Case histories can play an important role in the selling process by establishing vendors' ability to provide specific capabilities and benefits. For example, one vendor of computer-controlled routers increased the close rate of prospects who visit their demo centers from under 40% to 70%—by using case histories to highlight the success of customers with applications similar to the prospects'. More on this later.

Yet many companies have found difficulties in establishing a process for developing case studies, in some cases because they weren't able to gain customer cooperation. Other companies have created case studies that have relatively little impact, often because the testimonies they produced didn't prove that their customers obtained a substantial return on their investment.

A successful case-history development program begins with making the case to your customers that they have something significant to gain through their participation. It continues with an interview process that obtains the information needed to produce a substantive article, including (whenever possible) the actual monetary benefits gained by the customer through the implementation of your product.

Convince Customers to Cooperate

Case-history articles, also known as application stories or testimonials, feature real customers talking about how your product or service solved a real problem. Their credibility is unmatched, and they offer the additional benefit of being frequently solicited by most trade journals; therefore, they can be used to easily capture space and sales leads that might otherwise cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in paid advertising.

However, many companies have difficulty getting their customers to cooperate with their article publication efforts. When they ask their contacts for assistance, they are often told something like this: “I'd love to help, but I don't have time,” or, “We can't release any information on what we are doing because we are way ahead of our competition.” It's easy to get discouraged.

But a different approach can get positive results most of the time. Try approaching your customers not as if you are asking for a favor but as if you have something to offer them. Try this: “We see the opportunity to get some favorable publicity in major trade journals for both of our companies based on the success of this application.”

Mention the name of one or two trade journals that are read by their customers and would be targeted for publication of the article. Mention that the article would portray the company as a leader in the field and the customer contact/author as an expert and innovator.

Tailor Approach to Size of Customer

Tailor your approach to the size of the customer. If it's a small company, stress the value of exposure to its own prospects and customers. If it's a larger company that's already well known, emphasize to your contact the value of gaining industry recognition for his or her achievement.

This second approach is often successful, because most people working within a larger company feel, often with good reason, that their efforts are not widely enough known or appreciated at the higher levels of their firm (or among their colleagues at other companies).

It's also essential to have an answer to the argument that the customer contact can't spare the time to participate.

Offer to have one of your staff members or someone from your agency interview the contact and write the article under your contact's byline. Then, stress to your contact that the draft will be submitted to him/her for review and the opportunity to make changes.

This gives the contact the best of both worlds: credit for the publication and only an hour or two of time spent on the article.

Make Sure Your Contact Has Management Approval

By the way, when your customer contact is part of a large organization, make sure that he or she has secured permission from management to do the article. There's nothing more frustrating than to write an article and have your contact approve it, only to find that someone higher up the ladder was not consulted and wants to kill it.

Suggest that your company or agency contact and work with their public relations department or offer to do so yourself. Public relation departments will often help grease the wheels for a project of this type because they are usually motivated to obtain article placements themselves.

Once you get the customer's cooperation, make sure that they don't regret it. Make certain that the interviewer is someone who understands the terminology and technology of the business and can obtain the information needed to write the article in a one-hour phone conversation or less.

The interviewer needs to possess not only technical competence but also the journalistic background needed to capture, in the very first conversation, all of the information that makes up a great case study. First and foremost, this means having the ability to gently pry loose facts and figures that demonstrate that the customer gained financial benefits from your product that far exceeded its cost.

Second, the interviewer should be able to capture the detailed description of the application needed to establish the credibility of the case study in the minds of readers. While he or she is collecting this information, the interviewer also needs to gain an understanding of what the customer is or is not willing to see in print, in order to facilitate the approval process.

Make Sure Everyone Is Fairly and Positively Portrayed

Writing case histories is a delicate task. The writer must create an article that simultaneously promotes your company, makes the customer feel comfortable and fits the requirements of magazines in which you'd like the article published. The job of the writer is to make all people in the process feel that they have been positively and fairly portrayed without going so far that the article lacks credibility and becomes difficult or impossible to publish in reputable trade journals.

