Want to Create Better Customers Stories Than the Competition? Start with Relationship Building
You’ll never succeed in advocacy unless you genuinely get to know your customer. Not their company, but the actual people using your product. Companies don’t buy—people do. When you connect with people on a meaningful level, that’s what drives business results. Happy customers tell others about you, they buy more, and they stay loyal.
I am the full-funnel, end-to-end customer advocacy manager for HPE SimpliVity. I run our Insiders program, which is what we call our Influitive community. I’m in charge of finding customers for all of the HPE SimpliVity reference requests and around 80% of the content we create—including videos, case studies, and blogs. If the sales team needs it, they usually come to me.
Everything in my role at HPE SimpliVity starts with fostering customer relationships. A big part is the customer-to-customer relationships within the Insiders program. But I also handle relationships between customers and HPE SimpliVity executives, product management, engineering, and support.
I advocate for all HPE SimpliVity customers because those customers should have a voice in making both HPE and our products better. When it comes to giving our customers a voice, one of the most powerful ways is through customer stories.
Customer stories are something most marketers are tasked with, and I bet you’ve experienced at least one of the common frustrations with creating that content. Maybe you sent a blog to your brand team and what started off as an authentic customer story came back a Frankensteined piece of marketing speak. Maybe you’re tired of producing dry case studies no one wants to read. When every other word is your company name, is it really going to win over a potential customer? Or maybe you’ve produced some customer stories, but you want to be more focused in your approach to get more value. In this article, I will take you through my process to get the most out of authentic customer stories by forging great relationships.
Step One: Know What You Need
The first step is to understand the content I need to create. I do this by paying attention to trends. During internal calls, I note what product management is working on or what types of sales requests are coming in. I also pay attention to external trends, new initiatives our customers are working on, and what I hear from the sales reps about prospects coming down the funnel. I can’t create content on everything, so focusing on trends helps me prioritize my effort.
I also take detailed notes from all my interactions with customers, from calls to the data I gather from Influitive challenges. Within Influitive, we collect information through get-to-know-you challenges, where we ask questions around our product lines: “Do you run RapidDR?” “Do you run Veeam on HPE SimpliVity?” “How many VMs are you running on HPE SimpliVity?” I can turn to all of this data when it’s time to work on content.
Step Two: Time to Get Personal
Once I know the specific use cases we need to increase visibility on and sales objections to overcome, I’ll comb through the data to find the ideal customer. That’s when I largely stop using the data and it becomes personal. Once I’ve identified a customer who meets the criteria on paper, I’ll email the customer a set of questions to qualify them. I ask questions like, “What do you think makes this work best in your environment?” Or: “What excites you about this?”
If they don’t have any compelling answers, I know they’re probably not the right customer for this story. Maybe they’d be better for a quote or some other piece of content, but not an in-depth customer story. A lot depends on how that conversation goes.
I want to note that this isn’t the first contact I’ve had with this customer. I’ve nurtured a relationship with them all this time. It’s only when I feel the opportunity will be meaningful that I ask if they would like to collaborate on a customer story.
It’s important to find the person who is the end user, who is hands-on with the product day in, day out. As marketers, we often feel like we need to get a C-level executive at a company with a household name. But we don’t. That’s not to say I’m uninterested in the C-level executives—because of course I am. But it’s about finding the person who knows the “pain” of life before HPE SimpliVity and the relief of finding the right tool to be better at their job. It’s those specifics that will speak to prospects, as well as their peers.
Step Three: It’s Their Story—Spotlight the Customer
Once I’ve found the right person, that’s when I use Upshot to tell their story. I’ll send the customer six questions to get some basic information to help frame the story for the folks at Upshot. Here are the questions I ask:
- Why did you pick HPE SimpliVity?
- Did we replace or win over a competitor?
- Do you have any good recovery stories (3 clicks to restore 1,000GB VM in seconds)?
- Have you experienced a ransomware recovery?
- Do you have any good apps stories or remote replication stories?
- Do you have any good stories about gaining time back to innovate?
Some of these are industry-specific questions, but I’m sure you can find ones that fit your needs. By getting this background, it means when the customer has their Upshot chat, they can get to the meat of the story quickly, which saves everyone time.
One of the secrets to my success is setting the right expectations with the customer and asking them if they have the bandwidth to do a story right now. If they come back and say, “Oh, Jenn, I’m really busy. Can we do this next month?” I don’t push. I keep them in my Excel document and my roadmap of what’s to come.
I’d rather focus on producing the story about the customer who’s available to do it soon. If I have to nudge someone about scheduling, I always make sure it’s a personalized email and I give them the option to reschedule. I’m not going to get upset. I’d rather they be honest with me than be stressed about the situation, because if they’re stressed, they’re not going to be happy with the story. My focus and goal is on keeping that relationship for the long term.
