10 Lessons We Learned About Telling Customer Stories

“I can’t wait to see how this SaaS company has been the missing link all along!” said no one, ever.

Does anyone really want to read another success story about how a software company changed a customer’s life?

But testimonials, case studies, and customer success stories are ubiquitous across industries. Everywhere you look, companies are investing in written testimonials and marketing videos to showcase how much better off a customer is after finding their product.

Surely there has to be value in sharing them.

Why bother telling customer success stories?

A few months ago, we began focusing on our customer stories. While attending industry conferences and hosting small in-person events, we’d heard interest from customers in learning about how other customers were using Help Scout. We were also hearing from customers about new ways they were using the product that we hadn’t evangelized before — like how their team was transitioning from a shared email inbox to a multiple mailbox approach, or was working with Zapier in creative ways to connect to other productivity tools like Asana.

While companies have marketing teams behind their websites, stories from the actual folks who are using the products bring these messages to light in a different way than traditional copy. “Customer stories help our prospects with three distinct things,” says Tim Thyne, Head of Sales and Partnerships at Help Scout.

First, they help reassure them that Help Scout is indeed a good fit for their business and use case — they’re evaluating a few solutions in the space, so seeing specific use cases really helps them visualize the solution for their business. Second, they give them a leg to stand on when pitching the idea to other stakeholders. Third, learning how others have solved problems with Help Scout gives them a framework on how to approach getting started.

Tim Thyne
Tim Thyne

Head of Sales and Partnerships at Help Scout

In “Use Stories from Customers to Highlight Your Company’s Purpose,” Harvard Business Review’s Erica Keswin shares that these customer success stories can ultimately become part of your company’s mission statement:

Stories make us all pay closer attention to what matters. Start paying attention to the stories unfolding in your organization, and figure out how to help the best ones spread. Because people have a lot to say, and if we’re smart, we’ll start listening.

So the question of whether or not to tell customer success stories is solved: you should. Now — how do you move it from “See how we stay SaaS-y” to something people actually want to read?

10 lessons for telling customer success stories

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to tell a compelling customer story.

1. It’s not about you

Approaching the project of telling customer stories, I thought I was coming at it from the right angle. It was simple, really: Anyone who was reading these stories wanted to know how Help Scout could change their lives, too, right?

I prepared a set of questions that would serve as a guide through the interviews, such as:

  • How do you use Help Scout’s workflows?

  • What are your favorite features — @mentions, Tags, etc.?

But after a second look at how a few of the stories were shaping up, it was clear that approach wasn’t working. What was so wrong with it?

It’s that my toolkit was inherently biased. I was using these probing questions as a way to get answers out of customers quickly — I was grateful for their time and didn't want to waste it — but the reality was, I was injecting my point of view by asking these types of questions.

While the solution and how the tool is used is definitely helpful — not talking about how the product is used at all isn’t helpful for anyone — when telling stories, there has to be a bigger focus on the customer.

2. Start with the customer’s mission

Instead of following customer problem + your solution = success story, think about how your company’s solution fits with the customer’s mission. Yes, this means the onus is on you to learn more about your customers.

A few questions to consider as you get started:

  • What about this particular company’s background attracted them to Help Scout?

  • What would perfect customer support look like?

  • How can you draw a parallel in your company’s mission and the customer’s?

Take BeerMenus, for example: They help people find beers and browse menus for beer stores, restaurants and bars nearby. But aside from the functional elements, the company credits its success to doubling down on their core values: respect for small business owners and all customers, and, of course, love of beer. Our goal was to make sure these ideas were elevated in the opening of their story.

3. Take thorough notes before developing themes

When a customer tells you their story, avoid the temptation to simultaneously create the story’s framework. Instead, concentrate first on meticulous note-taking. Then, for the second round, go through, pull the key themes, and see where the supporting facts fit.

If you’re trying to create the framework and final story as the customer is speaking, there’s the potential to exclude an “add on” item that the customer could later delve into — all because you’re focused on the framework in your mind, and subsequently modeling a story based on your ideal instead of the customer’s true story.

Hiten Shah, Co-Founder at Quick Sprout, shares how he approaches customer research interviews: Take thorough notes during the customer interview, then find the core themes within your notes.

It’s better to finish all the interviews before analyzing them. Why? By separating the interviewing and the analysis, you avoid spreading yourself too thin between two different tasks. And when you try to analyze what you hear while doing the interviews, it’s another way to introduce bias into your learnings. You also give yourself time to step away and let your mind subconsciously process the interviews, which will give you better results when you start analyzing later.

