All The Responsibility, None Of The Authority
Discovering Your Customer’s Story
As business person – whether you’re a product manager like me, or a marketing professional, or a salesperson – a lot of your success consists of persuading other people to do things:
- Fund your project
- Buy your product
- Read your ad
And if you want to be persuasive, you need to get good at storytelling. Stories have a kind of magical power to worm their way through the brain’s defenses against new information.
It turns out our brains are wired – based on hundreds of thousands of years of trying not to get eaten by lions – to ignore new information coming in if it’s not life-critical. And most of the information we’re trying to get across in our business presentations is, let’s be honest, not life-critical.
But stories are an exception. They get through the barrier.
And that’s why, if you want to communicate, influence, and sell more effectively, you need to get good at telling stories.
The stories you need to be able to tell
As a rule of thumb, there are three key stories you need to be able to tell in the realm of “product” – product managers, marketers, and sales people.
- The story of the poor prospect, who doesn’t yet have your product, and is suffering as a result.
- The story of your successful customer, who was suffering (like the prospect) before they found your product, and are now successful and happy.
- Your own personal stories, whether they are to introduce you to colleagues or prospects, or for job interviews.
Luckily, you can use the same basic framework for all three of these stories, although there are subtle differences.
In this episode I focus on the customer success story. Not just how to tell it, and where, but how to elicit the experiences of the customer that will make the story extra compelling and engaging.
First, I’ll share the basic story outline. It’s a powerful tool for telling nearly any story, not just customer success stories.
Then I’ll talk about how to fill it in with your customer research, sharing the types of questions – including sample questions – you can ask to get the good stuff.
And then I’ll talk about how can use these stories, not just for marketing collateral, but for accelerating sales, countering objections, and more.
Hi, this is Nils Davis, and you’re listening to All the Responsibility, None of the Authority. Episode 326.
In this podcast we answer the questions I and others have about the realities of product management, product marketing, going to market, and innovation. I have been doing it for 25 years and I’ve learned a few things!
If you have a question about product management, check out my episodes – I might have answered it. And if I didn’t, let me know, and I’ll do an episode about your question.
My goal is for this podcast to give you the best mental models, tools, techniques, and secrets for creating value in the world, and delivering solutions to problems that need solving.
I’m hoping these insights and approaches will up your game, accelerate your career, and help you get more value to market faster.
This is episode number 326.
Structure of a story
Beginning, middle, and end
You’ve probably heard – or noticed – that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But if you’re like me, knowing that didn’t help you much. What goes in the beginning? What goes in the end? It took me a long time to figure that out, but once I did, it was life-changing.
I learned the framework I’m about to share, and everything became much clearer.
Problem, solution, results
Most stories have roughly the following structure. I’m going to map the structure to the “beginning,” “middle,” and “end” concept to make it easy to follow.
- The beginning is about a problem. Something is going wrong, and it’s causing pain and suffering. In fact, so much pain and suffering that the person is willing to expend money, effort, time, and/or resources to fix the problem.
- In the middle of the story someone is trying to find, or is finding, a solution to that problem. This section finishes with that person either having solved the problem (hero!) or failing to solve the problem (tragedy!).
- The story ends with the results – the hero is celebrated for his or her achievement, and lives happily ever after. Or everyone dies (not really!).
I call this structure “PSR,” for Problem-Solution-Results.
If you use this story framework in this way, you will end up with a good, compelling customer success story that you can tell in less than two minutes. At the end of this training I’ll talk about how you can take these story components and use them in different ways.
Example – a very basic and boring story
Problem: I was starving and hadn’t eaten all day. I really needed to refuel before finishing my big project that was due at midnight.
Solution: I went to the store to buy some food, but they didn’t have what I needed. So I had to go to another store, and at that store I found the salami that I really liked, and some excellent bread. I went home and I made myself a sandwich.
Results: Finally, my hunger was abated! I was able to concentrate on my project, got it finished, and sent it in well before the deadline.
This is definitely a boring story, but it illustrates the structure. And in the rest of this training, I’ll talk about how this story could become much less boring.
One thing you might think would make better is to include more figures and numeric results. And this is the natural inclination of a technologist.
But in fact, if I said “well, I bought 3 ounces of salami and a one-pound loaf of French bread for my sandwich, you probably wouldn’t find that any more compelling.
