Innovations In Customer Success

Effective customer stories are a critical part of any company’s sales strategy and tactics. Prospects want to hear about the experiences of customers like them to better understand how they will benefit from a specific product or solution. 

Most companies that we work with spend a significant amount of time and money finding and documenting customer success stories.  Their customers often resist these efforts, are hesitant to publicly endorse vendors and want to know what is in it for them. Having worked with many clients on projects related to customer success and customer references, Aventi Group has had a lot of exposure to different approaches to promoting customer success and best practices.  

Companies are getting creative, approaches are changing, and often customers are very willing and even enthusiastic about publicizing their stories when the timing is right and when they get to participate in the process.  Let’s take a closer look at references from an internal and external perspective. Along the way, we will highlight some best practices and emerging innovative approaches. 

 

Customer Success: What Does the Term Mean?

The term is relatively new and has gained popularity over the last several years. It is a broad concept with varying definitions. At Aventi, we define customer success as anything a company does to make its customers successful or to promote that success. 

Examples of customer success programs include: 

  • Training
  • Roll-out and communications
  • Advisory boards
  • User groups 
  • Consulting services 
  • References / customer content

Reference activities can be done internally (within your company) or externally (through sales and marketing). To ensure they are effective, keep some key things in mind: 

  • Timing: When is the best time?
  • Motivation and value: What’s in it for them?  
  • Innovative content: Unique ideas in the market today
  • The message: What’s a strong and effective story? 

The Importance of Both Internal and External Customer Success 

Internal Customer Success 

We often work with large enterprises with diverse sales and sales enablement organizations. We typically think of customer references as external, such as logos, stories, and videos posted on websites; however, it is equally important and powerful to champion wins within the organization. Some examples of internal success are promoting wins, migrations, and adoptions to fuel additional sales or promote winning selling efforts and marketing campaigns. 

In recent weeks it has been incredibly effective to showcase how businesses are using a solution to enable responses to the current COVID-19 crisis. When employees hear the stories internally, they relay them during consulting and sales discussions with customers, highlighting current and real word examples of the value certain solutions have brought to other customers. 

External Customer Success 

Externally, companies want to give existing customers and new prospects direct access to compelling customer stories.  This can shorten sales cycles and build enthusiasm with prospects before they even engage with a salesperson.  Equally important is the ability for salespeople to use a deep library of customer stories to support their efforts throughout the sales process. 

The more authentic and compelling these stories are, the more helpful they are to sales teams and to prospects in making buying decisions. A well-crafted and compelling story of customer success has value for everyone. For the company, it provides evidence to support their marketing claims, and for the prospect it provides a real example of the results they may achieve by purchasing a company’s products. For the customer references, they get their story and success promoted.

The Best Timing

The best time to invest in either internal or external customer success activities is often right after the customer has agreed to purchase a company’s product (a win) or right after a company has implemented the solution (a go-live).  At these points in the customer lifecycle, there is usually enthusiasm and willingness to go public, or at least to document the story.  And the details and experience are fresh, which makes it easier to develop the most accurate and interesting customer success story.  

However, there are many times or situations when “the time is right” for a new customer success initiative.  Examples include when a company is able to quantify results from a project or when the project can be tied to some other customer success – such as expansion into new markets or achieving new differentiation.  Or there may just be a new marketing campaign or sales motion for which customer stories that highlight certain capabilities or solutions are an important component. 

One effective way to reveal these messages internally is to adopt a templated process. Even if it is just one slide during a presentation, make sure the content is approachable so your employees can confidently get the message out. 

Creating Effective stories

Effective customer stories are clear and concise.  It is important to engage people familiar with the customer and the specific project involved in the story development from the beginning. Find the people who know the customer. If they have strong relationships they can often enlist customer contacts to participate actively in detailing the project and results. This is of course ideal, but even without customer involvement, getting input from people as close to the project as you can will help gather the details necessary to create a strong story.

The story should include at least three elements:   

  • The context of the business before the win or switch
  • What led them to make a decision
  • The results they have seen

Relaying the content in this order will result in a strong story that immediately helps prospects and customers alike understand how the solution was used and the benefits it can bring.

In our recent experience, we have been involved with some very innovative and effective programs. We’ve seen the following best practices enhance the effectiveness of customer stories:

Tie the Story to Personal Goals

Be sure the story has a personal edge. This means going beyond the generic enterprise challenges. Though high-level messages are important, the deeper or more personal the story is, the more powerful it will be.  

This could require some digging into a reference’s story until a stronger story shows up. Keep asking “Why?” so you get to the good stuff. It could end up being an entertaining and powerful story that connects directly with your company. 

