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Winning with Customer Case Studies: 4 Tips, 6 Pitfalls

March 2, 2023
With potential clients inundated with "credible referencing," this tried-and-true industrial marketing tool needs a fresh take.

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Part of the marketing playbook for value-based selling is the use of customer case studies to provide references and proof of value for a product, service, or software solution. This is what customer value scholar call “credible referencing” when the customer is pushing back on your value messages and statements of differentiation.

Case studies are used quite a lot in manufacturing and technology as a hook to get prospective customers to ask for more information and for a more detailed return on investment calculation.

Case studies used to be a novel and innovative way of doing value-based marketing. The issue is that, when everybody promotes their own case studies, it becomes noise and prospects cannot keep up. I have written in the past about software-as-a-service marketing becoming rather boring.

I think case studies can be a very compelling marketing tool if you avoid these six pitfalls:

1. Comparing your solution to the wrong alternative: This is a typical situation when the provider of the solution believes the customer does nothing today or does not have access to alternative vendors. For example, if you compare your industrial IoT solution to the customer not having any IIoT projects in place, it is different than comparing one IIoT solution to another. How many companies today do not have a predictive maintenance initiative in the pipeline using some form of IoT? The same goes for products such as pumps or a heat exchanger, for example.

2. Being too anecdotal: Showing the economic value potential of a product or solution cannot just rely on one case study. It is too anecdotal. It is obviously qualitative and a good example of savings. But there are so many variables that can change from customer to customer that one data point is not enough. If you sell to a dozen industry verticals for example, one anecdote is not going to cut it.

3. Focusing too much on customer friends and family: This is probably one of the biggest limitations of customer-success stories. We ask customers for a favor, or we give them a special incentive to share their stories. The stories either don’t seem real or don’t represent the most common use cases.

4. Not going through customer finance department vetting: Some customers agree to share their success stories of return on investment and savings without proper advance validation from their finance department. The realized economic value of a solution is not easy to isolate and extract. Using rough estimation and half the story might lead to inaccurate calculations. Ask the professionals for help.

5. Lacking credibility: Let us be honest with our ourselves. Showing a case study that reports a 93% increase in average selling price or a 467% acceleration of conversion rate might be very hard to believe. The lack of credibility of some of the calculations might be the kiss of death in front of a CFO or an educated buyer. This is perhaps the biggest mistake made by marketers. It leads to the customer stating, “If I could save that much, I would have done it already!” When impact numbers are so high, I would recommend to test them in front of several financial professionals and/or to change assumptions to ensure impact statistics are realistic.

6. Not explaining the ROI calculations: Showing stories of impact without a basic explanation of calculations does not create trust in the case study. A good case study might show a table of calculations with some assumptions and some customer-specific input data to back it up. This helps the reader understand what is behind the story and possibly relate to it.

I still believe in the use of good customer case studies. The key is to have a robust approach to developing them and to make it a consistent process with proper data, resources and investments. I propose four considerations to do that:

1. Make savings and ROI calculations part of your DNA: Let us take the example of global bearings manufacturer SKF. Over time, SKF collected 19,000 documented stories of savings. They developed their own Documented Solutions Program to help their customers predict the annual net cost savings they could realize by using SKF products and services. Because of the large quantity of data that has been collected, SKF says it is in a unique position to be able to quickly and accurately project and then measure the total cost of ownership on specific initiatives.

2. Let the customers do their own calculations: Embrace customer value management and allow your customers to calculate their own ROI and develop their own case studies by connecting an ROI calculator to your website.

3. Create and communicate detailed credible case studies: Provide an explanation of the savings, the assumptions and the potential challenges. Make sure you validate the numbers carefully and you explain the relevant context. Produce high-quality documents and include them in a section of your website. Machinery manufacturer NSK is a good example of how to properly present value stories and case studies.

4. Hire a value engineer or a professional value modeler to produce your ROI simulator: Hire an expert who know how to calculate ROI and uses the proper methodology. There are plenty of opportunities to make mistake in the calculations. Make sure you get it right.

Customer case studies have been a dependable marketing tool for many years now. But they have lost their jazziness along the way, as so many companies use them. It is time to make them more exciting, credible and properly quantified. Bring in the experts to help. Do not improvise and take the risk of looking foolish in front of educated prospects. Garbage in, garbage out.

Stephan Liozu is Founder of Value Innoruption Advisors and a research fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He has authored and edited 12 books,  including his 2022 book, “The Industrial Subscription Economy." 

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