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How to Salvage a Case Study Project When Your Customer Says “No”

by | Jul 11, 2012 | Collateral, Case Studies | 2 comments

Marketers, sales people and prospects all love customer case studies.

Too bad most of your existing customers don’t feel the same way.

Getting customer approval on case study projects is among the toughest challenges a B2B marketer can face. Big-name companies – the ones that lend the most power to your stories – can be especially hard to get. Many have blanket policies against employee participation and use of their company name in such projects. And even with smaller companies, you can face a number of hurdles.

In a previous article, we discussed how to motivate customers to say “Yes” to case study projects. In today’s article, I’d like to talk about why companies deny permission to publish case studies about them, and what you can do to salvage your success story when they do say “No.”

Why Companies Say “No” to Case Studies

Even when your customer contact is willing to participate in a case study project, his or her company may reject your request to publish it, for a variety of reasons.

Time is often a factor. Most Fortune 500 companies have hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors. They may be inundated with case study requests. As a result, many have blanket policies to reject all such requests because of the time it would cost to have their employees participate, or because their legal and/or PR departments don’t have the manpower to process the approvals.

Liability may be a concern. “During the customer-story process, when I hear the word ‘legal,’ I cross my fingers,” says case study expert Casey Hibbard, author of Stories that Sell. “Companies worry that going on record as endorsing a vendor will come back to haunt them later in some way.”

Still another issue is brand image. Corporate PR departments want their companies to be associated with household names. They may reject requests from smaller companies simply because they are relatively unknown. And technology companies may not want to show they sought help on a technology issue for fear it will tarnish their reputation.

Finally, companies are naturally concerned about protecting information that could compromise their security or a competitive advantage. This can lead them to reject some requests, while approving others, depending on the type of solution being profiled. Companies may fear that revealing information on their corporate network or data security measures could leave them vulnerable to attacks, for example. Or they simply may not want to tip off competitors to their best practices in certain domains.

For all these reasons and more, it’s always best to seek pre-approval of your customer stories at a corporate level, before any interviews and writing take place.

What to Do When Your Customer Says “No”

But even if a customer rejects your initial case study proposal, there are ways to salvage the project.

Here’s what to do:

1. Find out why your request was rejected.

Try to discover which individual or organization said no to the project, and why. What were their concerns? Were they worried about the time/cost impacts of participation? Liability issues? Their corporate image? Security or competition concerns?

Knowing why your initial request was rejected will help you determine your best strategy for further negotiations. If the time/cost of participation is the primary issue, for example, you may be able to get an okay just by showing your customer how little time the project will require, and how much time they’ll save when you’re not bugging them for customer reference calls.

2. Consider an “anonymous” case study.

If your customer doesn’t want its company name or the names of its employees used in your case study, ask if they would agree to an “anonymous” or “unnamed” story.

As the name suggests, an anonymous case study is one in which no names are named. Companies are simply characterized by their size and industry. Employees are identified by their responsibilities, and their quotes attributed to their job title.

Anonymous case studies often get a bad rap. After all, no one wants to feature a “global technology company” in their case study. They want the power behind a marquee name like IBM or Intel. And they want the credibility comes from quoting real individuals at those companies. But don’t discount the power of an unnamed success story. They can still be very compelling – if they are well told.

The key to making an anonymous story resonate with prospects is detail. Descriptions must contain enough detail to make readers believe they are reading about a real company. Quotes must be specific enough to sound like they came from a real person. If richly detailed, anonymous case studies can still educate you audience and make them believe in your solutions.

Plus, there are some advantages to publishing anonymous stories, rather than naming names.

Unnamed stories remain evergreen. That is, they don’t become dated if a quoted employee leaves the company, or if the featured company is acquired by a larger firm.

And some companies may be more willing to share metrics and implementation details, if they know their identity won’t be revealed. Quantified results and implementation specifics can often make for a more eye-catching headline and a more compelling story than even a marquee name can provide.

3. Propose a “limited use” case study.

If your customer is concerned about losing a competitive advantage in their industry, or simply won’t agree to full public use of their story, ask if “limited use” would be acceptable. Limited use agreements can include restrictions on how and where the case study is used, and for how long.

Restrictions might include that the story may not be posted on your company’s website, shared with the customer’s direct competitors, or distributed at trade shows in certain industries. Customers may want restrictions on how the case study can be used in press kits and how resulting media inquiries will be dealt with.

The key, as mentioned earlier, is finding out what your customer’s concerns are. From there, it’s just a matter of tailoring a limited-use agreement that addresses those concerns, and being prepared to negotiate until the customer is satisfied.

4. When all else fails, ask for a “campfire story.”

If your customer is unwilling to participate in a published case study of any kind and simply won’t budge, there’s still one more thing you can do. You can propose an unpublished case study.

Salesman-turned-copywriter Ed Gandia calls unpublished case studies “campfire stories.” The idea is that they will be presented orally, in an intimate setting. These unpublished case studies are usually documented in an outline or storyboard format and stored in a company database. They are primarily for internal use, and are never distributed in printed form outside your company.

But they can still be very valuable to your sales team.

Campfire stories can be used in training new salespeople, to help them understand the benefits of your products or services. They can be used in sales meetings to show the team how a customer used your product or service to solve a particular problem. Sales reps could, in turn, use these stories in conversations with prospects, observing any use restrictions agreed with the customer (and flagged in the database).

5. Don’t give up without a fight.

Last, but not least, if a particular story is important to your marketing effort, be persistent. Bear in mind that “no” does not always mean “never.” As Casey Hibbard points out, getting customers approval of case study projects isn’t always a simple matter of submitting a request and getting an answer. It can sometimes “be a years-long campaign involving numerous parties and departments.”

Take-Away Points

1. Customers often deny approval of case study projects, and may do so for any number of reasons.

2. When a customer rejects your request or denies approval of a case study, all may not be lost.

3. The first thing to do is find out what your customer’s concerns are.

4. Then, address those concerns by proposing one of these alternative formats:

a. Anonymous

b. Limited use

c. Campfire story

5. Be persistent in negotiating customer approval of important success stories. It may take some time.

Any thoughts on this article? I’d love to hear them. Please leave comments below.

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