It's important to appreciate the concern of the customer not to appear to be endorsing or completely locked into a single supplier. Ideally, the writer should have a track record in producing material for trade journals. The writer's understanding of the publication's style and hot buttons and its comfort with the writer will greatly simplify the process of getting the article published.

Although writing the article is the most visible part of creating a case history, several other important steps are needed to bring the article to completion. The rest of the job consists of presenting the first draft to all involved parties and making changes to win their approval, collecting illustrations and finally obtaining written approval from the customer.

The keys to success are organization, persistence and politeness. An approach that has proven very successful is to first submit the article to the reviewer or reviewers at the company producing the case study, typically the product manager or marketing manager. The article is then submitted to the customer for review. When the customer approves the article, he/she is asked to sign a printed copy so that a record exists of exactly what they approved. This comes in handy in case the person leaves the organization or a question arises over what wording was actually agreed upon.

Also ask the customer to provide illustrations that meet magazines publication requirements, typically at least 1200x1500 pixels, although lower resolution is usually acceptable for screen shots. The final step is submitting the article one more time to the reviewers at the company that produced the article, to be sure certain that they are comfortable with the customer's changes.

A good policy for keeping the process moving is to follow up once per week with a phone call to whoever has the article for review. If multiple case studies are underway, this job requires solid organization and continual attention in order to complete the articles on a timely basis. Make sure that this task it is entrusted to a person in your organization who has the time and interpersonal skills to contact high-level customers.

Getting the Articles Published

If the writer produces publication-quality material, the articles may be both used in the sales process and also published in magazines that will bring your successes to the attention of tens of thousands of readers, without your having to pay for advertising space. The vast majority of publications aren't even concerned with whether you advertise, but simply whether the article will be of interest to their readers.

The magazine picks up the substantial cost of printing the article and distributing it to its readers and also increases the article's credibility by attaching its name to it. An article can often be placed in more than one, non-competing publication by tailoring it to several audiences. This is clearly a unique advantage of producing case history articles and a key reason they should play a major role in your marketing effort.

The odds of getting the article published in a magazine you are interested in are greatly increased by using a writer with experience in writing for that particular publication.

With all these different types of skills involved in producing a single case history, it's clear that the job of producing large numbers of them can be challenging. It's important to get your sales representatives, support technicians and anyone else who interfaces with customers on a regular basis involved in identifying candidates for case studies.

Be sure that you have a writer available—on staff, with your agency or as a freelancer—who has a background in your industry and the interviewing and writing skills needed to make the process relatively painless for both your customer and your own people.

Finally, you need a person experienced in working with customers as well as the journalistic process to manage the approvals and get the illustrations.

A Case History About Doing Case Histories

The payback from developing a successful case history program can be substantial. For example, Techno, New Hyde Park, New York, is a leading supplier of computer-controlled routers used to produce wood products, signs, models and prototypes, and a wide range of other products.

Techno enlisted its inside sales staff to compile an extensive list of happy and successful customers in a wide range of industries. Then, it hired a firm that specializes in writing and placing trade journal articles to write one article per month on a Techno customer and place it in appropriate trade journals.

Techno has found that the articles generate considerable interest when they first appear in the magazine. The most valuable use of the articles, however, comes after they appear. Techno obtains reprints of the articles as soon as they are published, creates application books containing all of the articles and supplies those books to its dealers.

When a prospect visits one of the dealers for a demonstration, the first thing the dealer does is show the prospect the application books. As potential customers go through the book, they nearly always see an article about someone in their industry producing similar products. Sometimes, prospects see an additional application for the machine that they hadn't even thought of, further increasing the likelihood of a sale.

The feedback from dealers has been extremely positive. Techno management discovered, based on surveys, that once this new method was in place the company's close rate of prospects visiting its demo centers increased to its current high level of 70%.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jerry Fireman (jerry_fireman@strucinfo.com) is president of Structured Information (www.strucinfo.com), a company that provides marketing communications services on a project basis.