Widening Your Scope
Customer stories aren’t just for prospective customers. I love it when existing customers read a story and it gives them the motivation and confidence to try something new with HPE SimpliVity.
We ran one story that was about a customer using a stretched cluster, which is extremely popular in Europe but not so much in the U.S. Shortly after the Upshot was published, a customer in the U.S. got in touch with me to say, “I’d thought of trying a stretched cluster, but I worried it would be too complicated. Now that I’ve read that article, I want to do it.”
When you read one of our customer stories, it involves HPE, but you don’t feel like “Oh God, it’s another HPE story,” because it’s not about our company. It’s about the customer, their challenges, and triumphs, which makes it that much more special.
It’s in the customer’s voice and that appeals to other customers. Insiders have told me that reading a story feels like having a conversation with the person. I hear that from within HPE SimpliVity too: One VP said to me about reading a story, “It’s like I was just talking to him.” This is why I tell our team not to change too much in the stories. If this is the message our customer wants to tell, we should let them tell it.
It feels more authentic because we allow the customer to be honest about their experience. We had one customer whose experience with us wasn’t all roses and unicorns, and we chose to have him tell his story because we wanted to show how HPE is committed to our customers and making every customer experience better. These are real problems that will arise with any solution, so prospects should see how we deal with the bad times.
I know it might seem counterintuitive to place the spotlight on the person, not the brand, but what I’ve seen in these stories is it actually makes HPE and the customer shine brighter than we ever would in a traditional case study. By making the story more about the customer than HPE, it’s more authentic when they bring us up. People reading the story don’t feel like they’re being sold. They know the customer is talking about us because they genuinely love our product.
Make Your Customer Story a Win-Win
Balancing all of our content needs is tough, but working with Upshot eases the burden for me. I uncover the gems and gather a little bit of information, and once I pass it to Upshot, it’s seamless. They’ve developed such knowledge of our product that I feel assured about them taking the reins.
It’s also straightforward for the customer. I’ll say to them, “This is the process: I’ll send you a short list of questions that will help me frame the story for the folks at Upshot. You’ll talk with them for half an hour and then they’ll write the story in your voice. You can make any changes you want, and we’ll get it approved.” And I’m confident that what I just mapped out is what will actually happen.
Compare that to a traditional case study. Case studies are a laborious process for the customer, where they have to tell their experience to different teams within your company. And then it gets edited to death until it’s completely brand-compliant and it’s often been leached of the customer’s voice.
A case study takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money: I heard of one recently that was going to cost upwards of $10,000 USD. I thought, “Do you know how many Upshot stories I could do with that money?” And if the stars align, I can turn one of these stories around in two and a half weeks, instead of the months it normally takes us.
The Advocacy Journey
The customer story is one stop on what is hopefully a long advocacy journey for both HPE and the customer. Several of my Insiders are looking for their next adventure, which doesn’t necessarily mean a new job. They might want to be seen as an industry thought leader, or take on more speaking events. If me shining a spotlight on the great work they’ve done helps them achieve a personal goal, that’s extremely important to me.
From HPE SimpliVity’s perspective, a customer story can lead to more asks. If a customer enjoyed the process, they will likely want to speak with us again. I have one Insider who was very hesitant about doing a story. It took some encouragement from me, and a promise that this would not be going through a bunch of review cycles.
This customer has a lot to offer, but he’s a shy guy. Well, since doing his Upshot story, he’s done two theater sessions for our annual user conference, has spoken at two events, and was recently interviewed by the GM of our storage division in an onsite meeting/conference call that probably had about 5,000 people combined. He is so proud of his story, and because he knows we care about his voice, he’s opened up in a way I wouldn’t have imagined two years ago. And it all started with a customer story.
Advocate for the Person
Being organized and using the best platform will help you automate many tasks, but ultimately the relationships themselves cannot be automated. Relationships are manual. You have to be willing to put in the time to get to know your customers, and let them know you. That’s how you uncover that hidden gem, and when that gem of a customer trusts you, you discover so many different ways you can collaborate.
That trust needs to resonate in everything you do, including never pushing your customers beyond their limitations. There will likely be times when your company will ask you to get something from a customer that is beyond what that customer can do, and in those instances you have to be the advocate: stick up for that customer.
Something I stress at HPE is that if we’re going to do customer advocacy, we have to do it right. Because if we do it wrong, it will take the customer a long time to forgive and even longer to trust us again.
That relationship should also resonate in the content itself, which is why I emphasize customer stories over other forms of content. My focus is on how that specific person uses HPE SimpliVity. How does HPE SimpliVity positively impact their day-to-day life?
The process I’ve outlined above makes it easy to tell that person’s compelling story without turning it into a big ask. They say success often comes down to who you know, not what you know. Do you really know your customers? If not, it’s time to start building those relationships.