Fabulous Fuel for Sales, Presales and Customer Success: The Incredible Utility of Informal Success Stories

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(A Never Stop Learning! Article)

What’s in this article for you?

  • A small investment in time yields surprisingly valuable sales-ready information.
  • An example!
  • The enormous gap between what is typically captured and what is possible.
  • The surprising utility of Informal Success Stories.
  • Two types of use cases.
  • Three sources for stories.
  • The process for capturing Informal Success Stories.

Here’s one of the best lines I’ve ever heard in sales:

Salesperson: “I’m not here to sell you anything today…”

Collective gasp from the customer audience…!

Salesperson: “I just want to understand how you are using the products you already purchased from us and the value you are receiving.”

A pause, followed by, “But I will be back tomorrow, of course, to try to sell you something else!”

Why did this salesperson begin this conversation? It’s because she knew that the results of this dialog would provide high-octane fuel for her future sales to both new name customers and existing accounts. She understood that investing a few minutes to understand existing customers’ use cases and the associated value they enjoy accelerates future sales and buying processes.

It’s like interviewing a few experienced friends and colleagues before a vacation to a new destination to learn what’s worthwhile and when to go, what tourist traps to avoid, and what rare gems shouldn’t be missed. This brief investment could make the difference between slogging through overcrowded attractions or having the best time ever!

Want an Example?

Here’s the kind of success story you can capture (in Great Demo! Situation Slide format):

Job Title/Industry

Chief Revenue Officer; Workforce Solutions Software

Critical Business Issue

Achieving revenue growth targets, acquiring new customers

Problems/Reasons

• Unable to capture customer interest and drive sales conversions

• Demonstrations not connecting with prospects

• Not building trust and rapport

• Not articulating value adequately

Specific Capabilities

• Execute structured, accurate discovery of prospects’ situations

• Restructure and map demos to prospects’ needs and interests

• Deliver demos as conversations to increase prospect engagement and participation while driving an urgency to change

Delta/Value

Improved sales stages performance:

• Qualify-to-develop from 50% to 74%

• Develop-to-prove from 37% to 73%

• Prove-to-close from 22% to 72%

Critical Date / VRE

Launch Training at SKO; tangible improvements within one quarter

This is a real-life customer success story, crisply captured, and ready for use!

The delightfully simple format enables easy documentation, dissemination, and application for multiple sales, marketing, and customer success processes. Now let’s look at how to capture and leverage these success stories.

Fabulous Fuel for Sales, Presales and Customer Success

Here’s the key idea: Go visit your new customers several months after they purchased your software and well after they have deployed it into production use. Ask them, “How are you using our software? What use cases have you implemented? What value are you receiving?”

What you learn is tremendously important! 

You’ll capture success stories and establish references that help you make your next sale, secure renewals, expand deployment into existing customers, and possibly open new markets. 

This information is like concentrated fuel for sales engines – enabling BDRs, SDRs, sales, presales, customer success, and marketing to achieve their goals more rapidly. It also increases the likelihood that your customers will be successful, reducing churn, and increasing renewals and expansion.

Critically, you will differentiate yourself from traditional sales organizations by demonstrating that you really care about your customers! (Gasp of astonishment.)

Very Valuable, But Rarely Collected

If you are in sales or presales, wouldn’t it be wonderful to know, ahead of time, the goals, objectives, and Critical Business Issues faced by the prospects you engage? Wouldn’t it be delightful to understand – again, ahead of time – the underlying problems that make it hard for your prospects to achieve their goals, and the specific capabilities they need to solve their problems?

Wouldn’t it be fabulous to have a strong understanding of the value prospects might gain by using your offerings, well before your first conversation with these prospects takes place?

Interviewing current customers to collect this information enables customer-facing teams to address prospects more efficiently, and to secure renewals and expand sales to existing customers with greater precision. This same information helps vendor teams execute discovery much more effectively, and to deliver more compelling and successful demos.

