Creating Marketing

How to Write a Customer Story: 5 Do’s and 5 Don’ts for a Compelling Narrative

How to Write a Customer Story: 5 Do's and 5 Don'ts for a Compelling Narrative
Written by Gregg Rosenzweig

What is a customer story? A customer story is a way of telling a client success story in an engaging fashion by demonstrating the results of a campaign or collaboration in a visual, narrative format — versus a more bland and predictable “problem/solution” model that sends people for the exits. 

It used to be that if you wanted a client testimonial, you’d simply ask a key stakeholder for a quote about the work completed. They’d write one — or ask you to do it for them. Said quote would then be prominently slapped onto a piece of collateral or splayed in a sizable font on a website designed using Earthlink.

But that’s not how it goes anymore.

The days of using testimonial quotes exclusively enjoyed a nice run. Times have changed and with it, the nuances with how client success stories get told. The best are called customer stories: a place where context can be given; where storytelling has a place; where attention can be rewarded with colorful language. It’s a format where characters can shed light on their quirks, elaborate on customer quandaries, even share quips.

How that customer story looks is up to you. Newfangled formats range from more traditional articles/blog post layouts to more innovative takes a la ClearVoice’s “Aspire. Act. Achieve.” format — which reimagines the old, stale and passionless “challenges, solutions, results” model marketers have used for decades.

Whichever format you choose, there are some basic tenets to all customer stories you should be acutely aware of — the “do’s,” if you will — that will keep your stories telling and your clients kvelling.

There are also some “don’ts” as well. Things that could turn an attempt at a positive into a negative experience.

So, let’s get into it all.

Producing compelling customer stories is an art form — so here are the master strokes to turn a positive experience into a great advertisement for your business. #storytelling #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

5 do’s for producing customer stories

5 do's for producing a customer story

1. Do find the format that works best for your brand (and your customers).

Through my days as a copywriter, I’ve written enough customer stories that I’ve lost count. This includes all of the ones in ClearVoice’s “Aspire. Act. Achieve” hub, which benefit greatly from a style imagined by ClearVoice’s Head of Content, Justin McKinley, who said yikes to old archetypes to birth a more personable format.

As a result, ClearVoice’s innovative template invites a greater level of participation by letting key stakeholders accentuate the positives of a collaboration — from problem-solving (Aspire) to execution (Act) to the ongoing success of a campaign (Achieve). ClearVoice’s flexible format also looks better than your run-of-the-mill case study, highlighting everything from pull quotes to photography to a carousel showcasing impactful work.

But what format is best for you? Well, first consider who you are. If your marketing strategy includes a hefty dose of video, you might approach your customer about going on-camera to shoot a quick video for you. Videos are the holy grail of customer stories as they demonstrate passion and emotion, straight from the horse’s mouth. More likely, your client does not want to go on-camera and would prefer to lend a few words.

If that’s the case, consider the different lengths and formats for their account before scheduling an interview.

ClearVoice breaks down different customer-story lengths something like this:

  • Short Form (250 words): Mainly a few good testimonial quotes strung together with little context or explanation. Short-form is usually collected by phone or email and is by far the quickest to do and easiest to accomplish that asks the least of your customer in terms of time and effort.
  • Standard (500 words): This is where longer, more telling testimonial quotes can start to be woven into several paragraphs using glue in the form of contextual sentiment. Generally, the baseline for where more engaging customer stories should begin.
  • Long Form (1,000+ words): A longer-form article broken into sections (with subheads) that gives further insight into a problem/solution solved by the company for the customer. These pieces fit well into existing blog content and dedicate themselves to storytelling rather than pure fact-based recaps.

2. Do approach clients/customers in a respectful way that leaves room for them to politely decline.

As an agency or marketing firm, it makes sense that you want to sing the praises of a successful project. To tell the world about what you can do, as a way to establish authority, spotlight creative and to ramp up new business opportunities. But know this: Not every customer wants to brag about the success of a project.

In fact, some don’t even want the public to know they used an outside resource to complete the work — as it could pull focus away from the talents and accomplishments of their own internal marketing team.

For the best chance at securing a ‘yes’ from your client, try this three-step approach:

  1. Send an email to the key stakeholder laying out your goals for completing a customer story, detailing where you plan on featuring it and how it will make them — and their efforts — look great.
  2. Let them know exactly what you need from them in terms of time — and how you want to do it. For example, “If you’re comfortable doing it, I’d need just 20 minutes of your time for a quick phone interview. Please let me know the best time for us to accomplish this at your earliest convenience. Thanks again!”
  3. Follow-up immediately after the customer approves the request with call details and/or a Zoom link so the meeting appears in their calendar. This makes the ask official and shows you’re handling their time responsibly.

3. Do make the client (or clients) look as good as can possibly be.

When I was hired to write customer stories for value-growth firm Bryant Stibel (founded by Jeff Stibel and the late Kobe Bryant), I was tasked with interviewing CEOs of tech companies such as LegalZoom, Art of Sport and The Honest Company, to name a few. The goal: To discuss Bryant Stibel’s involvement with these companies and how these collaborations paid off for both parties.