The fact is that this story is boring because it doesn’t have any emotional content. The emotional content is what opens up that brain barrier, and it’s what I’m going to show you how to find in your customer stories.
Now you know you need to look for a problem, a solution, and results for your story.
There are three main challenges that product people and technologists have with telling effective stories:
- Not making the problem dire enough.
- Not making the results amazing enough.
- Spending too much effort and detail on the solution.
When I say “dire” and “amazing” – I mean that you’re trying to make a strong emotional connection with your audience.
Let’s consider the story of one of your successful customers. (I hope you have a successful customer!)
At one time your customer was just a prospect. For some reason they decided they had a problem so significant they were willing to search for and pay for a solution.
How big must a problem in your life be for you to decide it’s worth spending a significant amount of money to solve? Think about your last purchase for over $1,000. How much thought went into that purchase?
Well, our prospects are facing the same challenges when they want to get a new solution. And often they are spending a lot more than $1,000. For example, if it’s an enterprise software product, it’s likely on the order of $1,000 per year per user!
So, a problem that’s worth that much to solve – how much must it be impacting the business if it’s not solved?
All this discussion is just to establish that our successful customer has an interesting backstory on the time when they were still a prospect.
Let’s elicit that backstory, because it’s going to help improve our story.
How to use this course
I suggest starting with your best customer success story because it will be the most familiar to you.
In this episode I’ll use a good story of mine, and you should do the same thing with your own story!
I have a customer success story cheatsheet and template with all the questions and sections laid out that you can download. You can find it at alltheresponsibility.com/stories.
I created the cheatsheet and template for two purposes – one is that it gives you the structure and the questions you need to ask (or sample questions). The second is that the template itself is a convenient place to write your story sections down.
I also include include a “litmus test” or benchmark you can use to validate that you have what you need to make the story strong.
The most important part, though, is the list of leading questions you can use to help improve the story. You’ll see what I mean when we get started.
Now, let’s get rolling!
End of video 1 (8 minutes – 1176 words)
Find the pain
Make it dire!
As I mentioned earlier, for someone to be looking for a solution, they must have a pretty bad problem. Most business problems have significant impact if they aren’t solved. Or, if they are solved by an inadequate solution, they cost a lot of money or create a lot of risk.
Let’s just get into it
The first part of the story is the problem the customer was facing.
Here’s an example from an old company. The customer was a manager of project managers.
“We had a real challenge when allocating resources to projects, because the project managers didn’t have authority to assign them, and the resource managers didn’t know what projects the resources were needed on.”
This is obviously a problem, but is it very compelling? It’s not. How do we make it more compelling? (Or rather, we kind of understand this could be causing a lot of angst and concern at the customer, but it doesn’t sound that bad … yet.)
This is where the following list of questions is going to help you.
These questions elicit much more emotionally resonant answers.
Of course, you might have other questions, more specific to the situation, but these are some good general starting points. One great tip – you can follow up the answer to any of these questions with prompts like “And then what?” or “Tell me more.”
One important note: In all of these stories, if you can use your customer’s own words they can often give the story great power.
Let’s go through the list of questions (and again, this list of questions is in the cheatsheet):
- What was the problem you were facing?
- · Why was this problem worth solving – what made you decide to initiate the search for a solution?
(For more on asking questions, see my article on asking questions – there is a link in the show notes at alltheresponsibility.com/326.)
In the story I’ve started with, I used questions like these to get more details – to really drill down on the pain:
- What did they to solve the problem? “We had a weekly one-hour meeting between all the project managers and all the resource managers to allocate resources. (Tell me more…) The outcome was a spreadsheet with the assignments, but of course we ended up with multiple versions of the spreadsheet, and people still didn’t know who’s assigned to what. We often didn’t have the right resources working on projects because of this confusion, and there was a lot of mistrust and blaming going in both ways between project managers and resource managers. And of course, that meeting itself was extremely costly and didn’t solve the problem. It’s also means that I personally spent a lot of time fixing resource assignments, which is tedious and error-prone, and not at all what I signed up for. So that was frustrating.”
- Did you try anything else? “We evaluated some tools but they didn’t work for us – either they just plain didn’t work, or they didn’t integrate effectively with our other systems, like our HR system and our project management system. So that was very disappointing. We had high hopes before.”
- “And of course, there were a lot of emails back and forth, not to mention phone calls. It was incredibly difficult to manage and govern.”