This is the essence of reference selling: sharing how other, similar customers addressed their problems using your offerings. This information is truly like concentrated fuel for sales!

Sadly, most vendors do not broadly collect and leverage success story information today. While there are typically a few key references and a certain amount of “tribal knowledge”, most seller teams have only limited personal experiences to draw from.

Accordingly, newer customer-facing staff have a very narrow understanding of real-life customer use cases and ROI. Seasoned team members have more experiences to leverage, but their information is generally bounded by each individual’s customer interactions. In both cases, the depth and extent of that information is limited, and it is typically unstructured, making dissemination and reuse throughout the customer-facing team difficult.

And while many vendors complete “win/loss” analyses every quarter, the major focus is on “why we won the deal” or “why we lost”. Both exercises focus on the mechanics of the deal-making and closing process. Neither provides customer success stories to support future sales.

Ignoring this information would be like trying to drive to the airport during rush hour in some major megalopolis without consulting traffic maps or apps to find the best route. Traditional sales teams languish in bumper-to-bumper traffic and miss their flights; enlightened teams are found relaxing in the frequent flyer lounges, enjoying a drink and a bite prior to boarding!

The sad summary is that most companies simply do not collect this information – no formal process – and thereby lose valuable opportunities. Let’s change that!

Formal vs Informal Success Stories

Customers who are happy with your offering may be willing to serve as references, providing you with reference stories to support your marketing and sales efforts. These references are the Formal Success Stories that all marketing departments crave, and sales teams consume. That’s the good news.

The bad news regarding Formal Success Stories is that:

  1. There are far too few of them.
  2. They are generally “sanitized” to the point of non-relevance.
  3. They age (sometimes rapidly!).
  4. They may not align with your prospects’ regions, size, markets, or other parameters.
  5. They can take forever to finalize, pending surviving the associated legal and publication processes!

Informal Success Stories, on the other hand, don’t suffer from these challenges. Why? Because you don’t show the name of the actual customer, eliminating the need for lengthy reviews and cleansing! This gives them much greater flexibility and longevity.

The advantages of Informal Success Stories include:

  1. There are comparatively tons of them.
  2. They are focused yet rich with detail.
  3. They can have terrific longevity.
  4. They can be adjusted to align with your prospects’ regions, size, markets, and other parameters.
  5. They only take minutes to generate and share!

Seasoned customer-facing staff are often walking, talking databases of Informal SuccessStories based on their years of experiences working with their customers. For every Formal Success Story that gets published, there might be dozens of Informal Success Stories waiting to be harvested, organized, and shared!

Whether you are working to capture actual references or Informal Success Stories, you need to have structured conversations! Let’s start with conversations with customers, first, then extend the ideas to collecting information from your team.

Some organizations have dubbed these, “Why did they buy?” exercises. Others simply call them “customer success stories”. They are structured, extremely valuable interviews with current customers to capture the use cases and value gained.

What Can You Learn?

When you do sit with your existing customers to have the success story or “Why did you buy?” conversation, you’ll learn what they like about your product(s), as well as what they dislike or desire to see changed. This information is a good starting point and should be captured.

However, your objective is to uncover complete use case information. During a success story conversation, you’ll likely learn two wonderfully useful sets of use case information:

  1. Use cases your customers have deployed that were expected to be implemented.
  2. Use cases your customers have addressed that were unexpected or unanticipated at the time of purchase, but were discovered and implemented by customers on their own.

Expected Use Cases

The first group are use cases that your customers planned to implement when they purchased your product(s) and did indeed roll out. In collecting these use cases, you should ask:

  • What use case(s) did you deploy?
  • Who are the current users and how many?
  • What value, in terms of time, people, or money, have you gained as a result?

I recommend using Great Demo! Situation Slide format to guide the conversation:

Job Title/Industry

For each individual you interview…

Critical Business Issue

What top level challenge was that individual facing? What goal or objective was at risk (and did they achieve it or are on their way)?