4. Don’t throw out all templates just yet

While including features in your questions sometimes injects your own bias, that doesn’t mean you should toss out using an organizational template altogether.

After taking notes and identifying key themes from your interview with the customer, an outline is a great way to organize your content before editing, while still giving room to identify any areas that you’d like to follow up on and quickly see if there are any areas that are repetitive.

  • Background — what’s the company mission?

  • What does ideal customer support or customer service mean to you?

  • How is Help Scout used?

  • Any standout features or integrations?

5. Be comfortable with (some) silence

No, not to the point where you think a call has dropped — but remember that it might take a minute or two to remember the highlights they’ve had with your product.

Avoid filling the void with suggestions of what other customers have said — give them space to think it through! I made a personal note to do more of this during customer story writing. (And dating. But that’s for a different blog post.)

One of the biggest highlights of your piece might come as a comment about a previous thought. Listen for these details, and wait for them to form. When I was interviewing Director of Marketing and Business Development Diana Murray at ASAP Accounting and Payroll, for example, she started talking about Help Scout’s Saved Replies feature:

“The Saved Replies feature is really key in our world. We’re dealing with explaining very complex information like payroll data, or wage requirements, or laws.”

But then she turned to Docs:

“...and in addition to Saved Replies, the Help Center, ASAP’s Knowledge Base, has also been a huge time saver when communicating information repetitively. We currently store and update over 250 articles, from best practices articles, to new client transition, and general business resources.”

… which became a story about how both features have helped all areas of ASAP’s business succeed:

“We’ve gotten traffic from some of these best practice articles in search engines, which has led users back to our site. Having Help Scout has definitely had a ripple effect for us to succeed in all areas of our business.”

6. Complement written stories with visuals

Once the narrative is complete, see how else you can bring these stories to life, whether it’s imagery, supporting infographics, or video. If you don’t have an in-house team, video agencies and video production firms can team up with you to bring the customer story to life. (We love collaborating on marketing videos with Boston-based Video Pilgrim — in them, we’ve found an incredible partner who understands our company mission and can draw that out on film).

If video isn’t an option, there’s still a ton you can do to humanize your success stories through photography and visuals. Content marketer Jeff Bullas shares that you should publish images and photos as part of marketing tactics — and that articles with images will get 94 percent more total views.

Here’s the shot list template we love to use whenever we’re sourcing the photography session, or as a guide when requesting photos from our customer:

2-4 posed portrait + landscape style images of the interviewee(s)

Shot list

2-4 images of the interviewee(s) at work

Shot list

2-3 shots of the interviewee(s) with their team

Shot list

7. Follow up about specifics and metrics

Once you’ve nailed the elements of the piece — the top features the customer is addressing and the solutions they provide — you can start digging into where you need to follow up for more information. Coupling qualitative statements with metrics make them that much stronger.

Of course, the customer’s time is precious, so it’s great to do these in a single email or follow-up call. For example, during our customer calls with OnePageCRM and NW Maids, one of the recurring themes was that using Help Scout has made their teams more productive. The follow-up emails helped us assign quantitative metrics:

Threadless testimonial

8. Keep content that didn’t make it into the story

At the start of every customer story, we feature a header image and quote, which can later be used as social promotion.

Threadless story

There’s also quite a bit of content and strong testimonials that might not make it to the customer story. Trying to cram everything into a story isn’t helpful — it becomes a laundry list of feature highlights with no narrative arc, and that’s dry to read. But don’t dismiss all that extra content altogether.

Change the framework from “oh-look-at-all-this-excess-copy” to “let’s-do-something-with-this-copy,” and extract more value from content you’ve already produced by experimenting with customer story promotion.

For our customer story on Threadless, we found more ways to share beyond the written testimonial, each highlighting different angles, like how to set up automated workflows to assign conversations:

Threadless testimonial

9. Share customer stories with current customers

Customer case studies are great for potential customers who are looking through your site and curious to see how your product is being used. But there’s another audience who might not be leveraging the product the same way and could benefit from learning new use cases: your current customers.

We include snippets of customer stories in our monthly release notes, coupled with a link to an article on our Docs site, so we can share company backgrounds and use cases and provide additional information for folks who want to try and execute the same on their own.

StageSpot Spotlight

10. Be grateful that this is part of your job

Hearing time and time again about how much your company is making a difference to people all over the world? It doesn’t get better than that.

So be generous with gratitude. These folks are taking the time out of their day to talk to you about how much they love your company. You get to showcase it to the world. And that’s pretty awesome.

Like what you see? Share with a friend.