Get at both personal pain as well as business or practical challenges
I mentioned in the introduction that persuasion and storytelling have both emotional and rational components. One of the best ways to get an emotional component into your story is to elicit the personal impact of the problem on the customer or prospect. You see a little of that in the quotes above – “this was very disappointing,” “there was mistrust and blame going both ways,” “I had to spend a lot of time fixing resource assignments, which was tedious and error-prone.”
Actual human beings having emotional challenges turns out to be extremely compelling in a story.
In some situations, you might even find that your customer has a personal business-related challenge related to the problem – like maybe they’ll lose their job if the problem isn’t solved! That wasn’t the case in this particular story, but you can see it in a story like “well, we missed quota every quarter for a year and my job as a sales manager was on the line.”
You can see how this will go. You want to find the problem. You want to find out why the problem is worth solving to the customer – the impact of not solving it, the direness of the situation. And then highlight that when you tell the story.
The Solution section – the middle
The solution section – the middle – is sometimes where we technologists go wild. But we have to be careful to make this section meaningful not to us but to our audience. If your audience is a prospect or a customer, that means one thing. If your audience is some executives from your own company, then it might mean something else.
In this section you’re trying to briefly answer some combination of the following questions:
The ultimate goal of the solution section is to say that the customer achieved a solution to their big problem, using your product.
Continuing my example about resource allocation for projects, I was able to get these from my customer:
- “We had a weekly meeting with all the project managers and resource managers.”
- “We tried some commercial solutions, but they didn’t work.”
And for this particular example, the ending is the customer achieving great results using our “centralized staffing” feature.
- Customer’s story: We tried everything, until we finally found your “centralized staffing” solution, and suddenly our challenges with resource allocation evaporated. It was just the thing we had been wishing for.
Finally, the results
The results section covers what happens after the solution is found or implemented. And the simplest way to think about the results is directly as a mirror to the problem and its components.
For every issue you put into the problem, you want to have it reflected in the results.
We want to do a few things in the results section. First, we want to answer some specific questions that are basically the flipside of the questions we used for finding and eliciting the problem.
- What business results did you get using this solution?
- What work-related “personal results” did you experience? Raise, promotion, recognition, new expertise, new skills?
- What non-work-related “personal results” did you experience? Less overtime, got home for dinner, sleep better, less stress, less frustration
You need to try to relate each aspect of the problem to a result. In fact, if you don’t have a result related to one component of the problem, you might not want to mention that part of the problem in the first place.
Have you ever seen a movie where something happens in the first act that isn’t paid off later? Like a character appears for a few scenes, and seems important, and then never appears again, and their appearance isn’t explained? That’s very frustrating for movie audiences, and usually causes reviewers to pan the movie. Well, the same thing can happen in your story if you’re not careful. If you mention something in your problem statement that isn’t resolved in your results statement, that’s going to leave your audience frustrated.
So the best thing is just to make sure your problem and your results match up.
But, there’s something else you can do. You can add an extra outcome to the result. An unexpected outcome or benefit.
For example, “Not only did I not lose my job, I got a promotion and I’m now running the entire West Coast sales region.”
To put some real punch into your story, you should find a “vertical takeoff.” This simply means that your story starts “in the action” – and with something exciting. A lot of feature films, especially thrillers, have great vertical takeoffs. James Bond movies, of course, are well known for their exciting opening sequences, but who can forget the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark? You get the idea – the hero is in jeopardy, the walls are (literally) closing in, and everything’s moving at a dead tilt.
Usually the vertical takeoff in a customer success story isn’t quite that dramatic – no matter how valuable our product, it’s usually not a life-and-death situation, after all. But you can still summon up plenty of interest.
And as with the rest of the story, you definitely want to be thinking about grabbing the audience or the reader emotionally. This means your vertical takeoff needs to have personal impact, or otherwise be very dramatic.
To help you out, there are two simple formulas that often work to help you find a vertical takeoff for your customer story.
- A bad thing is going to happen if we don’t do something immediately.
- A bad thing is happening over and over again and I don’t know how to stop it.
Those are actually surprisingly common in business situations, right? And if someone is searching for a solution to a problem, they are likely to be suffering in one of these ways.
In the cheatsheet I give some examples – like about a guy who couldn’t sleep because he was so worried about his “production line going down.” This is a paraphrase of something an actual customer told me once – he literally was having difficulty sleeping due to the business problem he was experiencing! It makes a great vertical takeoff.