Problems/Reasons

What was their pre-solution situation? What did they have in place before (or not have in place)? What were their “pain” points?

Specific Capabilities

What capabilities, in particular, was this person looking for in a solution? And what Specific Capabilities are they now consuming from your software that provides the solution?

Delta/Value

What value has this person gained or loss avoided? (This is best expressed as tangible numbers in terms of time saved, people redeployed, money gained, fines avoided, etc.)

Critical Date

Was there a date or event that drove the need to have a solution in place? Did they meet that deadline?

While you want to keep track, internally, of which customer provided each Success Story, you can remove the name of the specific customer (and any other confidential information) and begin leveraging this use case right away as an Informal Success Story!

Using Informal Success Stories to Drive Sales and Buying Processes

Sales, presales, and customer success teams find this information invaluable when prospecting for new customers. Presenting a prospect with success stories of how other customers in similar situations addressed their challenges generates real interest in learning more. Informal Success Stories enable customer-facing teams to establish credibility with their prospects to move the sales process forward faster.

[See Chapter 11 Vision Generation Demos in Great Demo! Third Edition, starting on page 258, for details on using Informal Success Stories with new prospects.]

High-performing sales reps know that prospects are much more interested in learning how your organization has helped other, similar customers solve their business problems, as opposed to being flogged with another interminable corporate overview or product presentation!

Customer success teams know that success stories catalyze adoption, renewals, and expansion, particularly if these success stories come from within the customer base.

Astute marketing and enablement professionals know that these success stories are the single most important asset of their go-to-market materials. Great marketing teams produce libraries of high-probability use cases supported by these success stories to equip the field.

Sales, presales, customer success, and enablement personnel take these same use cases and success stories and integrate them into specific sales process steps and motions (e.g., for Vision Generation Demos, discovery conversation prompters, and value analysis examples).

Leveraging a library of success stories is like rolling down an empty modern highway in a self-driving car, preprogrammed with your desired destination, vs laboring up muddy, rutted dirt roads and navigating (poorly!) with inadequate ancient paper maps.

Unexpected Use Cases – High Octane!

How many times have you visited a customer and found that they are using your software in ways that are truly terrific and wholly unique? When you see these use cases, don’t you get excited to see the novel ways customers are using your software’s capabilities? (You should!)

What does this information represent?

These new use cases and success stories enable you to expand your footprint into existing customers, entrench current users more deeply and engage new users, all while providing additional and unanticipated value to drive renewals. These use cases are often the vehicles to enter new markets or address new players in existing markets.

These unexpected use cases are truly remarkable opportunities: They are high octane fuel!

But like an internal combustion engine, gasoline doesn’t magically flow into your car’s fuel tank on its own, you need to actually have these “Why did you buy?” success story conversations with your customers. Best performing organizations schedule these dialogs at a cadence that map to the expected completion of Value Realization Events, for example (see page 110 in the paperback version of Doing Discovery for more on Value Realization Events).

Refining Your Own Success Stories

So far, we’ve travelled down the roads leading to customer interviews, but you probably also have fabulous energy sources much closer to home. Earlier, I mentioned that many of your more seasoned customer-facing staff have personal collections of success stories: Now it is time to collect, refine and add these to your fuel stocks.

You can follow the same process outlined previously. Interview or simply ask team members to document one or more success stories, using the Great Demo! Situation Slide format.

A very rewarding exercise is to leverage events where your team has already gathered together. Dedicate 30 minutes, for example, to generating a collection of success stories. For a team of 25 folks, you could easily produce 25-50 success stories in this half an hour!

Invest another 30 minutes to have volunteers present their efforts, and you’ll find that this session may be the single most valuable portion of the entire gathering! You’ll hear team members immediately ask for copies of all the other participants’ success stories.

It’s like suddenly finding a highly productive oil well right on your own property. (Or, since we want to move away from fossil fuels, it’s like suddenly finding an inventory of novel, highly efficient battery materials in your storeroom!)

Users’ Group Meetings: Power from Fusion!