Get People Excited 

A key way of increasing excitement is to demystify the technology, focusing more on the story and their desire to talk about it. Keep the stories short and the messages clear, touching on high-level concepts and key points with minor text. For a more powerful result, help the reference tie the story to your and their organizational goals. 

Keep the Story Authentic

To stay authentic, keep the control and creativity in the hands of the customer. Let them have a role in telling that story and give them more freedom with formats, graphics, and even branding. It’s ok to be customer brand focused. It should be fun and personal for that individual or business team. The emotional component is integral.   

Focus on Stories with Outcomes

You want to show business results while also showing what makes the customer proud of the solution. This could go as far as not including the name of the product. Though it may seem risky, if you probe for the stories that happened after a business result, you can get some powerful messages. 

Don’t Rely Only on Metrics

Metrics are great, but a personal story of what changed for an individual is what draws in the viewer and creates an impactful story, making your message as effective, or more effective, than metrics can. 

In the end, all stories should be relatable. Like the stories you hear at cocktail parties, they should be understandable, identifiable, and entertaining. 

Getting Customer Support for Creating Their Story

Often people involved in references or customer success are hesitant to ask customers to become a reference.  They shouldn’t be.  All companies need references.  Your customers expect to be ask and in most cases are happy to provide some level of reference or validation of customer success if there is a good story to tell.  The most-effective storytellers are those who are excited to discuss their success and tell others how it solved a problem they had. These people may have been waiting and hoping to discuss the topic. 

People who are excited to be a reference are also less prone to ask for something in return. If they do, they may not be ready. That said, there are some exceptions.  

When a customer asks about the benefits of being a reference, take a step back and evaluate. They may not be convinced of the result or focused on other issues, which means they won’t be the best voice for your benefit. Rather than force it, take time to learn what may be happening behind the scenes. If you continue to see red flags, start testing the water with other contacts. 

This doesn’t mean questions about benefits are not worth exploring; in fact, they can be important – especially with large companies. These companies may be powerful voices in the marketplace to tell your story, and that has direct value. And the more established a company is, the more it may shine a light on your success with little risk to their overall sales and marketing initiatives.   

Take the time to discuss internal stories and explore benefits with references, and not just for the story itself. It is a way of aiding in customer relationships. It strengthens communication, increases trust, and gives customers more access to things they may find useful like events or other perks. Most importantly, it is a message of goodwill that will go a long way in a relationship. Having these internal champions on your side can prove to be important to your growth.

Examples of Customer Success Programs

There are powerful examples of customer content from businesses ranging from large to small. Here are three strategies from some popular companies that stand out.   

SAP Innovation Awards: 

Aventi has worked with this organization for almost eight years and seen first-hand how the this program has succeeded and benefitted SAP and their customers. SAP began by highlighted stories around SAP HANA, back at a time when SAP HANA was a very strategic and innovative new solution for SAP. The company wanted to highlight examples of how customers were realizing the power of SAP HANA. But rather than follow the conventional approach of finding customers with good stories, they flipped this strategy on its head by asking customers to compete to tell their own stories. Customer content became a contest with customers vying to reveal their best stories, resulting in powerful personal accounts from individuals and product teams.  

This program is now in its eighth year and has expanded to include SAP’s entire product line. 

Salesforce: The Trailblazer Spotlight

Salesforce highlights specific stories in a broader format and a uniquely visual approach.   The customer’s experience is conveyed in a large format with media, video, and graphics integrated in a way that tells a compelling story that is fun to watch. Trailblazer Spotlights include perspectives from multiple customer contacts that often results in a bigger story with broader implication and outcomes. 

Apple:  Apple at Work Layout

Finally, Apple, as you might expect, also promotes their customer’s success with great visuals and a highly personal element. They present customer stories in a tile format, but as with the last example, they combine different techniques and treatments to create engaging storytelling. They use longer “films” with personal and emotional customer perspectives. It is one of the better displays of customer reference stories out there while remaining at a high level and retaining the brand’s overall mission. 

 


Aventi Partner, Michaela Gubbels, and I were recently interviewed on this topic. Watch the interview to find out more about the newest ideas and best practices around customer success.

 

This article and interview touch on just a few examples and areas of customer success. We would love to hear any comments or reactions to any points we have covered as well as any examples of customer success we may have missed.

Feel free to leave a comment below, or contact Jeff at jeff@aventigroup.com or Michaela at michaela@aventigroup.com

Jeff has more than 24 years of experience in product marketing, marketing strategy, marketing operations and strategic business development. Prior to consulting, Jeff held senior marketing and business development roles at both large and small firms including Sprint, Oracle, and NorthPoint Communications. He also has an extensive background at IBM in marketing and sales roles of increasing responsibility.