Transform your marketing with customer story

Transform your marketing
with Customer Stories

Forget pointless "customer comments" and convincing but boring "customer case studies": real and appealing "customer stories" are the best way to boost your sales

Akihiko Muranaka
Who am I ? Click here.

1.    What is a customer story and why is it better than a customer comment?

    Customers are fed up with sugary advertisements stuffed with cliches such as "We offer top/unrivalled/world-beating/outstanding quality" and "You can rely on X_____". They are not so naive. As they read such advertising, they are thinking, "These people say things I want to hear, but that's only because they want to sell their product; they just want my money."

    Basically, people don't believe advertisements because they are advertisements.

    What can you do to win people's trust? If they don't believe advertisements, you need to take another approach. How about customer comments? They are not advertisements published by a company that wants to sell its product and make money, but comments made by users who have spent their hard-earned money buying the product and are actually using it. The idea is that even the most skeptical prospective customers will believe statements about a product made by people who are actually using it.

    Customer comments are sometimes referred to as "customer testimonials". They are very like witness testimonies in court. Witness testimonies are more believable than the claims made by a lawyer, because everyone knows that the lawyer wants to win the case on behalf of his client, whereas the witness is a third party. The relationship of advertising to customer comments is similar to that of witness testimony to lawyers' statements. That's why customer comments are more useful as a marketing tool than advertisements. Some consultants will tell you to collect as many customer comments as possible and publish them on your website. Provided you have enough customer comments, they say, you don't need to worry too much about the quality of your advertising.

    I don't deny the value of customer comments. Yes, they work better than advertising, but they have their limits and I believe customer stories are more effective. In a moment I will explain why, but first let me show you an example of a customer story to help you understand what they are.

    (Sorry this is in Japanese: I plan to translate it into English soon.)

    "Off-the-shelf kendo masks never fit me properly, but with my order-made mask the monomi (viewing gap) is in exactly the right place."

    (Click on the picture to see the whole story)

    As you see, it has a big picture at the top, with a title (a quote from the customer), followed by an interview with the customer. It is like a celebrity interview in a magazine: it treats the customer like a big star.

    Customer stories can make money for you. Here are a few examples:

    • Orders tripled in a week
           --- an online store selling kendo equipment in Japan.
    • Average order value increased five-fold
           --- a traditional pharmacy store in Japan.
    • A loss-making product became a best-seller, bringing in 1.5 billion yen ($15 million ) a year
           --- the Japanese subsidiary of a US net security software firm, for which I worked.

    Why do customer stories get such good results? I'll tell you why in the next section.

2.   The customer's three-stage reaction when you try to sell them something

    Companies are always sending customers messages or information, the aim of which is to sell their products. What these messages boil down to is: "We are a good company; we sell good products; you should buy our products." Though customer comments and customer case studies are not advertisements, they are a kind of sales message. After all, they are messages from companies that want to sell more products.

    I believe that when people are exposed to a sales message - whether it be a TV ad, a website, a brochure, a sales pitch or even a customer comment or story - they have a three-stage reaction: they put up three mental walls "against" the sales message. You have to get over those walls in order to make them think your product or service is worth buying. Let's look at the three walls in turn.

    Mental wall 1: "Really?"

      Sales messages from companies always say, "Our product is good. Your life will be better if you buy it." The first reaction to such messages is: "Really?" They think, "You are telling me something I want to hear, but is it true? In the end, you just want to sell your product and make money, don't you?"

      Advertisements can't get over this first mental wall precisely because they are advertisements. If the sales message is from someone who wants to sell the product, it won't overcome people's doubts and won't be accepted.

      Customer comments can generally get over this first wall because they are not made by someone who wants to sell the product, but by someone who has actually paid money for it and is using it. They can be trusted. Who delivers the message matters more than what it says.

      Even the most skeptical will listen to customer comments: "OK, you are someone who bought the product, not the company selling it. What you say may not be entirely untrue. I will listen to you for the time being. Go ahead." They will not accept an advertisement, but they are prepared to listen to customer comments. You are over mental wall 1: so far, so good. Now you have to get over the second wall.

    Mental wall 2: "Why?"

      So now people believe what you say is true, or at least not entirely untrue. Next they want reasons: "You say your product is good and that it will make my life better. Well, I will believe you up to a point, but don't assume I believe you completely. Tell me why your product is good - in what respects it is good. How will it make my life better? Why should I buy your product and not your competitor's? Give me a convincing reason." And, unless you give people a good reason, you will stumble at mental wall 2 and they will not decide to buy your product.

      Customer comments by their very nature can't get over this second mental wall because they only convey the customer's general impressions and are not long enough to fully explain why people should buy your product. Moreover, people often forget the reason why they bought your product, because there is no merit for them in keeping that reason in mind. You can't explain something you have forgotten. So spontaneous customer comments usually fail to convey the real reason why they bought the product.

      An interview-based customer story is a better way of conveying reasons for buying the product. If you ask customers a series of good questions, they eventually remember the reasons for their purchase. Answers to these questions are not simply impressions, but explanations of what happened. A real and vivid testimonial of this kind, based on real memories, allows you to get over the mental wall of "Why?"

    Mental wall 3: "Tell me more."

      The last obstacle is not so much a mental wall as a demand. You have got over the first two walls - "Really?" and "Why?" - and people are in a positive frame of mind about your product. Now they want more information. They want know more, so you should tell them more. If you are afraid to be pushy and run away without giving more detailed information, people will be frustrated and they might even think you are trying to hide something. So the latter part of your customer story should provide answers to peoples' questions before they even formulate those questions in their mind. In other words, you should ask the interviewee (your existing customer) questions to which you think the reader (your prospective customer) will want to know the answer. With the right information, you can turn a prospective customer who is interested in your product into an actual customer who has decided to buy it.

3.   Why a customer story is better than a customer case study

    I believe customer case studies, which usually consist of three parts ("background", "challenge" and "solution"), do not work simply because they are boring. No prospective customer wants to exhaust themselves by reading a boring document. I believe this approach to customer case studies comes from business schools. If you are a teacher in business school, you can force pupils to read boring documents such as customer case studies. If you are a famous marketing expert like Philip Kotler, people will be willing to read your books, however difficult your writing style may be. But chances are you are neither - you are more likely to be someone working for a company that wants to sell its products. People are not duty bound to read boring documents, such as customer case studies, published by companies that want to sell their products. When they read "Background… Challenge… Solution", their reaction is "Why should I care?"

4.   I recommend you use customer stories if...

  • You are involved in B2B business

    > Track record is essential in B2B business. Customer comments are too casual and customer case studies are simply boring. They don't help to differentiate your company from its competitors.

  • You are selling expensive products online

    -> It takes lots of courage to impulse buy an expensive product online. Customer stories will tell people why your products are worth buying.

  • You are selling intangible things such as services

    -> You can't put intangible things on a table and show them to customers. So you can't explain the value of intangible things without explaining the pleasure and benefits of using them. You can let your existing customers explain that kind of thing in a customer story.

  • You are in a business where it is difficult to tell people yourself how good your products are.

    -> People won't believe your products are good just because you say so. You should let your customers say so: they will be better than you are at explaining what differences your products can make.

  • You want killer content on your website

    -> The smiling faces of your customers are the best visuals you can have. Customer stories are the best sales tool you can have.

  • You are in a business where it is difficult to differentiate yourself from your competitors.

    -> If your products don't differentiate you, let your customers do it.

5.   Who I am and why I created this site