I’m a huge fan of users’ group meetings. While most vendors think in terms of presenting product road maps and taking feature requests, customers are also interested in something else.

Why do customers attend users’ group meetings? Three reasons, typically:

  1. The free bar, of course (at face-to-face meetings).
  2. To see the product road map (and contribute to it).
  3. To learn how other customers are successfully using the vendor’s software and to learn about new use cases.

This last item is often the most compelling! Organize specific success story sessions for customers to share their non-confidential applications and use cases with other customers and, of course, your team. Customers are often very proud of their work and are happy to present their stories.

Whenever you gather your customers together, whether face-to-face or over the web, organize sessions to encourage these exchanges. You’ll find this form of fusion to be fantastic!

Fill the Tank!

I strongly recommend that companies collect and organize both the expected and the novel use cases along with the commensurate success stories, and disseminate them to the field. This is a perfect use of sales enablement tools.

Identify which group or groups should engage customers in these conversations, and establish regular cadences based on how long it takes for your specific products to begin to deliver value.

Who Should Collect This Information?

It would be wonderful if salespeople took the initiative to collect this information. What a pleasant surprise it would be if a salesperson visited a customer with our opening story, “I’m not here to sell you anything today; I would just like to better understand how you are using the tools you’ve already licensed from us!”(How delightful; how refreshing; how differentiating!)

While truly exceptional sales performers often do have these conversations, most sales staff do not. Their motivation is driven by compensation to achieve quota, which generally means moving on to the next prospect as fast as possible.

Customer success staff often take responsibility for meeting with existing customers to collect this information. They are a natural hub for capturing, publishing, and disseminating the success stories and use cases they acquire.

Sales enablement groups are also structured to gather and broadcast success stories. As the implementers and managers of salesforce automation and enablement systems, they can take advantage of the available tools and technologies for archiving and delivering success stories to the field. 

Finally, presales staff are particularly well-positioned to gather this information. Why? Because customers perceive them as particularly trustworthy and credible. Presales folks are able to sit side-by-side (in a real or virtual sense) with their customers to see and discuss the use cases in action. Customers are generally delighted to share the work they have done and often welcome the opportunity to do so.

I recommend implementing a structured approach to capture and disseminate this information. One or more of the groups above should be selected and assigned concrete objectives to meet with customers to collect success story and use case information. Objectives can easily be defined, and progress measured to track the success of the effort. Consider: A team of 10 presales folks tasked to capture 1 success story per quarter yields 40 stories each year. Now that’s filling the tank!

Timing Is Important

When should you collect these success stories?

Too soon after “go live” and customers may not have sufficient data for the value elements of the discussion. Too late and they may have forgotten their previous pains: How long it took previously (vs now), how many people were involved, how many steps, etc.

As memories fade, trying to calculate the value associated with the change from “before” to “after” will get harder. Customer success and account management teams should make these success story conversations part of the plan for “check-in” meetings or QBRs.

However, do not schedule these conversations too close to renewal dates. That’s way too late!

Fantastic Fuel for Your Business

Acquiring these use cases and success stories takes work, but the return on this investment is truly terrific. Since most organizations do not have success story programs in place, this is a critical opportunity to differentiate. While companies without programs are starved for field-enabling fuel, your teams will be purring smoothly (and rapidly) on all cylinders…!

So, fill the tank and be one of the high-performing vendors who re-engage customers to learn how they are using your products and the value they are enjoying. Inject this fabulous fuel into your field organization and enjoy the feel of the entire team accelerating!

Copyright © 2005-2023 The Second Derivative – All Rights Reserved.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Peter Cohan
Have you ever seen a bad software demonstration? Peter Cohan is the founder and principal of Great Demo!, focused on helping software organizations improve the success rates of their demos. He authored Great Demo! - how to prepare and deliver surprisingly compelling software demonstrations. Peter has experience as an individual contributor, manager and senior management in marketing, sales, and business development. He has also been, and continues to be, a customer.

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