Putting it all together
For a while we’ve been talking about each of these sections separately, but of course your story as a whole combines all three components. The template includes some fill-in templates in the back that you can use to construct your story.
(In the next section, when I talk about how to use these stories, we’re going to break it down into its constituent parts again.)
I always find it’s valuable to have a way to check my work. And for stories, it’s no different. That’s why I provide this list of questions you can use to help yourself assess your story. (Or that you can provide to a friend or colleague who might be helping you develop your story.)
Or you can use them as a litmus test for other peoples’ stories.
- Is the problem dire? Can you make it more dire?
- Does your description of the problem have both personal and business impact? Do you have a vertical takeoff?
- Is the solution compact (four to five sentences), but compelling?
- Does the solution leave your listener wanting more details (This is good!)
- Do the results tie back to the problem?
- Do you have emotionally resonant results (personally meaningful)?
- Do you have business-related results (quantitative)?
Developing and polishing
The first version of your story, when you’re writing it down for the first time, might not be that great. But there are some straightforward ways to improve the story and to develop and polish your stories in general.
The best way to improve your story is to start telling it, noticing what works and doesn’t work. I recommend practicing it out loud, perhaps alone to start with. You should pay attention to things like how it flows, if the results actually pay off the problems, and the other points in the litmus test.
You can also practice it with a friend or colleague, or even have a friend or colleague take a whack at editing the story. One thing to be careful about in your editing is that it’s easy to take out too much of the emotional content, and to add in too much technical content. This is particularly true for those of us who are technologists – we can be a little bit uncomfortable with the emotional stuff, while we love the technical details.
You have to remember that the purpose of your story – at least part of the purpose – is to promote emotional engagement. You want the reader to identify with your customer and feel how much pain their problem is causing, followed by the relief and excitement at having their problem solved.
There are many more resources available on telling better stories, customer stories or otherwise. And I suggest you look into those. I’ve provided links to a few of my other articles and videos on storytelling that you might find valuable.
Closing and next steps
I hope you found this quick tutorial on how to develop a customer story helpful, useful and actionable.
To summarize quickly:
- The basic story structure is “problem-solution-results”
- To make the story emotionally compelling, make sure you talk about how the customer’s problem had both business and personal/emotional impact, and how the results impacted both the business and the customer him or herself personally.
- Look for a vertical takeoff to kick off your story.
And you can download the cheatsheet and template at alltheresponsibility.com/stories.
I’d love to hear your feedback on it.
After all this, you have a short story about your customer’s success. It features the customer’s own words, hopefully, and has both business pains and results and emotionally engaging personal pains and results. It’s structured in the basic format of Problem-Solution-Results.
You’re now going to go out and get a lot more of these stories, using these techniques and questions.
But you might be wondering if it’s worth it. How is having a bunch of these stories going to make a difference in your business?
So let’s talk about how to use these customer success stories. There are lots of ways!
Of course, we have the obvious: you can create marketing collateral with the story. This could be a writeup that you let people download that has two or three pages about the company and their success with your tool. And that includes all the struggles they went through to get to that point, including the emotionally engaging person problems and personal wins. (Actually, lots of success stories that you see don’t include the emotionally engaging parts of the story – and they are really really boring.)
But, there are some obstacles to using the story like this. The biggest one is that you have to get the customer’s permission to do it. That’s often difficult, and it’s always time-consuming. It’s not just the user who has to give you permission, but their company as well. And often there’s an internal obstacle as well – your own legal department might have to do its review of the story, and it can all be very fraught and time-consuming.
Luckily there are a lot of other ways to get mileage from your new story that don’t suffer from those obstacles.
I’ll give you three ways to use a customer story that don’t involve writing up marketing collateral and getting approval.
What’s going to happen is you’re going to use different parts of the story to help your sales team make quota.
First, they can use the stories when doing discovery and qualification with new leads.
In the customer success story you got all kinds of information about how the customer was suffering before they found your solution. They had a problem that was so bad that they needed to find a solution. And of course, the suffering stopped when they found your solution.
And this means that a prospect who is suffering from the same problems will be likely to have a great result and outcome with your solution as well. So, you make sure the salespeople know to ask, specifically, “do you have this problem?”
Working with the example I used before, the line of questions might be something like the following:
Q: Do you have challenges with assigning resources to projects?
