The art of developing client stories that speak to the head and the heart

Storytelling is a gift. Good storytellers captivate audiences. You could say it’s an art-form. The corporate version is equally impactful, when done well.

This blog looks at one version of storytelling, specifically, the different styles of case study we can create for different situations. It looks at how to open up a story when considering the buyer journey and what your future clients need to hear and feel, and when the right time is to open up different perspectives.

Have you got a compelling story to tell?

Choosing the right client situation to build a case study is an important step. If the client story is not a strong example of the best type of work you want more of, your most profitable ‘trophy’ client examples, then wait until you have one. (While you wait, consider building an ideal client scenario to show people the type of work you are aiming for).

The most important thing to get right from the start of any client project is that you need an emotional and logical connection with what your client is going through. It’s really hard to write a compelling case study if you don’t have these ‘ducks in a row’ from the beginning.

It’s really easy for professional service (PS) we firms to build technical ‘what we did’ focused case studies. What people always struggle to write about are not the issues or risks – it’s the opportunities, benefits and impact that is missing.

These messages are crucial for showing existing and future clients that you add value and are differentiated throughout the buyer journey. Considering and gathering this information starts at the first meeting and continues into delivery and out the other side. Many PS firms place the majority of performance measurement on revenue generated, rather than including a healthy view of the impact – that is quantified and reported on before, during and after a project.

This goes beyond Net Promoter Scores in assignment feedback. It means really quantifying the impact on the bottom line, value creation, change management or risk reduction.

The emotional impact is just as important, remember what your client says throughout, probe around what it means to get it right (or wrong), or do nothing. Get under the skin of how this needs to impact what the business does today and in future and what it means to from employees, right up to leadership and shareholders.

Primary considerations for case studies

With case studies, more is better. Don’t try to serve all your audiences with one case study. You might need 2-3 different case study formats to address different stages of the buying process. And considering the different stakeholders involved at different stages.

I’ve got some general things that help bring a story to life for prospective clients, depending on the situation and what’s appropriate:

  • Key message at the top – your impact headline to describe what you helped the client achieve. The one memorable thing you helped them achieve.
  • Summary/ background – shortened to key facts, not acres of detail.
  • Top 3 challenges for the Board/ Senior leadership. You could also include the key exam questions you agreed for your work to focus on. If people often misunderstand exactly how many different stakeholders are affected by the problems and what it means long term – show the breadth of stakeholders involved.
  • If there’s a strategy angle to a more technical case study that gives market perspective, include it – shows depth of knowledge and context. If there’s a public/ reputation angle then consider showing an example.
  • Your solution should be in highlight format eg filter to the top most tricky or challenging aspects rather than describing the whole thing. Ideally this should subtly emphasise your points of differentiation. Think about what people usually misunderstand or incorrectly approach without your help – and the holes that gets them into. You want to help any future clients avoid even contemplating DIY.
  • Position all upside comments as success factors and key considerations – demonstrating that you can filter what’s important and help get to the heart of value.

Think about different case studies for the buyer journey

STAGE 1 OF BUYING: Awareness

Your awareness buyer is really a researcher. They might have identified symptoms of a problem they have, and they’re looking for ideas, suggestions and perspective on how to diagnose things. As they start their research process they’ll also be looking for high level insight as to what’s involved in solving problems like this and scouring for perspectives they hadn’t considered.

This is ideal for your website – for general promotion and often targeted at the mid-level management or buyer, rather than the c-suite. Buyers at the awareness stage are looking for:

  • Some of the typical issues would be good to show here. At a high level they want to learn how to solve a business problem they’re facing and what outcomes to expect, based on the experiences of others.
  • To get a quick synopsis of what you do and the value it creates, by learning through a story.
  • A quick digestible overview of your client’s situation, their pain points, the solution applied and the results achieved – to gauge if it will be useful to their learning process.

STAGE 2 OF BUYING: Consideration

The consideration stage buyer has already resolved themselves to solve a problem, they’ve made some assumptions about the appropriate remedy to the problem, and they’ve probably identified a couple of likely firms to help. Now, they’re trying to see if there is enough emotional evidence to invest the dollars, people and time to move forward – this is often part conscious (physical) and part sub-conscious (emotional).

