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Vendors love case studies. They contain what existing and potential customers want to read—how other organizations are addressing the same challenges they face.

A case study provides the opportunity to communicate the benefits that your product or service delivers, in the form of practical experiences of a user organization. This is so much more powerful and persuasive than any theoretical arguments you can muster.

So why isn't every organization churning out case studies? A few do; but, for many, generating case studies is a real battle.

You may think of a case study as a writing project. In reality, generating a case study is an entire process that requires the cooperation and commitment of your prize assets: your customers. Most customers are busy people and do not have the time, expertise or inclination to assist you. Worse, many fear the risks of sticking their heads above the parapet and do not see the personal gain in helping you market your offerings.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the writing of case studies that presents the greatest problem. The two most difficult hurdles are gaining the upfront cooperation of clients and processing the written case studies through the approval cycle. Successful customer reference programs depend on these stages' having equal billing, alongside the customer interview and writing activities, in the case study process.

Start with those who understand your need

In generating case studies, we will always start by approaching the people in the client organization who have the greatest understanding of the task we are about to undertake. These people—the corporate communications team—also have the most to gain from the activity.

Getting them on your side is invaluable for two reasons. First, it places the responsibility for the case study activity where it belongs—in the corporate publicity function. Once approval is given at this level (and it is rarely refused), the weight of responsibility is removed from managers and staff at the operational level. They are free to cooperate knowing that the ultimate responsibility rests with the department that understands the process.

There are a few organizations that refuse on principle to endorse products and services. But if that's so, at least we discover this up front before any effort or money has been committed.

Second, when the completed case study comes up for approval, it is not a surprise to the corporate communications team. We have built a relationship with them and set their expectations, and they are positively disposed toward approving the material.

Do the homework

Much of the research for a case study can be completed before ever speaking with the end customer. Your own sales and support consultants will often know as much, if not more, about an implementation than your customer. Many of the market issues affecting a particular organization are similar across an industry. Business challenges specific to an individual company are often in the public domain.

Using these sources, a quality writer who has good vendor and industry knowledge (and has done his or her homework) could draft the bulk of a case study before ever talking with your client.

Researching and collating information in advance minimizes the amount of time and effort required of the busy customer contact. Often a brief telephone interview will suffice to confirm the message, add the local flavor and insert appropriate quotes. It is much easier to gain the cooperation of clients in this manner than to subject busy operational staff—or worse, board executives—to lengthy and detailed interviews.

Get sign-off

Shaping the structure and quality of a case study should reside with the writing agency and the vendor. Only after the case study draft has passed stringent quality checks, and you are satisfied with the content, should the case study be fed to the customer. The approval process through the client should be a single pass via the interviewee and the corporate communications function and require the minimum of effort.

It is an unnecessary burden, and could cause annoyance, if the client is used to edit poorly written or inaccurate material.

Although the steps described above appear straightforward, experience tells us that a great deal of determination, resilience and discipline are required to push the process along. But the rewards are there—good luck!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Arkle is a partner at Oast Communications. Reach him at info@oastcommunications.com.