For these interviews, I had targeted questions designed to elicit responses that would yield informative and revealing sound bites for the customer story. Time was limited to 30 minutes in most cases so these interviews required active listening skills so I could hone in on the content that would tell the best story.

My job was clear: Write what would read like the equivalent of a quick-paced news story to describe how these relationships came about, how these companies worked together and to highlight the wins along the way.

The task included:

  • Being strategic about the quotes used: Each interview yields lots of content. You will need to capture the most telling ones — ones that are revealing, that land with impact, and are not too verbose.
  • Couching them in a narrative with a beginning, middle and end: Like any good story, you want to introduce the characters at the beginning, those tasked with accomplishing a goal — and then get into process, problem, solution. And make it good — keeping someone engaged is never a given.
  • Making it a success story: We live in a data-driven age where analytics and telling metrics are used to define success. Do your best to mine this data from the answers you’re given so you have palpable results that substantiate success — versus relying on hearsay and a lot of flowery adjectives.

4. Do keep it all about the client — not you.

It should be said that when you’re tackling a customer story, there might be a temptation to take too much credit for the work. After all, when it comes to marketing, agencies often do crack the creative nuts by coming up with solutions on their own that overdeliver for clients when it comes to results, praise, or earned media.

Don’t succumb to this temptation. As Don Draper once screamed to Peggy, “That’s what the money is for!”

Remember — it’s always about the client. Without their product and marketing budget, this work would cease to exist. Keep the spotlight focused on them. It’s the classy thing to do and might even keep you in the fold next time an agency review rolls around.

5. Do allow your customer to review the story before publishing.

Once you’ve picked a format, conducted your interview and written up the best version of the customer story you can, it’s time for the customer review. It might be tempting to just hit the ‘publish’ button once you’re finished, given you’re building around things they said, but don’t make the mistake of publishing too hastily. Give them a quick peek.

It’s quite possible the client will want to review their quotes in context to make sure it’s faithful to their intention. Also, since the interview, they may have figured out a better way to say something or even a tangible metric that lends well to the customer story. Give them the opportunity to expand or finesse their quote. It’s the respectful thing to do and also covers your own butt since they will have signed off on the final product before it goes live.

5 don’ts for producing a customer story

5 don'ts for producing a customer story

1. Don’t abuse the time of your interviewee.

Asking too much time from a client or customer puts them in the uncomfortable position of having to say ‘no.’ Once you set the terms of your interview, stick to them. The last thing you want to do is ask for 20 minutes of someone’s time and then go 60 minutes over. Be respectful of what you agreed to. After all, they’re allowing you to use their brand to boost your own. Don’t be greedy.

2. Don’t ask too many questions your subjects won’t know the answer to.

There’s no worse way to spend your allotted time than asking questions your subject is not prepared to answer. Not only does it make it uncomfortable for them by having to admit ignorance on a topic, but it shows a lack of preparation on your part by not knowing someone’s role in a story’s success. It’s a waste of time. Theirs and yours. Be better.

3. Don’t engage in “gotcha” journalism.

More traditional interviews in journalistic reporting call for probing questions that try to “catch” the interview subject saying something more honest than they probably should. Don’t do it. It could create tension or remorse. After all, you’re not going for a Pulitzer here — you’re trying to make a client look so unbelievably good that they thank you in the form of a wine-country gift basket. Goals.

4. Don’t sacrifice flexibility at the expense of urgency.

Remember, your customer is doing you a favor by participating in a customer story. Make sure to give them several options for how to get it done at their leisure. Maybe they want you to email the questions to them in advance, do a quick phone interview, or text you their quotes. However you can get it, take it. And avoid tight time parameters. If you’re under the gun, that’s on you. Don’t make it their problem.

5. Don’t take too much credit for the work yourself.

It’s been touched on but it’s worth reiterating: Nobody likes someone who takes too much credit for the work created. Whether it’s true — or worse, not — remain humble about your own contributions and avoid over-exaggerating your involvement. It could create tension in a client/vendor relationship, especially if it’s a flimsy one held together by paid-for lunches or other lavish perks. Some of which is on hold for now.

Now, it’s your turn…

Doubt the power of what positive words and peer reviews can do for a business? See Amazon or Yelp, who will gladly tell you what five-star raves do for customers. Having people who experienced your service firsthand sing your praises via customer stories will always move the marketing needle in the right direction.

So go get these gems with a good grilling. They’ll always be in style when it comes to your content marketing goals.

Here how to produce a #customerstory that can aspire, act and achieve better results for your clients. #contentmarketing #tips Click To Tweet

About the author

Gregg Rosenzweig

Over the past two decades, Gregg Rosenzweig has spent his career writing, producing and publishing engaging content for American mass consumption in the digital, TV and branded content spaces. From serving as a Creative Director on commercial spots to pitching/winning/executing branded content campaigns for Fortune 100 companies, Gregg's been fortunate to work for (and with) top advertising and digital media agencies... as well as some of the most highly respected publishers across the media landscape.

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