understand the situation before they found your solution.
Question #1: “Can you tell me a bit about your business?”
It’s always revealing to hear how customers describe their business in their own words (you can get the formal, fancy stuff from their website). When you use these words in the success story, the story itself becomes more accessible to similar prospects and will trigger a greater emotional connection.
Question #2: “What are your long-term goals, and how are you working to achieve them?”
This answer to this two-parter will show you their overall journey, of which you’ve now become a part, enriching the context and casting your solution in a more strategic light.
Question #3: “What challenges do you face, and what motivated you to look for solutions?”
- the challenges will likely be familiar to anyone else in a similar scenario, enhancing the emotional connection
- the motivation might be something acute (“We lost a major client because X didn’t work like it was supposed to”), or a slow-burn (“With a major initiative completed, we were finally able to turn our attention to Y”), or something else entirely (“We knew that to take the next leap, we needed to get better at Z”)
These answers will, again, make the success story more relatable; just as importantly, they’ll help you better understand your customers and market, in general, and what triggers them to look for solutions.
Part Two: Decision
The more you understand about the discovery and decision-making process that led to your selection, the better you’re able to convince new prospects that you know their needs, to align your selling processes to their buying processes, and to anticipate and pre-empt buying barriers.
Question #4: “How did you find out about us?”
This answer helps you tell a more complete story, and it can also reveal how effective your communications channels are. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised—your lead attribution system says a customer came through your website, but it turns out they learned about you via word-of-mouth at a wedding.
Question #5: “Why did you choose us?”
If you understand, really and truly, why your customers choose you above all alternatives, then you can answer arguably the most important question in business—why should I choose you?
If you understand, really and truly, why your customers choose you above all alternatives, then you can answer arguably the most important question in business—why should I choose you?.
And there’s probably no stronger answer to that question than being able to distill down to the reason other customers have already chosen you.
Again, you might be surprised. Maybe you think it’s your great feature-set, but it turns out the customer really loves your local sales engineer. Or you think it’s your pricing, but in reality you’re the only vendor who integrates with the customer’s antiquated CRM.
And as a potential follow-up question, you can ask…
“Is there anything in particular that tipped the scales?”
Maybe most things were equal, or you got a pretty general answer to the initial question, and this little extra prodding will reveal an important insight.
Part Three: Solution
Many success stories focus way too much on this aspect—it’s important, but it’s just a plot device (remember, your customer is the star, not your solution!).
Of course, you do still want to be able to isolate on important features or characteristics of your solution: we’ll start general, and then work a little deeper.
Question #6: “How do you use our solution?”
Again, you might be surprised, so listen closely =)
Question #7: “How has our solution changed your day-to-day activities?”
This answer could really ratchet up your relatability score with prospects, because the trials and tribulations of day-to-day work are never far from someone’s mind.
Question #8: “Is there any particular feature or characteristic that’s especially valuable?”
You’ll probably want to trace back to this answer when you’re presenting the overall solution benefits.
Part Four: Outcome
Ultimately, it’s all about business outcomes—your clickbait headline and content lede will probably focus on this part.
Question #9: “How have you and/or your customers benefitted?”
More this, less that, happier people, faster results, and so on.
It’s OK to ask for specifics (usually in the form of quantified benefits), but don’t do so until you get the general answer.
Question #10: “What have you learned from working with us?”
I’m as curious as you are!
This answer could be a masterstroke for your success story—maybe you’ll be able to tell a prospect something they hadn’t even realized yet, or perhaps you’ll confirm something they’ve long suspected.
Question #11: “What would you say to other businesses facing the same challenges you did?”
This answer might well turn out to be your most quotable quote, with the beauty being that it’s coming from a member of the same ‘tribe’ as the prospects who’ll see/hear it.
And While We’re At It…
And hey, while we’re at it, let’s use the exercise as a means to learn a bit more about our customer’s overall experience.
The answers to these two questions probably won’t make their way into the success story, but they could provide crucial insights that help you improve your organization’s strategy and execution.
Question #12: “What could we have done better?”
Don’t lead them!
If you want to dive more deeply into this later, as part of a follow-up conversation then go for it (but know that you’re getting into win/loss territory).
For now, keep it light, friendly, and open—and don’t forget these two crucial points:
- Be genuinely interested in the answer, or don’t bother asking the question
- Don’t get defensive…just listen and acknowledge
Question #13: “What did we do well?”
Hey, who doesn’t like to hear about the good stuff.
And maybe by asking this very open question you’ll get an extremely candid, relatable, and memorable quote that’s worthy of inclusion in the final success story!
Was this post helpful? Do you have anything to add from your own experiences?
Please use the comment section below to contribute your thoughts!