Case Studies: Respecting the Client Interviewee

Case studies (also called success stories) are a great way to demonstrate your expertise to future clients. They put testimonials in context, explaining your business and showing exactly why clients say such nice things about your product or service.

If you want strong case studies, then you need cooperation from your former clients, most of whom are glad to help. But it pays to reassure clients in the following ways:

  • Let them know that they will be able to review the case study before it is published, to make sure they are happy with the way they and their company are portrayed. You also want to give them an opportunity to edit any words they feel uncomfortable with, once they see them in print.
  • Let clients know that your intent is to celebrate them and their company as much as your own. Your case study will say, “Here is someone who was smart enough to know they needed help, and we were glad to provide it.”
  • Before you use client statements in your case studies, edit them for grammar. When we speak, we are likely to wander from the main point or repeat ourselves or enter meaningless bridge words like “actually.” Without changing the meaning of what clients are saying, make sure they come across as fluent and knowledgeable.
  • Make sure you respect the client’s confidentiality. Many nonprofits help people who would be ashamed, bullied or even endangered if their involvement with the nonprofit became known through a case study. Sometimes a professional client will have moved on from the company where you originally worked together. If you are asking for their story, give them the opportunity to request a pseudonym or to be referred to by only first name or company position (“a vice president in a travel company”).

When you give a face to your clients by telling their story–and your own–you create a connection with future clients. The line between satisfying the needs of your organization and satisfying the needs of the client you are interviewing can be a thin one. Let TWP help you find the right balance in your case study or success story.

Three Steps to a Great Case Study

Case studies are one of the world’s perfect combinations, like peanut butter and jelly or chocolate and…more chocolate. Case studies combine testimonials from your customers with your own narrative about what you do and how you do it. Or to use another metaphor, you customer paints a picture and you get to choose the frame, so that the case study appeals to the potential customers you most want to reach.

For a case study to achieve that goal, you need to take three important steps:

1. Allow someone objective–not you–to conduct the interviews. You have preconceived notions about what your customer wanted, what pleased your customer the most, why your customer worked with you, and what (if anything) the customer would have changed. Your preconceived notions get in the way. Your customer also may feel inhibited when you are conducting the interview about your own company’s work.

2. Choose your interviewees from those who were closest to your project at the customer location, even if they were lower on the hierarchy. You might interview the owner/manager for an overview and then interview one of staff you worked with directly for details. If possible, avoid anyone on the customer’s staff who wants to help you sell your services with words that contain smooth praise but very little original content or personality. Their well-meant help just doesn’t sound natural.

3. Do not edit words into the mouths of interviewees. It’s okay to combine statements for a smoother flow (people do tend to circle back to topics), and it’s certainly okay to fix grammar. But do not add words to make the interviewee say something exactly the way you want. Remember the perfection of case studies: if something doesn’t get said by the interviewee or isn’t explained correctly, you can always say it yourself.

Recently I conducted interviews and wrote case studies for business owners in the organizational development and executive coaching fields. Their customers ranged from government agencies to healthcare, technical and service companies. In all cases, the business owners were delighted with the comments by interviewees, around which we wove a narrative that included statements by the business owners themselves. The interviewee comments were spontaneous, unique and in some cases unexpected; the business owners’ comments were well thought out to further explain mission, services and values. Together, interviewees and business owners created rich and interesting case studies–peanut butter and jelly supreme!