Anatomy of a Customer Success Story: How to Captivate Your Readers


Stand-out customer success stories have drama and high stakes, so readers want to find out more.

Over the past decade, many companies have evolved a formulaic approach to customer success stories. They go like this:

1. Customer background: “Acme has 15,000 factories spanning 26 galaxies.”

2. Customer challenge: “Acme needed to expand to five new galaxies over two years while cutting costs and staying current with software updates.”

3. Solution: “Using the amazing X product, Acme increased its visibility into the IT environment and…”

4. Results: “Acme now has galactic software updates in one click. Acme notes, “This solution is great!”

The story often has heavy handed graphic design, branded with strict uniformity. It has a long-winded summary upfront and we have to open a PDF to see the whole thing, which turns out to be not much longer than (or different from) the summary.

What’s wrong with this approach? Three words: boring, boring and boring.

How would you feel if every time you opened up the refrigerator all you saw was one row of peanut butter and jelly (PB&J) sandwiches after another, in the same elaborate wrappings?  Day in, day out. And what if on the outside of the refrigerator there was a summary of what’s inside—PB&J, PB&J, PB&J?

To save your readers from a soporific barrage of blandness, consider the anatomy of a truly captivating customer story:

1. Make it a real story. Start out with a dramatic quote. For example:

Hank Forrester tossed and turned all night as the rain from Storm Sandy pelted against his bedroom window. It wasn’t the storm he was worried about: “We were on the verge of losing our most important client, because we couldn’t deliver on time.”

To get these types of quotes you have to interview the customer, and not via email. You have to ask not just what the business problem was, but how that problem affected the customer personally. The story must have drama and the stakes must be high for the reader to care what happens next.

2. Make each customer story different from the last one. Yes, do include the customer problem, solution and results. But don’t make those the subheads of every story like so many companies do. The subheads should be about the story itself:

Bland, general subheads: Challenge, Solutions, Benefits

Lively, specific subheads: Losing Out to the Competition; X Product Makes Software Updates a Breeze, Stellar Workspace in the Cloud

3. Don’t let internal people write it. Hire one of the thousands of out-of-work journalists out there to do the job, and pay him or her well. Don’t provide an example of an existing success story to follow—you want fresh ideas, not a clone of past duds. Resist hiring fast talkers; good writers frequently are quiet people.

4. Use lots of quotes, but not formulaic ones.

Dreary quote: “Because Darwin is in a remote part of Australia, getting a vendor or support partner to provide onsite services can be expensive and time-consuming.”

Lively quote: “People come to Darwin from all over to see our pristine beaches and saltwater crocodiles, but we’re still in the middle of nowhere. Getting a vendor or support partner up here isn’t easy.”

6. Don’t have 136 people review and edit the copy. Many well-meaning folks will “add value” just because they are asked. There should be just one or two key people in your company who can tell you if factual errors or nuances need to be addressed. Let the writer manage the edits to protect the integrity of the story, avoid adding jargon, and keep it captivating.

7. Publish the piece with very few graphic elements and branding: This is not an opportunity to pummel readers with your brand, but to provide an enjoyable reading experience while educating potential customers about your offerings. Include one evocative photo or graphic to make it memorable. Secure image rights. (I’ve seen executives grab photos they find onl­­ine and use them for internal and external communications without asking—which is both illegal and unethical.)

8. Follow best practices: If you hire former journalists you shouldn’t have these issues, but make sure you use active sentence constructions, spell out acronyms and abbreviations at first use (many businesses and even some journalists ignore this very basic editorial good practice), and avoid exclamation points—it’s better to make the material compelling on its own.

9. Ditch the top-heavy summary of the story—just write a good tag line next to the headline and get to the story. Don’t make us open a PDF to read it, but do make a printable version available.  You’ll want your sales force to hand it out to customers.

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Power: How we get it, and why Steve Jobs is not the exemplar

We often admire people who attain power. But if there’s one take-away from Pfeffer’s book, “Power: Why Some People Have it—and Others Don’t,” it’s that the powerful don’t actually deserve it.

There is no justice in the earthly allocation of power.

This is a profound concept, and not a welcome one. Most of us want to think that justice and power are linked.  Social psychologists call this the “just-world hypothesis.” In the 1960s, flower power epitomized this yearning (captured brilliantly in Riboud’s photo of a Vietnam War protester), and in the 1800s the idea of “manifest destiny” was used to justify America’s expansion westward, personified in a lovely John Gast painting of an angel bearing the light of progress and a telegraph wire.

Today, the pundits of leadership like to cast power in a glow just as noble—as the natural outcropping of hard work, authenticity, modesty and sharing glory. We’d love this to be true. But as Pfeffer aptly points out, leadership literature is written by and for the powerful, or by their followers (who may be even more likely to distort reality).  And it mostly shows how people act after they have power, not how they got there in the first place.

The reality is that it’s not unusual for people to get good performance ratings simply because the boss was the one who hired them, good performance won’t necessarily protect your job, and executives can rake in big bonuses even as they help to burn their organizations to the ground.

