How to write a case study like a storyteller

Let’s get this out of the way at the very beginning: I don’t have a lot of credibility when it comes to Customer Success, or enterprise software, or the SaaS industry. I’m a copywriter. When I started this gig in February, I had four years of writing consumer tech articles, a couple dozen album reviews, a bunch of screenplays, two-thirds of a novel, and hundreds of pages of academic papers at school under my belt. I pronounced it “S-A-A-S” at my interview.

 

I am not a Customer Success expert.

 

Thankfully, I’m completely surrounded by Customer Success experts here at Gainsight. In just a few months, I’ve learned a preposterous amount about Customer Success, the tech industry, Software-as-a-Service, enterprise business, the big players in the Bay Area, and much more than I ever thought possible. I went through CSU, flew to Napa for CCO Summit 2016, read a million articles by Lincoln Murphy, went cover-to-cover on “Customer Success: The Book,” and (of course) I was front and center at the knowledge tsunami that was Pulse Conference 2016.

 

Anything useful in my posts is entirely attributable to the smart, experienced thought leaders I’ve learned from. I’m always trying to get better, and hopefully before too long I will be an expert. If nothing else, my short journey so far shows that you (or that fresh-out-of-college CSM candidate you’re interviewing) can go from zero-to-sixty pretty quickly in Customer Success with the right tools and mentors.

 

Now that that’s out of the way and I’ve totally killed any ethos I might have had, I was very excited when I started writing case studies for some of our clients.

 

“This is something I know,” I thought.

 

That’s because I’m a writer, which is to say I’m a storyteller. A well-written case study is no different than a well-written story. It has characters, it has conflict, it has a very clear arc through the beginning, middle, and end. Inciting incident. Climax. Resolution. I think about every single thing I write from one-sentence ads to tweets to emails to this blog post in terms of Story. Case studies are no different. If you’re just using them to deliver your no-doubt impressive improvement metrics, you’re missing an opportunity to connect on an emotional level with your audience. You’re missing your chance to turn those numbers into a narrative.

 

Here’s how I write case studies at Gainsight:

 

Setting

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

 

Beginnings are hard. No matter what you’re writing, getting started is most often the biggest hurdle to overcome. My record for staring uninterrupted at a blinking cursor is well north of 10 minutes. Take a cue from many of the great works of literature in history and start by setting the scene. You could do this by opening with some facts and figures about the customer: org charts, company size, use case, etc. But that’s a bit boring for the first thing anybody is going to read after the title. I like to open with an anecdote – a story within a story – that illustrates or encapsulates the main issue your product then went on to solve.

 

Here’s an example:

 

At Demandforce’s Success Showcase at Pulse 2016, a man stood up during the Q&A session. “Your CSM ratio is a thousand-to-one?” he asked, incredulous. “Is that what I’m hearing?” Demandforce’s VP Client Services André Pimentel replied sardonically, “they’re busy.”

 

The case study starts in a physical space and outlines a major problem that Gainsight addressed. It humanizes the company using real people (more on that next), and it ideally captures the reader’s attention. Once you have that, you can go on to illustrate the customer’s use case.

 

Characters

 

“Call me Ishmael.”

 

A compelling story needs compelling characters. That’s convenient because your customers aren’t just abstract corporations or mathematical equations. They’re filled with human beings, each with their own goals, aspirations, obstacles, traits, and quirks. When you’re interviewing them, don’t just ask about metrics. Ask about pain points. Ask about frustrations. Ask them how they felt about solving those problems. The numbers obviously prove the ROI. They’re crucial. But the conflict and the catharsis are what make great quotes that prospects can relate to.

 

Here’s a quote from a customer that includes a concrete figure, but also a great story and sentiment:

 

“We used Gainsight CoPilot and over 200 customers turned on our voice feature within a week, which was incredible. That would have been 200 phone calls.”

 

Use quotes! Use them as much as possible. They look great on a page. They’re easy to highlight, read, and digest, and they’re coming from an advocate outside your company. Quotes are the building blocks of your case study. I usually start by collecting and placing quotes in my outline and build out the narrative around them.

 

Inciting Incident

 

“Yer a wizard, Harry.”