You also need to start thinking of the different stakeholders that are typically involved at this stage – everyone has a boss to think of, so consider what helps them show their boss that you are best placed here.

This is ideal for a client meeting or presentation – for more specific consumption. Byers at the consideration stage are looking for:

  • Inspiration and a vision of a better reality — both for their company and for them.
  • A reason for action that’s got an emotional connection. To see how passionate and invested, you might be, in your clients success.
  • To see more technical detail and even get a feel for any demos or examples.
  • A client’s perspective on the problem they had and the outcomes they achieved, through a relationship with your firm. Quotes of their perception before and after you helped them. Even a video of the client telling part of the story themselves.

STAGE 3 OF BUYING: Decision

The decision stage buyer is looking for reassurance that your firm is the right one to solve their problem. They’re looking to minimize the risk of making a bad decision and increase the likelihood that they’re making a good one. The most senior stakeholders are usually involved here, depending on the value of what you offer, so talking to their needs is key.

This is ideal for a proposal or pitch – for specific use and incorporating the awareness and consideration stage details in your orals. Buyers at the decision stage are looking to:

  • Confirm their decision with logic that gives evidence for the more senior decision makers.
  • Gauge your depth of experience, relative to their specific needs – are you helping them see risks and opportunities they were unaware of (teaching them collaboratively) or just responding to their requirements?
  • See a direct correlation as to why your case study is of relevance to their own situation.
  • To discern what it would actually be like to work with your firm – the ‘in the moment’ stories you tell in the pitch, show your perspective on what made it enjoyable, interesting, rewarding, challenging or almost impossible.
  • To speak to your reference clients themselves and hear what really made a difference in their words. To hear how much they valued working with you and the impact you delivered, in tough times and when things were easier.
  • Above all, the energy and joy you channel in describing any story is important. Likewise your ability to artfully describe the more challenging aspects and honestly show how the unforeseen was smoothly dealt with, will give an honesty, depth and considered vulnerability that’s important when building advisor-client relationships.
  • If you need a hand remembering your stories, including fact and emotion in significant events, try reading Simon Sinek’s book ‘Find your why’. It is very relevant in a corporate setting could help in developing stories, not just case studies, that have impacted you along the way.

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    Sales books – winter fireside reading

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    If you are like me, interested in what’s emerging in the sales world, then there’s some really inspiring books to get your hands on for a spot of fireside reading.

    My top 3 sales books

    I loved these three books and for many different reasons, but my #1 is The Challenger Sale…

    The Challenger Sale, how to take control of the customer conversation – by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of CEB. I love the whole book and carry it around with me, still. It’s so on the customer agenda of today, it’s scary. The biggest takeaway for me is the way sellers need to link to what people normally do and then reshape what’s possible to deliver greater and unexpected returns and learnings. I’m next going to read their Challenger Customer book (see below).

    Sales EQ, how ultra high performers leverage sales-specific emotional intelligence to close the complex deal – by Jeb Blount. This flows really nicely from The Challenger Sale and the first quarter pages are especially rich with buyer insight and the psychology of selling really well laid out.

    The sales acceleration formula, using data, technology and inbound selling to go from $0 to $100m – by Mark Roberge. Really inspiring to see how Hubspot was grown into the success it is today. In particular their bespoke buyer persona/buyer’s journey matrix (which illustrates the different personas and stages of the buyer’s journey) and shows when marketing leads are originated and scored, and when its the right time to hand them over to sales. An excellent read to show that firms need to invent their own systems and make them work in their unique environment.

    Other recommended books I have on my reading list for the coming months

    The Challenger Customer, selling to the hidden influencer who can multiply results – by Matthew Dixo, Brent Adamson, Pat Spenner and Nick Toman at CEB.

    The way we’re working isn’t working, the forgotten needs that energise great performance – by Tony Schwartz (with Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy. Looks at how to re-energise your life to be more satisfied and productive.

    Sales management simplified, looks at how to get the best out of sales teams as a leader – by Mike Weinberg.

    Happy reading!

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