A: Yes, it’s a big problem actually. No one knows who’s assigned to what, and sometimes the wrong person is working on the project.
Q: How are you trying to manage this problem?
A: Well, we have a weekly meeting with all the project managers and all the resource managers to try to sort it out. It never works though. We also tried another vendor’s solution, and it just didn’t work either.
Ha! Those answers sound almost like my original customer! In fact, this isn’t surprising – this turns out to be a big problem in this domain, and there aren’t very many tools that solve it well. Since this is a strength of our product – and we have good customer success stories related to it – the next step is for our salesperson to say something along the lines of:
Q: We hear that story a lot. Many of our customers have found relief from that problem with our product. I’d love to set up a demo to show you how one particular customer, actually very similar in size and business to you, used our solution to totally solve this resource management problem. Can I have my sales engineer show you on Thursday afternoon?
Now, the salesperson has actually achieved three important goals in this little exchange:
- They validated that, at least in this respect, this prospect is a good fit for our solution.
- They have definitely sent a message to the prospect that we understand their problem, meaning we understand them (which makes them like us better), and that we have a solution to their problem.
- They have moved the sales process along, by talking about a demo, and doing what’s sometimes called a “trial close” – getting the customer to say Yes to something.
Another way to use one of these stories is to help handle or overcome objections.
A prospect might say, “Well, I’ve heard that your product doesn’t do a good job of helping me manage my project resources. I’m looking at another product that seems to be better.”
The salesperson can immediately whip out some components of our success story to counter the objection.
“Oh, I know they’ve been spreading that rumor. It’s really not true, but you don’t have to believe me. We have a customer who actually tried out their solution and were very disappointed. They ended up choosing our solution for resource management – and other reasons, of course! – and they are very happy. In fact, I can’t guarantee this for you, but our customer actually ended up with a promotion after our implementation, her superiors were so impressed with how much better their resource management became.”
Finally, you can use the story as a tactic for scheduling a demo. I already showed that in the first example, but it’s something you can use throughout the sales process, not just during the discovery call.
Notice that you don’t need to use the customer’s name in any of these scenarios. You don’t have to get permission from the customer to tell this story. The barriers to entry to using these stories is *simply* to go out and ask the questions of your successful customers. And then put the key points of the story into a form your salespeople can make use of.
I haven’t even covered how Marketing can use these stories, even if they can’t get permission to publish them. There’s another whole set of tactics along those lines which I could do a whole additional podcast episode about.
So, there you have it. Three ways to use a customer success story in sales situations, without having to get permission to publish it or use the customer’s name.
Obviously, the more customer success stories you can arm the salespeople with the better. You want them to have a good customer-based answer to every question, or good customer-based questions to *ask* during discovery and qualification, the better.
In the show notes you will find links to articles and books covering all these ideas.
All that’s at alltheresponsibility.com/326.
As I mentioned, I have a cheatsheet on the website that covers the basic story structure and the questions you need for eliciting great customer stories.
To access it, you can go to the show notes at alltheresponsibility.com/326, where there’s a link. Or simply go to alltheresponsibility.com/stories and that will take you directly to the access page.
Of course, stories are just one component of the whole big topic of persuasion – how to influence, lead, and sell like a top executive. In my upcoming course on persuasion I cover many more key persuasion techniques, such as:
- Presentation Hygiene 101
- The Value Inequality
- Pre-handling Objections
- The 6 Key Persuasion Tactics
If you want to be a top presenter, who has prospects and customers hanging on every word – and writing checks – and who regularly gets funding when you pitch your ideas to investors and executives, you should sign up to be notified for when my Business Presentation Mastery course is released. You can find that signup at alltheresponsibility.com/persuasion.
I have a Patreon – if you like this podcast, and especially if you appreciate that it doesn’t have ads – consider becoming a patron. (The link is on the show page at alltheresponsibility.com/326.)
I’ve just started the Patreon and I’m still working on the subscriber perks, so if you have some ideas for me, drop me a line!
In any case, of course, early supporters will get some special stuff – consider it “charter privileges.”
And donate anything per month and you can send me questions to answer, have your name mentioned on the show, and of course, earn my undying gratitude. And maybe more!
If you have questions you’d like me to answer on this podcast, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to leave a comment in the show notes, or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This has been episode 326 of the All The Responsibility, None of the Authority podcast.
Until the next episode, this is Nils Davis. Bye bye!