 

Like Luke Skywalker uncovering a distress call from a beautiful princess while cleaning a droid, an unexpected visit from 13 dwarves and a wizard on Bilbo Baggins’ doorstep, or a thug peeing on The Dude’s rug, every hero has a moment when they must answer the call to adventure. There’s a scene in every story where the protagonist’s status quo is upended and it drives the rest of the narrative forward. For your customers, this moment is almost certainly the moment they decided to start looking at your product (or your competitors’) to resolve a critical issue in their business. Get into the details on what led your client to look for solutions. What was the most intractable problem? Was your company the only one they looked at? What specific tools did they need?

 

In our case studies, the header for this section is always called “Challenge.” As you’re writing this part, think about how your audience (prospects) will be reading it. Put yourself in their shoes. They should be able to recognize similar issues at their companies and organically see a use case for your product.

 

Climax

 

“Dan, I’m not a republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

 

The moment of truth. Your customer purchased and implemented your product. In a Shakespearian tragedy, the climax is where everyone dies, but in our case studies there’s always a happy ending. Here at Gainsight, this section is called “Solution.” You don’t always have to spend too much time on this, but you can’t skip it. It’s the linchpin of the whole thing. This is the part where you can explain exactly how your product met the needs of your client. What features are they using? How long did it take to implement? What made your product a better fit than an in-house solution or a competitor?

 

Don’t forget: you’re a character in this as well. Don’t be afraid to give your side of the story. You have an opportunity to give insight into what kind of touch prospects can expect in the sales process through implementation and renewal. You can even quote yourself or another CSM if you choose! Here’s a hypothetical quote I made up that might give you an idea how to do it:

 

“Customer A came to us looking for a one-to-many solution. During the adoption process, we noticed they could save a ton of money by adding Feature X. We set up a free trial and were thrilled to see a 15% increase in efficiency.”

 

Resolution

 

“Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does. I learned that on Tralfamadore.”

 

Now comes the time to break out your metrics. This is the big payoff, the part of the case study your prospects will take to whoever holds the purse strings at their companies to make the case for purchasing your product. It’s the happy ending. By this point, you should have set up each problem the client faced and how your product was able to solve it. Now you can show just how effective it was. Having the right information here is critical. While you’re interviewing your customer, keep track of those pain points you asked them about and remember to circle back and get the scoop on where they are now in those regards. A good story ought to have a very clear arc, and the characters are supposed to evolve and end up in a different place than when they started. It’s also important to keep the context of that arc in mind as you’re detailing the ROI figures. After all, a 2% increase or decrease seems depressingly small without any context. But what if that 2% increase represents a doubling or tripling of year-over-year profits? How did that make your customer feel? Here’s a hypothetical string of questions:

 

“So what was your biggest struggle that led you to look at our product as a solution?”

 

“Take me through the process of implementing the product. What features are you using to meet your needs?”

 

“What’s been the ROI on the product? What sort of improvements are you seeing in your metrics?”

 

“That must be huge for you. How has your day-to-day life changed since implementation? How do you feel about these improvements?”

 

We call this section of our case studies “Results.”

 

Denouement

 

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

 

Case studies are excellent marketing tools. Prospects really do value the information inside. But like any advocacy efforts, they also strengthen the relationship between you and your customers. To pull this off, you’re going to have to spend at the very least half an hour on the phone with your customer. You’ll email back and forth a dozen times or more about the project. You’ll spend almost all of that time closely listening to their feedback. They’ll spend most of that time talking and thinking about how valuable you are. If you didn’t even write the case study after, it would be worth the time. But ultimately you get a great asset out of it on top of everything else.

 

That’s why you should add some quotes and paragraphs about how your clients expect to get even more out of your project going forward. They’ve seen improvements already, but what do they envision happening over the course of the next year? What new features will they implement? How do they project their metrics to continue improving? Plan a follow-up in a year and do the whole thing again. Collecting, compiling, and showcasing the concrete benefits of your product over the long term is obviously high-value for any business on a subscription model.

 

Check out a couple case studies I wrote here and here.

 

The post How to write a case study like a storyteller appeared first on Customer Success Software | Gainsight.

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