Pfeffer’s book explains all this, and more. And he offers a solution:  We should take a lesson from those who have power, even if we don’t like them.

I’ve held an interest in power since my days as a sociology graduate student at UCLA, when I researched how priests in the world’s first civilizations also controlled the silos of grain. Pfeffer, a Stanford professor of organizational behavior, examines research on the rise and fall of leaders, and their “grain silos” of networking, self promotion and strategic moves.

He points out that many business leaders have noble traits. But they’re likely to have adopted those traits after, not before, their success. Power is not the result of doing what’s right—or even of a job well done.  Rather, it’s about political maneuvering and marketing. This sounds cynical, but Pfeffer believes the research supports it.

Seven key traits help people achieve power (and Pfeffer emphasizes that anyone can develop them): ambition, energy, focus, self-knowledge, confidence, empathy, and the capacity to tolerate conflict.

Notice “intelligence” is not on the list. That’s because smart people tend to derail themselves because they have trouble delegating and they act like know-it-alls. There is also little place for ethics on the list.  Pfeffer does include “empathy” as an important trait, but defines it as the ability to read other people’s thoughts and feelings. Since that’s something even a sociopath can do—it’s not likely that Hitler had empathy, but he certainly was able to tap into people’s fears and desires—Pfeffer probably should use a more accurate description of this trait, like “shrewd perception.”

Steve Jobs had shrewd perception, but his personality and leadership “style” are not the exemplar of cultivating power. Jobs often did not give others credit for their ideas, called people “bozos,” was a perfectionist, eschewed PowerPoint, and was obnoxious, controlling and manipulative.

Pfeffer’s insights (and common sense) make it clear that anyone who acts like Jobs will not advance.  If your boss wants a PowerPoint presentation, you create one; being a perfectionist is more likely to get you pigeon holed into one job than lead to a promotion; and being obnoxious and controlling isn’t likely to get you noticed in a good way. It’s important to remember that Jobs started his own business and didn’t have to “manage up”; he acted impertinently after he was already in charge. He probably could have just as well acted noble, and achieved as much success with Apple.

Pfeffer’s book provides solid advice for how to be noticed, to influence the way your accomplishments are measured, and to enhance the egos of those above you—all of which, unfortunately, are likely to be required to achieve positions of leadership.

Despite the disturbing realities put forth in “Power,” Pfeffer does reveal that power is in fact a level playing field. No single person is destined to achieve power, and we can all work on the traits that help us amass it, and prevent ourselves from giving it away.

The meek, as it turns out, do have a stab at inheriting the Earth. With Pfeffer’s book in hand and a strong moral compass, good people might be able to accomplish a lot more than they think.

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Cultivating a business language for IT, one story at a time

Many CIOs have a hard time communicating effectively with business leaders, and it’s not necessarily the CIO’s fault.

When it comes to business communications, IT is at a distinct disadvantage. While more established business disciplines such as finance, sales, and marketing have developed a common business language over the years, the relatively young IT discipline hasn’t had time to build such cultural capital.

It’s not surprising, then, that IT organizations discharge a steady stream of technical jargon that consistently baffles business leaders. Business leaders don’t like to be baffled. So what do they do? They ostracize the offenders.  It’s a human response, although knowing this doesn’t make it any easier for CIOs.

How can you, the CIO, combat this tendency to get the “alien treatment?” The first step would be to stop using technical language to impress business leaders with your technological savvy. Put the Earthlings at ease by speaking in business terms. As a communications professional and writer, I know that’s easier said than done.

Here’s where to start.  Write down some phrases and sentences that explain what IT does to improve revenue, time to market, customer service, and costs at your company. Try to mention the technology itself as little as possible. Then, write a mini story (300 words or so, approximately two minutes of talking). Describe how IT is making a difference in how people conduct business. Focus on the change itself, not the technology. Use real-life examples. Come up with at least one story for each IT initiative you have. Practice telling the stories out loud. Then, use them whenever you need to explain what IT does. Stephanie Palmer’s book, “Good in a Room,” will help you churn out and use your stories to get results. If you have the budget, hire a writer to do this for you.

IT pundits say a good way for a CIO to learn the language of business is to hang out with the folks who also report to the CEO. Here’s a good way to practice telling your stories as well. Ask the VPs of marketing and sales to have lunch once a month. Ask them about their latest challenges. Most likely they’ll inquire about what you’re doing in IT, which gives you a chance to tell some of your stories. Pay close attention to their responses, including their choice of words. When you get back to your desk, jot down what they said, and incorporate their language into your stories.

By breaking up your communications into discrete packets of little stories, you can customize what you say to different audiences. Use your stories in speeches, presentations, email newsletters, and in your CIO annual business report.

IT can catch up with the other disciplines and evolve its own language of business. But it’s going to take conscious effort. Over time, business leaders will see the CIO less as an outsider, and more as a valuable contributor to business success.

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