In today's competitive enterprise technology marketplace, the customer success story can be the tipping point for turning a prospect into a customer. As an influencer, successful customers can have a major impact.

But what makes a customer story successful? Of course, the success story begins with a happy customer. But are you focusing on the right customers? Are you writing the best stories? Can your sales team and its prospects find the most relevant stories on your Web site?

Focus on sales and marketing needs

To create successful customer reference stories, you must match your customer references to your company's target markets. If you can answer "yes" to the following two key questions, your customer success stories can play a key role in driving sales:

  1. Does your marketing organization have the references needed to support current and future campaigns?

  2. Does your sales staff have success stories that target current prospects?

To answer these questions, measure your customer references against your company's sales and marketing strategies using the following criteria:

  • Industry. Do you have references in those industries that your company is targeting? Do your success stories include a section on those industries' challenges?

  • Business environment. What business issues do you need to represent? Again, do you have the references? Do you reference those issues in the story content?

  • Company size. Do you have references to cover all targeted company sizes: startup, small cap, mid-market, Fortune 1000, Fortune 500 companies? Which are most important? Do your success stories include a customer snapshot with the company size, if relevant?

  • Geography. Do your references represent targeted geographic market segments?

  • Market segment. What other market segment parameters should be included in your success stories?

  • Product line. What product lines need to be covered? Do you have references that demonstrate success using those product lines? Do you include that information in your success stories?

  • Audience. What audience are you targeting: executive, business line management, technical? Are your success stories written to address that audience's need for information? Do all writers use the same interview guide to create consistent copy across all success stories?

Create compelling stories

After you have identified the reference criteria and the appropriate reference customers, the next step is to manage the content development and delivery process to gain the most impact.

The following guidelines will help you create the most value for your program:

Reference Story Management

  • Maintain a reserve of reference stories across the total range of priority market segments and product lines.

  • Make references readily available online through your company Web site, with easy print-on-demand capabilities.

  • Produce stories in PDF format so approved copy will not be altered.

Customer Story Content

  • Use compelling headlines that focus on quantifiable benefits in terms of dollars or percentages (i.e., time, efficiency, resources, profitability, customer service). The best stories can be easily understood by scanning only the heads and subheads.

  • Begin each story with a short executive summary of one or two paragraphs that quickly spell out the bottom-line benefits. A compelling customer quote will underscore that message.

  • Include sections or sidebars on your company and its products/services (relevant to this story); on the customer company and the customer challenges (industry/business); how the challenges were addressed using your company's products and/or services; the customer's current technology footprint; and the customer's future plans, including use of additional products and services.

  • Include compelling quotes from individuals on the same level as the intended audience (usually C level). Quotes should present the business challenge and how your company's products/services solved those challenges. To elicit such quotes, you must be expert at questioning customers. Do not leave this task to someone unfamiliar with your company's products or your target customer markets.

  • Update reference story content at least annually.

Collateral Delivery

  • Link customer reference stories directly from your company home page. For example, on your corporate home page, include a link such as "Customer References." Once in the Customer References page, viewers should be able to choose from among all your customer stories.

  • Let viewers select stories by several criteria, which might include customer name, industry, product line, partner, database, hardware, back office, country/region and language.

  • Use the compelling headline as a hotlink to the profile. You might want to include the executive summary under the headline.

  • From within the customer success story, link to other relevant media such as videos, press releases and case studies on that customer, that industry or that product line.

  • When you link to other sites (either your own company pages or customer sites), put those into separate windows so the viewer does not lose the Customer Reference page.

  • Limit color-saturated areas to a minimum so print-on-demand will be quick and will not consume too much ink.

  • Include 3-5 compelling customer quotes on your company home page, linking directly to those customer stories. Rotate often.

Market success stories to internal users

Even the most compelling content will gather dust if you fail to market it to internal users. Communicate regularly to everyone and anyone who might leverage success customer information and content—field marketing professionals, public relations agents, analyst relations members, company magazine editors and executive-speech content creators.

They're all looking for the best stories, and if you focus on your company's sales and marketing needs to create compelling content that sells, they'll look to you as a prime resource.

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Lucy Sanna is a consultant with The Phelon Group (